Shimon Peres: man of peace, man of vision

Israeli President Shimon Peres wrapped up a four-day visit to the Bay Area this week, the first by a sitting president of the Jewish state.

He spent his time doing what he does best: seeking out fellow intellectuals and visionaries, forging bonds of friendship and spreading his message of hope and optimism — a message that often earns him derision back home, but which plays awfully well overseas.

Five months shy of his 89th birthday, Peres has filled just about every top role in his government. More than any other living Israeli, he has helped shepherd the country from independence through four wars, numerous economic crises, two intifadas and a peace process that drags on with no end in sight.

A lesser man might grow bitter, pessimistic. But at his only public appearance, at Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco on March 6, what did Peres talk about?

Hope. Friendship. Creativity. The importance of a moral code. Love.

Politicians don’t talk this way. But maybe they should.

Outside, two blocks away behind police lines, a group of anti-Israel activists waved Palestinian flags and called for an independent state. Fair enough.

But one sign read, “Peres is a warmonger.”

Seriously? This is the guy you attack? The man behind Oslo? Winner of the Nobel Peace Prize? Architect of the “New Middle East,” a future where Arabs and Jews work together to solve their common problems? The man who, in September 1993 on the White House lawn, when he was Israel’s foreign minister, reached in front of President Bill Clinton to shake the hand of PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat, forcing a reluctant Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin to follow suit?

Here’s what Peres had to say at Emanu-El about the Arab Spring, the popular revolutions last year that toppled dictators from Egypt to Yemen: Noting that 65 percent of the Arab world is younger than 30, he said this is the generation of Facebook, this is the generation whose eyes have been opened by the Internet and who see that they can live differently.

This young generation will continue, he said, and he wished them well.  He wished them well! “It makes me hopeful,” he said.

In a world beset with naysayers, bean counters and saber-rattlers, where leaders pander to niche interests and react out of fear, Shimon Peres refuses to narrow his vision or temper his enthusiasm. He is his country’s moral compass, steering it always in the direction of what is best in the human spirit and in Jewish tradition.

Would that we had more like him.