Lots of people posted pictures of meeting Shimon Peres z’’l after he passed away last Wednesday. I met him too, but unfortunately, I don’t have a picture of it.
Shimon Peres was the last of the generation of pioneer leaders in Israel. To honor his legacy, Israel shut down most of Jerusalem for the past day and a half along with the highway corridor to the airport so that 70 or more world leaders could attend the funeral. It’s been very quiet in Jerusalem today except for the sirens letting us know an entourage was passing by and the helicopters flying around on patrol. The King David Hotel apparently had to move their paying guests to other locations so that they could, as per tradition, host all the world dignitaries. As I passed by there yesterday I saw that the whole front was tented and police barricades were already in place.
As I mentioned, I met Shimon Peres once and it was kind of a funny story. A friend was in Israel and I was able to use my connections to get us a visit to the Knesset – not the regular tour, but back where the politicians’ offices were. Since my friend studied Middle East politics this was the best possible thing I could have possibly organized for him. I was actually a bit amazed at how star-struck he was, but he said that all of his reading in university was by and about the people walking around in the corridors in front of his eyes. It would be like a character from a novel coming to life and being willing to chat with you. I hadn’t been in Israel long, but long enough to become cynical about the star power of politicians. They’re just regular people, after all.
We were lounging around on some couches in a central area and along came Binyamin Netanyahu, at this time still just a member of Knesset. My friend ran up to him to shake his hand. I noted that the three security guards evaluated my friend’s threat level and decided that in spite of appearances he was a harmless fan. My friend was a bit disappointed in the meeting because it was so fleeting and the handshake wasn’t perfectly executed. But still. Netanyahu. Check!
There were other rock star politicians to meet and my friend ran up to them and shook all of their hands. The Knesset session was about to open so we got up to head out. As we passed some stairs, Shimon Peres and his one security guard were coming up. My friend instantly stuck out his hand and leaned forward, “Mr. Peres, it’s such an honor to meet you!” I gave the security guard a look letting him know that this guy was perfectly harmless.
Shimon Peres asked him who he was and what brought him to Israel and the Knesset. My friend answered, but Shimon Peres was suddenly more interested in who I was so my friend somewhat reluctantly introduced me as the person who got him this backstage pass to Israeli political Lollapallooza. Shimon Peres turned to me and put out his hand. I shook it and told him in Hebrew that I had recently made aliyah and I lived in Jerusalem. I don’t remember what he said, but I do remember that his voice was low, rumbling, and a bit hypnotic. And the handshake kept going on – a good, solid, well-executed, but slightly overlong handshake. By this time, Shimon Peres had turned away from my friend and was speaking only to me. I saw out of the corner of my eye that my friend was a tiny bit jealous that this particular rock star had moved on to someone who was not such a superfan like he was. Then the moment was broken by the security guard reminding Mr. Peres that he had to go into the Knesset chamber.
And then Shimon Peres was gone.
The final person to enter the Knesset hall was Ariel Sharon, who was prime minister at the time. I suddenly worried that my friend would try to run up to Ariel Sharon and so I turned to him and said, “For the love of God, whatever you do, don’t run up to Sharon. His security detail is not going to be very understanding and they’ll probably kill you.” Dejectedly, he agreed to the logic, but we were close enough to see him walk by into the chamber with his band of at least eight security guards. He was a speedy walker and surprisingly short.
And then we were alone in the waiting area.
My friend has gone on to meet many other political rock stars, but on this day, we met Shimon Peres and Peres was more interested in me.
Shimon Peres 1923-2016
Shimon Peres also had a great sense of humor. Here’s a YouTube video of his job hunt after being president of Israel.