It was June 30, 1976. An Air France Jet that took off from Ben Gurion Airport was hijacked in Athens and taken to Entebbe in Uganda. The hijackers separated the Jews from other passengers. The hijackers were demanding that Israel free terrorists by 2:00 pm the next day. Tension filled the Israeli cabinet meeting. IDF Chief of Staff Motta Gur examined options, but none looked good. Many in the cabinet, including Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, were ready to consider giving in to the demands. Rabin said: “I feel it might end up being a lot like the ‘Bay of Pigs.’
But Shimon Peres, the Defense Minister, raised the concern that a surrender would set a precedent that would endanger lives in the future. Recognizing the risks involved, he insisted: “If there is a military operation, it’s preferable. Until now, I admit that there’s no concrete proposal, only ideas and imagination.”
Imagination. Sitting in that cabinet meeting, that was all they had. For Shimon Peres, that was enough. The Defense Minister prevailed in that debate and helped to orchestrate the historic raid on Entebbe on July 4 that saved the hostages. The action sent a clarion call to the world that Israel would not negotiate with terrorists nor sit idly by when Israelis or Jews were in harm’s way.
Shimon Peres had the gift of imagination. He employed it in war, and he also employed it in peace. Saeb Erakat, one of the chief negotiators for the Palestinian Authority, once recalled meeting Peres for the first time many years ago. “When I met him…, I was a young professor. I was angry about something, and he looked at me and he said, ‘Saeb, negotiation in pain and frustration for five years is cheaper than exchanging bullets for five minutes.’”
These two stories combine to share an important aspect of Shimon Peres’s legacy. He was a dreamer who dared to challenge conventional wisdom. When it came to saving the lives of Jews at Entebbe, conventional wisdom said, “impossible.” Peres dared to dream that it was possible. When it came to achieving a peaceful resolution with the Palestinians, he dared to challenge both Israeli and Palestinian naysayers there too. The Oslo peace process, his vision, offered a glimmer of hope that peace was possible.
Alas, despite his tireless efforts, a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has not yet come to fruition. Just this week, we mourn the murders of two Israelis on at a Jerusalem light rail stop, a stark reminder that there would be no peace without security. Peres believed this. He also believed there would be no security without peace. This was his dream. In 2012, Peres was interviewed by Charlie Rose who asked him, “What do you want your legacy to be?”
Peres, who was then ONLY 89, quipped, “It’s too early for me to think about it.” Then, he said, “I’m more concerned about tomorrow than I am about yesterday.”
Shimon Peres was not satisfied with the status quo. He made mistakes along the way, and he lost his share of political battles. Through all the hardships, he never lost integrity. He continued to challenge. He continued to question. To his dying day he continued to dream.
To dream is at the heart of the Zionist ethos.
Psalm 126 recalls the first great return to Zion after the destruction of the first Temple.
שִׁ֗יר הַֽמַּֽ֫עֲל֥וֹת בְּשׁ֣וּב ה’ אֶת־שִׁיבַ֣ת צִיּ֑וֹן הָ֝יִ֗ינוּ כְּחֹלְמִֽים
A song of ascents. When the LORD restored Zion —we were like dreamers.
The Psalmist then describes the great joy of the people in returning to Jerusalem:
אָ֤ז יִמָּלֵ֢א שְׂח֡וֹק פִּינוּ֘ וּלְשׁוֹנֵ֢נוּ רִ֫נָּ֥ה אָ֭ז יֹאמְר֣וּ בַגּוֹיִ֑ם הִגְדִּ֥יל ה’ לַֽעֲשׂ֥וֹת עִם־אֵֽלֶּה
Our mouths shall be filled with laughter, our tongues, with songs of joy. Then shall they say among the nations, “The LORD has done great things for them!”
הִגְדִּ֣יל ה’ לַֽעֲשׂ֥וֹת עִמָּ֗נוּ הָ֘יִ֥ינוּ שְׂמֵחִֽים
The LORD will do great things for us and we shall rejoice.
After waking up from the dream and the experience of unbridled joy, a dose of reality sets in:
הַזֹּרְעִ֥ים בְּדִמְעָ֗ה בְּרִנָּ֥ה יִקְצֹֽרוּ
They who sow in tears shall reap with songs of joy.
Yes, there will be joy at the end of the road, but great challenges must be overcome.
הָ֘ל֤וֹךְ יֵלֵ֨ךְ ׀ וּבָכֹה֘ נֹשֵׂ֢א מֶֽשֶׁךְ־הַ֫זָּ֥רַע בֹּֽ֬א־יָב֥וֹא בְרִנָּ֑ה נֹ֝שֵׂ֗א אֲלֻמֹּתָֽיו
One who goes along weeping, carrying the seed-bag, shall come back with songs of joy, carrying his sheaves.
This psalm was once considered the Zionist anthem before Hatikvah won out. The return to Zion in modern times is a joyous event for the Jewish people, but one that has required more than its fair share of tears, sweat, and, far too often, blood.
Nearly seven decades after Israel’s founding, we have much reason to rejoice. Israel is a strong nation that boasts a thriving economy and strong democratic institutions. Israel is a fountain of Jewish religious and cultural inspiration. Hebrew, the language of the Bible, is the language of the people. At the same time, Israel continues to face great challenges. Shimon Peres championed the dream of a Jewish democratic state with secure and recognized borders. This dream has not yet been fully realized. For 2000 years the Jewish diaspora prevented our people from controlling our destiny; but it also freed us of the responsibility of governance. In 1948, that radically changed.
The late religious philosopher Rabbi David Hartman grappled with the religious and moral implications of Jewish power.
He writes (A Living Covenant):
“I live with the guarded hope that out of this complex and vibrant new Jewish reality [the State of Israel] will emerge new spiritual directions for the way Judaism will be lived in the modern world.”
In other words, no longer is Judaism confined to the home and synagogue. In a Jewish state, Jewish values are engrained in the national ethos.
Rabbi Hartman writes further: “Jews in Israel are given the opportunity to bring economic, social, and political issues into the center of their religious consciousness. …[T]he fact that Israel enables us to make the whole of life the carrier of the covenant is in itself sufficient to ascribe profound religious significance to the secular revolt that led to Israel’s rebirth. I celebrate Israel’s Independence Day with the recitation of the Hallel psalms, thus expressing gratitude to God for having been given the opportunity to renew the full scope of the covenantal spirit of Judaism.”
For Rabbi Hartman, the dream of shivat tzion, return to Zion, has not yet been fully realized, but he rejoices that the Jewish people are in a position to shape the dream. Israelis, joined by Jews around the world, have the responsibility to grapple with the meaning of Jewish power and to wrestle with the moral implications of power in ways we had not been able to do prior to 1948. Rabbi Hartman created the Shalom Hartman Institute, an important center of learning in Jerusalem that engages Jews in Israel and around the world across the religious and ideological spectrum in thoughtful study of Zionism and its future.
Therefore, I am pleased to introduce to Temple Torat Emet the Shalom Hartman Institute’s program iEngage: Jewish Values and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. The goal of iEngage is to provide tools to engage with and discuss the wide spectrum of views on this complex topic. Through video presentations by Hartman scholars and my facilitation of interactive discussions of Jewish texts selected by Hartman, we will deepen our understanding of the present conflict and figure out how better to grapple with it in our community. The course does not aim to shape or change politics on Israel. It does aim to change and shape the way we think about politics and the way you and I talk about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We will learn together nuances of the conflict and become more engaged in the issues for the sake of strengthening our own community, strengthening love for Israel and creating an atmosphere in which an eventual peace can succeed.
The iEngage series will meet for nine sessions on Sundays, 9:30-11:30 AM starting November 20. The course is open to all. I particularly encourage parents of Religious School students to join me for these vital discussions that affect the future of our children and the world they will face.
Shimon Peres was the last great leader from Israel’s founding generation. Our community joins Israelis and Jews around the world in mourning his loss. At the same time, we must honor his memory by ensuring that his dreams do not die with him. Peres’s legacy is that he was more concerned about tomorrow than yesterday. He dared to dream. We cannot solve Israel’s problems, but we can honor Shimon Peres’s legacy. We can dream. We can challenge others to dream. We can challenge ourselves to listen to others with care and respect. My prayer is that the memory of Shimon Peres will inspire us to dream, to learn and to grow and thus help us bring peace and healing to us, the Jewish people and the world.