With the exception of his lifelong friend, Israel’s fifth president Yitzhak Navon, who is two-and-a-half years his senior, it is extremely rare for President Shimon Peres to find himself in the company of people older than himself.
Last Sunday was an exception, when Peres attended the 100th-anniversary celebration of the Joint Distribution Committee that was held concurrently with the 100th-birthday celebration of Ralph Goldman, whose name has been synonymous with the Joint for decades. Actually, Goldman won’t enter the triple-digit age until September, but the centenary of the organization to which he has devoted his life was just too good an opportunity to pass up – and so his birthday was celebrated slightly in advance.
JDC staff and supporters from Israel and the US gave Goldman a standing ovation, cheering and whistling almost every time his name was mentioned. Goldman’s sartorial signature has always been emphasized by a bowtie, and this did not vary at his 100th-birthday celebration, at which there were live and video tributes to him – especially from some of the 12,000 young people who have passed through his Entwined program – plus a video reflecting aspects of Goldman’s career and inadvertently, part of his bowtie collection.
One of Goldman’s oft-quoted aphorisms is that there is only one Jewish world intertwined and interconnected, and it was quoted again and again on Sunday night. At one stage, an enormous rectangular birthday cake with a large “100” in the center and a bunch of candles was wheeled out.
Peres, who has known Goldman since they both were members of the Hagana, spoke of how Goldman had assisted Teddy Kollek (whose son and daughter Amos and Osnat were present) in acquiring American World War II surplus military machinery, and said that in a sense, Goldman had started Israel’s military industry.
Fully aware of Goldman’s long history of community-oriented innovation and activity, Peres said no one could compete with his devotion, honesty and ability to do the impossible. Both in the US and Israel, said Peres, Goldman had won the respect of everyone.
Peres also emphasized that no organization can compare with the Joint, which is staffed with the most unusual people who met the most unusual needs in the history of the Jewish people, “from the most terrible event of the Shoah to the greatest event – the creation of the State of Israel.” No other nation paid so heavily for its survival as a nation and a people, said Peres, who credited the Joint with granting sustenance, hope and a sense of solidarity to Jews in the most farflung regions of the world.
He also underscored that the Joint, in its 100 years of caring for the Jewish people, had been untainted by scandal.
Goldman has much to his credit.
Among other things, he orchestrated JDC’s reentry into most of Eastern Europe when it was still part of the Soviet Union; he was an aide to David Ben-Gurion and a confidante of Kollek. He led the JDC’s humanitarian operations around the world, and was involved in the struggle for Soviet Jewry and bringing Ethiopian Jews to Israel. He established the Israel branch of JDC, and was one of the founders of the Taub Center for Social Policy and the Brookdale Institute of Gerentology.
“I wasn’t looking for a career; I was basically in service to my people.
JDC was passionate about the Jewish people wherever they are, and that’s what motivated me,” said Goldman.
■ AFTER LEAVING the JDC’s centenary celebrations, Peres returned to his official residence to watch the basketball match between Maccabi Tel Aviv and Real Madrid, and literally leapt for joy when Maccabi, against all odds, won the Euroleague championship. Peres immediately telephoned Maccabi coach David Blatt to congratulate him and tell him all of Israel was yellow on Sunday night, and that Peres himself nearly had a heart attack in the excitement of it all.
When he spoke to Blatt, Peres invited him and the team to come to the President’s Residence, and bring the world cup with them. He has made space in his schedule for that to happen this morning.
Blatt, while speaking to Peres from Milan, told him that winning the cup was by way of a farewell gift to the president as he winds up his term of office. This week, Peres also received other honors – from B’nai B’rith Europe and Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. On the same day that he received the Ben-Gurion Leadership Award, Reps. Trent Franks (R-Arizona) and Joe Kennedy (D-Massachusetts) announced in Washington that legislation to honor Peres with the Congressional Gold Medal (H.R. 2939) passed the House of Representatives by voice vote.
The bill was introduced last year by Franks and Kennedy in the House, and Sens. Kelly Ayotte (R-New Hampshire) and Michael Bennet (D-Colorado) in the Senate. The Senate passed a companion version of the bill in March by unanimous consent.
The Congressional Gold Medal is the US’s highest civilian decoration, awarded to an individual who performs an outstanding deed or act of service to the security, prosperity and national interest of the US. This Congressional Gold Medal would be the first awarded to a sitting president of Israel, which means Peres will receive it when he flies to America on June 25 to bid farewell to US President Barack Obama, and thank him for what America has done for Israel.
If he’s lucky, Peres will receive the biggest prize of all while in America – the release of convicted Israeli agent Jonathan Pollard. This would be the crowning glory of his presidency, and the most fitting and memorable way to bring it to its conclusion.
■ SOMEONE WHO was spared and would have rejoiced in the opportunity to celebrate JDC’s centenary would have been former labor and social welfare minister Dr. Israel Katz, who unfortunately passed away nearly four years ago. Katz, who was one of the policy planners of Israel’s welfare state, was the founding director of the Taub Center, an adjunct of the JDC.
His association with JDC began long before that, and from 1973- 1977 he was the director of the Brookdale Institute. Journalist and anti-corruption crusader Arieh Avneri has written a book about Katz under the title The Social Pioneer (Hehalutz Hahevrati), which will be launched next week at the Hebrew University’s School for Social Work.
■ SOMEONE ELSE who might have enjoyed chewing the fat with Goldman and reminiscing about the century through which they’ve both lived is veteran journalist Jesse Zel Lurie, who is almost a year older than Goldman, but is still very much alert and continues to come to Israel every year for Passover.
Lurie was a journalist who worked for The Palestine Post, as The Jerusalem Post was originally known in the very early years of its existence, returned to the US and worked as a foreign correspondent for the Post, and for 36 years from 1947 to 1983, was editor-in-chief of Hadassah Magazine. He’s also on the board of directors of the American friends of Neveh Shalom, where Jews and Arabs live together in peace and harmony, and was largely responsible for the establishment 25 years ago of Neveh Shalom’s primary school.
Despite his age, Lurie is a blogger, and contributes to various Jewish newspapers in the US and to the Sun Sentinel in Miami, where he lives. He is a passionate promoter of peace in the Middle East. During his most recent visit to Israel, he went for the first time to Mevo Modi’im, the moshav founded by the late singing rabbi, Shlomo Carlebach. The reason: The moshav was hosting a Passover happening, and the entertainment line-up included Lurie’s great-nephew Benjamin Terrell.
Lurie, who was wearing black, sexy short shorts, stood out from the crowd, and amazingly his legs were smooth, without varicose veins or the creases of time. He wandered around the entertainment area, asking probing questions here and there, also answering questions. He doesn’t believe that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is genuinely interested in reaching an accord with the Palestinians. “Netanyahu is only giving lip service to the peace process,” Lurie opined.
He had a few more forceful things to say, but complained that “one of the disadvantages of being old is that no one listens.”
While he was in Israel, the Hadassah Medical Organization and all associated with it were going through a traumatic period. Lurie had little to say about the problem, but was effusive in his praise of the Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America. “Hadassah is a tremendous organization. It still has tens of thousands of women who are proud Americans, but also proud Zionists. Things haven’t changed, except that there’s less money.”
He was keen for Israel to establish more integrated schools in which Arabs and Jews study together. To the best of his knowledge, there are only six such schools in the country.
As for Israel’s future, Lurie was sure it would remain secure, but was not overly hopeful of great progress on the peace front. “Israel has been living in a bubble for 20 years or more, and will continue to live in a bubble for some time,” he said.
On the other hand, he continued, the Arab states are in such turmoil that no one knows what can happen there, “and tomorrow a suicide bomber can change things. There’s no way of predicting...”
Lurie said he had been told some 30 or 40 years ago that there are some problems which can’t be solved. “I didn’t believe it then, but it seems to be true.” Nonetheless, he remains optimistic because he is a great believer in tikun olam – fixing the world – which he said is slightly better than the world he came into.
“There is tremendous progress in Arab-Jewish relations, but people just don’t see it,” he insisted.
■ NO ONE was happier at the reception at the King David Hotel, hosted by Australian Ambassador David Sharma in honor of ultra-marathon runner and politician Pat Farmer, than Danny Hakim, the martial arts champion who founded Budo for Peace and who conceived of the idea that Farmer should do a peace run from Beirut to Jerusalem.
Hakim, who migrated from Australia in 2001, met Farmer in Sydney last year when both were having dinner at the home of Hakim’s sister Carol. After learning something of Farmer’s history as an ultra-marathon runner, Hakim had a brainwave and suggested he run from Beirut to Jerusalem. Farmer asked how far it was. Hakim wasn’t sure, but using sugar cubes they worked out that it was 235 kilometers.
Farmer said it wasn’t worth it, because he runs that distance in a weekend.
Hakim suggested adding Jordan and the Palestinian Authority, and mused at the reception on Monday that “while we were planning the Middle East Peace Run, the peace process was falling apart. People were saying that peace was either too painful or impossible. Pat wanted to prove that the impossible is possible.”
Even though Farmer is a politician, Hakim entreated his audience and all those who had run with Farmer: “If you want it to happen, don’t leave it to the politicians.
Let’s do it ourselves. We’ll keep running together until we reach peace with our neighbors.”
Both Hakim and Farmer thanked the Australian government; Australian ambassadors in Israel, Lebanon and Jordan; and Israeli, Lebanese and Jordanian ambassadors in Australia for their unqualified support of the project, and the Dan Hotel chain in Israel for its sponsorship.
Hakim said the run would become an annual event and that next year, all participants would run with olive branches to draw further attention to the message.
Farmer said he had been warned not to run in certain areas, because he would be shot. He and his team ignored the warnings, and found only friendly smiles and lots of people who wanted to run with them.
Next year’s run may also include Egypt; Hakim said that just before mounting the podium, he had received a phone call from the Egyptian ambassador telling him that the border was quiet, and suggesting that perhaps the run could be extended by a week.
Farmer was also thrilled to meet Sharma, who is an all-around athlete and also a marathon runner, and tweeted that he was joining Farmer on the run. “It was great to run with an ambassador,” said Farmer.
Among the many Australians present at the reception were both expats and visitors, most notably in the latter case tennis legend and 1973 Wimbledon champion Margaret Court and her husband Barry, who had been to Uganda to give inspirational talks to sports associations, and had been encouraged by Israel’s former and highly popular ambassador to Australia Yuval Rotem to continue on to Israel before returning to Australia.
It was their first visit to Israel, and they arrived only a few hours before the reception.
Israeli-Arab singer, songwriter and actress Mira Awad, who with Achinoam Nini represented Israel at Eurovision in 2009, captivated everyone present with her singing.
■ NOT FOR the first time was an embarrassing diplomatic incident narrowly avoided, when eagleeyed members of the Australian Embassy noticed that King David staff had put the wrong flag in the lobby. Although there are similarities between the New Zealand and Australian flags, there are very visible differences – namely in the number of stars. The Australian flag has six stars, the largest of which is positioned beneath the Union Jack; the New Zealand flag has only four stars, none of which are positioned beneath the Union Jack. At the King David they initially favored the kiwis over the kangaroos, but the mistake was rectified before the arrival of the ambassador.
Flags are not the only problem.
Four years ago when the Australian governor-general visited Israel and was feted at a state dinner at the President’s Residence, whoever was responsible for the selection of music chose British songs from World War II instead of traditional Australian songs. It was very difficult to convince the president’s staff that It’s a Long Way to Tipperary was not the appropriate melody for an Australian dignitary.
■ TOO OFTEN politicians, journalists and the public at large shoot from the hip before examining the whole picture. In last Wednesday’s “Grapevine,” there was a reference to the inequality of the sums earned by Aryeh Orgad and Shamira Imber, who were the announcers at the opening of the Independence Day celebrations on Mount Herzl. Orgad was quick to correct the impression that he earned NIS 10,800 for a night’s work. “Two weeks of rehearsals from 4 p.m. to midnight are not ‘a night’s work,’” he wrote in an email.
As for the issue of unequal pay, he continued: “Since when do stage artists receive ‘equal’ pay?! Since when do they have a uniform pay scale?! Do two actors in a play (even if their roles are considered to be equally important to the show) receive equal pay?! Of course not.
Each actor has his individual ‘price tag.’ Artists are not paid by price lists; they have no ‘fee tables.’ Vocal stage performers (including singers, cantors, announcers, presenters, MCs, etc.) are requested to bid their fee (as in a tender). Their offer is then negotiated, refused or accepted according to the bidder’s ‘market status.’ This has to do with the performer’s level of experience, versatility and prestigious professional reputation. The whole procedure is strictly discreet.
“Shamira Imber went through this procedure and received, as she told reporters, ‘the exact sum she had asked for.’ The amount she received had nothing to do with her being a woman.”
■ IN AN on-air telephone conversation with Culture and Sport Minister Limor Livnat on Friday morning, Israel Radio’s Yaakov Ahimeir asked whether she was in Milan. She replied that she was in Israel. Feigning surprise, given that Maccabi Tel Aviv was playing a fateful game against CSKA Moscow in the semifinals of the Euroleague Final Four in Milan that night, Ahimeir queried in the gentlest of tones whether her decision to stay in Israel was in response to the State Comptroller’s Report published the previous day, in which State Comptroller Joseph Shapira had taken ministers and MKs to task for violating the law regarding permissible and non-permissible gifts to legislators, such as junkets abroad.
■ THERE IS invariably a British presence at annual meetings of the board of governors of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, but this year’s board of governors meeting had a more distinct British flavor than usual. The keynote lecture at the opening session in the presence of President Peres, was by Israel’s London-born ambassador to Britain, Daniel Taub, who delivered a masterful and humorous lecture on “A Dickensian Approach to Israel-UK Relations.”
On the Tuesday afternoon, consecutive events were chaired by two academics with strong British links. Prof. David Newman, dean of humanities and social sciences at the university, another former immigrant from Britain and a regular op-ed contributor to the Post, moderated the Robert St.
John Chair Lecture in Objective Middle East Reporting, which was delivered by Ethan Bronner, deputy national editor of The New York Times, on the subject of “In the Eye of the Storm: Reflections on Being Jerusalem Bureau Chief for ‘The New York Times.’” Immediately following this event, Prof. Raymond Dwek, director of the Glycobiology Institute at the University of Oxford, chaired the Irene and Hyman Kreitman Annual Memorial Lecture, which was delivered by Prof.
Andrew D. Hamilton, vice chancellor of the University of Oxford, on the topic of “Innovation, Openness and the 21st-Century University.” Dwek is a member of the BGU international scientific advisory committee. Both Newman and Dwek have respectively been awarded OBE and CBE honors on the Queen’s honor lists over the past two years by the British government, for their respective roles in advancing scientific relations between Israel and the UK.
The lectures were held in the presence of the British Ambassador Matthew Gould, himself a recipient of an honorary doctorate from BGU and who, it is assumed, recommended the two professors for their respective awards. During his term of office in Israel, Gould has been responsible, with his partners at the British Council, for actively promoting scientific contacts between the two countries. Hamilton was one of two Brits who received honorary doctorates from the BGU this year, the other being ex-Russian, now British (and Israeli) pianist Evgeny Kissin, who also gave a recital to board members prior to his receiving the award.
Present at all of this year’s events was BGU’s long-serving international treasurer, Londoner Eric Charles, former senior partner of the Citroen Wells accounting firm, along with the president of Ben-Gurion Associates in the UK, Harold Paisner, senior partner of the large Berwin, Leighton, Paisner international law firm, with headquarters in London and branches throughout Europe, including Brussels and Moscow.
■ ONE OF the joys of listening to Yehoram Gaon broadcasting his Friday radio program is that he’s old enough to remember a more idealistically populated Israel than is the case today.
Last Friday, he told listeners that when Chaim Weizmann became Israel’s first president, he refused to accept a salary, saying he had more than enough to live on from the royalties on his scientific patents.
However, the government would not accept this and insisted he be paid a salary. Weizmann finally accepted a symbolic amount, but only in the realization that future presidents might not be as financially independent as he.
Unlike the current President’s Residence, which is the third place of residence of the presidents of Israel, that of the first president in Rehovot was actually the private home of Weizmann and his wife, Vera. They chose to remain there, and so after his election it became the official residence of the president, important not only because of Weizmann but also because of the architect Erich Mendelsohn, a German- born Jewish architect who introduced the Bauhaus style to Israel. It was his first project in the Land of Israel, and it led to several others.
In order to preserve the heritage of the first president for future generations of Israelis, the Weizmanns willed the house and its surrounding estate to the State of Israel. The house, which stands in the grounds of the Weizmann Institute of Science, was renovated in 1978 and opened to the public as a museum in 1999.
Vera Weizmann wrote a book, The Impossible Takes Longer, which could apply just as easily to her former home as to the creation of the State of Israel. Chaim Weizmann died in November 1952. Vera Weizmann died in 1996 – yet it was not until more than three decades after her death that the public was permitted to enter her home, due to the foot-dragging in turning it into a museum.
In any case, all of the original furniture, furnishings and household appliances are there. Despite the austerity to which the nascent state was subjected, the Weizmanns had every modern gadget of the period, up to Chaim Weizmann’s demise.
Incidentally, both Chaim and Vera Weizmann were born on November 27 – albeit seven years apart.