Miriam Peretz, a mother to two sons who died in combat 12 years apart while serving in the IDF, said Thursday that building a country was more than just “pain and tears.” In a characteristically inspirational speech at the Israel Prize ceremony in Jerusalem, speaking on behalf of the 16 laureates of this year’s prestigious award, she said she had turned her grief into a “new melody.”
Peretz, who has dedicated herself to giving educational, inspirational talks to teenagers and soldiers, received the 2018 Israel Prize for Lifetime Achievement and Special Contribution to Society for her work, in a ceremony bringing Israel’s 70th Independence Day festivities to a close. Among those in attendance were President Reuven Rivlin, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, High Court chief Esther Hayut and Education Minister Naftali Bennett.
Other laureates this year were Jewish Agency chief Nathan Sharansky, veteran former lawmaker and minister David Levy, and author David Grossman, who angered government officials on Tuesday by speaking at a joint Israeli-Palestinian Memorial Day ceremony in Tel Aviv.
Peretz, 65, lost two of her sons in combat. In 1998, her eldest, Uriel, was killed in Lebanon at 22. Eliraz Peretz, who served in the elite Sayeret Golani unit like his brother, was killed in 2010, near the border with Gaza.
Peretz was born in Casablanca, Morocco, moving to Israel in 1964, at the age of 10. In 2014, she was chosen to light one of the torches to celebrate Israel’s 66th Independence Day.
Peretz, who received most of the attention and was granted a standing ovation when called on to receive the prize from Bennett, began her speech by talking about her early years, when her family came from Morocco to poverty in Israel.
“As a girl, I felt I did nothing for my country. I came to a ready-made country and didn’t know that there would come a day when I would give my dearest to the country — my sons Uriel and Eliraz. But a homeland isn’t only built with pain and tears, but also with labor and continued generosity,” she said.
Addressing the rest of the prize winners, Peretz said, “I am proud to be part of a group that chose to engage in education, out of the belief that this is the way to breach the walls of ignorance and inadequacy, and out of the understanding that education opens opportunities for self-fulfillment, as it had for me.
“Ladies and gentlemen, I stand humbly before my colleagues, honorable people who created, wrote, studies and invented, people of vision, creation and faith. I am not worthy, I don’t have a creation. I can’t point to a revelation I made or a formula I cracked.”
“I have a heart that was broken thrice with terrible announcements: The falling of my eldest son Uriel in battle in Lebanon, the death of my partner Eliezer due to heartbreak, and the falling of my second son in battle in Gaza,” she recounted.
“With that heart I came to my nation and in simple words, in the language of a broken heart, I spoke of this land and its legacy, of choosing goodness, of happiness, of devotion to life, of responsibility, of social involvement, and out of that heart which beats with faith in this country and this nation, out of the great depth of pain flowed springs of love.
“When the heart is full of faith, it can withstand great challenges. I turned my grief into a new melody.
The Israel Prize — in the categories of literature, sciences and the arts — is awarded each spring on the day of the Jewish state’s independence.
Along with Peretz, this year’s other prizewinners were Sharansky (promoting immigration and working with Diaspora Jewry); Levy (lifetime achievement); founders of Ormat Industries Yehuda and Yehudit Bronicki (Industry); Gil Shwed, the CEO of Israeli cybersecurity firm Check Point Software Technologies (technology and innovation), Grossman (literature); Sergiu Hart (economics); Shlomo Havlin (physics); Alex Lubotzky (mathematics and computer science); Yitzhak Schlesinger (psychology); Ron Ben-Yishai (journalism); Elisha Qimron (Jewish studies) and Edwin Seroussi (music).
Stuart Winer contributed to this report.