During a special ceremony on Wednesday night at the White House, President Barack Obama honored Israeli President Shimon Peres with the prestigious Presidential Medal of Freedom. The Medal of Freedom is the highest civilian honor that the United States has to offer, and Peres joined a long and distinguished list of recipients, including Nelson Mandela, Angela Merkel, and Margaret Thatcher.
At the ceremony, Obama praised Peres for his many efforts over the past few decades strengthening the “unbreakable” relationship between Israel and the United States. Obama commended Peres not just for helping to create the State of Israel, but for taking a strong role in helping it grow into the thriving country it is today. As Obama said, “No individual has done so much over so many years to build our alliance and to bring our two nations closer as the leader that we honor tonight.”
The United States is fortunate to have many allies and partners around the world. Of course, one of our strongest allies, and one of our closest friends, is the State of Israel. And no individual has done so much over so many years to build our alliance and to bring our two nations closer as the leader that we honor tonight—our friend, Shimon Peres…
The man, the life that we honor tonight is nothing short of extraordinary. Shimon took on his first assignment in Ben-Gurion’s Haganah, during the struggle for Israeli independence in 1947, when he was still in his early 20s. He ran for President of Israel—and won—when he was 83…
Shimon has been serving his nation—and strengthening the bonds between our two nations—for some 65 years, the entire life of the State of Israel. Ben-Gurion and Meir, Begin and Rabin—these giants of Israel’s founding generation now belong to the ages. But tonight, we have the rare privilege in history—and that’s to be in the presence of a true Founding Father.
Shimon, you have never stopped serving. And in two months we’ll join our Israeli friends in marking another milestone—your 89th birthday.
Now, I think Shimon would be the first to tell you that in the ups and downs of Israeli politics, he has been counted out more than once. But in him we see the essence of Israel itself—an indomitable spirit that will not be denied. He’s persevered, serving in virtually every position—in dozens of cabinets, some two dozen ministerial posts, defense minister, finance minister, foreign minister three times. And now, the 9th President of Israel. And I think President Clinton would agree with me on this—Shimon Peres is the ultimate ‘Comeback Kid.’
And he’s still going—on Facebook, on YouTube—connecting with young people; looking to new technologies, always ‘facing tomorrow.’ Recently, he was asked, ‘What do you want your legacy to be?’ And Shimon replied, ‘Well, it’s too early for me to think about it.’
Shimon, you earned your place in history long ago. And I know your work is far from done. But tonight is another example of how it’s never too early for the rest of us to celebrate your legendary life.
Shimon teaches us to never settle for the world as it is. We have a vision for the world as it ought to be, and we have to strive for it. Perhaps Shimon’s spirit comes from what he calls the Jewish ‘dissatisfaction gene.’ ‘A good Jew,’ he says, ‘can never be satisfied.’ There is a constant impulse to question, to do even better. So, too, with nations—we must keep challenging ourselves, keep striving for our ideals, for the future that we know is possible.
Shimon knows the necessity of strength. As Ben-Gurion said, ‘An Israel capable of defending herself, which cannot be destroyed, can bring peace nearer.’ And so he’s worked with every American President since John F. Kennedy. That’s why I’ve worked with Prime Minister Netanyahu to ensure that the security cooperation between the United States and Israel is closer and stronger than it has ever been—because the security of the State of Israel is non-negotiable, and the bonds between us are unbreakable.
Of course, Shimon also knows that a nation’s security depends not just on the strength of its arms, but upon the righteousness of its deeds—its moral compass. He knows, as Scripture teaches, that we must not only seek peace, but we must pursue peace. And so it has been the cause of his life—peace, security and dignity, for Israelis and Palestinians and all Israel’s Arab neighbors. And even in the darkest moments, he’s never lost hope in—as he puts it - ‘a Middle East that is not a killing field but a field of creativity and growth.’
At times, some have seen his hope and called Shimon Peres a dreamer. And they are right. Just look at his life. The dream of generations, after 2,000 years, to return to Israel, the historic homeland of the Jewish people—Shimon lived it. The dream of independence, a Jewish State of Israel—he helped win it. The dream of an Israel strong enough to defend itself, by itself, against any threat, backed by an ironclad alliance with the United States of America—he helped build it.
The dream of making the desert bloom—he and his wife Sonya were part of the generation that achieved it. The dream of the high-tech Israel we see today—he helped spark it. That historic handshake on the White House lawn—he helped to create it. That awful night in Tel Aviv, when he and Yitzhak sang a Song for Peace, and the grief that followed—he guided his people through it. The dream of democracy in the Middle East and the hopes of a new generation, including so many young Arabs—he knows we must welcome it and nurture it.
So, yes, Shimon Peres—born in a shtetl in what was then Poland, who rose to become President of Israel—he is a dreamer. And rightly so. For he knows what we must never forget: With faith in ourselves and courage in our hearts, no dream is too big, no vision is beyond our reach.
And so it falls on each of us—to all of us—to keep searching, to keep striving for that future that we know is possible, for the peace our children deserve.
And so it is a high honor for me to bestow this statesman, this warrior for peace, America’s highest civilian honor—the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
In accepting the Medal of Freedom, Peres called the award a “testament to the historic friendship between” Israel and the United States, and dedicated it to the people of Israel, calling them the “true recipients of this honor.” He also thanked Obama for his “sacrosanct” commitment to Israel’s security and for “acting as a great leader, as a champion for peace.” Peres made special mention of the ongoing pursuit of peace, ending his speech by saying, “My greatest hope is that a dawn will arise when every man and women—Israeli or Palestinian, Syrian or Lebanese, young people wherever they are—will wake up in the morning and be able to say to themselves, I am free to be free.”
I really was profoundly moved by your decision to award me the Presidential Medal of Freedom. To receive it is an honor. To receive it from you, Mr. President, in the presence of my dear family, is a privilege that I shall cherish for the rest of my life. Thank you so much.
It is a testament to the historic friendship between our two nations. When I was really young—not like now—the founder of the State of Israel, David Ben-Gurion, called me to work with him. For 65 years, inspired by his leadership, I tried to gather strength for my country, pursue peace for my people. I learned that public service is a privilege that must be based on moral foundations.
I receive this honor today on behalf of the people of Israel. They are the true recipients of this honor. With this moving gesture, you are paying, Mr. President, tribute to generations upon generations of Jews who dreamed of, fought for a state of their own—a state that would give them a shelter; a state that they could really defend by themselves.
So, Mr. President, you are honoring the pioneers who built homes on bombed mountains, on shifting land; fighters who sacrificed their life for their country. On their behalf, I thank you. I thank America for days of concern, for sleepless nights, caring for our safety, caring for our future.
Tonight, Mr. President, you kindly invited outstanding personalities whose commitment to Israel is nothing less than heroic. I offer them the eternal gratitude of my people. Present here, for me is a very moving presence is Dalia Rabin, the daughter of my partner, the unforgettable Yitzhak Rabin, who gave his life for peace.
Mr. President, you have pledged a lasting friendship for Israel. You stated that Israel’s security is sacrosanct for you. So you pledged; so you act. So you are acting as a great leader, as a champion for peace. Thank you again.
Dear friends, Israel sincerely admires the United States for being a land of the free, a home of the brave, a nation of generosity. A world without the United States, without the values of the United States, would have been chaotic. Moses began his journey to freedom by demanding, ‘let my people go.’ The prophet Isaiah promised nations will take up swords against nations. A biblical promise became a grand American reality, first and foremost in human annals.
When the Liberty Bell rang in Philadelphia, it resonated throughout the world. A tired world was surprised to witness, contrary to its experience, a great nation becoming greater by giving, not by taking; by making generosity the wisdom of policy, and freedom as its heart—freedom from oppression, from persecution, freedom from violence and evil, freedom from discrimination and ignorance; liberty that does not fear liberty, liberty that doesn’t interfere with the liberty of others. You introduced a constitution based on balance, not on force.
Liberty is also the soul of the Jewish heritage. We didn’t give up our values, even when we were facing furnaces and gas chambers. We lived as Jews. We died as Jews. And we rose again as free Jewish people. We didn’t survive merely to be a passing shadow in history, but as a new genesis, a startup nation again.
We are faced with the worst of humanity, but also experience the best of humanity. We shouldn’t forget either of the two. When we discovered that we were short of land and water, we realized that we had the priceless resource—the courageous, undefeatable human spirit.
We invested in knowledge and turned our attention to the ever-growing promise of science. Unlike land and water, science cannot be conquered by armies or won by wars. In fact, science can make wars unnecessary. Science provided Israel with the unexpected economic goals—it enabled us to absorb millions of immigrants. Science enabled us to build an agriculture that is ten times the normal yield. It enables us to build an effective defense against armies ten times greater than us. Brave soldiers and sophisticated tools brought us victory in life.
But we remain the people of the book. Yes, my friends, Israel is the living proof that democracy means progress, science means growth, literature and knowledge means enrichment. Israel today is an innovating, pluralistic society where Jews, Christians and Muslims live together in peace. It is not perfect, but it is an example of what may happen in the future.
My friends, we live now in and are now witnessing the departure of one age and the arrival of a new age. The agricultural age lasted for 10,000 years; the scientific age is still fresh. Yet in 50 years, the scientific age has achieved more than the 10,000 years of agriculture. This new age has brought new challenges, new dangers. It generated a global economy but not a global government. It gave birth to horrors of global terrorism without global control.
The danger is today concentrated in Iran. The Iranian people are not our enemies. It is the present leadership that became a threat. It turned Iran into a danger to world peace. It is a leadership that aims to rule the Middle East, spreading terror all over the world. They are trying to build a nuclear bomb. They bring darkness to a world longing for light.
It is our responsibility to our own people, to our friends throughout the world, to posterity, that the Iranian threat must be stopped, and it cannot be delayed.
Mr. President, you worked so hard to build a world coalition to meet this immediate threat. You started, rightly, with economic sanctions. You made it clear—rightly, again—that all options are on the table. Clearly, we support you and your policy.
Friends, extremists are using the conflict of the Palestinians to cover their true ambitions. The majority of the people in the Middle East, in my judgment, are tired of war. In many homes, families still mourn the loss of their loved one. I believe that peace with the Palestinians is most urgent—urgent than ever before. It is necessary. It is crucial. It is possible. A delay may worsen its chances.
I remember that 19 years ago, on the lawn outside this house, President Clinton—dear, Bill—initiated the peace process. Thank you very much. Since then, the Israelis and Palestinians have come a long way together. But still, hard work remains ahead. Israel and the Palestinians are, in my judgment, ripe today to restart the peace process.
A firm basis already exists. A solution of two national states—a Jewish state—Israel; an Arab state—Palestine. The Palestinians are our closest neighbors. I believe they may become our closest friends. Peace with the Palestinians will open ports of peace all around the Mediterranean. The duty of leaders is to pursue freedom ceaselessly, even in the face of hostility, in the face of doubt and disappointment. Just imagine what could be.
Now, a young Arab generation has opened its eyes and stood up against oppression, poverty and corruption. They seek freedom. They need freedom. They understand that freedom begins at home. I pray for their success. I believe that their success may become the success of all of us.
So, President, my vision is an Israel living in full, genuine peace, joining with all the people in the Middle East—former enemies, new friends alike; Jerusalem becoming the capital of peace; an Israel that is a scientific center open to all, serving all without discrimination; a green Israel, an increasingly green Middle East.
My vision is an Israel whose moral code is old as the Ten Commandments tablets, and whose imagination as new as the digital tablets as well. Together, our old and modern vision can help bring tikkun olam. Mr. President, that’s a better world. It will take a long time before we shall achieve it and become satisfied, as you have said. I believe that in the coming decade, Israel will be a center of the latest development in brain research. As the secrets of the human brain are being revealed, people may improve their capacity to choose between right and wrong.
By the way, I am also extremely optimistic about the United States of America. You are going to be the real greatest source of energy in our time. You are introducing a new industry, which is not mass production but individual production. It’s a new revolution. And you put again science on top of your agenda.
I believe in the coming decade, Israel will be also a center of the latest developments in brain research. As the secret of the human brain are revealed, people may improve their capacity to choose between right and wrong. And absent of a global government—government can contribute to world peace.
Dear friends, my greatest hope is that a dawn will arise when every man and women—Israeli or Palestinian, Syrian or Lebanese, young people wherever they are—will wake up in the morning and be able to say to themselves, I am free to be free. Amen.
The full video of the event can be found here, or you can watch above.
Click here to read the NJDC’s release congratulating President Peres on his honor.
Click here to read the White House’s blog post commemorating the event.
Click here to read the White House transcript from the event.
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