On Tuesday evening, March 30, Shimon Peres, the former Prime Minister of Israel, addressed an audience of about 600 people at Temple Sinai. While discussing the topic of peace in the Middle East, Peres' message was rational, practical, and surprisingly optimistic.
Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres poses with leaders of Temple Sinai's Adult Education Committee. Left to right are: Ira Malin, Amy Handwerker, Peres, Caryn Hirschliefer and Michelle Rosenbaum.
He began by joking that, "Jewish people are not happy unless they are unhappy." He then cited the many dynamics that have changed the nature of the world's problems. He sees modernity and high technology as challenges to all civilizations, while claiming that those who can't accept such changes will be left behind. Terror and violence, he said, are the result of frustration within those civilizations that see the rest of the world progressing without them.
The 1994 Nobel Peace Prize winner and architect of the Oslo Accords likened terrorism to past ideologies that have flared up and eventually failed. He recalled that Bolshevism, Nazism and even Communism took root in dissatisfied nations but failed because they could not offer a positive future. Peres feels that terrorism will fail for the same reason.
Directing his remarks to the war in Iraq, Peres noted that, like terror, unchecked leadership such as that shown by Saddam Hussein is dangerous but not sustainable. The worst casualties in this type of a terror-driven state, he said, come from the suicide bombers who kill indiscriminately. In Peres' opinion, the US war in Iraq is a costly one in terms of American casualties but in the end, the achievement of a self-governing, responsible, and self-respecting Iraq will be a major step toward a more stable Middle East.
Turning to the Israel-Palestine conflict, Peres predicted that a solution might now be possible, provided that Israeli and Palestinian leaders look to the future and not entirely to the past. The past is comprised of divisiveness over land and settlements, whereas the future, he claimed, should focus more on creating safe havens in which the cultures and traditions of both Jews and Palestinians may flourish. For the Israelis, Peres said, giving up certain land areas to the Palestinians will help to ensure a primarily Jewish demographic in Israel. For the Palestinians, he continued, having authority within their own boundaries means taking responsibility for their own people and gaining self-respect.
"We are not only not born to be slaves, but not to be masters," Peres said. A fundamental moral right, he claimed, exists to not only maintain a Jewish homeland, language and culture, but to allow the Palestinians to have the same right.
Peres returned to the topic of the war in Iraq and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein's dictatorship. He already sees positive changes in the Muslim world resulting from the American intervention, changes which have begun to spread to Turkey, Libya and Cyprus and which reflect growing attitudes of anti-terrorism and a lessening of anti-Israeli feelings. Even in Iran, Peres sees a strong movement for reform and modernization led primarily by those Iranian women who are challenging centuries of subordination.
The signs and changes are slowly becoming evident and peace must be promoted quickly in order to take advantage of the changing tides, Peres said. He urged Americans to continue the fight against terrorism despite the enormous costs, but at the same time to develop alternatives for the Muslim world so that its people may live in prosperity.
"History is written in red ink," Peres stated. "It is the story of blood and killing." Today, he added, the stakes are different. Now, the conflicts are about science, education, and economic prosperity. "No army can defend a language; no wall can defend a culture," Peres maintained. In the new age before us, he observed, borders or walls will be ineffective when fighting for the survival of a civilization. If the United States and Israel continue to stand together to uphold basic human rights, Peres concluded, then those two nations can successfully guarantee the safety of their lands, the freedom of all people, and brotherhood among civilizations.
After a question-and-answer period, Peres left the podium to a standing ovation.