On September 28, Shimon Peres, former President and Prime Minister of Israel, died.
We mourn his passing, but we honour and we celebrate his long and eventful life.
The passion of Shimon Peres for the State of Israel, which he helped to found, was matched only by his commitment to pursuing peace for Israel with its neighbours.
The man whose chosen surname is derived from an ancient Hebrew word for “bird of prey” would become known over seven decades of statesmanship as a “dove” of peace.
He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts in support of the Oslo Accords. To this day, his Peres Centre for Peace seeks to link Israelis and Palestinians in programmes that promote co-existence and reconciliation.
Shimon Peres’ deep personal commitment to his nation began when the State of Israel was but a dream for the Jewish diaspora.
Born Shimon Persky on 2 August 1923 in Poland, he was the son of Jewish parents Yitzhak and Sara. At the age of 11, Shimon and his family moved to Tel-Aviv in British-mandated Palestine.
Shimon formed his first political leanings in Israel’s Kibbutz system, joined the Zionist movement to establish the nation state of Israel, and served in Israel’s pre-independence military organisation, the Haganah.
Following Israel’s independence in 1948, he worked alongside Israel’s first Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion.
At the age of just 29 Shimon was appointed Director-General of the Defence Ministry.
In 1959 he was elected to Parliament and served in the Knesset until 2007, working for multiple governments as foreign minister, finance minister and defence minister. He served twice as Prime Minister, once in the early 1980s, and again briefly after incumbent Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination in 1995.
Shimon Peres served as Israel’s’ ninth President from 2007 to 2014, retiring just days before his 91st birthday, and remained a powerful advocate for a two state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. ‘The Palestinians’ Shimon said, ‘are our closest neighbours; I believe they may become our closest friends’.
His dream was to see both Israelis and Palestinians live in peace and security—to build; to educate their citizens; and to prosper.
My wife Lucy recently visited Israel with a group of businesswomen to visit hi-tech innovators and universities, key assets in the economic success story of modern Israel.
The group had the privilege of visiting Shimon Peres at the Peres Centre for Peace.
Mr Peres told Lucy the secret of perpetual youth was to ensure that your list of dreams always remained longer than your list of achievements.
Unfortunately, Shimon Peres never visited Australia,* but he certainly respected us.
He spoke emotionally of the sacrifices made by Australians who fell in World War 1 in the Middle East, and he would recall warmly the friendliness and informality of the Australian troops stationed in Israel during World War 2.
But perhaps his affection for Australia was more personal.
His father, Yitzhak Persky, was saved from Nazi execution by a fellow Prisoner of War, Australian Methodist Minister Rex Dakers.
After escaping from the Nazis, his father was re-captured.
Padre Dakers convinced the Nazi soldiers that Persky and his co-conspirator had not received a proper trial and to shoot the men would be considered a war crime. Then Padre boldly warned that if they were shot, the Nazis would have to shoot him as well.
Yitzhak Persky lived because of Rex Dakers’ moral courage.
When Shimon Peres’s son, Chemi, visited Melbourne last year, he visited the Dakers family: a moment that Shimon called the closing of a circle.
I extend Australia’s sympathy to his children: Yoni, Zvia and Chemi and their families and I take this opportunity to acknowledge his marriage of 66 years to their mother Sonya Gelman, who passed away a few years ago.
I also extend Australia’s condolences to the Government and people of Israel and the many people in the Australian Jewish community who enjoyed a friendship with Shimon Peres.
We understand and share your loss.
Mr Peres once said that, ‘The duty of leaders is to pursue freedom ceaselessly, even in the face of hostility, in the face of doubt and disappointment. Just imagine what could be’.
He echoed there, and often invoked, David’s words in the 34th Psalm verse 14 - “Depart from evil, and do good; seek peace and pursue it.” It is not enough to want peace, to yearn for it, but we must, like Shimon Peres did and David urged, pursue it with the relentless determination of the hunter.
Israel’s prosperity—forged by the intellect and innovation of its people—has proved Shimon Peres was right to believe in great opportunities for his nation and he was right to dream of greater possibilities in a peaceful future to come.
*I have since been advised by a mutual friend in the Jewish community that Mr Peres did, in fact, visit our country - and I am very pleased to learn that he did so.