At the start of Wednesday’s 15th annual awards ceremony for the Menachem Begin Prize and the presentation of scholarships from the Aliza and Menachem Begin Nobel Peace Prize Fund, Begin Heritage Center CEO Herzl Makov invoked the format of the Passover Seder night and asked why this night was different from any other such ceremony.
The answer was because of the absence of Yechiel Kadishai, who passed away last month at the age of 90.
It was the much beloved Kadishai, Begin’s bureau chief and longtime aide, who had breathed the spirit of Begin into the center’s activities, and who had come up with the initiative for a prize to promote and perpetuate the values that Begin held dear. Almost everyone who mounted the stage made some mention of Kadishai, who had chaired the prize committee until he became too ill to continue, and his place had been taken by former justice minister Moshe Nissim.
Other members of the prize committee included Raya Jaglom, the former president of World WIZO; Miriam Tassa-Glazer, a former MK and deputy minister of education; Meir Rosenne, a former ambassador to the US and France; Gershon Stav, an adviser to several prime ministers who currently serves as chairman of the Begin Heritage Center executive; and Rachel Kremerman Meridor, a veteran activist in Likud circles, member of the BHC Public Council and the daughter of Yaakov Meridor, who preceded Begin as one of the commanders of the Irgun.
Makov mentioned them all as well as a few other people, but neglected to mention the presence of Freda Hurwitz, the widow of Harry Hurwitz, the founding president of BHC. It was a serious sin of omission.
Among many other well-known faces in the audience was that of the seemingly ageless Moshe Arens, a former foreign minister and defense minister, who will celebrate his 88th birthday later this month.
■ BEGIN SCHOLARSHIPS were awarded to students from mainly peripheral communities and economically deprived backgrounds, to enable them to enjoy the same educational opportunities as young people from more affluent families. The scholarships were presented by Ori Efrat, a great-granddaughter of Menachem and Aliza Begin, and Moshe Fuksman- Sha’al, the deputy director of BHC.
The scholarship program is known as Perach, which is the Hebrew word for flower but which in fact is an acronym for Project Hinuchi, which translates as educational project.
■ THE EVENING included a number of video presentations, one in tribute to Kadishai and another showing excerpts from the previous 14 Begin award ceremonies, with the late Yitzhak Shamir at the podium for the inaugural ceremony. Yet another had Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu congratulating the three honorees: NGO Monitor, represented by its founding president Prof. Gerald Steinberg, who later said that Kadishai had always called him by his Hebrew name, Gershon; actor Chaim Topol; and ADL national director Abe Foxman.
The prize is awarded in recognition of outstanding contributions by an individual or organization to the State of Israel and the Jewish people. NGO Monitor was commended for exposing the political agenda and ideological bias of humanitarian organizations, which use the discourse of human rights to discredit Israel and undermine its position among the nations of the world. Topol received the award for outstanding achievements in the field of cinema and theater, and for his critical contribution to the establishment of the Jordan River Village, a fun and games resort for terminally ill children from all over the region. Foxman, who was unable to attend and will receive his award when next in Israel for Passover, was chosen for his efforts to eliminate any sign of anti-Semitism, racism or anti-Israelism around the globe.
There were video presentations related to all three. Foxman, who was a child Holocaust survivor, was almost tearful as he said that it was very humbling to get recognition for what has been his sacred mission for all of his adult life. The prize, he declared, was one of the greatest honors of his life, because it linked his name eternally with that of Menachem Begin.
Topol, when called to the stage to receive his prize from Nissim and Agriculture Minister Yair Shamir, who had stated earlier how moving it was for him to be standing at the same podium where his father had stood in 1999, noted that three of his dear friends had died within just over a week: industrialist and promoter of education Dov Lautman, singer Arik Einstein and comedian Sefi Rivlin.
Topol attributed his involvement with disabled and terminally ill children in part to former Mossad chief Zvi Zamir, who in June 1967 was Israel’s military attaché in London, where Topol was also performing at the time. When it seemed that war was imminent at home, Zamir called Topol and said that he had to do something. When Topol inquired what it was he had to do, Zamir told him there were insufficient ambulances on the home front, and that Topol had to help fill the void. Zamir knew of 48 ambulances that belonged to an organization called Variety, which was headed by Jewish father and son Rosser and Trevor Chinn. He wanted Topol to call them and ask for the ambulances.
Meanwhile, the war had started and finished, but the ambulances were still needed. When Topol put the proposal to the staunchly Zionist Chinns, they explained that they couldn’t very well send the ambulances, known as sunshine coaches and purchased with contributions by the British public, to a country in a war zone.
But then Rosser Chinn had a brilliant idea. If Israel were to form a Variety Club, Variety in Britain could send ambulances to its sister organization in Israel. Topol didn’t have a clue about Variety at the time, but he took a six-month leave of absence from the show, went home and began working towards the establishment of Variety in Israel, which was duly inaugurated at the Tel Aviv Hilton in November 1967, after which he returned to London. Fortunately, his understudy had not been as good as he in Fiddler on the Roof, so he was back in the starring role. Topol later became president, then goodwill ambassador for Variety.
Several years ago, when he was in the US, actor Paul Newman invited him to come and see his Hole in the Wall camp, which he had opened in 1988 for seriously ill children.
Topol was impressed, and thought that there should be something similar in Israel – and the rest is history. Topol goes to the Jordan Village at least twice a week to interact with the youngsters, and said that whenever he leaves, he weeps, because he knows that many of these youngsters will not make it to adulthood.
Before leaving the stage, Topol said both his parents had been members of Betar in Warsaw and had come to Israel (then known as Palestine) on Betar certificates, “and that’s why I’m here,” implying that if his parents had remained in Poland they might not have survived the Holocaust, and he would not have been born.
Born in London and raised in California, Steinberg is a professor of political science at Bar-Ilan University, and a frequent contributor to the op-ed pages of The Jerusalem Post. He founded NGO Monitor in the aftermath of the UN World Conference against Racism that was held in Durban in 2001, where Zionism was equated with racism and other scurrilous, false charges were made against Israel.
■ THE BEGIN Prize ceremony always takes place during Hanukka, which was when Begin received the Nobel Prize through which he established the Begin Fund. Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, who also attended the ceremony, was unable to stay to the end. Makov explained that he had other candlelighting ceremonies that he had to attend. However, before he left, Barkat emphasized the importance of taking time out from daily routines to recognize people who had made exceptional contributions to Israel.
Alluding to the work done by NGO Monitor, Barkat said he could accept that the world expects more of Israel in terms of high standards, but he couldn’t accept that the world doesn’t expect anything of Israel’s neighbors.
■ TWO ROYAL birthdays were celebrated in Israel this week. Thai Ambassador Jukr Boon-Long hosted a reception at the Tel Aviv Hilton on Monday to celebrate the 86th birthday of King Bhumibol Adulyadej; and on Wednesday, Japanese Ambassador Hideo Sato hosted a reception at his residence to celebrate the 80th birthday of Emperor Akihito. Both celebrations were a trifle premature. The king’s birthday was actually on December 5, and the emperor’s birthday is on December 23 – when much of the diplomatic community is out of the country and home for Christmas.
Although the ministers representing the government on such occasions are generally on a roster basis, with the exception of those who enjoy diplomatic receptions and are willing to do extra duty, it was entirely appropriate for Agriculture Minister Shamir to represent the government at the Thai affair. The Thais are exceptionally talented in carving fruits and vegetables, giving them an aesthetic quality that adds value to nature. Indeed, the display of carved edibles was extraordinary.
Most Thai affairs include a group of traditional musicians and dancers, and this was no exception. It was quite interesting for the musically inclined to hear “Hatikva” played on traditional Thai instruments.
A hands-on, highly educated monarch with expertise in many fields and genuine concern for the welfare of his subjects, King Bhumibol Adulyadej is a man of great accomplishments. Due to his interest in soil science and his use of this knowledge to help his people, Thailand’s Food and Agriculture Organization designated the date of his birthday as World Soil Day. All in all, the king has initiated more than 4,000 development projects. The ambassador obviously could not mention all of them, but he did mention some.
Shamir, who is relatively new to representing the government at diplomatic affairs, commented on the similarities between the ambassador’s address and the speech that had been written for him by the Foreign Ministry, adding that for reasons of protocol, he had to read his speech anyway. He also mentioned the visits to Israel by Thai royals, in particular Princess Chulabhorn Walailak, who has been associated with projects at both the Hadassah and Rambam Medical Centers.
■ THERE WAS a glut of speeches at the Japanese reception, as well as the airing of a videotape of Netanyahu, who offered congratulations to the emperor and talked about the excellent relations between Israel and Japan and their cooperation in different areas, notably information technology.
Former prime minister Ehud Olmert, who is often invited the Japanese residence, also spoke. He had originally intended to speak in Hebrew, he said, but had changed his mind after listening to the ambassador’s excellent Hebrew, which he suspected might be better than his own – thus waxing long in English. Sato is actually equally fluent in English and Hebrew, and used both languages in his address with his customary elegant eloquence.
Minister Silvan Shalom represented the government, speaking in English.
Formal relations between Israel and Japan go back a little over 60 years, but Japan’s relations with a lot of Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazis go back much further, to the days of Chiune Sugihara – who as Japanese vice consul in Lithuania, went against the orders of his government and issued thousands of visas that enabled Jews to escape, barely missing the clutches of the Nazis. He was subsequently honored as one of the Righteous Among the Nations.
■ SOME PEOPLE might say ‘Better late than never’ in relation to the effort by 187 former commanders and officers, all Yom Kippur War veterans, to vindicate and restore the reputation of then-chief of staff David “Dado” Elazar. They believe he was judged unfairly by the Agranat Commission, which was convened to investigate the IDF’s lack of preparedness for the outbreak of the war. The commission had called for Elazar to be removed from office, but he resigned rather than suffer further indignities and humiliation. The general public knew the responsibility was not his alone, and that prime minister Golda Meir and defense minister Moshe Dayan were no less responsible – and possibly more so.
Elazar, who had been a very brave soldier, died in 1976 at the age of 50. His comrades-in-arms had long thought he did not deserve what had been meted out to him. “We used to talk about it all the time,” said Avigdor Kahalani, one of the foremost heroes of the Yom Kippur War, who was twice cited for bravery, and who on the 40th anniversary of the war was named a recipient of the President’s Medal of Distinction.
Kahalani was one of several reserve commanders interviewed on Israel Radio.
Another was MK Amram Mitzna, who thanked Israel Radio for helping to publicize their mission. The former commanders and officers were all contacted by Arieh Keren, who asked them to sign a petition requesting the government to clear Elazar’s name. Not a single person that he called refused. Among the other signatories were former Mossad chief Meir Dagan and David Ivry, a former commander-in-chief of the Israel Air Force and a former ambassador to the US.
None of the interviewees could explain why, if it bothered them so much, they had not done something immediately or on any of the previous milestone anniversaries.
Now, in the twilight of their own lives in many cases, they feel the need to give Elazar his true place in history.