I’ve encountered a lot of political leaders over the years, including prime ministers, premiers, mayors and legislators at every level of government. Most of them have been Canadian, of course, but there have also been many from other countries – particularly from Israel, because I work in the arena of Jewish community journalism.
And, of all the leaders I have ever encountered, the most inspirational figure was Shimon Peres, Israel’s former president, prime minister, foreign minister, defence minister, finance minister and the longest-serving member of the Knesset in history.
Since Peres died on September 28, at age 93, he has been referred to as the last of Israel’s founding fathers. And, indeed, he was.
From the birth of the modern State of Israel in 1948 until his retirement from the presidency in 2014, just nine days before his 91st birthday, there was not a time that he was not serving the state at the highest levels. And, even over the past two years, until suffering a massive stroke last month, he remained remarkably vital and tirelessly active as Israel’s elder statesman. Peres never gave up working to make this a better world. Peres never gave up on his dream of Israel thriving in a peaceful Middle East.
As an aide and adviser to David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s founding prime minister, Peres played an important behind-the-scenes role during Israel’s 1948 War of Independence and would go on to even more important roles in the country’s defence. In the 1950s, he was director-general of the defence department and later served as minister of defence in both the 1970s and the ‘90s.
So, when foreign minister Peres and prime minister Yitzhak Rabin – one of Israel’s greatest generals – became Israel’s leading champions of peace with the Palestinians, they were acting from a deep understanding of defence and a deep understanding of the futility and waste of endless war. They envisioned a better world that, sadly, neither lived to see.
I’ll never forget watching Peres and Rabin on the White House lawn with U.S. president Bill Clinton and PLO leader Yasser Arafat in 1993 and the hopeful feelings so many us felt then.
Peres never gave up on the dreams of that day and he continued to work for peace the rest of his life.
My most vivid memories of Peres were of the two days in May of 2012 when I got watch to Peres in action as Israeli president on a state visit to Ottawa.
At age 88 then, Peres was the oldest head of state in the world. But he maintained an incredibly busy schedule and showed no signs of fatigue whenever I heard him speak.
I particularly remember his riveting speech at the National Gallery during a reception hosted by then-Israeli ambassador Miriam Ziv. Speaking to an audience of international diplomats, cabinet ministers and MPs, Supreme Court justices, at least one former prime minister of Canada, academics, journalists, military officials and Jewish community leaders, Peres gave a long compelling speech.
Holding the microphone in his hand, Peres spoke, without a script or notes, about the State of Israel in both historical and contemporary terms, about Israel’s enduring friendship with Canada and about his past visits here. He spoke about science and technology, noting that Israel had become such an important centre for scientific, medical and technological breakthroughs, and he made predictions about unimaginable breakthroughs to come in the years and decades ahead.
He discussed the rapidly changing Middle East and expressed optimism about a future that would finally include peace with the Palestinians.
Despite having been part of history for so many decades, this 88-year-old man was excited about the future. He even cracked a couple of jokes with the timing of a seasoned comedian. It was a remarkable performance that earned sustained ovations from the high-powered audience.
I was right near the front of the audience as Peres spoke and recognized the man beside me applauding enthusiastically for Peres was an opposition member of Parliament from Montreal.
“That was quite the speech,” I said to him.
“He was absolutely amazing,” future prime minister Justin Trudeau responded.
Shimon Peres, the last of Israel’s founding fathers, never stopped believing in his dream of Israel thriving in peace. And he never stopped working to make that dream come true. Now it is up to the sons, daughters and grandchildren to fulfil that dream.
Leonard Cohen’s new song
Leonard Cohen – poet, novelist, singer and songwriter – is another inspiring figure who has continued to do remarkable work late in life.
The Montreal-born artist has an album of new songs coming out on October 21. While I haven’t yet heard most of them, he did release the title track, “You Want It Darker,” on the Internet last month.
Much was made of the fact that Cohen released the song on September 21, his 82nd birthday. It is a song that only an older man could have written; a song from the perspective of someone who has lived long and is prepared for death.
I think, though, what’s possibly more significant than his birthday is that Cohen released the song in the Jewish month of Elul, as we prepare for the High Holidays.
It is a song he sings directly to God. “Hineni, hineni, I’m ready my lord,” he sings in the chorus.
The melody seems like it comes directly from the synagogue music Cohen heard growing up at Congregation Shaar Hashomayim in Montreal. And, indeed, he turned to Cantor Gideon Zelermyer and the Shaar choir to sing with him on the song. The choir’s haunting harmonies are heard from the beginning of the song, Cohen himself sounds like he’s singing from the depths of his soul, and the final minute of the song is devoted to Cantor Zelermyer repeatedly, and seemingly distantly, singing the word “hineni.”
A stunning performance from Cohen, the choir and the cantor.