Marking his last official visit to the United States, outgoing Israeli President Shimon Peres was awarded the sixth annual Lantos Human Rights Prize on June 26 by Vice President Joe Biden in front of a large audience in the Cannon House Office building.
The award is named in honor of former Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.), the only Holocaust survivor to serve in Congress, who died from esophageal cancer in 2008.
Before introducing Peres for the second award he received that day, Biden told the audience that he thought there was no higher honor than receiving an award in the name of Lantos, one of the pre-eminent warriors for human rights in Congress.
“I feel like I’m a Lantos son or younger brother and I mean that sincerely. Tom Lantos sort of adopted me,” the vice president said. “He taught me so much.
“Tom was not only a fine man, Tom was a first rate intellect and a man … of great optimism,” he continued. “After surviving, Tom would have been forgiven if he decided that he would choose a more quiet life, but like so many survivors, he chose to embrace life and to change it for people who were in trouble.”
Biden then spoke of Peres, whom he first met on a visit to Israel 38 years ago, calling him the most eloquent man he has ever met in his life, and he praised Peres for his energy and youth, calling him the “soul of Israel.”
Peres, who launched his staggeringly long career in public service at age 23, got his start as a protege of David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister. At 90 years old, Peres’ retirement next year marks the first time in the existence of the Jewish state that Peres will no longer be a public servant, but a private citizen, Biden noted. Peres is the last leader of Israel to have been in a position of leadership at the time of Israel’s founding.
Biden used this event to talk about the remarkable founding leaders of Israel, of which Peres was a member.
“Think of the possibility of trying to replicate the Founding Fathers we had. Imagine today if we had to write a constitution from scratch. Where are the Madisons? Where are the Jeffersons, even though he did not write the Constitution?” Biden asked. “Israel, at the moment of its birth, had the most remarkable generation of leaders that any country has assembled in any one place in any point in time; and although you started off as a 23-year-old kid at the feet of Ben-Gurion, the responsibility you were handed was awesome, absolutely awesome.”
Earlier in the day, Peres received the Congressional Gold Medal, becoming one of three people in history ever to receive this award along with the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Nobel Peace Prize, according to The Jerusalem Post.
Peres thanked Biden after receiving his award, joking that the vice president thinks Peres is the most eloquent man in the world only because he has not listened to himself speak.
“The greatness of you, Joe, I’ve never heard from you an empty word,” Peres said. “When you say it, it’s sincere, convincing and so humane, my God, so humane. So this was a summit of humanity.”
Speaking in his usually well-considered, steady cadence, Peres talked about the contributions of the United States in defeating Nazi Germany even though the U.S., he added, was the only country Hitler did not try to invade.
Peres also praised Lantos, a Hungarian Jew by birth, for the impressive feat of becoming a United States congressman after escaping the “hell” of hard labor camps in Nazi occupied Hungary during World War II. “The person that started far away, came from a faraway land and background and become the first, I think, and the only member of the United States Congress that was a [Shoah] survivor. That, he said, is a [tribute] to the United States, a distinction for a man like Tom, and hope for the rest of us,” Peres said. “Tom never rested. He really was engaged day and night with full heart … to restore the trust in man, human rights.”
[email protected] @dmitriyshapiro
JNS.org contributed to this story.