I first met Shimon Peres at the headquarters of Israel’s Labor Party in the summer of 2003. Even though it was his 80th birthday, he was vigorous in both mind and body. In particular, I remember him recommending two or three books that I should read, all of which were thoughtful and challenging. Over the years, he became a treasured friend. We saw each other in Jerusalem and New York, especially during my tenure as Chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, and this master storyteller regaled me with tales of his time working at the side of David Ben Gurion. Shimon was the last member of Israel’s founding generation. But he didn’t merely look back- he also frequently discussed new technology, modern commerce and the future of the peace process between Israel and its neighbors.
Late last month, I was in Israel teaching a course on leadership to a group of graduate students. Shortly before my plane departed Tel Aviv for New York City, I learned Shimon Peres had died. Upon landing at Kennedy on September 28, I opened an e-mail asking me to report to the White House the next day to join President Barack Obama as a member of the official United States delegation to the Peres funeral. Though I had just arrived back from Israel, I did not hesitate to accept such a generous offer. It was a tremendous honor to travel on Air Force One with President Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry and members of Congress to pay tribute to an incredible leader I long have admired. In President Obama’s eulogy, he compared Peres’s contributions to those of Nelson Mandela. President Obama’s remarks were beautiful and they captured the essence of Shimon Peres, an amazing man many revered and I felt so fortunate to know.
At the funeral, President Obama was joined by international dignitaries, Israeli leaders and former President Bill Clinton in paying respects. Having President Clinton return with us was also special, even if Air Force One almost had to leave without him. On our trip, we shared our memories of Shimon Peres, and, of course, there were plenty. Conversation on the trip each way was candid and meaningful and brought to life Shimon Peres’s legacy, which will be enduring.
Though his funeral was inherently sad, its timing, right before the Jewish New Year, provided an opportunity for reflection on his life’s mission and vision for peace in Israel and the Middle East. It was a trip I will never forget.