Shimon Peres, a former Israeli prime minister, has been called many things in his long and distinguished career — visionary, peacenik, Francophile, dreamer, even schemer. But “hip” has rarely been among the adjectives attached to his name.
That didn’t stop MTV, that arbiter of taste and fashion among the world’s youth, from choosing Israel’s vice prime minister for a stint as a “stand-in” professor on mtvU, the channel’s 24-hour college network.
Instead of the scheduled lecture on the Ottoman Empire, when New York University students walked into their “International Politics of the Middle East” class Thursday they were greeted by MTV cameras and a surprise visit from Peres, the longtime Labor Party leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner.
Peres outlined his vision for Middle East peace and then fielded questions from students, who never quite lost their bewildered expressions.
Previous guests on the show have included the Rev. Jesse Jackson, the author Tom Wolfe, the rocker Sting and Elie Wiesel, who spoke about genocide at the University of Miami.
Peres was in New York for the Clinton Global Initiative, a three-day conference on poverty, and MTV invited him to take part in the series. Once he confirmed, they contacted NYU to find an appropriate class.
David Friedman, mtvU’s general manager, says the show has a relationship with Seeds of Peace and OneVoice, two groups working for Palestinian-Israeli dialogue, and Peres fit its agenda nicely.
“When you think about icons who have been doing this, Peres is legendary,” Friedman says, adding that the show “also has an invitation in to Mahmoud Abbas,” the Palestinian Authority president.
Peres walked quietly into the NYU auditorium, smiling broadly, and began speaking in soft, measured tones about “the new Middle East,” where peace must be sought through patient negotiation and where new ways of thinking must replace old models.
Couching his description of the peace process in characteristically optimistic terms, he hailed Israel’s recent withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. “For the first time, Palestinians will be completely in charge of a piece of land of their own,” he said, where they will be able to “live in freedom, dignity and prosperity.”
Reiterating one of his better-known themes, he added, “Jewish people were not born to occupy the land of somebody else or to control other people.”
In response to a student who asked whether it was necessary to impose modernity on people who might prefer their own traditions, Peres stressed the need for economic prosperity in the developing world.
“You can’t make a living on tradition,” he said.
Modernity can coexist with cultural differences, he said, pointing to Jordan’s fast-developing educational system where “women are free — they can go to school and remain Muslim.”
One student asked what Peres felt when he first saw a Palestinian, and then a Hamas, flag flying over former Jewish settlements in Gaza.
“I don’t mind if the Palestinians are happy,” Peres said. “Their joy is not my pain. But I wish they wouldn’t exaggerate. They shouldn’t burn. They shouldn’t shoot.”
Did he think Palestinians and Israelis would always have to live separately, one student asked?
“We have to separate politically and cooperate economically,” Peres said firmly. He defended Israel’s West Bank security barrier, saying it would come down when peace is achieved, “like the Berlin Wall at the end of the Cold War.”
“The world is becoming more and more a place of mixed cultures and to be different is also an equal right,” he said.
Peres had sharp words only for Iran, whose leaders he called “terrible people” and “killers.”
“If Iran will possess modern weapons, it would be a catastrophe for the world,” he warned.
Afterward, students reacted favorably to the half-hour presentation.
“He was much more of an optimist than I imagined,” said Lauren Scrima, 20. “He was a really good speaker. He used real examples, which is a good way to make your points. I was very impressed.”
The stand-in professor series has become mtvU’s most popular show, Friedman said.
“There’s smart dialogue, and it’s a much more engaged conversation,” he said, which the student audiences seem to enjoy.
MtvU is a national cable feed that is available in dormitories and common spaces on more than 600 college campuses, reaching more than 6.5 million students, Friedman said. Peres’ show from NYU will be shown on the air and online at www.mtvU.com on Sept. 27.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.