“The most memorable experience of his early childhood,” Shimon Peres’ biographer Michael Bar Zohar wrote, “was listening to the Kol Nidre prayer in the synagogue. The boy was tense, fearful and imagined that he was leaving the earthly world and ascending to heaven; in his mind he saw the angels, but the devil, too. He would pray to God to forgive our sins but would not forgive himself for his own.” Now, less than two weeks before what would have been his 94th Day of Atonement, Peres has died. And this despite the fact that he had never grown old.
As a child, Shimon was not popular. He was often beaten up by children who thought him haughty and conceited, a dreamer, a “genius type” who preferred to read than play, who asked talmudic questions, argued brilliantly, seemed indifferent to mockery but was in fact thin-skinned, never forgot or forgave an insult. During a play fight with a bigger, sturdier pal, Shimon lost each round, hands down. And each time, he would get up and demand that they go at it again. When his grandmother finally intervened, he looked at her aghast. “Perhaps next time I’ll make it,” he said. A relative commented, “This is Shimon. They’ll knock him down over and over again, but he’ll get up and keep trying – perhaps next time he’ll make it.”
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“Shimon Peres could have respectfully retired from political life at so many points in his career,” the journalist Anshel Pfeffer recently wrote in the Israeli papers. Pfeffer is quite right. In 1977, Peres lost a devastating campaign to Menachem Begin. It was the first time in Israeli history that Labor, Israel’s founding party, the party Peres lead, was beaten at the polls. Pfeffer writes: “The correct thing would have been to make way for a new generation of Labor Party leaders. But he soldiered on as leader of the opposition, despite another humiliating defeat in 1981.”
Yitzhak Rabin branded Peres a “tireless schemer.” Peres was insulted to the very core of his being by his arch-rival, but rather than take advantage of the gush of support which peaked in the wake of Rabin’s assassination, Peres refused to call an election and squandered the opportunity. The crushing loss in 1996, by a fraction of a point to Benjamin Netanyahu, should have been another clear signal that his time was up. But Peres remained in the ring.
Four years later, when he lost in a secret ballot for the presidency against political nonentity Moshe Katzav, he began to seem pathetic to everyone around. And yet he stayed put. Even when he was pushed into minor cabinet posts way beneath his experience. Even when he twice felt forced to leave the party he had served for over six decades. Even when his last hurrah, a second and finally successful run for president, meant separating from his wife, Sonia, and leading their last years apart, through it all, Peres refused to call it quits.
On the way he broke nearly all the Israeli political records of longevity. He served as Knesset member for over 47 years. No one else comes even close. He is the only man to have ever served in all four top government jobs − defence, foreign and finance minister, as well as prime minister. He reached the top again and again, even won the Nobel Peace Prize. But it was never enough. He always wanted to keep going.
How to understand Peres’ life? Pfeffer argues that Peres was the eternal oleh, the frustrated immigrant forever looking in from the outside on those who felt they instinctively belonged. “It didn’t matter that he had arrived in Mandatory Palestine only at the age of 10. He could never quite shake the vestiges of that Polish accent and a fussiness for his appearance. He always felt he had to prove himself. It didn’t matter that by the end of his 30s, he had already achieved what few men had achieved in entire lifetimes.…He was always the new immigrant who had to try harder than everyone else. So he felt he had no choice in the end but to outlast them all.”
Israeli writer Chemi Shalev, who knew Peres intimately, does not agree. In his eulogy, Shalev implied that Peres was hardly concerned with becoming an insider – that, in fact, he treated the Sabra archetype as rather uncompelling and mostly undisciplined. In Shalev’s interpretation, Peres was influenced by the spirit of Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, who was, like him, an immigrant from the Pale of Settlement. Had Peres really wanted to, he could have done what some new immigrants to Israel do – take a course in “ how to speak like a Sabra.” He did nothing of the sort.
“Friedrich Nietzsche provided the formula that was the essence of Shimon Peres’ long and remarkable life,” Shalev wrote. “Peres was entirely committed to peace for Israel but just as committed to being at war with himself. ‘One is fruitful only at the cost of being rich in contradictions,’ Neitzsche wrote. ‘One remains young only on condition that the soul does not relax, does not long for peace.’” It is as if the philosopher was intimately acquainted with the intricacies of the future Israeli leader, Shalev believes.
Peres saw it differently. When I interviewed Peres in his Tel Aviv office a decade ago, I asked him whether he considered himself a nihilist like Nietzsche. He replied that he did believe that living with a huge swath of contradictions kept the energy coming but he vehemently denied being a nihilist. “Nietzsche believed there was no purpose to human life,” Peres told me. “He believed that man deceives himself if he accepts any artificial purpose, like the one embedded in Christianity. I disagree. I believe that God provides both the beginning and the end. Our problem is to bring the beginning and the end together in one place. That place is called Israel.”
David Berlin is the founding editor of The Walrus.