Reporter’s Notebook: 1 million expected to pay tribute to Peres

The casket of Shimon Peres was brought from Tel Aviv to be presented at the Knesset Plaza with a military cavalcade, so mourners can pay their respects, Sept. 29. (The casket of Shimon Peres was brought from Tel Aviv to be presented at the Knesset Plaza with a military cavalcade, so mourners can pay their respects. (Hillel Maier/TPS)

Jerusalem (TPS) – A military cavalcade delivered the coffin of former President and Prime Minister Shimon Peres to the Knesset early Thursday, where the deceased will lie in state in the parliament courtyard until his funeral procession tomorrow.

Jerusalem police and Knesset security officials said they expect up to 1 million Israelis to file past Peres’ coffin, but as of 10:15 a.m only several thousand people had arrived at the government complex. Mourners spanned virtually the whole spectrum of Israeli society – secular, religious, young, old, men, women. Families with young children walked quietly along police barricades alongside white-haired senior citizens, with a large security contingent deployed to maintain order.

Sharon Ohevia, a 40-something mother of three from Sde Werber, near the town of Kfar Saba, said she took her children out of school for the day and left home at 7:30 a.m. in order to teach them an important lesson about both personal values and the value of a Jewish country.

“He never gave up, despite all the challenges he faced, until the time he was hospitalized. Just before his stroke, he wrote on Facebook about how proud he was to buy Israeli products. To his very last breath, he contributed to Israel and was full of pride at being Israeli. That’s a critical message, and something I want to pass on to my children,” Ohevia told Tazpit Press Service (TPS).

The outsized preparations clearly stemmed from the memory of the night following the assassination of Yitzchak Rabin in 1995. Then, hundreds of thousands of Israeli’s streamed spontaneously to the Knesset, partly to pay their respects but essentially to grieve together. The murder followed a year in which Israel’s traditionally feverish political culture had spun out of control. Orthodox and right-wing groups ( including then-Opposition Leader Binyamin Netanyahu) accused Rabin of treason and warned furiously that the political process with the Palestinians would lead to disaster.

On the other side, left-wing supporters of the Oslo process (including then-Foreign Minister Shimon Peres) chose to portray anyone who questioned the wisdom of the process as a virtual enemy of state. By the summer of 1995, tensions between the sides had reached a boiling point, and the murder threatened to tear Israel’s social fabric apart completely.

In contrast, today’s crowd did not display grief so much as a somber celebration of a universally respected leader. Although frequently a divisive figure during his long career in politics, Peres used his last decade, and especially the platform of the presidency to become a leader for all segments of Israeli society.

In that light, it is significant that a high proportion of the visitors to the Knesset Thursday were religious. Orthodox families youth and school groups stood out amongst the largely secular crowd.

“I know that Peres was controversial  years ago, but we knew him as later in life, when he was really a unifying personality,” Racheli Shemesh, a 26-year-old Jerusalemite and adult staff member of the Orthodox Scouts.

Tal Danon, also a scout leader, added that the group used the opportunity of Peres’ death to discuss his personal and leadership qualities, and took time out from a week-long course for student leaders to bring participants  to pay their respects.

“We grew up with Peres,” said Danon, 24. “He was the type of leader that we don’t have anymore in Israel. We internalized a deep understanding of his humility, we learned from his modesty, his honesty. All those qualities are lacking today amidst the Israeli leadership. Our goal as leaders and teachers is to educate and to prepare the future generations, and to perpetuate the values of leaders like Peres.

Ilana Messika contributed to this report.