Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Lunch with the Piecemaker

Shimon Peres has passed away at 93. I thought that it would be appropriate to re-post the following post, which I originally posted in January 2012:

A while ago, I wrote a post about age and leadership in the Orthodox world. Later that day, I gained further perspective on this topic when I was privileged to have lunch with Shimon Peres, the octogenarian President of Israel. (No, I can't reveal the how's and why's of the experience, sorry!)

Shimon Peres is 88 years of age and is the oldest head of state in the world. I asked him if he still remembered meeting the Chafetz Chaim for a berachah when he was a child; he joked that he hasn't been allowed to forget it!

We spoke about legendary figures from history such as Ben-Gurion. Peres told me the story of how in 1945, when he was still called Shimon Perski, Ben-Gurion went with him on a surveying trip in the Negev. Perski discovered the nest of the rare and spectacular bearded vulture, which is called peres in the Torah, and he promptly decided to change his European name to the Hebrew Peres.

I asked the President if he knew why the bearded vulture is called peres. He suggested that it is from the phrase lifros kenafayim, to spread the wings, referring to its huge wingspan. However, that is spelled with a sin rather than a samech. I informed him of another suggestion that has been put forward by Biblical commentators: that it is from the root meaning "piece." The bearded vulture is famed for making pieces. It eats bones, which it does via picking them up, flying high over rocks, and then dropping them and smashing them to pieces, as you can see in this video:

I told him that the name Peres therefore means "piecemaker," which, if spelled differently, is a name that I am sure he appreciates!

Anyway, getting back to the subject of age and leadership: While the role of president in Israel is obviously nothing like the role of president in the United States, the President of Israel is much more connected to national politics than, say, Queen Elizabeth, and has frequent, lengthy meetings with the prime minister. Despite his advanced age, Shimon Peres still demonstrates keen intelligence, a good memory, and a great sense of humor. He works harder than most people half his age. He gets up at around 5:30 in the morning, and aside from a rest in the middle of the day, he works until very late at night. He reads voraciously (I just hope that he has time to read the new books that were added to his library yesterday). Without going into detail, I can attest that he has made tremendous personal sacrifice for his job. His staff, who made quite an impression on me, love and revere him and the office of the presidency, and they are in awe of how much he is able to do at such an age.

While I certainly don't agree with Peres' political views, and I was never happy with him as a politician, I think that he is excellent and invaluable to Israel as a president. But even those who do agree with his politics would probably not want him to serve as prime minister at the age of 88. There have been democratically-elected world leaders in their seventies, but eighty-eight is a different league entirely. Yes, Shimon Peres is in incredible shape, both physically and mentally, for his age. There is no question that he is of sound mind. But during the hour and a half that I spent with him, I was very conscious at all times that I was with a very elderly person. This does no harm - it may even help - with the role of president, but it would surely be a hindrance to being prime minister.

The word zaken is homiletically explained to be an acronym of zeh kanah chachmah. With age comes wisdom, and there are great Torah scholars of very advanced age who are likewise of sound mind and are an invaluable source of wisdom. My own mentor, Rav Aryeh Carmell ztz"l, was well into his eighties and still teaching me wisdom. But political leadership requires a degree of strength and vigor that is rarely found with the very old. Is it possible? I suppose so; but certainly in most cases, people should eventually be allowed to retire from such roles.

Charedi society has reformed many aspects of rabbinic leadership, such as transferring it from community rabbis to roshei yeshivah, investing it with broad political leadership, and innovating many aspects of Daas Torah. But, as discussed previously, it is the ostensible investment of this leadership in people over a hundred years old (let alone 88), never allowing them to retire from this role, which is perhaps the most tragic. Respect and appreciate them for what they are; don't force them into keeping a role for which they are not suited.


  1. My respect for Shimon Peres grew by leaps and bonds when I learned that he is careful to keep Shabbat in public, for instance getting a hotel within walking distance of the opening ceremony of the Olympics when he attended (I forget which one).

    Such respect for religious Judaism is sadly lacking in the newer generations of secular politicians.

    1. When he was PM the first time, I read that he went to visit a Bedouin tribe, and when they invited him to stay for dinner, he insisted that kosher food be brought. He certainly had an understanding of and respect for Judaism which is to a great extent lacking in today's politicians.

    2. Minister of sports and culture miri regev

  2. Until what age Moshe Rabeinu was leading our nation?

    1. According to Moshe Rabbeinu, until he was not able to physically handle the job.

      And he said unto them: 'I am a hundred and twenty years old this day; I can no more go out and come in; and the LORD hath said unto me: Thou shalt not go over this Jordan.

      The Aggadah quoted by Rashi goes further and says the he had full physical capabilities and his age (presumably miraculously) had no debilitating effects.

  3. Whilst many people are critical of Peres's political views, I think it's important to remember that this is a man who gave up more than almost anyone else for our country. I do not think it's a stretch to say, that without him there is a decent chance Israel would no longer be in existence. His efforts to buy weapons for Israel, and start Israel's nuclear programme, may have saved countless lives.

    I personaly am deeply divided over whether his efforts for peace were correct and necessary or catastrophicly mistaken. However even for those who are deeply against any form of peace process whatsoever, it must be recognised that he, more than anyone else, had earned the right to have his differences of opinion. And the bravery he showed in pushing forward the peace process in the face of great adversity should be held up as a model to all to act on their ideals.

    I have tremendous gratitude for all that he has done for Israel, the Jewish people, and humanity over his life. May his memory be blessed.

    1. As I said below, any assessment of Peres [mistakenly wrote Shamir] will be mixed. He did make some positive contributions. But you go way too far in saying he gave up more than almost anyone else. Any one soldier or spy killed in battle already gave up more than him. And pushing forward the disastrous Oslo accords was not "brave", but rather, incredibly foolhardy and naïve in the greatest extreme possible. Peres's wild dreams of eating falafel in Damascus cost the lives of thousands, and ruined the lives of tens of thousands. He destroyed their dreams for the sake of his.

    2. You are right. I should have written "did more", not "gave up more".

      Perhaps we are worse off for Oslo, perhaps not. Perhaps it was a good idea at the time, perhaps stupid. But as they say hindsight is 20 20.

      We must except that people will have different political views to us. That does not automatically make them foolhardy and naive - even if things don't end up working out, it doesn't mean it wasn't the most sensible course of action at the time.

      Peres was both a pragmatist and a dreamer. When he pursued peace in Oslo he did not do so wildly, as you claim, but carefully thinking through the consequences and without compromising on what he felt was too risky to compromise on. So Oslo didn't work out as it was originally planned too, but then again nothing ever does. And who knows; maybe if Rabin hadn't been assassinated, and BB hadn't come to power it might have.

      What I admire about him was that he did what he felt was right and necessary despite heavy political resistance to it. That is a brave course of action to take, and even if you think that in this case it was foolhardy, nonetheless we can still learn from him to stand up for what we believe in.

      Wishing everyone here a כתיבה וחתימה טובה.

    3. Yavoy-
      Let me undwerstand what you are saying. As a result of Oslo, over 1000 Israelis were murdered, and thousands more wounded in horrific suicide bombings where people maimed, disfigured, horribly burned, lost limbs, and had shrapnel dipped in rat poison sprayed into their bodies, and yet you say that the the Rabin-Peres gov't had supposedly done this by "thinking through the possible consequences". This means you believe that they thought this was an acceptable price to pay for them to receive the Nobel Peace Prize along with Arafat? Did I understand you correctly?
      What would you have considered to be an unnacceptable price for Israelis to pay?
      Also, do you really believe Arafat would have made peace had Rabin not been killed? Before he was killed, Rabin was telling Boogie Ya'alon and his daughter Dalia and other people that he had lost all faith in Arafat
      (why did he have any in the first place? - Arafat never hid his true intentions) and that he intended to back out of the Oslo agreements after he was re-elected (which never would have happened in any even, Netanyahu would have certainly defeated Rabin just like he defeated Peres who had a more favorable situation). So why do you think Rabin's assassination prevented a peace agreement? Olmert offered Abbas more than Rabin would have yet Abbas refused.
      It is time people like you wake up from your "peace illusions" and study the history of that period in depth.

    4. Yavoy, you are avoiding the very compelling post hoc reasoning: Oslo happened in 1994, therefore every bad thing that happened after 1994 can be attributed to Oslo while any good thing has happened since 1994 despite Oslo. And the first intifida was so long ago that we can simply ignore it, assume that it would have gone away on its own, and need not inquire into what happened between 1967 and 1987 that might have led to it.

    5. By the approach you write above, history is completely meaningless.

      It doesn't work that way. Millions of Jews - at the time, not in hindsight - saw Oslo for what it was. it's one thing to be a dreamer about high tech. If it fails, it fails. But with Oslo, he was dreaming at the cost of people's lives. Like I said, he destroyed the hopes and dreams of tens of thousands, so he could play with a dream of his own.

    6. Y. Ben David.

      Unfortunately I do not own a time machine. I cannot go back to stop Oslo ever having happened and see whether more lives would have ended up being lost or not. If you do happen to own one, please can I borrow it for a couple of weeks? Thanks.

      I never claimed Rabin and Peres were נביאים. I said they considered the possible consequences. One possible consequence was indeed thousands of lives lost. Another was peace and harmony, and thousands of lives saved. They felt that the risk was worth taking. Even if it didn't work out in the end, doesn't mean it was the wrong decision, and certainly not that it was carelessly taken.

    7. Yavoy-
      Mike Pence said in his recent debate with Kaine that nothing is more important for a leader than to protect the lives and security of his people."Taking risks" for peace which might end up destroying the lives of thousands of citizens is criminally irresponsible.
      In any event, as I stated above, Arafat said quite openly that he had no intention of making peace with Israel and was using the Oslo Agreements to get a territorial base from which to attack Israel. Peres and Rabin knew that. Having a "war hero" general as Prime Minister was thought enough to convince the public that is was not possible to stop terrorism through military means and that only making more and more concessions to Arafat might convince Arafat to stop. In any event, once the big terrorist attacks started, they could have rolled the whole thing back, but Israel's leaders let it go on for YEARS. It reach the peak of absurdity when another "war hero" general, Sharon was in power, and 20+ Jews were slaughtered in the Dolphinarium attack, but "war hero" Sharon said "not responding shows 'strength'" (?!). He let it go on and on and on, saying there was nothing that could be done about it except to get used to it. Finally, after the Park Hotel massacre on Pesach in which more than 30 Jews were slaughtered, Sharon and Peres finally realized they had to do something and, what do you know? military force succeeded in ending it! This just shows they knew the truth all along but decided to deceive the public for their own reasons.

    8. To your second point I am not going to reply. I believe that your piece contains several historical inaccuracies, and is presenting a skewed view of that which is true. However I do not have the time or inclination to present a detailed rebuttal. Besides I imagine that you have Israeli history better on the tip of your fingers, whereas I need to dig around in books for things I only half remember. Thus you would probably win.

      I will however address readers of this blog in saying that Peres and Rabin are men that did so much for our people, and command so much respect from me at least, that to claim they sacrificed thousands of lives purely for their own honour is a claim that would require extremely convincing evidence. If anyone considers unsourced comments on an Internet blog sufficient to besmirch their names so much, I would find that quite sad.

      As to your first point. Mike Pence is about as much an authority as your average Israeli taxi driver. Not seeking peace is no less a risk than seeking peace. And if nothing is more important for leaders than protecting the lives and security of their people, why do right wing religious zionist leaders insist on entering places that will infuriate the Arabs such as the Temple Mount, living in places that are both insecure and further infuriate the Arabs, and say nothing to criticise the price tag terrorists, but instead often drive them on harder. We are all guilty of sacrificing lives to ideology.

    9. DF: There's a lot to unravel here.

      Let's take this to a more neutral realm to show that your reasoning in invalid. When it's 4th and 1 on the opponents 50 yard line, the coach can go for it or punt. If he goes for it and fails, the fact that millions of people watching on TV thought that he should have punted doesn't mean that he was wrong.

      More generally, when things don't go as planned, that doesn't mean that the decision was wrong, for two reasons:

      A) It is possible that that the given the range of uncertainties and probabilities, it was still the best possible course of action. You'd have to look at how the same things plays out in multiple cases as they've done in American football to show that coaches have been way too cautious on 4th down.

      B) A "bad" result has to be compared to the alternative under a different decision. The status quo pre-Oslo "resulted" (and maybe it would have happened anyhow) in the first intifada which I gathered from talking to people from Israel was becoming Israel's Vietnam. There was also the pressure from the US to deal with which, despite the denial of some, is still very important it Israel's security.

      I would also add the obvious which is not being mentioned here. There are many for whom "giving away" an inch of land is simply not allowed. For them, any result where Israel doesn't retain complete sovereignty is bad no matter the impact.

    10. Mike Pence said in his recent debate with Kaine that nothing is more important for a leader than to protect the lives and security of his people."Taking risks" for peace which might end up destroying the lives of thousands of citizens is criminally irresponsible.

      This is silly. Israel is a small country among a sea of actual and potential enemies. Establishing peace, to the degree possible, itself saves lives. To bring a concrete example, the peace treaty with Egypt involved significant risks and the waivers to allow more Egyptian troops into the Sinai involve even greater risks. So far, those risks have paid off well (at least apparently).

    11. David Ohsie and Yavoy,
      I am not sure how to get through to you. Arafat never intended to make peace. PERES HIMSELF FINALLY ADMITTED THAT. Arafat and his FATAH group are a group of gangsters who terrorized Jordan and Lebanon before Peres and Rabin gave them their chance to do the same here. Rabin and Peres and the rest of them knew this. History holds them responsible for what happened, becuase THEY KNEW what would happen. If I knew it (and I am no "Mideast expert" but I knew what Arafat had done and said) then they they knew it as well. I guess it would take a psychologist to understand why they did it anyway. There are precedents...Lyndon Johnson was warned by both the CIA and US military that Vietnam would be a quagmire and yet he went in anyway. Why do leaders carry out suicidal, self-destructive policies? You tell me.

  4. The opening ceremony for the summer Olypmics in London (2012) were scheduled to last into Friday night and his hotel was too far away to return, so Peres did not attend.

    1. I was thinking of the 2008 Olympics in China, it turns out:

  5. Hmmm. Much like Sharon, any assessment of Shamir will be very mixed.

  6. "I think that he is excellent and invaluable to Israel as a president"
    I am honestly surprised Rabbi at this line.
    From a purely rationalist "Western" perspective you are right on mark.
    But as an orthodox Jew I would have thought you would be more careful to view the world from a rationalist "Jewish" perspective.
    Maybe its me gone crazy but how can you say on someone who desecrated the Shabbat "I think that he is excellent and invaluable to Israel as a president".
    Yes, he wanted so much to bring peace to Israel, and I believe he had the welfare of Jews all over the world on his uppermost mind.
    Mr Peres zichrono l'vracha was no stranger to the orthodox way of life. After all he met the Chafetz Chaim. Yet he chose another path in life.. that of Shabbat desecaration and abandonment of many mitzvot.
    Perhaps in future you could shape your views from a rationalist AND Jewish perspective.
    Shimon. Yehi zichro Baruch.

    1. From a purely rationalist "Western" perspective you are right on mark.
      But as an orthodox Jew I would have thought you would be more careful to view the world from a rationalist "Jewish" perspective.
      Maybe its me gone crazy but how can you say on someone who desecrated the Shabbat "I think that he is excellent and invaluable to Israel as a president".

      I think that one of the principles of Rationalist Judaism is that you take the truth wherever it comes from. Wrt truth, there is no "Western" perspective and Jewish perspective. If he was invaluable as President, then that is not negated by his level of religious observance. You might say that his lack of observance outweighs his value, but cannot not negate his value.

      After all he met the Chafetz Chaim. Yet he chose another path in life.

      Presumably you mean that he was educated in Judaism and is therefore a willful sinner. But consider that the mass of Jews followed the same path, and that he was quite clearly dedicated to the Jewish people and you realize that the simple categories that worked in the past have broken down in modern times. This is recognized by many Poskim.

  7. The important thing to keep in mind about politicians is that what is important is NOT what they SAY, but rather, what they DO. Almost all politicians are charming, if they weren't, they wouldn't get to the positions they achieve. However, most of the public don't have personal contact with them so we must judge them on their actions and the consequences that flow from them.

  8. According to press reports, the 'president' of togo is coming for the levayah. (Seriously)

    Will he stop into BB to say 'amen'?

  9. This comment has been removed by the author.

  10. The Oslo Accords and all its victims characterized as "sacrifices on the altar of peace" are simply unforgivable deeds. He eroded Israeli sovereignty in the worst possible way, strengthening the enemy by leaps and bounds and that is precisely why all these foreign Jew haters attended the funeral.

  11. I must dissent from your praise for Shimon Peres as a great Israeli statesman. While he helped Israel in his early years by procuring weapons, he will be best remembered (with Yitzhak Rabin) as one of the main architects of the 1993 Oslo Accords based on “Land for Peace”, which were catastrophic for Israel.

    Before the Oslo Accords, Yasser Arafat and the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) had been exiled to Tunisia after the First Lebanon War, so their influence on the West Bank was limited. Before the Oslo Accords, much of the Arab world despised Yasser Arafat and the PLO because Yasser Arafat had supported Saddam Hussein in his 1990 attack on Kuwait which led to the Gulf War.

    It was Shimon Peres via the Oslo Accords who installed Yasser Arafat and the PLO in the West Bank where they had a major influence on events. It was Shimon Peres via the Oslo Accords who gave the PLO arms which they used against Israel to kill its citizens. It was Shimon Peres via the Oslo Accords who gave Yasser Arafat and the PLO money and credibility among Israel's friends in the USA and elsewhere, which they later used against Israel. Thousands of Israelis were killed and even more were injured because Yasser Arafat's and the PLO continued their attacks and propogada against Israel with the benefit of the territory weapons and money they had gained under the Oslo Accords.

    Shimon Peres was not the first person to implement “Land for Peace”. Neville Chamberlain also believed in “Land for Peace” when he gave half of Czechoslovakia to Hitler in exchange for peace in 1938. The difference is that when Hitler reneged on the deal, by attacking Poland, Neville Chamberlain reversed his appeasement and declared war against Hitler. By contrast, Peres never withdrew his support for the Oslo Accords despite all the evidence. In May 1994 Yasser Arafat made a secret speech in a Johannesburg mosque, that he wanted a “Jihad to liberate Jerusalem” and that the Oslo Accords were just a tactic which could be reversed like Muhammad's Treaty of Hudaybiyyah. Yet Peres accepted Yasser Arafat’s absurd explanation that he meant a peaceful Jihad and that he would honour the Oslo Accords. When the Palestinians continued their attacks on Israel, instead of admitting his mistakes Peres claimed the casualties were “sacrifices for peace”.

    Some people justify the Oslo Accords on the grounds that Peres (and Rabin) were so desperate that they had to take “risks for peace”. If so, shouldn’t they have got a democratic mandate from the Israeli people before the 1992 Israeli election and explain what they would do if elected? The reason Peres (and Rabin) didn’t say before the 1992 election, they would negotiate with the PLO, move them to the West Bank and give them money and guns is because they knew the Israeli people would reject this. By the time the Israeli public knew about the Oslo Accords it was a fait accompli.

    Many of Israel's subsequent problems including the second intifada and the current delegitimisation of Israel would not have occurred or would have been less serious had Shimon Peres not brought the PLO to the West Bank and given it territory, weapons, money and credibility.

    While many of us have dreams for Middle East peace, we distinguish between dreams and present reality. Peres kept dreaming while ignoring reality, so his deluded dreams became Israel's nightmares. He deserves to be remembered with at least as much disapproval as Neville Chamberlain is remembered.


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