In front of a capacity crowd at San Francisco’s Congregation Emanu-El this week, Israeli President Shimon Peres said to peals of laughter, “I feel like a grape in Napa — so cared for.”
Indeed, during his four-day visit to the Bay Area this week, Peres was treated like royalty.
From tête-à-têtes with Gov. Jerry Brown and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, to a grand celebration at Emanu-El on the night of March 6, Israel’s elder statesman spoke enthusiastically about his country, its future and its close partnership with the United States.
Peres’ tour marked the first time a sitting Israeli president, a post that is largely ceremonial, visited the Bay Area. He met with civic and Jewish community leaders and, given Israel’s thriving high-tech industry, made a point of spending a lot of time in Silicon Valley.
One of his meetings there was with Zuckerberg, at Facebook’s Menlo Park headquarters, where Peres was guided through starting his own Facebook page (from Zuckerberg’s personal computer, no less). After it was up, he invited the Facebook founder to be the first person to “like” it. Zuckerberg did, and then promised he would one day visit Israel. Twenty-four hours later, the president’s new page had nearly 28,000 “likes.”
While in Menlo Park, Peres, 88, participated in a press conference with Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg that was streamed live on the Internet; during it, he expressed hope that his Facebook page would promote peace and bring people closer together.
“When I say new and large audiences, I mean first and foremost citizens of Iran, Syria and the Arab world,” Peres noted. “I’d be very happy to be their friend and offer them full access to me.”
In addition to Facebook, he toured IBM in San Jose’s Almaden Valley, attending a briefing on advances in artificial intelligence. Later, he was honored at a luncheon hosted by executives from leading venture capital firms.
The emotional highlight of the Peres visit came when he addressed the gathering at Emanu-El.
About 2,000 attendees had to pass through multiple security checkpoints just to get close to the synagogue, as the San Francisco Police Department cordoned off streets and sidewalks to create a two-block barrier around the building. Several dozen pro-Palestinian protesters gathered at one checkpoint, chanting, banging drums and waving signs.
In and around the synagogue, a large contingent of police kept a lookout for potential hecklers or other disruptions (though the 100-minute event went off without a hitch).
Two dozen fourth-graders from Brandeis Hillel Day School sang “Oseh Shalom” as Peres entered the historic sanctuary (surrounded by dignitaries, news cameras and a security detail) and shook hands with admirers along the center aisle as he approached the bimah.
Peres immediately walked over to former Secretary of State George Shultz, who was waiting in the front row, for a quick hug and hello.
In introducing Peres, Brown noted he first met the two-time Israeli prime minister 40 years before, when Peres was pushing Israel Bonds. At that meeting, the then-governor bought a bond. “I still have it,” he said before going on to extol the partnership between Israel and California.
After San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee presented him with the key to the city, Peres addressed the crowd. He acknowledged Israel’s ties with the California Jewish community, which, he said, were of “the same family, the same heartbeat, looking to the future with an optimistic eye.”
Born in Belarus, Peres immigrated to pre-state Israel in 1934. He went on to play a pivotal role in the formation of modern Israel, having served in multiple cabinet posts and as prime minister from 1984 to 1986 and again from late 1995 to mid-1996, after the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin. He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994, and has worked since to strengthen ties between Israel and other nations.
In his speech, he recounted the early years after Israel’s independence, remembering how his nation was “outgunned, outnumbered. Our greatness was we had nothing. The great gift of the Jews to the world is dissatisfaction.”
Because of that dissatisfaction, Peres said, Israelis have improved their own lot and that of all people through technology and innovation.
Peres then shifted to current events, saying the “real problem in the Middle East is not politics. It’s poverty. Israel has shown you can escape poverty [even] with a small land and stingy water.”
Noting that 65 percent of the Arab population is under 30, Peres lauded social media for bringing young people together. “Facebook, the Web, have opened their eyes,” he said, adding that the Arab Spring “was started by the young generation and somehow stolen by the old generation. Our greatest hope is that people will begin to govern themselves.”
On Iran, Peres minced no words, calling the Tehran regime “the most corrupt of our time.” He continued, “Iran is the only country that calls for Israel’s destruction and denies the Holocaust. I’m not against the Iranian people. I’m talking about the government.”
He wrapped up his remarks by praising the ties between Israel and the United States. “We feel so close to America, so lucky to have that friendship.”
Community leader Roselyne Swig presented Peres with some commemorative gifts, saying “You are a hero to us all.”
Sponsors of the event included the Consulate General of Israel, Pacific Northwest region, the Jewish Community Relations Council, the Jewish Community Federations in San Francisco, the East Bay and Silicon Valley, the Board of Rabbis of Northern California and Congregation Emanu-El.
Afterward, many attendees were ebullient. Rachel Styne of San Francisco said “It’s an incredible honor to see him first-hand and to be part of this community he chose to visit. It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
Anat Yogev, a 24-year-old Israeli studying art in San Francisco, has been a fan of Peres since her childhood, as both he and she belonged to the same Israeli youth group, Hanoar Haoved Vehalomed.
“He has always been a hero to us,” she said. “He gives a lot of pride to Israel, and I feel he rises above politics and tries to make a better world.”
The next day, March 7, Peres opened the annual Launch Conference, a gathering of high-tech executives in San Francisco. Later that day, Google co-founder Sergey Brin gave Peres a personal tour of the company’s Mountain View headquarters.