Another year, President Shimon Peres turns 90, and we join together for the fifth Israeli Presidential Conference.
I know there’s quite a bit of criticism and controversy when it comes to the event. It comes from a good place but there are also good questions to ask about who isn’t present and what isn’t said.
But as an exercise in thought, I like to engage. I like to remember that at one point, I was headed toward a career in conflict resolution.
Today President Peres granted former US president Bill Clinton the high Israeli honor of the Presidents Award. Looking for ‘the meaning in all of this’, here’s how Clinton took it:
Note: This is mainly transcription, but also shortened to large excerpts for the sake of keeping it readable.
Former United States President Bill Clinton addressing the Israeli Presidential Conference:
The search for peace and reconciliation and a shared future does not fit easily within the flow of life as normally we think of it. We like to think of political efforts almost as if they are sporting events. There’s a beginning, a middle and an end. At the end, good guys triumph. It is much more than that. It’s a way of life. That’s why Shimon Peres has survived 90 years! He gets up today and imagines tomorrow. And focuses on today only insofar as it is relevant.
The wonderful Hebrew phrase, tikkun olam – to repair the breach – is a good and constant responsibility we all have. Truth is, in a world of increasing independence, we not only have to repair the breach in the fabric of our current community, but we have to push our imaginations to expand the definition of that community.
We are not truly independent; we can’t escape the consequences of what we do and what others do, not only in our own neighborhood but around the world. So there is today and the foreseeable future – a constant struggle to redefine those to whom we owe the definition of tikkun olam. Should we be trying to put everyone in our crowd?
I read an interesting quote this week by Rudyard Kipling; it went something like this: Whoever is in our group is us, everybody else is them.
In a funny way, most of the world’s struggles, since the first people showed up on the Eastern African savanna, emerging into tribes (and so on) – the whole of human history has been a constant battle to redefine who is us and who is them.
The imperatives of our ability to destroy each other have imposed on us a heavy responsibility to continually expand the definition of who is us, and to shrink that of who is them.
Sometimes the most shining examples of what has worked in this endeavor are found in small places. I think it is important to acknowledge that since everything that has been said here about the work I’ve tried to do is positive – a lot of it has been mistakes.
One of the best examples of overcoming past conflict towards unity is represented by the president and first lady of Rwanda. It’s also one of the greatest examples of my neglect as president. (We were so focused on Bosnia) and the people in Rwanda, through the genocide, were slaughtered so quickly – 10% of the people in 90 days – we literally never had a meeting on how to stop it in the White House.
I say this to make a larger point. Each and every one of us will face challenges in our lives.. We will not meet them all. A lesson from Shimon Peres: not to give up and give in, but to get up and go on. Keep the process going.
Later, I went to Rwanda and apologized for the neglect to help. In 2001 I saw a stunning example of the (reconciliation) work done to change the mindset of Rwandans – of who is us and who is them. And how important it is to let go of yesterday and embrace tomorrow.
The press with me (on that trip) wanted to find people who would say ‘what is President Clinton doing here, why wasn’t he here when we needed him before?’
One press member asked that to a cab driver. He answered, “No I’m glad he’s here.”
The journalist asked, “Why?”
The cab driver said, “Firstly, no one came to help us, and he’s the only one who came and said he’s sorry. Secondly, he didn’t make us kill each other. we have to take responsibility. And as he says, we need all the help we can get.”
No matter what anyone has done to us, or each other, the first step is to get rid of the things that divide us, including seeing ourselves as victims – we have to claim a future that we make. The great beauty of the state of Israel from its beginning that has allowed it to transform itself into what it is now commonly referred to, a start up nation, center of innovation for the whole world, is that it was seen as a safe place for the people of Israel to learn that they need no longer to be victims. That the beginning of freedom requires a responsibility.
What has that to do with today?
It is nice to receive a reward. It is nice for a country to have its monuments. But there are no final victories than tikkun olam. There are no perfect warriors for peace. No flawless leaders. Every day inside every person in the modern world where we are all crashing into each other and compelled to share the future, the battle begins as the morning breaks.
Everyone one of us, when we wake up in the morning, has inside, in our souls, a scale. You feel it every morning. On one side, all your hopes and dreams and best impulses. The world you want to make for your family, your community for people everywhere. On the other side, all those fears and resentments and disappointments, they are weighed too. Every day the balance between the bright side of the scale of our lives and the dark side, is a little different, isn’t it? Some days we get up full of hope – some days we get up and we’re just – can’t let go of anger and heartbreak.
We have to let go. For all of life is a constant struggle to expand the definition of who is us, and shrink the def of who is them.
The first time in Rwanda – the most amazing person I met was a lady – she seemed to have no visible marks (scars). She said she was attacked by her neighbors to find her husband and six children in a pool of blood around her.
“I screamed out at god – why was I spared?”
She started an orphanage with no regard for ethnic background and matched them with families with no regard for ethnic background.
Later on, I met a dashing young man, looked like he got an MBA at Harvard, who gave me a tour. I asked, “Did you lose anyone?” From his family, 73 people were killed.
“Isn’t this hard for you, taking me through here?”
“Oh no, it’s therapeutic. Our president tells us we have to face the past and let it go, and face the future.”
“You remind me of a lady I met the first time I was here.”
He smiled. “Well I should – she’s my aunt.”
Why do I tell you this?
Between the Israelis and Palestinians there are many reasons for distrust.
The one thing i know is – the lesson that had been driven home – and I could give a hundred examples of this that i have personally seen in tiny Rwanda – if you’re compelled to share the future, you have to decide what the future will be.
If the terms favor you more than them, there will always be us vs them. There is no perfect answer to any of this – there is simply the perfect obligation to expand the definition of us, and shrink the definition of them.
I ask you to think about that.
In one of the places I’ve been in the fundraising work, there’s a phrase of saying,
how are you? The answer in English is not translated into ‘I’m fine, how are you?’
It’s: I see you.
Think about that. There are people all over, serving nice food in rich countries, etc – who are not seen.
I’m honored to be here because I think President Peres always tries to see everyone.
All the people we sometimes don’t see are going to be part of the future. They have to be able to advance their dreams too. All our lives and our children’s and grandchildren’s will be determined by whether today we have succeeded in expanding the definition of us and shrinking the definition of them.
We have to say we see you – and stay on the path – and keep living and keep working.