Miriam Peretz is one of the most well-loved public figures in Israel. She is known as the “Queen of Hearts” due to her special personality that manages to touch every heart. She received the prestigious Israel Prize for Lifetime Achievement and thus lit a torch at the national Israeli Independence Day ceremony.
Miriam was born in 1954 in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco to a poor Jewish family. Her parents were illiterate, and she met her first book only when she started attending school in Morocco. When she was 10-years-old her family immigrated to Israel and lived in Beersheva in a distressed, low-income neighborhood. Miriam earned a bachelor’s degree in literature and history at Ben-Gurion University.
In the 1970s, she married Eliezer and moved with him to Ofira in Sharm el-Sheikh at the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula – at that time in Israeli hands. There he worked as an inspector for the Ministry of Health, and as a teacher.
Their two eldest sons Uriel and Eliraz were born in Ofira. The other four children were born in Givat Ze’ev just north of Jerusalem after Israel handed the Sinai back to Egypt. Uriel and Eliraz were both killed during their compulsory military service. Uriel was died in an ambush in Lebanon in 1998. Eliraz was slain in clashes with terrorists in the Gaza Strip in 2010. Five years after the death of her eldest son, her husband Eliezer died at the age of 56 from a serious illness that developed after the death of his child.
Since then, Miriam has dedicated her life to passing on Jewish and Zionist values and heritage. She lectures among Jewish communities and also among Christians around the world.
Miriam was a candidate in the election for the ceremonial head-of-state role of Israeli President in June 2021, but a majority of the members of Knesset voted for Isaac Herzog.
Our interview with her was extremely moving, to the point of tears. Her extraordinary story is an example of accomplishment and of instilling the value of the sanctity of life.
Israel Today: How do you explain the affect you have on people?
Miriam Peretz: I have one answer: People in this world need hope, and they want to be around people who give them some strength to get up. And apparently this happens in my vicinity.
There is no person in the world who does not go through crises – in marriage relationships, between parents and adolescents, etc. People by nature want to be “infected” by optimism.
You lived in Ofira in the Sinai Peninsula. Can you tell us about your experiences there?
In 1976 I got married and we moved to Sharm el-Sheikh. Ofira was a place for military families. Very few regular citizens lived there and certainly not Orthodox religious families like Eliezer and me. There was no synagogue there, and no mikve; and it was a big challenge.
I went to the school principal at Ofira for a job interview, and there for the first time I saw an organ and heard classical music. In Beersheva we only heard Moroccan-style music.
So I had something of a cultural crisis. And already at that time I became a “restless wanderer” roaming among all the “worlds.” I know the world of poverty and hardship, and I also know the world that is “cultured” and wealthy. And I bring my viewpoint to every place. This viewpoint has contentment with little, love of mankind, and opening of doors and hearts.
Sinai is a magical place. My two eldest children were born there and were greatly influenced by the powerful landscape that is sea and desert.
I taught a profession there called Toshba – Oral Torah, and thus I connected the youth in Sinai to their roots, believing that a person must know his roots and only then choose his way of life. I focused on learning mutual respect and how to build dialogue between people – something that is unfortunately so lacking in the world today.
Are you still in touch with any Bedouins from Sinai?
We have contact to this day with a Bedouin named Mubarak. We worked with him, but have not seen each other since. My son Uriel, a few months before he was killed in Lebanon, travelled to Sinai and went to meet with him.
The peace agreement evacuated us from home and friends.
How did it feel to be evacuated from Sinai?
War has a price, and peace has a price. But I can honestly say that I prefer the anguish of peace, over the pain of war. Every effort should be made so that no mother will have to bury her children.
We are a people who sanctifies life and everything must be done to live. But not just to live, rather to live with a sense of mission. And then age has no meaning. My son Uriel was killed when he was 22. My son Eliraz was killed when he was 32. And if they had been asked, “What did you do with your life?” they could have responded regarding the great significance and the mission for which they set out. Their lives and deaths were not in vain.
What do you say about the violent public “conversation” in Israel, especially in the Knesset between all factions? Cursing, swearing, bad-mouthing.
If you listen to politicians today, when they are interviewed, they do not answer at all what they are asked. They are in a hurry to respond. They lack judgment. And that is what is missing today in the public discourse.
I am shocked by the tone of talk in the Knesset, and I cannot understand how it came to this. After all the hardships we suffered as a people and as individuals, we should be thankful for this great miracle – that we have a wonderful country that is [in some ways] exemplary to the world.
But instead, we are constantly looking to see what is wrong.
The challenge today is to look for the common denominator among all who live here: right-wing, religious, secular, left-wing, Arabs, Christians. We must find it. What is the “precious oil” that can connect all this “salad” that lives here and improve it?
Because none of these groups are going to just get up and leave. All of us including our leaders need to learn one great trait and that is the trait of restraint, the capacity for self-control.
We have a common past and also a common future and we should “be brothers” not only when someone dies. Right now unfortunately this is the only situation that unites us. And in pain I ask why do we come together only when someone dies? Why not on a daily basis when we live? Let’s be brothers. Let’s be sensitive to each other.
In my family, I have six children… Do you think everyone is alike? No, not at all. One of them is religious with a kippah on his head; one is married to a Tel Aviv girl who has tattoos on her body. One [orthodox daughter] covers her head so you cannot see her hair. But they are all my children, it’s my family.
We are all members of the same people, and this people is very diverse. We came from different countries and cultures. And that’s the beauty. We need to learn to respect.
Christians and Jews talk about the vision of peace from the book of Isaiah which says “the wolf will live with the sheep.” Isaiah did not say that the wolf will become a sheep or the sheep will become a wolf. He did not say that the religious would become secular and vice versa, or that the leftist would become right-wing and vice versa.
The key phrase is “to live with” – the ability to live together despite the differences and we need to work on that. Who wants to live in a place where everyone looks and thinks the same? The differences are meant to enrich us and not to separate us.
What will make the dialogue change?
A key for me is getting to know each other. Today people reject the “other” without getting to know them. The right does not really know the left and vice versa. The soldier does not really know the ultra-Orthodox, the ultra-Orthodox the Arab, etc.
We need to dialogue and get to know each other.
[At this point Miriam recalls her two sons who were killed, who both grew up in Sinai and drew from their childhood landscape – the sea and the desert – the qualities that influenced them in their lifetime.]
Miriam: The sea taught them restraint and self-control.
In battle great restraint is needed. In Lebanon when the soldiers fought they were very upset, and Eliraz as a commander taught them not to touch the houses they entered – anything that did not belong to them. He taught them not to loot and destroy [private Lebanese property]. “We went out [to war] just went out to defend,” he would say. He also insisted on treating the enemy soldiers in a moral manner.
The desert: The desert is a place of silence, a place where a person asks himself existential questions – “Why am I here?” An army commander needs to ask himself this question every day. “Why am I in this role?”
“Why me?” asked Eliraz, a father of four children who, instead of being with them, was in Gaza defending the homeland.
These are questions that anyone who is on a mission should ask himself and answer for himself.
Where does the strength come from? What is the drive in your life that motivates and maintains you?
I too am a desert woman. I also asked “Why?” and “For what purpose can I keep on living?
Nietzsche said “He who has a ‘what’ to live for, will be able to bear almost any ‘how.’” And I needed answers and a reason for my life. And I’ll tell you about the “drive” through a little story.
Eliraz my firstborn son was killed a day-and-a-half before Passover Seder night. We sat at the Passover table with his four small children, the eldest 6, the youngest a few months old who never knew her father. And we read the Haggadah, and this was the first time that I actually read through it to the end due to my great sorrow.
There were two sentences that immediately caught my eye: “It was from the LORD, it was marvelous in our eyes.” I cannot understand death, but I am a woman of faith and I understand that it is from God. However, I can never understand how God conducts Himself in the world. No rabbi or priest will be able to explain to me how God conducts Himself in the world.
The second sentence that caught my attention in the Haggadah was: “I will not die, but live and tell the deeds of the LORD.” I remained alive in order to tell. And not to tell just anything… to tell the deeds of God. But what is there to tell? Did He not take my two sons? However, there is another of God’s works that I have learned to see out of sorrow and pain. I have learned to see the miracles He performs for me every day. Every day I am alive is a miracle. Life is a great and wonderful gift that I am not willing to waste. To live means to give meaning to life everyday.
My “drive” is my children who were not privileged to keep on living! I received a gift – life! Will I waste it? No way! I will direct my life toward the doing of good. I will make the world better – my family, my society, my country. Every day when I wake up I thank God that I opened my eyes, that I am able to stand on my feet, that I am drinking coffee. Every day is a divine gift and I do not want to waste it on nonsense.
Do you have dreams?
There is a picture in my head. I want to get to the wedding of Eliraz’s eldest son [my grandson] whose name is “New Light Uriel” [He is named after his uncle]. He was 6 years old when his own father was killed.
As you know, at a Jewish wedding you break a glass and make an oath “If I forget you, Jerusalem …” I make an oath by the common denominator and dream of the Jewish people, Jerusalem. But my grandson will swear a different oath at his wedding. His father Eliraz also swore a different oath at his wedding. His father got married three years after his brother Uriel died.
And the oath he proclaimed was “If I forget you my brother Uriel…” The rabbi reprimanded him [for changing the traditional oath], and Eliraz responded “My Jerusalem is: Uriel and Matan and Uri and all those who fell on this land and thanks to them I am building my house in Jerusalem.”
[My grandson] “A new light Uriel” is planning to say at his wedding: “If I forget you, Eliraz my father, Uriel my uncle, and all the IDF fighters…”
Then I will look up toward the sky and say to Hezbollah, “You have killed my son Uriel’s body.” And to Hamas I will say, “You killed my son Eliraz’s body, but the Jerusalem I dreamed of in the Sahara desert in Morocco, and the dream of reaching Jerusalem – no one took from me. Here is my grandson building tonight a stone [in the wall] of Jerusalem.”
What was it like to send the other children to the army after the first two were killed?
Eliraz was the first I had to sign for. [The IDF requires parental consent for soldiers wanting to serve in combat roles whose siblings were killed in the army, or whose parent is a widow/er.]
At the time Uriel was killed, [his brother Eliraz] was serving in the Golani Infantry Regiment. Eliraz asked for a week to think [about whether he still wanted to serve in a combat role even after losing a brother in battle]. After a week he returned home and said he had decided to continue in the army and become a commander.
I said to him “Eliraz my son, what if something happens to you? What will become of me and father?” And he answered me, “And what about my life and choices?”
I have since learned that there are two things beyond human control:
Birth – no one asks us if we want to come into the world. If I had known I would bury two children I would not have come into the world.
Death – No one will ask us when we will die.
These two things are in the hands of God alone. And I ask, can anyone assure me that if I had not given my consent for Eliraz [to serve in a combat role], he would not have been killed [in some other manner]? After all, life and death are not in my hands. As a mother I prayed, and did what I could. While they were with me I did for them the best in the world. But I could not give them more life! It was not in my hands to do so.
You are a very beloved woman. Why?
Twenty-three years ago when Uriel fell I started giving lectures to encourage the human spirit. I did not choose the death of my sons, but I chose the way to deal with it. And I chose to live. And people clung to that way.
I did not want to be famous. I wanted to continue running a school, raising my children. But what happened, happened. And my choice of how to go on with life “infected” many people, and they saw it as a message of life and hope – that it is possible to get up. And when we have that attitude, the world gives us back in the same measure.
To what time period in the Bible would you compare what’s happening in our day?
Immediately, I want to say to the time of Rehoboam the son of Solomon, when the kingdom was torn in two.
However, I want to leave a message of hope. Therefore, I choose to look at the story in the Book of Judges when all the tribes went out to fight the tribe of Benjamin, and the tribe almost disappeared. Then the other tribes realized that if they wanted to maintain unity, the “route” had to be recalculated. Otherwise the people would not continue to exist.
We know that the destruction of the Second Temple occurred because of “hatred for no cause” among the people. And I am entirely hopeful that we will learn to rise from the state of division and hatred and understand that we are one people.
Were you disappointed that you did not the election for state president?
The word disappointment is not in my lexicon. I had been offered positions in politics before, but I realized I did not see my place there.
When people started talking about the role of presidency that sounded different. An Israeli president is one of the people, can contribute to bringing hearts together, and I am already “there.” So yes, the role attracted me, and I started to campaign to be elected.
Briefly, I will say that I had no chance against Herzog, he was born to be president.
Even though 80% of the people preferred me, it is not the people who elect the president. And the Knesset made the decision.
I have been exposed to a lot of love these days, and I enjoyed the journey. My grandchildren, 17 in number, are happy about it. They prefer a “normal grandmother” as they say. And as a person of faith I know that everything God does is for good. So this too is for the better.
Would you like to add something?
I wrote a book called Song of Miriam. The book has been translated into English and I would be happy if it could be translated into other languages.
Miriam the sister of Moses composed her famous song after the miracle of the parting of the Red Sea. In contrast, my poetry is composed precisely in a place of drowning in a sea of pain. The “wisdom” is to sing to God and love Him even when drowning in pain.