September 23, 2019

Shimon Peres: To be a Jew

May 26, 2003

Excerpted from: “I Am Jewish: Personal Reflections Inspired by the Last Words of Daniel Pearl” (Jewish Lights, 2004, now Turner Publishing). The book won the National Jewish Book Award.

The language of the Jewish people has no brother; its religion, no sister; its history, no family. The question I ask myself is, why? And the answer is not simple. Let’s examine, for a start, the matter of the language. It is interesting to note that it is the only ancient language that was revived in the Mediterranean. The Egyptians do not speak in the language of hieroglyphics; the Syrians do not speak Assyrian; the Iraqis do not speak Babylonian; the Greeks do not speak ancient Greek; and the Italians do not speak Roman. 

Israel speaks Hebrew. The language of the Bible as it was spoken in biblical days. In truth, this language is philosophical in nature. It is very precise, uncluttered by too many complex grammatical rules. The rationale on which the Hebrew language is founded rests on two basic time spans: past and future. Not much time is wasted on the present. Generally, reference is made to things past. Or things future. The present, the now, mainly relates to the Creator, who is unseen, in a place unknown, but whose Divine Presence imbues our every action, our every thought.

What I find riveting, as a Jew, is the enormous tension, or colossal bridge, that straddles the ancient past, deep, obdurate, rebellious, and the future, demanding, unpredictable, conditional, regenerated, revolutionary, and even somewhat brazen. I am moved by this tension, by the fact that I am a son of this people, a nation that is adamant about remembering the past, inspired by its heritage, receptive to change, undaunted by the great prophecy that forges the destiny of the Jewish people, as in the words of the verse: “old from new produce.” I sometimes feel as one that must wander on foot along the lanes of history and soar on the wings of my imagination to a new destination; this destination might be distant, but the objective might in turn give birth to yet another new destination.

I feel that this tension prevents me from sinking into a sense of complacency. For creative faculties, and revolutionary deeds, emanate from a feeling of imperfection. They stem from the need to break new ground, seek an as yet uncharted path, that exists in some undefined location. Something, that is fueled by ancient values and new challenges, and provides a ray of hope to every person who wishes to climb to an ever higher peak. I feel like a man who hungers for such a goal. And Judaism generates my thirst. Judaism is not a religion, it is a faith. It is not governed by any hierarchy imposed by the Almighty God, and all men, who in any case have been created in His image, can communicate directly with him. As such, there is no need to separate faith from state. The essence of a Jewish state is that it is, first and foremost, a state that is founded on faith. A state that is distinguished by spiritual faith, and not necessarily a state that is controlled by a religious apparatus.

We possess a Written Gospel and an Oral Gospel — we have a treasure that is written and treasures that are oral. But there is one basic document on which Judaism hinges: the Ten Commandments. This very document that contains less than three hundred words forged a union: it encapsulates the fundamental principles of the Jewish people, but also constitutes the cornerstone of Western Civilization. Thus, not only did faith and nationality become interwoven into a unique tapestry, but nation and universality too flowed together into one.

The basic laws, not to kill, not to lie, not to torture others, not to institutionalize slavery, not to discriminate against servants, not to engage in idolatry, are all precepts that have been embraced by all of the enlightened world. They have been included, in one way or another, in the New Testament and the Koran. Judaism was first to contest idolatry and slavery. It also spoke against superiority of race, color, nationality or man. If superiority does exist, it is in matters of the spirit and not in the dominions of power. There is no superior being; there is only an Almighty God. A Divine Presence whose face cannot be seen, but who nevertheless resides inside each and every one of us, the conscience that gives us no peace. Sovereignty is moral, priority is intellectual, equality is human.

Our history has not been paved with joyful events. Quite the contrary. It has been a history of trials and tribulations, and the price we paid put faith to the test. I do not think that Judaism simply consists of a collection of rigid laws to be accepted and hallowed. It represents an assortment of ethnic challenges, that spur man’s discontent and fuels his perennial quest for perfection. This ideal does not come attired in a single garment, nor is it a final goal. It can be compared to Jacob’s ladder — you climb one step after the next and gaze at the sky. In the awareness that it is distant and unattainable. Yet the process of climbing the steps makes you feel you are in communion with God.

Naturally, I am a willing captive of the history of our people. Not that it has been free of mistakes. While we are a stricken people that has known destruction and the Holocaust, we have nonetheless experienced amazing peaks. The chronicle of the Jewish people is distinguished by spiritual tenacity and political aggression, like the bush that burnt with fire, yet the bush was not consumed. This can serve as an explanation of why the Jewish people possessed so many prophets, priests (Cohen), judges, visionaries and so very few statesmen. Prophets and priests do not seek compromises in life, but yearn to rise above them, while statesmen have to make concessions regarding material alternatives and lofty ambitions. And a great number of Jews have always feared that compromises would lead them to compromise with their own selves. Functional mollification instead of spiritual enhancement.

Photo by Nati Harnik/GPO/Reuters

Possibly, if Judaism was more conciliatory towards Jesus, Christianity would never have been born. Some contend that Christianity is the consequence of a Jewish mistake. And had it not been made, today we would have counted hundreds of millions of Jews, instead of only 14 million. We paid dearly for our obstinacy, but maybe this price enabled us to take huge steps forward in the annals of mankind, and while physically bruised and wounded, we have remained spiritually whole. And despite the fact that our body practically did not develop, it nevertheless managed to carry on its shoulders the weight of our faith, whose power is manifestly greater than the size of the shoulders that support it.

We knew destruction and we knew redemption. I do not know whether the destruction was necessary, but the redemption has always been a miracle.

My biography as a Jew is imbued with awe and reverence for Jewish history. I was born in a small town in White Russia. It was totally Jewish. Not a single Goy lived there. Therefore, I experienced the taste of Jewish isolation from the moment I was born. Two synagogues graced the town, built from wood, as well as the “Tarbut” (culture) school, whose classes were conducted in Hebrew. My forefathers — grandfather and grandmother — were extremely religious. My parents were already secular. The influence that had the most impact on me in my childhood was my grandfather, may his soul rest in peace, Rabbi Zvi Melzer. He taught me, when I was 5 years old, a page of Gemara, every day. I used to go along with him to synagogue, and on Yom Kippur he led the prayers (he had an impressive voice), and when it was time for Kol Nidre, all the worshippers, and I among them, spread the Talit over our heads. It was then that I was struck by a great sense of fear, because I suddenly found myself alone, with all my sins, in front of the Almighty God.

My mother, who was a librarian, introduced me to Shalom Aleichem on the one hand, and to Dostoyevsky, on the other. Already as a youngster I read “Crime and Punishment,” and again I was overcome with fear — this time out of anxiety for interrelations between people. Shalom Aleichem calmed the agitation with a wise smile that stemmed from the Jewish soul.

Half the town’s population emigrated to Eretz Israel, including many members of my family. The second half was annihilated by the Nazis. A quarter of the town’s residents, with my grandfather among them, were packed into the synagogue, and while wearing their Talit, were set to fire and burned alive by the Nazis.

I was 11 when I immigrated to Israel. I was captivated by the blue skies, the Hebrew letters and sunburnt pioneers. I wanted to resemble them. I was sent to the Ben Shemen Youth Village to study agriculture and make ready to become a kibbutznik. I spent some time in two kibbutzim, the one in the Jezreel Valley and the other in Lower Galilee. I learned how to reap wheat and also to become a shepherd. My life seemed perfect. Then the riots started, and the war, and I was caught up by them, and into them, drawn into completely new and different worlds.

When I look back, I am able to see how my life, and the life of the Jewish people, intermingled. The first chapter in the modern history of the Jewish people started to unfold at the end of the 19th century, when Jews emigrated from eastern Europe in large numbers, escaping from the threat of the new Russian Tsar — Nicholas II — who rose to power in 1882. At the same time, the voice of Herzl became heard, proclaiming a Jewish homeland. Herzl’s vision ignited the enthusiasm of many Jews, but only a very few responded in practice. Of 3 million Jews who left Eastern Europe between 1882 and 1914 (when World War I broke out), only 50,000 immigrated to Israel. What a historical mistake! And despite everything, even this meager wave of immigration exercised a miracle: For the first time in history, a people who left, or were banished from, their country, was revived and started gathering in the land of their forefathers. Never had such an extraordinary event been witnessed until then, nor has one taken place since, with any other people. From dispersion across the four corners of the world, to reunion in the land of their fathers, from the bondage of exile to the freedom of a homeland.

And then the second chapter opened — in the first half of the 20th century — when the Jewish people that had gathered in the Land of Israel, soon understood that it could not live, as it had done when in exile — from luftgeschaften — makeshift business dealings. They had to dig into the soil and cultivate the land with their own hands. Except that the newcomers had no previous agricultural experience, and the land to which they had come, had no agricultural resources. Eretz Israel was desolate, devastated, and its land reluctant and tired. A land with practically no water. Despite the lack of experience, and infertility of the soil, the standard of agriculture that developed in Israel is today perceived by many to be the highest in the world. Not only did the desert bloom, but new and amazing cooperative frameworks were built, such as the kibbutz and moshav, that encapsulated a distinctive type of social phenomenon never previously seen.

That was the second miracle.

And as the barren land was being tilled, war broke out. Israel was attacked by forces that were far superior — both in numbers and in arms — whereas the barely born state was desperately short of arms, and its army practically non-existent. The land of the Jews was attacked five times, and all five ended in victory. Once again, a people lacking in military tradition, and in the face of an unequal balance of strategic military power, Israel created an army that, in this case as well, was recognized as one of the best in the world.

That was the third miracle.

And now, the homeland of the Jews is facing its fourth challenge. To demonstrate its prowess in the field of science and technology. Without a doubt, the Jewish people are rich in history and poor in land, and will be unable to sustain themselves unless the benefits of science and technology are duly garnered to their best advantage. The brain needs to compensate for the meagerness of territory.

I hope we shall see a fourth miracle.

I have been witness to the arrival of olim — the new immigrants — and their absorption, unique and unsurpassed among any other people: fair-haired immigrants from Russia mingling with dark-skinned immigrants from Ethiopia. Bearded Jews with skull caps and Jews in sleeveless vests that bare their well-developed muscles. I could distinctly feel the undercurrent of excitement as the drama of a people in the making was unfolding before our very eyes.

I reaped wheat, led herds to pasture, constructed houses, lived, together with my companions, in tents open to the wind, and felt I was a participant in the building process of a state. I saw how a desert assumed a green mantle. Later, I was appointed to central defense-related positions and understood how power could be built and acts of heroism mobilized — indeed, how something could be created from nothing.

I saw the ploughs and I saw the rifles. And nowadays, I see modern microscopes in universities that shed light on atoms invisible to the naked eye, making it possible to build a whole new world. What could be more fulfilling, more riveting, more just, than to be a son of such a people? Truthfully, there were moments when it seemed that all was lost, that everything had vanished. And then there were other instances, when it appeared that all the problems had been resolved. Yet the former did not happen, and neither did the latter. The road ahead is still very long and hard, but inspiring nevertheless. We stopped being slaves in Egypt’s house and moved into a home that is independent, democratic and Jewish — in our land.

What propels us? Not marshals and not religion. We are propelled by tremendous faith that tells us that a new genesis is possible, one that will create a better world inhabited by better people: created in the image of God and lovers of mankind.

I feel like a man who has donned biblical sandals and is moving forward with a people inspired by its faith, part of a process of renewal and revival, walking on without fear. A people that fights without despairing, remembering and advancing at one and the same time.