Tony Blair set the stage for the schmaltzy, over-the-top, joyful and endearing tribute Tuesday night to Israeli President Shimon Peres on his 90th birthday. “We in Britain have our Queen,” the former British prime minister said, “and you have your Shimon.”
Indeed, it felt like a coronation of sorts, an odd mixture of loving familiarity and the sort of fancy production that would have made the founding generation of the state of Israel cringe. The thousands of invited guests — mostly Israelis, lots of Americans, and a sprinkling of others — were dressed to impress, reflecting the newly acquired wealth in the start-up nation. One of the only men I saw without a suit was an American rabbi. The days of kibbutz-style gatherings are clearly over.
The program was nationally televised, featuring popular singers like Eyal Golan and Shlomo Artzi, lots and lots of adorable children, videos from near and far, recorded birthday messages from the leaders of France, Germany, Spain, Russia, the United Nations, and more. Barack Obama sent his regards. So did Bono.
And it was all about Peres. The length of his extraordinary career has allowed him to reinvent himself again and again — much to his critics’ dismay — and on this occasion it was Peres the peacemaker who was celebrated. A rousing chorus of “Give Peace a Chance” sung by hundreds of young Israelis made that point, even as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in an otherwise touching tribute, made sure to emphasize the need for a strong defense.
But there was also a great deal of warmth in the large convention hall, the kind of familiarity that can only come from a small country with a deep well of shared experiences. The audience sang along with Artzi as he made his way off stage to hug Peres. It sat in rapt attention as Barbra Streisand, her voice a little hoarse but still thrillingly strong, belted out her signature song, “People Who Need People.” There was good natured teasing by Bill Clinton, who said that Peres had “promised to speak at my funeral.”
It was if Peres has turned into the national grandfather, the beloved zayde, an old man with an astonishingly vibrant intellect and the will to keep moving ahead. Beyond the bling and the schmaltz, there really is a life worth celebrating. Happy birthday.
Forward editor-in-chief Jane Eisner is a participant in the fifth Israeli Presidential Conference.