WASHINGTON — US Vice President Joe Biden eulogized former Israeli prime minister and president Shimon Peres Thursday as “the conscience and the soul” of Israel.
At a national memorial service held at Adas Israel Congregation, the largest Conservative synagogue in Washington DC, Biden compared Israel’s elder statesman to America’s founding fathers and encouraged Israelis and the Jewish community to carry on his legacy of pursuing peace.
The event, which was co-hosted by the Israeli Embassy and a host of Jewish organizations, was the first Jewish communal gathering in the United States to honor Peres since his death on September 28 after suffering a massive stroke two weeks earlier.
Peres’s funeral last Friday at Jerusalem’s Mount Herzl cemetery drew dozens of world leaders, including US President Barack Obama, who led a 33-person delegation of US officials on a six-hour visit to Israel for the ceremony.
Obama himself spoke at Adas for Jewish American Heritage Month in May 2015. Thursday’s event makes the historic shul the first to ever have both a sitting president and vice president address its congregation.
The vice president described Peres as exemplifying “the indispensable quality of the Israeli character,” noting his work in developing the Jewish state, the security of his people and his commitment to making peace with Israel’s neighbors.
During the speech, Biden referred to himself as a “Zionist” and recalled a time earlier in his career when he was criticized for identifying himself as such. “You don’t have to be a Jew to be a Zionist,” he said.
Peres demonstrated why Israel must exist, said Biden, and its existence “is how we make real the sacred obligation of ‘Never Again’.”
Biden, who referenced his working with every Israeli prime minister since Golda Meir, called Peres one of the most special to him, citing his “commitment to the inherent worth of every human being.”
“In the midst of extreme hostility and division, Shimon insisted that every man, every woman, every child, Israeli or Palestinian, Jew, Christian or Muslim, every single one was entitled to be treated with dignity,” he said. “I knew him for over 45 years. I never one, in war or in peace, saw him deviate from that absolute certitude he possessed that every single human being deserved to be treated with dignity.”
Biden last saw the late leader in March, when he visited the Peres Center for Peace in Tel Aviv. He shared how Peres discussed the perils of war not in terms of the Israeli toll but the Arab plight. “I don’t want to see them losing again,” he recalled Peres saying.
“Who else would say that?” Biden added.
In one of the more touching moments of the ceremony, Biden recited Irish poetry, including that of William Butler Yeats, who said, “Too long a sacrifice can make a heart of stone.” (Biden quoted him as saying, “Too long a suffering makes a stone of the heart.”)
“Not Shimon,” Biden declared.
Adopting a more humorous tone, Biden said a love of poetry was one of the few things the Irish and Jews share in common “beyond guilt.”
The vice president closed by asking those listening to “carry on Shimon Peres’s legacy.” He then added: “His belief that we can shape our own destinies is why Shimon Peres always connected so deeply with the American people, Jews and non-Jews, because ultimately the relationship between Israel and the United States is not about defense systems or security assistance, it’s about our shared soul.”