By BERNIE BELLAN In 2014 my wife Meachelle and I had the privilege of attending a Jewish media summit in Jerusalem. The highlight of that summit was seeing both then-President Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu on stage the same day, albeit at different times.
Following are some impressions I had of Peres who, that day, was introduced by Times of Israel editor David Horovitz. Horovitz also moderated a lively question and answer session between Peres and members of the international Jewish media who were present:
“Shimon Peres may be 91 years old but his sharpness of mind and willingness to answer any and all questions would belie his actual age. Once Peres was introduced, Horovitz’s very first question to him was about Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, who had just recently come out in criticism of the kidnapping of the three boys (who had recently been kidnapped on the West Bank and were subsequently found murdered) when he was in Jedda, Saudi Arabia.
“Horowitz asked Peres to comment on Abbas’s recent comment in Saudi Arabia that ‘Those who kidnapped the three teenagers want to destroy us.’ (The speech was carried live on Palestinian television and other Arabic channels.)
“Peres lavished huge praise on Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas for showing ‘great courage’ in roundly condemning the kidnapping of the three Israeli teens which, at the time of the summit, was into its second week.
“During his remarks Peres insisted that Abbas has been the best partner for peace that Israel has ever had. I’ve known him for over 20 years…I think he’s a man of his word, I think he’s a man of courage…I think he’s a great leader and we shouldn’t miss the opportunity to continue the peace process with him.’
“Later Peres was asked what he thought was the task of the Jewish media. He replied: ‘It is to criticize us when we are wrong and to help us when we are right.’
“In a funny slip of the tongue, Peres also stated that ‘the human brain is a strange “orgasm” ‘, when he clearly meant to say “organism”. (At least I think so. Who knows what he was really thinking? Read on to find out more about his keen sense of humour.)
“When asked what Israel has to do to lure more Jewish immigrants, Peres stated: ‘Israel truly has to be as attractive as she can because people are looking to escape not only from poor places.’ (The plight of Jews in Europe was a recurrent theme throughout the summit, especially Jews in France.)
“Peres fielded any and all questions deftly for over 30 minutes. While his hearing was obviously not as sharp as it once was – he had to ask Horovtiz to repeat audience members’ questions, he never once attempted to skirt answering any questions although, to be perfectly candid, nothing tough was thrown his way. (If I had been presented the opportunity to ask him a question I would have asked him what more Israel should be doing to achieve peace with the Palestinians.
“While Peres was willing to open himself up to questions, we knew beforehand that Prime Minister Netanyahu never, ever fields questions from the wretched press. A member of the Israeli media told me not to feel bad: ‘It’s not just you members of the foreign media Netanyahu ignores – he never answers questions from the Israeli press either.’ “
As much as Peres has been the object of much deserved praise from sources ranging from as diverse a group of leaders as Barack Obama and Justin Trudeau on the one hand, to Vladimir Putin and Mahmoud Abbas on the other, for me the lasting takeaway was his incredibly good sense of humour. A couple of years ago, shortly after Peres had retired as president, he appeared in a brilliantly satirical video titled “Shimon Peres goes job hunting”. In the video Peres finds himself looking for new work, but not until he finishes clearing off his presidential desk, on which sits a copy of a book titled “Presidency for Dummies!”
During the course of the video Peres tries working as a gas station jockey, security guard, store cashier, pizza delivery man, stand up comic, and a parachutist instructor. His willingness to parody himself throughout is unbelievable for someone of his stature. I would say that, more than any of the tributes that have been pouring out in recognition of his greatness, this video tells us more about the man than any of those fine speeches. Watch it on our website at http://jewishpostandnews.ca/categories-media/72-israel-specific/163-former-israeli-president-shimon-peres-goes-job-hunting.