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Reflections on Peres’ funeral: Israeli with KC ties says statesman’s presence felt throughout the world

Overland Park native Lara Portnoy works for the Peres Center for Peace and took this photo with Shimon Peres in 2015.

I recently attended the funeral of the late ninth president of Israel, Shimon Peres. Because I work for the Peres Center for Peace, the nonprofit organization that he founded 20 years ago, I like to tell people that he was my boss, but my actual boss would disagree.

I met him, I worked at the organization that he founded and guided, and I would see him from time to time in the hallway or on the elevator. He came to the office most days, and we spoke a few times. But I certainly did not know him. What I do know, is that his presence was felt in every Peres Center program, and by many people around the world.

I translated his abridged biography into English, so I know his basic history. I know that Judaism was central to his childhood, that the trauma of the Holocaust affected him greatly, and that these experiences led him to dedicate his early life to strengthening and building Israel’s security and defense. 

I also know that, at some point, this hawkish man of security and defense stopped, looked around, and thought to himself “Israel is secure, it’s time for peace.” He then chose to devote his life to promoting peace and prosperity for Israel and the region. 

He had critics on the left and critics on the right, which to me always signifies that you are just where you need to be. The critics on the right criticize him for being naïve and too peace-y. The man who built the Israeli air force, the nuclear reactor in Dimona, and was minister of defense — naïve? Highly doubtful. The critics on the left say that he was a man of war early on — as if this blots out all of his peace work in his later years. 

To me, it would be a truly beautiful day if all of those who believe that violence is the answer would put down their weapons and come to the table. I would applaud them, not denounce them. As Peres used to say, “You cannot make peace with your friends.” At some point both sides will need to stop their posturing and do the right thing, and I will thank the leaders for changing their minds. To me, this was the most crucial point in Peres’ story — the moment when he said “enough.” The moment he dedicated his life to peace. That is the moment I choose to remember, and desperately hope that others will emulate. It was a glorious moment, and has led to so much good. 

The funeral itself was moving, and reflected the great respect and love that so many people held for Peres. Former President Clinton eulogized Peres’ ability to harness the power of imagination to create a better world, along with the president and prime minister of Israel and the author Amos Oz. World leaders from over 70 countries came to pay respects. President Obama’s eulogy was eloquent and spot on, reflecting the type of man Peres was and hitting on all the major topics I felt were most vital. I highly recommend reading or watching his eulogy in its entirety. 

But the part that really touched me was when Tsvia (Peres) Walden, spoke about Shimon her father, not about Peres the statesman. Having recently gotten married, I laughed and cried when she spoke about dating her now husband, and her father’s reaction when she changed her last name. Each of his children related to their father in a different way, which was expressed in their eulogies, just as each member of the public related to the Israeli statesman in a different way. This is humanity. We are complex, and mean different things to different people. 

To many Israelis and people around the world, Peres meant hope and the drive to never give up. One need simply look to social media and the outpouring of love and admiration for Peres to see that he succeeded in his mission to inspire and empower. He has encouraged people the world over to never give up on their dreams or on hope for a better future. 

One of the greatest lessons I have learned from Peres’ story and life is the importance of starting each day fresh, without preconceptions. This is how Peres was able to continue moving forward. He learned from previous mistakes, but was able to wipe the slate clean each day and approach each problem with a fresh eye. This is what made him great, and this is what we need more of in the world — the ability to move forward. 

During his eulogy, Amos Oz posed the question “Where are Shimon Peres’ successors?” I know that there are new Shimon Pereses growing up every day. Through the work that Shimon Peres did, both through the Peres Center for Peace and through his personal activities working with different groups and individuals, young people have been inspired by his story and wisdom to find new solutions to this old conflict. Young people are becoming empowered and reaching larger and more diverse audiences. It lifted my spirits to see that Mahmoud Abbas came to the funeral. This sign of respect is important when so many prefer to criticize and disengage rather than choosing the hard route of engaging and reaching out a hand. 

To me, peace is always imminent. On a personal level, I have been inspired by Peres’ numerous calls to action and unfailing belief in hard work paying off. It will feel strange going back to work after the holidays, knowing that Peres’ office is empty. But while he may be gone in body, his spirit will continue to lead us and encourage us to make the impossible possible. I know that Shimon Peres’ legacy will continue to inspire and empower generations to come to find new solutions “to make the world a peaceful place, a better place, for all people, for every person.” Peres’ dream of peace is possible, and it is the future. 

Lara Portnoy moved to Israel in January 2013 and works in the external relations and development department of the Peres Center for Peace.