Flags were flying at half-staff throughout Washington following the recent death of Israeli leader Shimon Peres, but no symbol could accurately convey the emotion felt by Israelis living here who felt that Israel had lost its last “founding father.”
“He was in service of the Jewish people until literally the last day of his life,” said Rockville resident Ben Pery, who worked with Peres for six years at the Peres Center for Peace in Jaffa.
Pery, 38, said that much of Peres’ time in those years was consumed with his duties as president, working 14-16-hour days despite the job being a ceremonial one.
“They had staff A and staff B because no human being could follow his schedule,” he said.
Peres, who died Sept. 28 at 93, had been in poor health for several months. Pery, now the executive director of the Jewish Women’s Renaissance Project, said he had visited the former leader earlier this year and found him “fighting with his doctor” to be released from the hospital so that he could get back to work.
Pery called Peres a “man of vision” and a “man of action” who was committed to breaking down barriers between Israel and its neighbors. But it was his love of children that motivated Peres in later years, Pery said. He recalled sports projects that Peres initiated during his presidency which brought Israeli and Palestinian children in together. Pery thinks this enthusiasm had to do with Peres’ “childlike curiousity.
“Whenever there was any activity with kids, Peres would become one of the kids,” he said. “Shimon Peres would see these kids playing and rush to play with them. He would sit for hours and talk to a child. He would forget what he was supposed to be doing. He was 100 percent concentrated on one child.”
In addition, Pery recalled, “People say that he was actually sad when he became president because for him that meant he wasn’t going to be prime minister and was leaving political life. He came from a school of thought that I don’t know whether it exists anymore. Working for the people, but relentlessly. He once said that ‘pessimists and optimists die the same, they just live different,’ and he chose to be forever the optimist.”
In addition to being a peacemaker, Peres is credited with helping Israel build its defense industry, including its nuclear program. Reston resident Golan Malka, 42, said Peres’ French fluency and nuclear knowledge were key skills that allowed him to develop the nuclear program in coordination with France.
“He is a part of everything,” Malka said. “He was part of Oslo [peace process with the Palestinians], he was part of the nuclear. If you look at the beginning of Israel as a Jewish country, you can find that he was part of everything in some way.”
Malka said he is a supporter of Israel’s more hawkish Likud party, rather than the Labor party that Peres spent most of his career with. But he appreciates the former prime minister’s diplomatic skills.
“When he got to be the president, he got to be the president of everybody,” he said. “He was popular. I don’t see a leader like him today.”
“He was there since [first Prime Minister David] Ben-Gurion’s times in “every major junction in the history of Israel as a state,” said Dunn Loring resident Tamir Bain.
Bain, 50, never met Peres but said he attended a few of his speeches. He called Peres “a dreamer” and said the former prime minister sometimes had a “more rosy picture” of the Middle East than some, but he was always looking into the future.
“You felt that you were listening to a great man, because he had seen it all,” he said. “He was extremely clever. He even wrote poetry … You felt that you were listening to a very wise man, and when he was talking people were listening.”
Rockville resident Zehavit Kandel so identified Peres with Israel that she traveled there in 2013, which coincided with Peres’ 90th birthday.
“I felt that I was a part of his life and was honored to be his Israel when he was 90 years old,” she said.
But Kandel, 76, did see Peres on a few occasions when she was working at the press office in the Israel Embassy in Washington.
She said that Peres’ selflessness is reflected in his end-of-life wish to donate his corneas to Israel’s National Transplant Center.
“He was a big man with a big heart,” she said.
Peres had one other wish, which Pery remembers from a meeting they had with a member of the Olympic Committee of Israel. Peres wanted to hold the Olympic Games in Israel — but to be organized also by Egypt, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority.
“[Peres] loved it,” Pery said. “There was no way this was going to happen. He sits in the meeting, and they’re saying, ‘When can we do this, 2008 is scheduled for Beijing, 2012 is scheduled for London, 2016 is scheduled for Rio de Janeiro, 2020 is scheduled for Tokyo. Maybe 2024.’ And he said, ‘Count me in, I’ll be there.”