Vice President Biden delivered remarks at the National Memorial Service for Israeli President Shimon Peres at Adas Israel Synagogue in Washington, DC on October 6, 2016. Below is the transcript of his speech.
Thank you, Rabbi, for that — that old expression. If my mother were here, she’d wonder who you were talking about; my father would have believed it. (Laughter.) Thank you very, very much.
And it’s an honor to be here at Adas Israel. My formative years in my early years in public life, I was educated in the synagogues of Delaware, in Wilmington, for real. So it’s an honor for me to be here. And it is thoroughly unreasonable to compare me to Shimon Peres. But thank you for the nice comments.
To the Embassy of Israel, the Washington Jewish community, all of you who organized this memorial, and to the young people who sang so beautifully for us, thank you very, very much. (Applause.)
Madeleine, you’ve been a friend and a mentor of mine for a long time. And I enjoyed hearing you share your memories of Shimon Peres, a blessed memory.
These Days of Awe provide an opportunity to reflect on our own lives and remember those who we’ve lost; to consider the past, and maybe more importantly to build on the promise of the future. Shimon Peres spoke at the funeral service for Yitzhak Rabin, and he closed with a verse that Jews around the world heard two days ago in Rosh Hashanah services. So I think it’s especially appropriate to remind ourselves of what he said.
He said: “The prophet Jeremiah tells us: ‘This is what the Lord says: Restrain your voice from weeping and your eyes from tears, for your work will be rewarded.’”
Ladies and gentlemen, I have no doubt that the lifetime of work of Shimon Peres — the lifetime of work he gave to his people, to his Israel, to the world will be rewarded.
Not in the earthly honors that have heaped upon him in his life and continue to be, but in all of us who continue to hear his voice in our ears — that deliberate, irresistible rumble — urging us onward. “Dream big,” he implores us still, “make the world a better place.”
I don’t need to give you his resume. You all know it — his improbable journey from a shtetl to world leader. But I do want to make clear what we all know — and what history records — and what will always be remembered from generation to generation.
Israel would not exist for the unmatched generation of its founding mothers and fathers. As my grandfather Finnegan would say, sometimes history smiles on a nation at a particular moment. It smiled on the United States in the 1870s, when men of incredible vision took up the improbable cause of freedom and democracy.
And it smiled on Israel in 1948. After all the suffering and death that the Jewish people endured in the 20th century and going back ages — against overwhelming odds that were stacked against the likelihood of Israel’s existence — History smiled.
And just like we had our Washington and Adams and Jefferson and Hamilton and others, Israel had its Ben-Gurion. Meir. Rabin. Israel had Shimon Peres.
These men and women all shared an iron will and determination to endure that is still indispensable quality of the Israeli character and well-being.
They understood that Israel must exist — it was the only and ultimate guarantor of the security for Jewish people the world over. I learned a long time ago when I said I am a Zionist and was criticized for it that you don’t have to be a Jew to be a Zionist. But all of these leaders were. It’s how we make real that sacred moral obligation of “never again.” Israel.
Shimon Peres in particular embodied the spirit of the Israeli people. He was, in my opinion, the conscience and the soul of Israel. I’ve had the privilege of knowing every Prime Minister since Golda Meir and meeting with them many times — extensively meeting with them; and had the opportunity with several to share a personal relationship. But there was something special about Shimon Peres.
In some ways, he reminded me of my father, who shared an unyielding commitment to the inherent worth of every single human being. They shared a similar sense of compassion. 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.
I knew him for over 45 years. I never, never once 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. I never saw or met a person of greater wisdom or eloquence. But our relationship wasn’t, excuse, as we used to say in the Senate, a point of personal privilege, it wasn’t just politician to politician. It was always with him, as it was with many of you who knew him, genuinely personal.
President Obama always kids me that Tip O’Neill once said all politics is local. Well, I’ve been saying for the last 25 years, all politics is personal, particularly international relations. It’s all personal. And that’s where Shimon Peres was at his best, why he accomplished so much.
In all my years in office, occasionally, other world leaders have said nice things about me from time to time. Not always. (Laughter.) But every time, even though I knew he spoke with other people a similar way, every time he said something generous to me, or about me, it really mattered. It’s a strange thing. It mattered. It was sort of — I don’t know a confirmation. It made me think, well, maybe, maybe I’m doing something right. He really felt it. I felt it. And it always touched my heart. That’s what Shimon did. He touched your heart.
There’s a poem by William Butler Yeats that says, too long a suffering makes a stone of the heart — too long a suffering makes a stone of the heart.
But not Shimon. His suffering, the plight of his people, their sacrifice, for him, it created an aperture that few men and women are ever able to open. A concern for everyone who was suffering. No matter where they were or who they were.
The last time I saw him was in March. I got to spend about four hours with him. I met him at the Peres Peace Center in Tel Aviv. And as we greeted one another, the press — as Madeleine will know — was assembled. And we each made very brief opening statements. And he stood there and he said, I want to remind you, Mr. Vice President, of one thing. You were elected in 1973. Rabin and myself were elected to the government in 1973. We were then at war then, and you were our friend.
And he went on to say the important part of what he had to say to the people. He said, I am sure we shall overcome terror, as we have overcome wars — with your help, with your friendship. Because — and this is the important part — it leads the Arabs nowhere. I don’t want to see them losing again. I don’t them and us — what I want us to do is win the peace.
Who else would say that? Think about it. I don’t want to see them lose. He meant it. He meant it. I want to see them win with us. A remarkable man. Rather than stoke fear and hatred, he always affirmed friendship and peace and possibilities.
I was asked by President Xi in a private dinner I had with him in Chengdu. He said, can you define America for me? And I said, yes, in one word. And I meant it sincerely — possibilities.
That was the connection between Peres and us: It was always about possibilities. Not the past, the possibilities.
And even when we heard in that very meeting sirens during the meeting, my family was up at the boardwalk just less than a mile away, remember that guy ran along stabbing people in the automobiles? Even when we heard those sirens, and we were informed about five minutes later what was going on, Shimon Peres did not lose hope. He understood, at his core, that Israel cannot have true, enduring security without peace — peace from strength.
And I think his ability to insist on the human capacity for good, 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 and security assistance, it’s about our shared soul. And I mean that sincerely: Our shared soul.
From the very moment of the founding of the Jewish State of Israel, Shimon Peres was a shining link in an unbroken chain that binds together the hearts of the Israelis and Americans.
When we talk about the unshakable security commitment between our nations, we remember that Shimon helped lay the foundations. When we celebrate the values that unite our people, we remember how Shimon lived by his principles — always.
When we stumble, or fail to live up to our better angels, we remember to see Shimon’s eyes, as the poem says, how he saw up close humankind’s capacity for cruelty but notwithstanding that refused to give up hope.
He refused to give up — period. How many times did you hear him say it? How many times did Shimon Peres remind us, at age 91, 92, 93: “Forget the past. It’s a waste of time. See the future.”
Ninety-three years old when he said that to me last. At a time when many would have wrapped themselves in the comforts of their earlier accomplishment, Shimon Peres insisted that: “My greatest achievement in life will be tomorrow.” My greatest achievement in life will be tomorrow.
He believes his message resounds even more meaningfully as Jews around the world celebrate the start of a new year, a season of renewal, reflection, of new beginnings. I’m sure he’s smiling as I’m making this talk.
Another chance to strive, as Shimon always did, to make the impossible possible.
At a time when it is too easy to be cynical, at a time when the currents of bigotry and anger and isolationism are on the rise, when too many are quick to cast blame on the outsider, the other, when the promise of peace might seem like a distant dream, it’s my hope, my sincere hope, that each of us continues to hold Shimon Peres’s memory very close.
His story — an immigrant who nurtured a nation; a character, always allergic to complacency. His unwavering belief that every day was a gift allowing you to use it to serve others.
When I was last with him, I joked with him about — I used to kid him. He’d kid me about always quoting Irish poets. I used to kid him and say, well, I quote them only because they’re the best poets. (Laughter.) But there is something we have in common beyond guilt. (Laughter.) You think I’m kidding. You don’t know the Irish. (Laughter.) I know you better than you know the Irish. (Laughter.) But I used to joke with him. I used to say, Shimon, you must have some Irish in you. And I quoted him last time I was with him the poem — a stanza from a poem by Seamus Heaney called “The Cure at Troy”.
And tell me if this doesn’t sound like Shimon Peres. The stanza in the poem goes like this:
History teaches us not to hope on this side of the grave.
But then, once in a lifetime,
the tidal wave of justice can rise up,
And hope and history rhyme.
The longed-for tidal wave of justice can rise up and hope and history rhyme.
Throughout his life at every moment of the State of Israel’s history, Shimon Peres was the voice of hope. And he remained certain — until the day he died — that the longed-for moment was coming.
So, as the verse goes, let us restrain our voices from weeping and our eyes from tears. It’s not the way Shimon Peres would want us to honor him. Instead, and I mean this from the bottom of my heart, let’s carry his legacy on in the future, so that his work — and his faith in all of us — continues to be rewarded.
For Shimon, let us dream. Let us dare. I get kidded. Madeleine and I had breakfast the other morning. We were talking about it. The older I get, the more optimistic I am about — I mean this sincerely, about the possibilities, the incredible possibilities that are available at this moment, this inflection point in our mutual histories.
So let’s cast off the constraints of the past and look toward tomorrow, as he did.
May God bless Israel and the United States of America and may the memory of Shimon Peres continue to be a blessing to us all and may God protect our troops.
Thank you. (Applause.)