MONTREAL — With trademark wit and eloquence, Israeli President Shimon Peres cast his special spell on Montreal’s Jewish community May 10, praising it for its “warmth and friendship” toward him and Israel but also stressing the need for peace in a part of the world where poverty and the absence of women’s rights remain a scourge.
“[U.S.] President [Barack] Obama asked me: ‘Who is holding back democracy in the Middle East?’ I said: ‘The husbands,” he said to rapt listeners who filled the sanctuary of Congregation Shaar Hashomayim.
Although his position is mostly ceremonial, Peres, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994 along with former Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and former Palestinian Authority president Yasser Arafat, did not shy away from addressing issues such as Iran and the peace process.
While expressing concern about a nuclear Iran, he said that Israelis “are not alone,” underscoring an essential need for U.S. collaboration.
And Peres reminded the audience that Israel remains at peace with its former foes Egypt and Jordan.
“I believe we can and shall make peace,” he said, including with the Palestinians, with whom he said relations have improved. In the wake of the Arab Spring, he said, “to be a dictator in the Middle East is not a recommended vocation.” For now, Peres said, Israel remains the only truly stable country in the region, and at age 64, an ongoing miracle of existence and spirit that is leading the world into the future in science, agriculture and technology.
At age 88, Israel’s ninth president was received as a revered and iconic historical figure. It was Peres’ first official visit to the city since the mid-1980s, when he came as prime minister. When he entered the hall surrounded by a phalanx of security personnel and aides and walked down the centre aisle toward the bimah, the audience stood up as one and greeted him with sustained applause and a standing ovation. He would receive several more.
He was welcomed to the synagogue by the choir from the adjacent Akiva School, led by Dina Sabbah.
Anticipation for the historic occasion ran high. Those in attendance, who had to order tickets in advance through Federation CJA, began lining up at the shul as early as 8:30 a.m. before the prompt 11 a.m. start. They cleared metal detectors as quickly as they could after the doors opened at 9:30 a.m. in order to secure a good seat.
Jewish community leaders such as Shimon Fogel, CEO of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA), and political figures, such as Liberal MP Irwin Cotler, filled the first rows. Also witnessing the event were Israeli Ambassador Miriam Ziv, Consul General Joel Lion, and Canada’s ambassador to Israel, Paul Hunt. Seated in an armchair next to Federation CJA president David Cape, who was also in an armchair, Peres spoke off the cuff and seemed relaxed, sprinkling his half-hour talk with anecdotes about the Jewish state’s early days and reminiscences about figures such as founding prime minister David Ben-Gurion.
Peres praised the local and Canadian Jewish community’s “central role” in building Israel, but he also remembered what it was like in those first days, when 640,000 Israeli citizens faced millions of hostile Arabs.
“We had no army, no weapons,” he said. He prompted laughter when he said compared to the vastness of Canada, tiny Israel amounted to a “statistical error.”
“An unfriendly land, with swamps in the north and desert in the south. We had two lakes, and one of them was dead.”
“I see your lakes and rivers, [and] it makes me jealous,” Peres said.
He said Israel used its lack of resources as a source of strength, since the “greatest treasure in life are human beings.”
The challenges remain. Since 1948, Israel has had six wars. “No other nation has had such an experience,” Peres said. It remains small in numbers, but has persevered, its economy robust, its history a remarkable success story.
During his one day in Montreal, his final stop of his four-day state visit to Canada, Peres was also due to accept a petition written by a McGill University student affirming local rabbinic and academic support of his efforts in seeking U.S. clemency for Jonathan Pollard, 57, a U.S. Navy analyst convicted in 1987 of spying for Israel .
He was also scheduled to meet with Premier Jean Charest, who was unable to attend the synagogue event, but the meeting didn’t happen.
According to Peter Subissati, the Israeli consulate’s public affairs officer, Charest regretfully cancelled, because his meeting with Charest conflicted with an important one between Charest and Quebec municipal officials in Gatineau. At the synagogue, those expressing words of welcome included Rabbi Adam Scheier, as well as Cape and CIJA chair Eric Maldoff. The synagogue’s men’s choir under Stephen Glass, with cantor Gideon Zelermyer, also performed for him. And as a gesture of mutual love and appreciation, Peres presented the Montreal Jewish community with a shofar, while he was in turn presented by Cape with an artistic rendering of the famous photograph taken at the liberation of Jerusalem in 1967.