I was honoured to meet the Ninth President of Israel, Shimon Peres on September 13th, after volunteering at the Peres Center for Peace last summer. Hours later, I discovered that he had been taken to hospital after feeling unwell, and by the evening it was revealed that he had suffered a major stroke. The news shocked me not least because of his colossal role in building the State of Israel, but also because of how healthy, happy and attentive he seemed when we met earlier that day.
When I was first told that I would meet the last of Israel’s founding fathers, my heart raced with anxiety, and my mind filled with endless questions. As an aspiring journalist, I often consider what questions I would ask important and significant people if I were to meet them. But to call Shimon Peres an important and significant person, would be but an understatement. Having immigrated 14 years before the state was created, the former President watched the state flourish and contributed to its success in every major ministerial role, completing his presidency weeks before his 91st birthday.
Only several months earlier, I had been writing a paper at McGill University that centred around the 1977 General Election in Israel, in which Peres led the ruling party. Now, I had the opportunity to ask the man himself about these academic questions, his experienced political views on current affairs, and his personal commitment to peace. Unfortunately, due to his busy schedule, the meeting got delayed by several weeks and finally took place on my last day at the Center. Little did I know, that it would also be his.
He smiled, as he always does, when I was introduced to him, and he asked me where I was from, how long I’d been volunteering at the Center for, and what work I was doing. The week before we met, he underwent an operation. Since then, he had been back at work, meeting with high-ranking individuals, speaking to diverse audiences and promoting the Peres Center which he was the honorary president of.
I figured that he must have been exhausted of cliché questions and rehearsed responses, so instead of asking him about his political views and historical experience, I chose to simply wish him a speedy recovery following his recent operation. Before he could reply, his assistant intervened with everlasting optimism: “don’t worry, he’s feeling great.”
He sat down at his desk and asked, “Could I get some water in here?” which his assistant proceeded to do immediately, whilst another of his Office employees turned down the air conditioning, assuming that he was just feeling a bit hot. I soon learnt that his discomfort required more attention, and by that evening his health was in grave condition.
I immediately thought of the inspiring employees that work in his Office and at the Center which he founded 20 years earlier after winning the Nobel Peace Prize for his involvement in the Oslo Accords. These people dedicate their lives to make his dreams of peace between people a reality, and do so with unrelenting devotion.
As heartfelt and historical obituaries pour in for the last of the founding fathers of Israel, my personal contribution can only be to confirm that the man always worked hard and true to his principles. As my fellow intern expressed, Shimon Peres had a genuine desire to bridge the generational gap between old and young. I’m privileged that in a state of some discomfort, he was still willing to give a young volunteer like me his time and attention. Regardless of how insignificant it may have been to him, it was an unforgettable moment for me, and serves as proof of his hard work until the very last.