SOON TO officially become Citizen No. 1, Reuven Rivlin was dubbed by Yediot Aharonot as Selfie No. 1, replete with MKs who regardless of political affiliation, lined up with their cellphones to photograph themselves with him.
Among the many people who called Rivlin to congratulate him on winning the presidency and wish him well were former rival and last minute drop-out Binyamin Ben Eliezer, Bank of Israel Gov. Karnit Flug, Chief Rabbis David Lau and Yitzhak Yosef, State Comptroller Yosef Shapira, IDF Chief of Staff Lt.- Gen. Benny Gantz, Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, Italian Ambassador Francesco Maria Talo, US Ambassador Dan Shapiro and the widow of poet Yehuda Amichai, among many, many others.
On the first night following the long-cherished realization of his dream, Rivlin didn’t get much sleep as he responded to scores of well-wishers. The congratulatory messages keep flowing in, and it’s going to take time to acknowledge them all.
■ IT’S HARD to define an icebreaker, but what helped melt the frost between President-elect Rivlin and his nemesis Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu was a remark by opposition leader Isaac Herzog. Commenting on Rivlin’s pedigree, namely his descent from the followers of the Vilna Gaon who came to the Holy Land in the first decade of the 19th century, Herzog said they could not have imagined at the time that one of their progeny would one day become the president of a sovereign, independent Israel.
Netanyahu, in an earlier address, had said all the right things and even talked about the common background he shared with Rivlin, but there was very little warmth in his delivery. When Rivlin rose to respond to both speeches, he used what Herzog had said but related it to a prime minister of a sovereign, independent Israel – in other words, Netanyahu, whose pedigree Rivlin noted was on a somewhat higher plane, because Netanyahu is actually a direct descendant of the Vilna Gaon, which Rivlin is not.
“What can you do, facts are facts,” Rivlin declared. The generosity of spirit was contagious, and when Rivlin finished speaking, Netanyahu embraced him.
Just as a matter of interest, Netanyahu is one of many famous descendants of the Vilna Gaon. There must be something in the genes.
■ IN 2013, Carmel Shama-Hacohen, who has replaced Rivlin in the Knesset, and who only just missed out on retaining his seat from the previous Knesset in the most recent national elections, ran for office as mayor of the city of Ramat Gan, as head of the Ramat Gan 1 party – and failed to win. When television reporters tried to get him to smile at the fact that he has returned to being a legislator, Shama-Hacohen remained stubbornly closemouthed. Then, all of a sudden, both his cellphones started to ring – and he began grinning from ear to ear.
“When you stop being an MK, the phones are silent,” he said. “When you come back, both cell phones start ringing simultaneously.”
On the other hand, his comeback may be short-lived, if he takes up an ambassadorial offer he received from Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman to be Israel’s permanent representative to the OECD. It’s waitand- see time.
■ DIPLOMATS ARE publicly supporting gay rights and waving the rainbow flag. US Ambassador Shapiro wrote on his Facebook page: “For the first time in history, the US Embassy in Tel Aviv has raised the Pride flag together with our American flag. We are proud to join with the municipality of Tel Aviv-Jaffa and its residents in celebrating LGBT [Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender] Pride Week.”
The Swedish Embassy, for its part, was one of the sponsors of the 9th Tel Aviv International LGBT Film Festival at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque, at which the film Something Must Break by Swedish director Ester Martin Bergsmark was screened. Swedish Ambassador Carl Magnus Nesser attended the opening ceremony of the festival and said, “In many countries in the world, LGBT persons continue to face discrimination and persecution, often at the hands of the authorities and under the law. This situation is totally unacceptable.
“But we also live in exciting times.
The dominant heteronormative perspective in society is increasingly being called into question; in parts of the world, laws are being enacted that make it irrelevant who we choose to live our lives with and increasingly, it is understood and accepted that many people aren’t heterosexual.
“On Friday, Tel Aviv’s Pride Parade will kick off with a record number of people expected to attend. In a world where the situation for LGBT people is often very troubling, I am happy to say that in Israel, the LGBT community has found a home.”
This is the fourth time that the Swedish Embassy in Tel Aviv has been included among the festival’s sponsors.
The Scandinavians have for many years taken the attitude that it is no one else’s business who anyone may opt to have as a life partner. In 2003, Denmark named Anders Carsten Damsgaard, an openly gay career diplomat, as its ambassador to Israel, and he brought his partner with him.
Israel is no exception when it comes to gay diplomats, and the Foreign Ministry has allowed the partners of homosexual and lesbian diplomats to go abroad with them.
Such couples receive the same housing, medical and vacation rights as heterosexual couples.
■ THE DIPLOMATIC community was in somewhat of a quandary this Wednesday, when both Russian Ambassador Sergey Yakovlev and Ethiopian Ambassador Helawe Yosef hosted the National Day receptions of their respective countries.
Both receptions were at the same time, but at different Tel Aviv hotels in the north and south of the city. Some managed to get to both, but most chose one or the other, and the overwhelming majority opted for culture over diplomacy – and went to Masada for the performance of La Traviata.
The annual Russian reception at the Tel Aviv Hilton is arguably one of the largest, if not the largest, on the diplomatic circuit, and probably the one that is most dedicated to its expatriates – especially the Red Army veterans, for whom this is one of the rare occasions on which they can trot out their medals and ribbons. The menu on the well-laden buffets always includes a variety of traditional Russian delicacies, and enough smoked salmon to make up for a large part of Israel’s national deficit. The bar also includes a large selection of top-quality alcohol. Unlike his predecessors, Yakovlev does not go for making speeches, and beyond briefly welcoming the guests in a mix of English and Russian, just wanted them to have a good time.
Missing from the festivities was a Russian event regular, Foreign Minister Liberman, who is on a 10-day tour of Africa to bolster ties and inaugurate direct flights between Nairobi and Tel Aviv, as part of the celebration of 50 years of diplomatic relations between Kenya and Israel.
Liberman, who is traveling with a large trade delegation, is also scheduled to visit Rwanda, the Ivory Coast, Ghana and Ethiopia.
However, Immigrant and Absorption Minister Sofa Landver, who was referred to by Yakovlev as “our very good friend,” was there to represent the government, and the former tourism minister, a much-slimmed down Stas Misezhnikov, was also present and hailed by many of the guests.
The Russian reception invariably includes several musical elements and this time, in addition to operatic performances and Russian folk songs, included Russian pop songs and jazz – so there was indeed something for everyone. But the star attraction was Israel Opera singer Michael Riskin, who entranced the crowd with his magnificent tenor voice. At the end, there were shouts of “Brava, Misha!” Landver delivered her address first in Hebrew, then with much more drama in Russian, and it was subsequently read in English by an aide for the benefit of guests who understood neither Hebrew nor Russian. Relations between Jerusalem and Moscow get closer from year to year, she said, noting the chronological proximity between Independence Day and the National Day of the Russian Federation, both close to May 9 – which commemorates the victory of the Red Army in the war against the Nazis.
She was proud, Landver said, of having played a part in getting May 9 recognized as a national holiday in Israel, and was happy to see Jewish veterans of that war who are still around. She also commented on how amazing it was that only three years after that military triumph, in which the Russians helped save the remaining Jews in Europe, the State of Israel was born.
■ AT THE Dan Panorama Hotel, at the opposite end of Tel Aviv, Ethiopian Ambassador Yosef spoke of the 1991 downfall of the Dergue junta, which had been guilty of tyrannical war crimes and genocide. Now, 23 years later, Addis Ababa was proud to have considerably reduced infant mortality, provided education for millions of more people, improved its economy, succeeded in generating most of its electricity from renewable energy and advanced its agricultural output, most notably its sugar industry, with sugar production currently cultivated on 500,000 hectares (over 1.235 million acres). Sugar is now a sustainable industry for which Ethiopia is looking for more export markets.
Economically, said Yosef, over the past 10 years, Ethiopia has developed the most rapidly growing economy of all the non-oil countries in Africa.
Under the post-Dergue administrations, Ethiopia has become a country of acceptance that promotes cultural and religious diversity.
Yosef also spoke of cooperative agricultural ventures with the Jewish state. There is considerable unity among the representatives of African states in Israel, and whenever any of them hosts an event, the others of various ranks are there to join in the festivities. This time, the other African guests included Uganda’s non-resident Ambassador Richard Laus Angualia, who only that morning had presented his credentials to President Shimon Peres, and now on his second day in Israel was meeting with many African colleagues.
The Israeli government was represented by Deputy Religious Affairs Minister Eli Ben-Dahan, who as so many Israelis before him could not help but refer to the relationship between King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. But, he noted, the latter-day relationship can be credited to Israel’s founding prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, who envisaged strong ties between Israel and Ethiopia when he called for an alliance with peripheral East African states.
Ben-Dahan also referred to the significant 125,000-strong population of Jews of Ethiopian descent living in Israel, who he said form a grassroots human bridge between the two countries. Another bond between the two is the mutual commitment to strategic cooperation to prevent the spread of radical Islam.
■ UN SECRETARY-GENERAL Ban Ki-moon attended an exhibition of Israeli autistic artists, most of whom are under the auspices of Alut: The Israeli Society for Autistic Children.
The secretary-general, who came with his wife to view the exhibition, was photographed alongside an Israeli flag, together with Israel’s permanent representative to the UN, Ambassador Ron Prosor.
■ THE IRISH Embassy estimates there are some 2,000 Irish citizens resident in Israel. At least 80 of them will gather at the Irish ambassador’s residence in Herzliya Pituah this coming Sunday evening, June 15, when Ambassador Eamonn McKee and his wife, Mary McGillis McKee, celebrate Bloomsday, which is commemorated in many parts of the world by admirers of the great Irish writer James Joyce.
According to the ambassador, Bloomsday began as a very casual affair in 1954 when, inspired by Joyce’s monumental work Ulysses, a group of Irish writers and intellectuals went by horse and carriage to the various locations around Dublin visited by Dedalus and Bloom in their peregrinations that day in 1904.
McKee, who like many of the Irish has a way with words, penned (or rather typed) a script based on Joyce’s famous novel, and has taken three local Irishers to read it. Malcolm Gafson, who heads the Israel Ireland Friendship League, and whose soft Irish brogue has never deserted him, will read the part of Leopold Bloom, from which Bloomsday gets its name; Ed Duffy, an Irish medical student who is studying in Israel, will read the part of Stephen Dedalus; and IIFL secretary Phillipa Blatt will take the role of Molly Bloom, whose name has been immortalized by a famous pub in Tel Aviv.