“From the time of Jesus to today we have never had better relations”
An interview with Shimon Peres, President of Israel
Interview with Shimon Peres by Giovanni Cubeddu
Pope Benedict XVI and Israeli President Shimon Peres during the reception at the presidential residence in Jerusalem, 11 May 2009 [© Avi Hoaion/Gpo]
SHIMON PERES: As I often say, relations are at their best possible from 2000 years to this day. From the time of Jesus to today we have never had better relations…
Before meeting the Pope you stated that finally both the parties have the right approach both in terms of freedom of relationship and mutual engagement.
Yes. Let me first say that the present Pope is a great personality, profound, a man of thought. He gave our relations a new depth.
Religion, while it’s considered heavenly, could also be considered as something extremely deep, and it’s not limited either by height or by depth. And I think however that there are some principles which are now becoming very clear: the end of anti-Semitism which is a malady, not an ideology, not a religion; the interfaith relationship that the Pope is leading, his visits to synagogues… He will not be judged by the past, he will be evaluated by the future. He well understands, as all of us do, that today equality doesn’t mean that everybody is alike; equality means that everybody has the right to be equal but also the equal right to be different. So, while the holiness of faith is being maintained, the differences that kept us apart are being understood. This is the right approach.
Neither the Holy See nor we think of a people or a religion as being an enemy. But we think that fanatics, either religious or political as they may be, are a danger. And this, I can see, also concerns the Christian minority in the Middle East, who are 13.5 million people. We, on the other hand, also feel free and we would like to enable the Christians to feel equal and free, to maintain their own book of prayers. I told the Pope that we would like to make Nazareth a viable place that all Christians will be able to visit and like. I told him also that we would like to help transform the Christian College in Nazareth into a university.
With regard to the relevant issues being negotiated between Israel and the Vatican, they are gradually being resolved… It took more time than I had wished. There are needs in which we cannot answer the expectations of the Holy See without taking into account that we have to do the same vis à vis the other religions involved, and that the main obstacle is the existence of some religious denominations who do not show themselves to be as friendly as the Catholic Church is. But I think we are nearing the conclusion [of the negotiations, ed.] and that most of the problems are behind us.
In Israel there’s discussion about the necessity for non-Israeli candidates to citizenship to take a loyalty oath to Israel defined as a Jewish and democratic State. Apart from all the discussions, the idea is that here you need to ensure the coexistence of both the Israeli tradition of faith and the drive toward modernity and democracy. Is it so?
First of all, in my eyes, a Jewish State means a State where Jewish people are the majority in the country. We cannot maintain a Jewish State without this condition. And this is a combination of how much it is Jewish and how much it is democratic. Then, yet again, we have to respect all other religions and all other people. This is written in our Declaration of Independence; this was approved and is our basic Charter. Now, the oath… it’s not yet approved, it’s being discussed in the Parliament. There are those who are in favor and those against. The Prime Minister too has also changed his initial approach a little bit… I don’t know, I read in newspapers that there wouldn’t be a favorable majority in Parliament… We are talking about perceptions. The basic factor is that being a believer is a choice of the individual, being a Jewish State requires the deliberation of a majority.
When Pope Benedict visited the synagogue of Rome in January the Chief Rabbi of Rome, Riccardo di Segni, pointed out that the term Holy Land or Promised Land in the original Hebrew expression doesn’t mean that the land is holy in itself, but that it is eretz Hakodesh, that is the land of He who is Holy. The Pope quoted Simeon the Just who says: “the world is founded on three things – the Torah, divine worship and acts of mercy”. Is it possible to translate this into political actions?
I think this is an existential question. This is reality. Karl Marx once remarked that if you want to know the secret of the Jews, you mustn’t look at their faith; but if instead you want to know the secret of their faith, you must look at the Jews. It means that we’re founded on faith, and without it our lives lose their main meaning. We are not an establishment, an organization. We are a people of believers who clearly declared, when the world was still pagan, that there is only one God in Heaven, and that our Supreme choice was that of acting morally, as is explained and written down in the most stupendous document in history: the Ten Commandments, a text of only 162 words, that became the basis of Western civilization, not only the Jewish one. We are attached to a language, our Hebrew language, and we are attached to a land. In the Bible there are no exact frontiers around it, and Zion, which is the heart of Jerusalem, is the name of our movement. We cannot enclose the spirit in a prison of definitions. We must have air and open skies but also a commitment. Some time ago a former Russian Prime Minister came here and we talked about what happened in the time of the Bolshevik regime and now in Iran. I told him that “the difference is that the Bolsheviks wanted to create a world without god, the Iranians a world without man, and this is against what you and I stand for”. We understand instead that two different categories exist: the heavenly and the human.
Shimon Peres with Sheikh Mohammed Kiwan, at the Iftar supper, at the end of the month of Ramadan, at the presidential residence in Jerusalem, 17 August 2010
[© Emil Salman/Jini]
In our history there was Rambam, that is Moses Maimonides, who was the first to show that to be great in the Torah and great in medical science is not a contradiction. You can be a scientist and also a religious leader and be the same man. He said something which is still valid: the attitude one has toward health is that which one has toward life. Medicine is an attitude to life, the value of life.
Here in Israel we have several persons to mention...
On the religious side one is Rabbi Kook, who was a great religious leader; highly respected and beloved, and he became the Chief Rabbi of Israel. He went everywhere, to the kibbutzim, to the non-religious, to the secular. He was always repeating that the Lord is a merciful Lord, not a cruel god, and that everyone was made in His image. What does it mean? That everyone is born in the image of God but nobody can become God… Let’s remember it. If everybody is born in His image that implies that everyone has to go on his own feet, he shouldn’t expect the Lord to act in his place. The Lord gave everyone equal opportunities and expects human beings to act rightly, correctly. The Jewish religion will remain meaningless if the moral preference does not remain the most important consideration.
On the secular side I would mention David Ben-Gurion. He used to say that Judaism is not “dat” – (“dat” in Hebrew means religion), because “dat” in Hebrew is also judgment – but is “emunah” – which is faith. He made this distinction. They, Rabbi Kook and Ben Gurion, are more or less of the same generation – at a time of restoration, renaissance. What were their shortcomings? They were admired but not necessarily everyone agreed with them.
I would reply like this to your question, mentioning those three personages. But I could also mention many other great Christian, Catholic and Protestant thinkers…
Did you expect President Obama to win the Nobel Peace Prize? During his acceptance speech at the White House he talked about the “just” war. Do you think that a “just” war exists?
The Jewish position about just wars is very simple. If somebody comes to kill you, you try to kill him before he kills you. This is the approach of our sages in the Babylonian Talmud and they repeat this rule four times in different passages. But otherwise none of us has the right to kill. That is one of the Commandments, number six [according to Jewish tradition, ed.]. And there can be no compromise in obeying this rule.
As regards the Nobel Prize, I think that people wondered: is the Prize a recognition of achievements accomplished or an invitation to achieve them in the future, an encouragement? It was too early then to say that President Obama had already achieved something, but what he wanted to achieve seemed well-worth supporting. I think that was the true meaning of the award. I also think that through his speeches he brought a new sense to Europe, to the international arena and to the Muslim world as well. That too is a change. I think he deserved the Prize.
After the midterm elections in the United States, what can Israel do to help the American president in his efforts for peace, and what can Obama do for Israel?
Basically we’re in full agreement… What we think we can do to help Obama is to arrive at peace, apart from all the other problems, that are numerous. The central one is to make peace because in the polluted waters of a world without peace, terror and threats can swim freely. We would like to have real peace particularly because, if there isn’t peace, we won’t be able to supply food to the children. If we cannot supply food to the children there will be a war again. We must do it for our future. In the Middle East in 1980 there were 150 million Arabs. Today, 30 years later, there are 400 million. Nothing else grew here by a factor of 2 or 3 in a similar interval of time: neither food, nor jobs, nor careers. What are we doing? What will we do? I wouldn’t ever tell anyone to stop having children but I will say to whoever wants children: let’s produce food, because hungry children are a problem for you also. Instead of spending so much money and resources on missiles and weapons and planes, let’s plant food for the good of the children. In this case Israel is very self-reliant and because we don’t have land or water, agriculture is based on advanced technology and our yields are as much as eight times as many as those of any other territory. But we don’t think we can remain an island of affluence in an ocean of poverty. So what happens here around us will affect us too. We want to look ahead. I’m trying to organize, as best I can, a movement that will be called “Food for Peace”. I’m truly disturbed about those who starve and am sensitive to the fact that today millions of children can die because they lack food and water.
We won’t go into details about the ongoing negotiations between Israel, Hamas and Fatah. The question is simple: is it possible to help the poor people in Gaza? Wouldn’t it be better for Israel as well?
What can be done…? I have already been asked the same question. I was a member of Socialist International, and was one of its vice presidents. We were fifteen members. Fourteen asked that Yasser Arafat be admitted to the International; I was a minority of one against fourteen. They respected the fact but they took me aside privately and said, “Look. This is a democracy – you are one, we are fourteen. Why do you object?”. I said, “I don’t object. If you convince me that Arafat is a democrat and a socialist, I shall be all for it. But if you want to accept a terrorist, then what is the sense of your organization?”. And what did they do? They left me alone and admitted Arafat… Years after, he, Yitzhak Rabin and I won the Nobel Peace Prize.
It is the same now with Hamas. They try to put pressure on us. But we are not a problem. We left Gaza and we don’t want to return there. If Hamas renounces terror and stops shooting, Gaza can be reopened. Not only reopened… With the Peres Center for Peace [a non-governmental organization founded in 1996 by Shimon Peres ed.], during Israel’s disengagement from Gaza we supplied the people of Gaza, teaching them how to cultivate the land, we set up nurseries and planted flowers and strawberries; we invested a lot of money. We would like them to flourish.
Shimon Peres with Barack Obama in Jerusalem, 23 July 2008 [© Associated Press]
This question came to its peak during the Dreyfus trial. The Jewish people asked themselves: “what went wrong with us?” There were two answers. On one side, the communist answer – Leon Trotsky was its main spokesperson – said that since the world is wrong, we are also suffering because of it. If you change the world, turning it into a world without a god, a world without nations, a world without religions, a world without classes – then we will be a people like the others. The other side replied: We cannot change the world, but we can change ourselves – be a nation like other nations, with our land to cultivate, defend ourselves, express our desires. There were many Jewish people who participated in communism as a means of protest. After a hundred years, what looked like a great Bolshevik or communist empire crumbled and what looked like a tiny little Jewish movement became a State, in many ways an impressive State. So, the Jews, therefore are proud of it.
In the beginning it was a shelter. After the Nazi Holocaust the survivors were denied all possibility of refuge. And there was impatience to have a place where Jews could enter freely. British ships did not permit people to come in here. Nobody wanted the Jewish refugees. And now, we are beginning to be an attractive State, not just a shelter. We have shown that we can cultivate our land, can defend our country and that we can be democratic. We have also absorbed half of the Jewish people scattered throughout the world. In the early days we numbered 650,000 people, today we are 7.5 million people, but the Jewish component is ten times greater than it used to be. And I believe that if we shall achieve peace – as we have with Egypt, Jordan and, provisionally, with the Palestinians – then we shall be what we truly aspire to be: a nation that makes a contribution to the world, not one that requests it.
Reading the Israeli newspapers in these days of commemoration to Yitzhak Rabin, fifteen years after his assassination, it seems that everybody tries to give his own different interpretation to his political legacy.
Yitzhak Rabin was a product of the Labor party. The Labor party put peace at the top of its desires – peace, equality, freedom, tradition. And I think Yitzhak was true to all of this. Within Labor itself different streams could be found, but that is normal. The basic difference between right and left at the time had to do with the possession of the land: one side was for keeping it all no matter what the consequences might be, while the other side said it was necessary to partition it in order to achieve peace. Ben-Gurion was the first to say: “Yes, I’m going to give up part of my land but I will not give up my right to the land. My right comes from history, my compromise serves to justify it”.
David Ben-Gurion was the one who said that “in Israel if you don’t believe in miracles, you are not a realist”. If he were to come back again today, would he still say it?
He said something very pragmatic, that is that all experts are experts because of things that have happened. You don’t have experts for things that may happen. So the expression “miracle” means that things may happen that you think cannot happen. It depends upon your efforts, upon your readiness to sacrifice, and that was his vision... He was basically a philosopher – a strong-willed man, with exceptional charisma and leadership. His idea about Israel is famous: “Our future depends upon our being right and being strong. But being right comes first”. He wanted peace, equality, he invested a great deal in establishing a relationship between Israel and its Arab neighbors: he was ready to pay the highest cost. When the United Nations decided on the partition of Israel, Israel was given a small piece of land that contained more borders than space. Everybody criticized this but he accepted it.
I didn’t know him, I read about him and, at the age of 16 or 17, I was convinced by what he said. He stood up against communism with an unbelievable strength, because here there were tendencies to the extreme left, and he said: “We don’t need Karl Marx, nor Lenin, nor even Trotsky. We have our own prophets”. He didn’t want us to be called the Socialist party. “If we were to have a name, it should be the Bible Party”. He wanted to return to the basic assumptions that the Prophets of Jewish tradition had invoked; he placed emphasis on the fact that they spoke Hebrew, which is the language of origin, the language that counts.
The dedication to Pope Benedict, inscribed on the menorah you personally donated to him in September, seems an acknowledgment of this Pope: “The shepherd who seeks to lead us to the fields of blessings and the fields of peace”. It also echoes a wish.
The Jewish people are basically an unsatisfied people. A good Jew is never satisfied…
Why? Because we don’t have the perfection of the Supreme choice of morality yet. So we have to struggle, struggle and pray, pray, pray. And that is la spécialité de la maison, the “house specialty” if I may say so. I mean to say, that is, we went after power, wealth or domination or even after ourselves… and we were always striving for a moral choice. If we shall not be true to it, then we will betray our own basic commitment.