Israeli Vice Premier and Nobel Peace Laureate Shimon Peres was welcomed by a standing ovation from an audience of well over 1,000 in Woolsey Hall on Wednesday night while local community members picketed outside.
The former prime minister spoke to the Yale community about globalization and the prospects for peace in the Middle East at an event hosted by Caravan for Democracy and eight local and campus organizations. While Peres was optimistic about the future of Middle Eastern politics, some students said his ideas are unrealistic.
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Members of the Middle East Crisis Committee, a New Haven-based activist group, protested outside Woolsey Hall during the speech, accusing Peres of war crimes.
During his address, Peres — who shared the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize with Yitzchak Rabin and Yasser Arafat for their work on the Oslo Accords — said globalization and increasing economic interdependence worldwide are ushering in a new era of diplomacy.
“We live in a world of global relations,” he said. “Globality is becoming more and more [the] life and style of your generation … Governments are pushed out of the economy because they can’t become global governments.”
Only industry has successfully transcended national boundaries, Peres said, citing Bill Gates, Warren Buffett and a new generation of Israeli entrepreneurs as evidence. Peres also hailed India and China as models for developing nations and praised their commitment to science and technology.
“Adopting an economy of the future has changed their lot and the lot of their people,” said Peres. “The South[ern hemisphere] is no longer the home of poverty, but the home of dynamic growth.”
In the modern world, countries need ideas, not land, to stimulate economic growth, Peres said. He said he believes Arab states do not need land from Israel to increase their welfare but instead need to focus on technological innovation.
“There are no reasons for having another war,” Peres said. “You can’t conquer wisdom from war. You can’t bring innovation with armies.”
Diplomacy is a better alternative to war, Peres said. But in a press conference before the event, he acknowledged Israel’s right to defend itself when attacked — especially in light of the August war with Lebanon.
Many students said they thought Peres’ visit was especially timely, considering the recent cease-fire with Lebanon and continuing violence in the region.
“Given the very serious nature of last summer’s events in Lebanon and the current situation in Gaza, Peres’ opinion as an influential government decision-maker is extremely relevant,” said Rachel Bayefsky ’09, a Yale Friends of Israel co-president and an organizer of the event.
A number of conservative Jewish speakers have visited Yale this semester including National Religious Party member Effie Eitam and Charles Jacobs, founder of the David Project, which has a mission to educate future leaders “to defeat the ideological assault on Israel that is taking place on campuses, in high schools, in churches and in the general community,” according to the Center’s Web Site.
Sara Robinson ’09 said Peres — who joined the centrist Kadima Party in 2005 after years in the Labor Party — represents a more moderate voice in Israeli politics. Robinson is one of three Yale Caravan for Democracy fellows and the Yale Friends of Israel’s vice president for political action. She said the YFI, a non-partisan organization, brought only conservative speakers in the first half of the semester due to their availability, not for ideological reasons.
But Peres’ appearance was not without controversy. A group of about 25 MECC protesters — led by Stanley Heller ’69 — picketed the entrance to Woolsey Hall for an hour before Peres’ speech. The protesters, most of whom were community members and not Yale students or faculty, passed out leaflets, chanted and waved signs in a strip of sidewalk blocked off by police on the corner of College and Grove Streets.
They criticized Peres for his role in what they called a massacre in Qana, Lebanon, in 1996 and Israel’s attacks on Lebanon this summer. While most people on their way to Peres’ speech ignored the demonstration, one man began arguing vigorously with two picketers and had to be ushered away by police.
Another man, West Haven resident Eric Mazor, an Israeli citizen, said he thought the protesters wrongly blamed Israel for violence spurred by Hamas and Hezbollah.
Heller said he was disappointed no Yale students or organizations showed up to oppose Peres’ speech.
“Yale is in the doldrums,” Heller said. “When I went here … there was a lot more activity. Kids are not out on the streets [protesting]. It’s not too visible.”
The vice chairman of the MECC, Mazin Qumsiyeh, is a former genetics professor in the Yale School of Medicine. He claims on his Web site that the University did not renew his contract three years ago because of his activism.
Haskins Laboratories research scientist Khalil Iskarous, who came to picket the event, said the importance of the protesters’ message outweighs any negative impact his outspokenness might have on his own career.
“If you think Saddam Hussein got tried and got the death penalty for the exact same thing [as Peres did], we should think about whether we’d like someone like that at Yale as an honored guest,” Iskarous said.
The speech and protest was surrounded by a large police presence, which Lindsay Haines ’10 said might have deterred some students from attending to the event. Attendees has to pass through metal detectors, and city, state and federal authorities ringed Woolsey Hall. The event drew enough people to fill the floor but not the balcony sections of Woolsey Hall, which has a total capacity of 2,695.
Many students said Peres’ speech brimmed with optimism, but some said his views reflected an unrealistic assessment of the current situation in the Middle East.
Brittany Golob ’10 said Peres’ emphasis on the opportunity for business people — as opposed to governments and the United Nations — to improve relations in the Middle East was refreshing. But Alexander Dominitz ’09 said capitalism and its benefits will not dissuade those who oppose Israel ideologically.
“I think overall he’s an idealist,” Dominitz said. “His plan for integrating Israel into this nebulous global network will cause Israel to lose much of its strength, the strength of its own unity. You cannot have spirit and patriotism with corporations.”
Dominitz is a staff columnist for the News.
Brandon Berger ’10 said Peres was especially deft in fielding complicated questions, especially one about the 1996 fighting in Qana.
“He didn’t give just skin-deep answers,” Berger said. “He did a very good job of explaining his position not just on that massacre, but also on war in general.”
Peres delivered a similar speech on Tuesday at Cornell University, and his three-day United States tour is scheduled to conclude with a visit to the United Nations today.