The last time I saw Peres

Israeli President Shimon Peres gives Elie Wiesel the Presidential Award  of Distinction, Israel’s highest civilian award,  in 2013. Photo:  Mark Neiman, GPO

BY ROBERT A. COHN, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

Who can retell the things that befell us? 

Who can count them? 

In every age a Hero or Sage 

came to our aid. 

— Mi Yimalel, “Who Can Retell,” popular children’s Hanukkah song 


Two exemplary Giants of Judaism, Shimon Peres and Elie Wiesel, passing away a few months apart of each other seems to me, as it probably does you, an especially sad coincidence. 

I was pleased that Rabbi Jim Bennett of Congregation Share Emeth referenced the passing of both men during his stirring Rosh Hashanah service. 

At the time of Wiesel’s passing at 87 on July 2, he was perhaps the most admired and esteemed person in the Diaspora Jewish community. And when Peres died last Wednesday (Sept. 28) at age 93, he had evolved into the most admired Israeli, as evidenced by the outpouring of grief not only in Israel but worldwide, with leaders from around the world attending his funeral on Mount Herzl in Jerusalem. 

Wiesel was just a boy when he was swept up in the Holocaust. He was 15 at Auschwitz and felt helpless when his beloved father died at the death camp. He went on to become a journalist and novelist, and a worldwide figure opposed to all post-Shoah examples of genocide, including Cambodia, Darfur and Bosnia.  

Peres, like Wiesel a native of Europe, came to pre-Israel Palestine as a boy, and grew up to be one of the State of Israel’s Founding Fathers, a protégé of Israel’s first Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, and serving in nearly every Israeli Cabinet from Ben-Gurion through Benjamin Netanyahu. A leading “hawk” among early Israeli leaders, Peres built up the Jewish State’s military readiness, and oversaw Israel’s development of nuclear capability.   

Later, Peres was to become one of Israel’s leading “doves,” working behind the scenes on the 1993 Oslo Accords, which was supposed to lead to a peace treaty between Israel and the Palestinians. Peres would share a Nobel Peace Prize with his colleague Yitzhak Rabin and with Palestine Liberation Organization Yasser Arafat for achieving the Oslo roadmap to peace, which was sadly to be undermined by Arafat who refused to agree to a more than generous offer of an independent Palestinian State alongside Israel. 

When Wiesel passed away, I devoted a Cohnipedia column to a look-back on my last face-to-face interview with him, just after my 50th Reunion at Washington University on May 11, 2011. As always, Wiesel was as kind and considerate as he was brilliant and wise. 

Now I’d like to reflect on the several occasions I saw Peres, the first of which was in Israel in 1994, just after the horrific massacre at the Cave of Machpelah in Hebron. A Jewish extremist named Dr. Baruch Goldstein murdered 29 Muslim worshippers in the mosque located in the Tomb of the Patriarchs, a site holy to both Jews and Muslims. 

Peres, along with Yitzhak Rabin and then Israeli President Ezer Weizman, denounced the attack in the strongest terms. Peres said that Israel could fight a war between Zionism, the national liberation movement of the Jewish people, against the PLO, which then was a mostly secular movement. “But God forbid the conflict becoming a religious war between fanatics on both sides,” he told a group of Jewish journalists attending a worldwide conference in Jerusalem in 1995. 

Peres spoke at nearly every gathering of Jewish journalists on trips organized for the American Jewish Press Association. At one such conference, journalists from all over the world were present. Peres glided seamlessly from Hebrew to English, to French, to Spanish and Italian. His towering intellect was obvious to his friends and detractors alike.

During his 2006 visit to St. Louis, which was his last time here, Peres was serving as deputy prime minister. My article in the Light about that visit noted, “Seeing a living, breathing and very active Founding Father in our midst was like seeing Benjamin Franklin alive and well and globe-trotting to spread good will for Israel around the world.”

Peres told local Jewish leaders of the “deep appreciation of the people of Israel to the Jewish community of St. Louis and Jewish communities throughout the United States for their generous support of Israel’s emergency needs,” in the aftermath of its recent conflict in Lebanon. 

Already in his 80s, Peres showed no outward sign of fatigue or jet lag as he made the rounds to support local fundraising for the Jewish Federation, which was seeking a goal of $2.5 million for the Israel Emergency Fund. He also hosted a news conference where he answered a wide range of questions from local print and electronic media. 

“We do not ask Americans to fight our wars for us,” Peres said at the news conference. “Israel is a small country, only 60 years old, and yet we have already fought six wars. We deeply appreciate the support provided Israel by the United States government, and we also appreciate the support provided by the American Jewish community, including that of St. Louis.” 

From St. Louis, Peres traveled to Detroit for another round of fundraising before going to New York for a meeting of the General Assembly of the United Nations. Then he returned to St. Louis to celebrate Rosh Hashanah. 

I find it comforting that the last time I saw Peres was during the High Holiday season. I also find it poignant that both Peres the Hero and Wiesel the Sage were taken from our midst during the Jewish year 5776, which just ended. 

We desperately need the wisdom and leadership of both Peres and Wiesel during these very troubling times for the Jewish People, our nation and the world. Surely their legacy will continue to inspire us and will be for a blessing to the Jewish people and all of humankind.