By Sharon Wisch-Ray
TJP Publisher & Editor
JAFFA — Many Dallas-area travelers experienced the thrill of a lifetime at a Feb. 1 gathering when Israeli statesman Shimon Peres spent a good 25 minutes sharing his philosophy with them.
Peres, 92, addressed 150 travelers with the Jewish Federation of Greater Dallas’ Big One community mission to Israel — 60 of whom were in Israel for the first time.
They were understandably awed. Among his many diplomatic roles, Peres has served as the prime minister, defense minister, foreign minister and president. Peres gave his farewell speech as president July 24, 2014.
The elder statesman and veteran public servant delivered remarks hope, understanding and looking toward the future — hallmarks of his illustrious career.
He said the Jewish people must be forward-thinking to ensure their survival, while also remembering the ethics and values on which the Jewish state was created.
Peres’ appearance was the culmination of a full week of exploring the history of Israel through a multifaceted lens. The Peres speech was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for many, and the respect the group had for him was palpable.
“I think this is the coolest thing in my life I’ve ever witnessed,” said Debbie Koeppel, a first-timer to Israel (along with her husband Peter).
Peres seemed particularly moved that there were so many first-timers among the mission participants. He expressed this both at the beginning and the end of his remarks. He also reminisced a bit about his two visits to Dallas, one when he accompanied then-Prime Minister Levi Eshkol to learn about the desalinization of water, in which Dallas was a pioneer.
“I remember the Jewish community in Dallas, which is warm and devoted,” Peres said. “You help your children remain Jewish, you help our state become independent. And I feel the same about the United States of America the greatest country on earth that became great by giving, not by taking. So I thank you.”
Peres offered the group a chance to get to know him as he shared his responses to questions.
Cynthia Moskowitz, chair of the Jewish Federation of Greater Dallas — who sat with Peres on the auditorium stage at the Peres Center in Jaffa and moderated the discussion — wanted to know “Will there be peace with the Palestinians in our lifetime?”
Peres offered an extensive answer saying that in today’s world, countries would need to rely on science and technology to succeed.
“I think half of the world is already in the scientific age,” he said. “The other half is either in a transitional period or in poor shape. The ones who are out are suffering not just from shortages and maladies but also from terrorists that are angrier of all times.”
It is the responsibility of those that are already at an age of enlightenment or understanding to help others along, Peres said.
“Some are early, some are late. The early to come must help the late to arrive,” the statesman said.
Jaynie Schultz asked Peres what message he thought was important for Big One mission participants to take back to the Dallas Jewish community.
Unity, using the strength and faith of Moses as a prime example, Peres responded.
“We may be of different citizenship. It doesn’t stop of us from being one people,” Peres explained.
He added that one of the reasons that Jews have been successful is that they are not satisfied with the status quo.
“We shall remain unsatisfied as long as the world will need a better occasion,” Peres said. “So we fight for the betterment of the man and the betterment of the world.”
Peres used the example of Israel’s emergence as a Jewish state as a testament to the fortitude of the Jewish people and their unwillingness to give up in the face of harsh times and to always have hope.
“In the early days, nothing stood in our sight,” he said. “The land was small, refusing. We had swamps in the North accompanied by mosquitoes. Desert in the South covered by stones. We didn’t have water, we had two lakes, one dead, and the other is dying. We had one river, the Jordan River, very famous, with no water. We didn’t have a natural resource. No oil, no gold. We didn’t have many friends.”
On the contrary, he said, the people were greeted with much hostility.
“People were hostile because we looked to them like strangers,” he said. “And… we could hardly make a living. I remember the early days. Shortage of food. Shortage of arms. We had a war before we had a state. We were fighting before we had an army. And everything looked so depressing, hopeless. So Israel is a story not of a land that enriched the people, but of a people that has enriched the land.”
Had it not been for these hardships, Peres said, Israel might not be what it is today. It was the hardship that uncovered the talent in each human being that set to work, he added.
Dallas community leader Janet Baum asked Peres what was next on his agenda.
That remains to be seen — but Peres said he has no intention of standing on his past accomplishments.
“My business is the future and people ask me what is your greatest achievement in your life and my answer is the one that will happen tomorrow,” he said. “The rest is the past. And the right to see everybody live in the future and to live under the double umbrella of honesty and knowledge.”