Shimon Peres and the Importance of Chutzpah

June 23, 2020

By Michael Snow

The symptoms are clear. Swastikas scrawled on subway stations with reckless abandon. Orthodox Jews attacked in the streets of Brooklyn. Pro-Israel speakers prevented from speaking on college campuses. We are living in a time of surging anti-Semitism. Twice within six months Jews have been attacked in synagogues. At this time of increased hostility against the Jewish people and the State of Israel, the life and legacy of Shimon Peres offer guidance and inspiration for how we might navigate the choppy waters we face.

Few people can be credited with single-handedly shaping the course of a nation. Shimon Peres is one such person. His lifetime of public service and Israel’s history are as intertwined as a strand of DNA. There are however two specific aspects of Shimon Peres’ legacy I want to focus on: his response to anti-Semitism as a young person and his sense of courage and audacity.

Shimon Peres understood the impact of anti-Semitism firsthand. Peres was born in 1923 in Vishnyev, Poland, a town in which Jews comprised over half of the population. In the early 1930’s, with the rise of Nazism, Shimon Peres’ father, Yitzhak, made plans to relocate his family to Israel. This difficult and prescient decision saved his immediate family. On September 22, 1942, the 1,100 Jews remaining in Vishnyev were locked inside their town synagogue and burned alive.

How did the Holocaust and anti-Semitism impact young Shimon Peres? It is impossible to imagine that he was not deeply affected; His grandparents and uncle were among those murdered by the Nazis and their collaborators. Peres himself barely escaped the deadly tornado of European anti-Semitism.

And yet, we can see from his actions and early decisions that Peres’ commitment to the Jewish people and nascent State of Israel was only emboldened. Just months after the Vishnyev massacre, Peres became a leader in the Labor Zionist movement. At 21, he was leading expeditions to the Negev as part of the Haganah. For the next seven decades, Shimon Peres devoted his life to the State of Israel, including through serving twice as Prime Minister, and over different periods as the Minister of Defense, Finance, and Foreign Affairs. My own strongest memories of Peres are of his time as Israel’s President, the role he held from 2007 until his death in 2014.

These activities make clear that for Shimon Peres, the best – and perhaps only – response to anti-Semitism was to focus on building up the Jewish community and State of Israel. This perspective is no less relevant today than it was for Shimon Peres in his youth.

Shimon Peres’ legacy, particularly as a young person, is for me a source of personal inspiration and guidance as well. Peres was only 28 – as old as I am – when he led the Defense Ministry delegation to the United States in 1952. Less than a year later, he was appointed Director-General of the Ministry of Defense. In this role Peres established strategic alliances which helped ensure Israel’s security and ability to protect itself in subsequent wars and conflicts.

In September of 2018, I was appointed by New York Governor Andrew M. Cuomo to serve as his Director of Jewish Affairs. Chief among my responsibilities include coordinating the state’s response to anti-Semitism.

There are moments, I will admit, when the task weighs heavy and I feel overwhelmed by the responsibility. The threats against the Jewish community and its organizations are relentless. Can we really prevent anti-Semitism in this age of lone wolf attacks, hyper-partisanship, and rising extremism? Almost every day seems to bring a new headline or report of anti-Semitic vandalism, assault, or worse. Should we accept this as the ‘new normal’?

Our response must be a clear and resounding no. To accept the status quo could be the greatest causality of all. The Jewish community is entitled to live in safety and security, as is any other.

I am proud to have worked on two important initiatives in this regard. First, New York is dedicating unprecedented resources to protecting the Jewish community and combatting anti-Semitism. The state budget has allocated $25 million in funding to help non-profit organizations pay for security measures like surveillance cameras, fencing, and hardening. For many non-profits these funds are invaluable and of dire need.

Second, New York is undertaking to train local law enforcement agencies from around the state on recognizing and investigating hate crimes. This training is essential for ensuring that police departments from all parts of the state are prepared if a community or individual is targeted for who they are or what they believe. Each of these efforts should be taken as models for other states and communities across the country.

My grandfather, Harry Steinberg, of blessed memory, worked with Shimon Peres. During the pre-State period of Israel’s creation, my grandfather served as a number two to legendary statesman Abba Eban, Israel’s first representative to both the United Nations and the United States. In sharing his memories of working alongside larger-than-life figures like Eban, Peres, and David Ben-Gurion, a word my grandfather frequently used was ‘Chutzpah.’

Chutzpah, of course, can have negative connotations, as in arrogance or impudence. But the type of Chutzpah I think my grandfather had in mind, and which Shimon Peres embodied, is a different Jewish archetype. It is the temerity to boldly reject injustice and to fight for change. Peres said, “The Jews’ greatest contribution to history is dissatisfaction. We’re a nation born to be discontented. Whatever exists we believe can be changed for the better.”

We cannot lose the audacity to fight for what we know is right. Only with courage and confidence will we vanish the forces which seek to undermine the Jewish people and the spirit of Israel. Shimon Peres’ life and values motivate me to never lose faith in the fight for Jewish wellbeing and against anti-Semitism and hate.