Last August, former chief rabbi of Israel and current Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv Yisrael Meir Lau was at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem to witness the inauguration of his son Rabbi David Lau as Ashkenazi chief rabbi. Last week, his son returned the favor and came to the residence to witness the conferment on his father of the President’s Medal of Distinction.
The senior Lau, who is also chairman of the Yad Vashem Council, had been in Moscow the previous day discussing the escalation of anti-Semitism with Russian President Vladimir Putin. When he told Putin he would be in Jerusalem the next day to receive a medal from Shimon Peres, Putin’s eyes lit up at the name of Israel’s president, and he gave Lau a bear hug.
“I earned a bear hug only because of you,” Lau told Peres.
Rabbi Rafi Feuerstein, who accepted the medal on behalf of his late father, Prof. Reuven Feuerstein – who died this past April – had returned from an international conference in Holland only a few hours earlier to be at the awards ceremony.
He said he had been standing at his father’s open grave when someone handed him a cellphone. Peres had been at the other end, expressing his condolences and telling Feuerstein that only the previous day, it had been decided to award the medal to his father.
Feuerstein recalled that for many years his father had walked in the wilderness, because his theory of modifiable intelligence had been rejected. Now the whole world is learning how to benefit from it, said Feuerstein, who explained that the conference he’d been to was based on his father’s teachings and had been attended by representatives of 35 countries.
Others to whom medals were awarded included Ruth Dayan, who has done so much to create harmony between Arabs and Jews; Kamal Mansour, a long-serving human bridge between Israel’s majority and minority communities; and industrialist Stef Wertheimer, whose industrial parks in which Jews and Arabs work side by side are paving stones on the path to peace.
Dayan and Peres were not the only nonagenarians in the room. There were at least two others: Israel’s fifth president Yitzhak Navon, and poet, novelist and journalist Haim Gouri.
■ JEWS AND Arabs around the world have been tuned in to Middle East news outlets, so as to be as updated as possible on the current round of hostilities between Gaza and Israel. On Friday, Israel Radio announced there had been a massive explosion in Melbourne, Australia.
Later, it transpired that what Australians in Sydney and Melbourne thought had been a plane crash may have been a meteor streaking across the sky.
But when Australian expatriates and Israelis with relatives and friends in Australia heard the news, frantic emails started going in the opposite direction.
Len Fagenblat of Melbourne, who many years ago lived in the South of Israel and wasn’t even aware of anything being amiss in Australia, wrote back: “Thanks for the update on Melbourne.
At this time, I don’t know of any explosion because I am relying on my news from Al Jazeera.”
■ UNION HEADS of other state-owned enterprises are warning MKs not to vote for Communication Minister Gilad Erdan’s bill to shut down the Israel Broadcasting Authority. If the IBA is dismantled, they say, it will be the beginning of a domino syndrome in which other state bodies will follow, and thousands of people will be left without jobs.
Among the many well-known and lesser- known people who see the bill as a travesty is Jerusalemite Guy Almagor, who observed that if radical changes were needed in the army, education system or health system, the army would not be dismantled, and there would not be a general dismissal of teachers from schools or doctors and nurses from hospitals.
The underlying message is, “Fix it, but don’t close it.”
Some people have accused Erdan of creating career capital by turning IBA employees into sacrificial lambs. The Knesset will of course have the final vote on whether he can do this, but MKs should also bear in mind that if they ignore what the public seems to want with regard to Israel Radio, they may not find themselves reelected when it’s the public’s turn to vote.
What appears particularly callous is the recommendation of the special Knesset committee headed by Yesh Atid MK Karin Elharar, which approved the bill for second and third readings at a time when IBA radio and television reporters, sound technicians and camera crews are risking their lives to report from the field on the latest security developments.
Each day, radio programs are punctuated by endorsements from people who think that closing Israel Radio is an inhuman mistake, since closure means sending close to 2,000 people to live below the poverty line – bearing in mind that jobs in communications are few and far between. Erdan has not been moved by any of the broadcasted statements; if anything, they have angered him – and he voiced his displeasure at one of the meetings of the Elharar committee, accusing radio representatives of recruiting support.
Gad Ben-Itzhak, a senior editor at Israel Radio, conceded that initially there had been appeals to famous personalities, but after a short time, people were calling in, saying they too wanted to voice their solidarity.
Among the many people who are opposed to Erdan’s bill is Eli Shoshani, the head of the workers’ union at the Finance Ministry, who warned that his union will stand up against any attempt to deprive workers of their rights. Celebrity lawyer Yaakov Weinroth declared that the Voice of Israel must not be silenced, and that there is something suspect in firing so many people in one fell swoop.
Singer, actor, program host and current affairs commentator Yehoram Gaon, a self-confessed news junkie who relies on Israel Radio for professional reporting and accuracy, said closing down the radio would not only be unfair but a sad day for Israel. Former state comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss said shutting down such an excellent news service as Reshet Bet would be out of character for a law-abiding country.
Philosopher and ethics expert Prof. Asa Kasher said that in a well-run country, one doesn’t destroy the old before building the new, and that the proposed law is one of destruction. Lawyer Dov Weisglass, who was prime minister Ariel Sharon’s bureau chief, is a keen fan of Reshet Bet, which he described as “an asset that must be safeguarded.”
Lyricist Yossi Gispan predicted that if Israel Radio is closed down, it will be a death sentence for Israeli music, creativity, culture and objectivity. “We will be the slaves of franchisees,” he said, advising the Knesset to think carefully about what might come afterward, if Israel Radio in its current diversity is destroyed.
Lawyer Shimon Mizrahi, who chairs the Maccabi Tel Aviv Basketball Club, argued that in precisely such a critical period as this one, Reshet Bet has particular significance; it cannot be replaced with an alternative.
Former minister Yossi Sarid said that Israel is being subjected to a flood of reforms, but not all of them are warranted.
The situation at Israel Radio has already been amended, he pointed out, so there is no need for further reform as far as the radio is concerned. “Israel Radio has to be rescued not from the hands of the workers, but from the hands of the politicians.”
Prof. Amnon Rubinstein, who inter alia is a former communications minister, said that whoever wants to destroy Israel Radio is completely disconnected from the Israeli public, and is harming freedom of expression. Prof. Eytan Gilboa, who heads the School of Communications at Bar-Ilan University, said public broadcasting is vital in a democracy and must be defended.
Of all the additional comments by numerous public figures from academia, the legal profession, the world of literature, the entertainment industry and beyond, perhaps the most authoritative comes from Moti Kirschenbaum, a former IBA director-general, who currently co-hosts a current affairs program on Channel 10. Kirschenbaum, who knows the IBA from the inside-out and not just from the outside-in, having worked there for many years before he was appointed director-general, conceded that the IBA needs a shake-up, but not a funeral; it needs to be shaken free of political influence.
Getting rid of the licensing fee was just a populist measure designed to make public broadcasting conform more to the whims of the politicians. If the IBA is not freed of political influence, said Kirschenbaum, it is doubtful anything that will replace it will be better.
■ MANIFESTAT IONS OF anti-Israel diatribes and demonstrations are largely regarded in Israel as the new anti-Semitism, though many people abroad who are opposed to Israel’s policies vis-à-vis the Palestinians do not see themselves as anti-Semites, and are even insulted or at best astonished by the very thought anyone would perceive them as such.
One such person is Nicholas Wolpe, whose father, Harold, a political economist and writer, was among those Jews who were members of the African National Congress, and deeply involved in the anti-apartheid movement and the struggle for freedom for people of all races.
Nicholas Wolpe is the founder and CEO of the Liliesleaf Trust, which is the living heritage of the legacy of Nelson Mandela, and his extraordinary brand of leadership that led to reconciliation and democracy.
Wolpe was one of the speakers last week at Tel Aviv-Jaffa Academic College, at a Telfed-organized event in conjunction with Forum Tzora and Wits Alumni on Mandela’s legacy and its relevance to Israel.
It was also held with the cooperation of the South African Embassy, whose Ambassador Sisa Ngombane is still a member of the ANC, having risen through the ranks to the position of deputy chief representative of the ANC in Zambia.
It was Wolpe’s first visit to Israel, and he had also come to attend the ninth international conference on Holocaust education at Yad Vashem. When he made a critical comment there in relation to Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, he was asked whether he was an anti-Semite. As a Jew, Wolpe was taken aback by the question because unlike Israelis, he does not regard anti-Zionism or anti-Israel sentiments as being the new anti-Semitism.
The discussion on Mandela’s legacy took place on the eve of the 51st anniversary of the July 1963 police raid of the Liliesleaf Farm in the Johannesburg neighborhood of Rivonia, and the arrest of the high command of Umkhonto we Sizwe, the armed wing of the ANC. The arrests led to the Rivonia Trial, at which eight accused – Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki, Andrew Mlangeni, Raymond Mhlaba, Ahmed Kathrada, Elias Motsoaledi and Denis Goldberg – were charged with sabotage and in June 1964, were sentenced to life in prison.
In addition to Wolpe and Ngombane, other speakers were author and prize-winning journalist Benjamin Pogrund, who personally knew Mandela, and Palestinian human rights activist Bassem Eid, who was equally caustic about both Israel and the Palestinians. Moderator was Tova Herzl, a former Israel ambassador to South Africa.
Prior to the panel discussion, MK Rabbi Dov Lipman, who heads the Knesset’s Israel-South Africa Friendship Association, spoke of his participation in Mandela’s funeral. He hadn’t known what to expect, he said, but had observed how uplifted the crowd was and how amazingly the leader had affected their lives.
The MK cited several inspirational quotes by Mandela, among them: “It always seems impossible until it’s done,” and “Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies.”
But the one that, as a rabbi, arguably inspired him most was: “Man’s goodness is a flame that can be hidden but never extinguished.”
Ngombane recalled that even though political prisoners had no power, Mandela had succeeded in negotiating the release of other prisoners. Mandela’s strength lay in the fact that prison had taught him not to focus on the immediate condition, but to look far, far ahead, said Ngombane.
Pogrund – who met with Mandela when he was fighting in the underground for liberation, while he was in prison, after he was released, when he was president and after he retired – said that Mandela’s generosity of spirit and his attitude towards others were his strengths and underpinned his leadership. He quelled the anger of his people and led them down a path of compassion and reconciliation.
While Mandela supported Palestinian liberation, said Pogrund, he did not question Israel’s existence or right to security.
■ IF FRENCH Ambassador Patrick Maisonnave decides to take a break from diplomacy and go into the entertainment industry, there are many who would describe him as a natural. Not only does he have film star good looks, but the ambassador is also a polished singer, who at the Bastille Day reception he hosted at his residence in Jaffa, sang a duet with professional singer and keyboard instrumentalist Orlika. Their performance of the Edith Piaf favorite “L’hymme A L’amour” went over extremely well with guests, who quickly took out their tablets and cellphones to photograph the pair.
The guest list for the reception was not nearly as extensive as it had been in former years, which made it easy for Maisonnave to mingle with his guests. In previous years, with rare exceptions, everyone crowded around the patio for the official part of the reception, but this year it was easier – not just because there were fewer people, but because both the entertainment and the ceremony had been moved to the rear end of the garden, where people were able to fan out rather than be crowded together like sardines.
The large wave of immigrants from France in recent years has had a gastronomic effect on the reception, in that kosher cuisine is no longer something relegated to an out-of-sight corner of the garden. The much more pronounced visibility of kosher fare began in the last two years of tenure of Maisonnave’s predecessor Christophe Bigot, and it is now a given, with French patisserie chain Courcelles doing the honors – though last year there was also another French caterer providing chicken and other hot dishes.
As he has done for many years, President Peres joined the French ambassador on the podium, along with the ever-present Gisele Abazon, a first-rate translator who works with Israeli government offices as well as the French Embassy. Abazon has a strong flair for the dramatic and as Peres has said of her: “It really doesn’t matter what I say, Gisele will improve it.”
And indeed she did, adding her own melodramatic touch to the amusement of the ambassador, who would not be the world’s best poker player.
During the official proceedings, Maisonnave noted that although Peres had attended numerous Bastille Day celebrations at the French residence, this was the first one that Maisonnave was hosting – albeit during a difficult time and in dramatic circumstances.
The ambassador emphasized France’s enduring friendship with Israel, saying that nothing leaves Paris indifferent to what the Jewish state is experiencing, adding that his country stands in solidarity with Israel as rockets continue to fall.
He commended Israel’s courage, optimism, tenacity and hope. Describing the Hamas attacks as terrorism, Maisonnave said that terror cannot be justified and is something that must be fought.
With regard to Peres, Maisonnave dubbed him a great artisan of peace, and joined Peres in the belief that peace is possible. Alluding to the fact that as of next month, Peres will be operating out of the Jaffa-based Peres Center for Peace, Maisonnave said he was happy they were going to be neighbors, but assured him that the French residence would also be his house.
Peres, too, spoke of the long friendship that Paris had demonstrated towards Jerusalem, especially at times when Israel was battling for her very existence. Terror is making life difficult for Israel, he said, but clarified that Israel has nothing against the people of Gaza, only against the terrorists who have taken over Gaza.
The following night, Maisonnave hosted a larger event in the plaza outside the French Institute in Tel Aviv.
■ AMONG THE most frequent questions put to Haaretz publisher Amos Schocken in the aftermath of his peace conference last week, was what on earth possessed him to invite Economy Minister Naftali Bennett – when he was aware that Bennett’s views are so polarized from those of the peace camp. In an interview on Israel Radio, Schocken said that until Israelis learn to make peace among themselves, they are unlikely to make peace with the Palestinians. Moreover, he is a great believer in listening to everyone’s opinion, not just the opinions of people who concur with his worldview.
■ OTHER THAN the fact that both will be spending time in prison, one thing that former prime minister Ehud Olmert and his former bureau chief Shula Zaken have in common, despite their mutual hostilities, is that both love to socialize and have continued to do so for as long as they can enjoy their freedom.
Each also has a solid group of friends who have remained with them through thick and thin.
Last week, Zaken and various members of her family were among the guests at the wedding of public relations executive Ro’i Ziv and his bride, Odelya, at Jerusalem’s View banquet halls. A week earlier, Zaken who is a fan and personal friend of singers Moshe Lahav of the Big Tisch and his wife, Racheli Horowitz, came to the Zappa Club to hear them perform and enthusiastically joined in. Zaken sat on a barstool at the back of the auditorium, and almost everyone who walked past her or came up to the bar for refreshments greeted her, and many embraced her. The evening was a tribute to poet and prolific lyricist Yoram Taharlev, who also proved himself to be a stand-up comedian and had the capacity audience in stitches.
This week, before beginning her 11-month sentence at Neveh Tirza women’s prison, Zaken on her Facebook page thanked family and friends for their support, and indicated that her long, almost eight-year nightmare of police probes and court cases was coming to an end.
If Zaken gets time off for good behavior, she will be able to spend Seder night with her family. Meanwhile, she was in synagogue last weekend.
■ ISRAEL COULD possibly feature in the upcoming Emmy Awards in Los Angeles on August 25, with the documentary film Brave Miss World. It tells story of Linor Abargil, who in 1998 at the age of 18 was viciously raped by her travel agent in Milan. Despite the trauma of her ordeal, Abargil managed to put on a brave face and went on to win the “Miss World” title in November of that year. She reported her assailant to both the Italian and the Israeli police, and he was eventually convicted.
It took a tremendous amount of courage for so public figure as Miss World to tell her story, with the aim of setting an example for every other woman who had been sexually violated. Award-winning film director Cecilia Peck, who is the daughter of former Hollywood star Gregory Peck, was sufficiently impressed with Abargil’s story to make the film, which has received impressive reviews.
Beyond the rape, Abargil’s more comprehensive personal history is fascinating in many other respects. Despite pleas from various sources that she refrain from marrying out of the faith, she went ahead and in 2006 married NBA Lithuanian basketball player Sarunas Jasikevicius, and moved to Los Angeles with him; the marriage lasted just two years. After her divorce and return to Israel, she enrolled in law school and gradually became religiously observant. In August 2010 she married Oron Kalfon, with whom she has three children, including a set of twins.
With her husband’s encouragement, Abargil maintains a website in which she encourages all women who have been raped to write down their stories. The film of her own story, which has been nominated for an Emmy Award in the category of Exceptional Merit in Documentary Filmmaking, is also indicative of her personal transformation. The Abargil who walked down runways in bikinis and strapless evening gowns is no more. These days she wears high necklines, long sleeves and skirts with hemlines below the knee, often as low as the ankle. Her hair is wrapped in a headscarf, as is customary among Orthodox married women.
What has remained is the determination to bring rapists to justice.