Happy Birthday, Mr President

June 20, 2013 by Ron Weiser
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Last night time stood still, politics were put aside and people from all walks of life in both Israel and from overseas came to celebrate the 90th birthday of President Shimon Peres…writes Dr Ron Weiser.

Shimon Peres

Shimon Peres

But it was much more than that, it was a celebration of his life and the life of the State of Israel.

There is no person in Israel who can bring such a wide variety of people from all over the world to Israel and who understand that when paying tribute to Peres’ life they are also paying tribute to Israel herself.

It was an amazing birthday party, very professionally done and a fantastic opening to the now annual President’s Conference called “Tomorrow” – a true extravaganza.

As the hall began to fill with some 4,000 people, one could hear the Americans in the audience talking about “bragging rights” as one leading US philanthropist explained to me – who managed to get a ticket to get in and who sat where??!!

Noram Issa and Ron Weiser

Noram Issa and Ron Weiser

A personal highlight for me was meeting Norman Issa who was one of the hundreds of non Jews who came to celebrate the President’s birthday.

Norman is the star of one of my favourite Israeli TV shows – Avoda Aravit – Arab Labour.

The series is the best form of comedy – extremely funny, but dealing with serious issues.

Norman is an Israeli Arab from Jaffa in a show produced by a kippa wearing Israeli Jew – yes, that is how it goes in Israel!

Each episode highlights in a hilarious way, the situation faced by Israeli Arabs living in the Jewish State.

Back to the main game – There were heads of State from Albania to Rwanda.

Leaders in high tech, in banking, in philosophy, thinkers and dreamers.

Hollywood stars such as Sharon Stone who said that she had married 2 Jews and was therefore “Jew-ish” and that she had also come to celebrate her son’s bar mitzvah at the Kottel.

Robert De Niro was a little puzzled – he understood Peres’ birthday to be actually a couple of months away still, as they almost share a birthdate in August and he wondered why Israel was celebrating the birthday early.

His conclusion – that this defined Israeli optimism – confident that celebrating early was not really an issue for a young man of 89.

De Niro explained that he had brought his 17 year old son with him to meet Peres personally so that this young man could be inspired about his and humanity’s future.

Ex British PM Tony Blair opened proceedings with his usual eloquence, the very impressive and very high tech stage carried Israeli artists, school children, Peres’ children and grandchildren, a comedienne, dancers, singers such as Shlomo Artzi all in a live spectacular.

Prime Minister Netanyahu spoke warmly and with great praise about Shimon Peres and his lifelong dedication to Israel and the Jewish People.

Then via video link tributes were paid by world leaders such as Vladimir Putin, Angela Merkel, Francois Hollande, Ban Ki Moon and Barack Obama.

Some of the live highlights included:

– The story of an Arab baby from Hebron who was born with a congenital heart problem.

The Peres Centre organised for him to be taken to an Israeli hospital where we saw on video how his life was saved in the operating theatre.

And then, in a moment of high drama, the boy now 10 years old, walked out on stage and thanked President Peres in Arabic for the life saving work done by the Peres Centre

– Ex US President Clinton brought the house down with some great comedic lines such
as:

“Shimon Peres is the only living Israeli from the time of King David”

And “Shimon and I made a deal, I would come here to speak at his 90th and he agreed to come and speak at my 80th and 90th and to then give the eulogy at my funeral”

Clinton continued more seriously about the life and times of Shimon Peres and the true meaning of the word “Statesman”.

Wondering what could top that…….Barbra Streisand came on stage and stole the show singing Avinu Malkeinu.

And finally the man himself – a very young 90 (well almost) – Shimon Peres spoke about the future,  about the importance of moving forward, of innovation and of his hopes and dreams for “Tomorrow”.

What is very hard to appreciate in Australia, with the constant pessimism that surrounds many of the people who lack balance and context when they speak of Israel in negative terms, is the truly amazing optimism about Israel’s future that is a constant theme of both Jews and non Jews alike at this Conference.

And of the clear respect that speaker after speaker, from all points around the globe and from so many different backgrounds, express about Israel’s moral fibre and passion and creativity and positive contributions to a constantly changing world.

Perhaps in some ways, despite all of his many earlier achievements, this Conference and what it represents about and for Israel, is one of his best.

Happy Birthday Mr President.

President Peres’s address:

“I am moved to see so many friends here tonight, many of which have stood by me, as I have stood by them. Together we made a long and thrilling journey.

I greatly appreciate that you have chosen to celebrate the birthday of a man whose only sin was to grow a year older. I know you have come to Jerusalem from around the world and from across the country to pay tribute, with me, to our people, to the State of Israel, and to Tikun Olam. Thank you all.

(Distinguished guests from abroad, excuse me while I continue in Hebrew)

On this occasion, I feel grateful, because the chapters of my life are entwined with the story of the birth and the development of the State of Israel. Because I have been given the wonderful privilege to serve my country. To take part in the building of its strength. To pursue peace, our heart’s truest desire. During my decades of experience as a public servant, I have learned one primary lesson:

To be a loyal servant of your people, you must follow your moral compass, whose values are clear cut. At dusk, take stock of the errors of the day. At dawn, do not forget the night’s dreams. I have learned that a dream is only the beginning of a better tomorrow. And this is the spirit of the gathering which we open tonight. Making the dream of tomorrows – today’s agenda.

From my mother Sarah, I learned the love of books. From my father Yitzhak, I learned to work hard. My parents believed that ignorance and laziness are sins. From Sonia, the love of my life, I learned the true meaning of love. In her eyes, deep love is selfless. Deep love is the total love of one’s fellow. The love of one’s life partner. One’s parents, one’s children. And to do good, as much as one can, while your good deeds remain nameless. I envied Sonia for the strength and the resilience of her modesty. Together, with great love, we built our common treasure: 3 children, 8 grandchildren, and 3 great-grandchildren. They were lucky enough to inherit her genes for the most part.

My friends,

My life’s journey is a road that runs between Vishnieva, where I was born, to Israel, where I lived as a youngster, full of dreams. It is the road between my grandfather and David Ben Gurion, the two figures who have left the deepest imprint on my life to this very day. My revered grandfather, Rabbi Tzvi Melzer, a man of the Volozhin Talmudic Yeshiva. He was murdered at the hands of the Nazis. He taught me the Talmud during the day, and Tolstoy at night. He shaped my life as a child. And on the other hand, David Ben Gurion, the founder of the State of Israel, and the greatest Jew I have ever known. He taught me the importance of vision in the shaping of a desired reality. And that the moral call is the wisest of human judgments. He taught me that there is nothing more responsible than to take risks today for the sake of tomorrow’s chance. His political wisdom, his bold determination, his ability to make difficult decisions and stand by them, strong as a rock; I believe it is these traits which enabled a seemingly impossible dream to become reality, and changed forever the destiny of our people’s history.

Dear friends,

When I was a child, Israel was a legend more than a reality. She emerged from a dream, and today she has surpassed that dream. From the depths of the Holocaust we rose to heights which reach far beyond the horizon of history. It did not happen overnight. It was a long journey which came at an unbearable price. We have known seven wars, we endured them all by virtue of our sons and daughters, by virtue of our soldiers, and by virtue of the parents who raised them. We gathered the exiles from the four corners of the earth, and became one people. We built a vibrant democracy and a diverse society. We made Israel a global hub for hi-tech, science and creativity. We turned a refusing land into an inspiring oasis.

The State of Israel is the living proof that the potential hidden within the human being is richer than the resources buried in the soil. I love this country. The scent of the figs ripening on the tree of my garden enchants me. So too the hum of the Jordan River and the silence of the Negev nights. At every encounter with citizens across the country, I am proud and moved at the sight of their valor and talent, their spirit, their faith, and their generosity. I am in love with my people who  can be passionate and even short-tempered. Their language is sometimes less than diplomatic but at the same time their understanding, their creativity, their courage and the goodness of their heart, their generosity and the warmth which they exude – can melt hearts.

The same Israeli who will curse a driver who unfairly overtook him on the road will willingly give up his life on the battlefield for the sake of his country or to save the life of a brother.

Our work is not yet complete. We came to the promised land and now we must make it a land of promise. Into an exemplary country, Israel is small in territory but can be great in justice. We must make it into a country where no-one goes hungry. A country in which every child has access to quality education. From the day they are born and throughout their entire life. A nation in which the majority governs but the minority always enjoys full and equal rights

A country which welcomes different opinions but rejects all forms of discrimination whether based on religion, nationality, ethnicity or gender. A society which respects the weak and is kind to the foreigner , which cares for the orphan and the widow, the old and the sick. A country of solidarity and tolerance. But a country with zero-tolerance for violence, corruption and bullying.

My dear guests,

I am the son of an ancient people. A people which has known suffering and brutality. More than any other nation.  We rebelled against idolatry. We preferred to pray to one Lord, the God of justice, truth, equality and freedom. I am proud to be a member of the dissatisfied nation. Dissatisfaction drives a commitment to progress. I look at where we started and where we are today. And I think to myself: to be an optimist is so logical. It is so practical. I believe that Israel can go higher and higher, if we make the necessary decisions. We genuinely and truly strive to be a nation among nations, a nation that gives. We long for peace with our neighbors. The yesterday between us and the Palestinians is full of sadness. I believe that the Israel of tomorrow and the Palestine of tomorrow can offer our children a ray of hope. The advancement of peace will complete the march of Israel towards the fulfillment of its founding vision. An exemplary and thriving country. A country living in peace and security in its homeland and among its neighbors.

Dear friends,

Sometimes as a child you hear a verse which stays in your heart for the rest of your life. As a child I asked my beloved grandfather, Rabbit Tzvi Meltzer, which verse one should carry in one’s heart. He recited to me the 34th verse of the Book of Psalms;

“Whoever of you loves life and desires to see many good days, keep your tongue from evil and your lips from telling lies. Turn from evil and do good. Seek peace and pursue it.”

Let us pray together for a tomorrow of peace. I thank you all from the depths of a loving and optimistic heart.

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