Grapevine: A matter of timing

At the 24th World Conference on Jewish Law, President Rivlin made it clear that corruption is pervasive, and that it doesn’t apply to any specific sector of society.

December 25, 2014 21:57
Reuven Rivlin

Reuven Rivlin. (photo credit: HAIM ZACH/GPO)

When Rabbi Ratzon Arusi, the convener of the 24th World Conference on Jewish Law, chose the theme of dealing with corruption from a halachic perspective, it is unlikely he anticipated the corruption tsunami that would take place on the same day as the conference.

President Reuven Rivlin, who was invited to the opening session, had already prepared a speech punctuated by biblical and Talmudic quotes, but which at the last minute had to be amended in light of the day’s events. Rivlin made it clear that corruption is pervasive, and that it doesn’t apply to any specific sector of society.

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Without naming names, he went through a short list of the public figures who are facing corruption charges or are being investigated on suspicion of corruption. They include a former chief rabbi, a former prime minister and former government ministers, mayors, local council heads, judges, legislators, city council members, police, et al.

To paraphrase Shakespeare, there is something rotten in the State of Israel. But while castigating abusers of power, we should remember that frugal cooks who have to work with rotten fruit and vegetables cut away the rot, and use the remaining good parts in a stew. Few people are so corrupt there is nothing good to say about them; they should certainly be punished for their misdeeds, but their good deeds and patriotism should not be ignored.

There is a tendency by the holier than thou crowd, when condemning people for corruption, to overlook the positive things they have done and to want to continue the punishment after they have paid their debt to society. A notable exception in this respect is the public’s attitude to former Jerusalem mayor Uri Lupolianski – who used bribes in the Holyland Affair to boost the work of Yad Sarah, the nationwide health and social welfare organization he founded, thereby helping untold thousands of people with disabilities and ill health. Since Lupolianski didn’t take the money for himself, but directed it towards a noble cause, many people have come forward to argue he be given the most lenient of sentences.

■ RIVLIN WAS introduced at the Jewish Law Conference by former Knesset colleague Nissan Slomiansky, who heads the Knesset Finance Committee and may be investigated by the attorney-general for pushing through funding for settlement activities during an election period. Several of the committee members complained and said the allocation of funds had been so rapid and aggressive they had no time to study the documents or ask relevant questions.

In introducing Rivlin, Slomiansky said he is a man who loves his heritage. “We have a president we can invite without hesitation, a president who knows the Torah, the territory and the State of Israel, and can talk face to face with all sectors of society,” said Slomiansky. “We have a president we can rely on in every sense, because he is a man of integrity.”

Reporters in the hall were pleased to hear Rivlin advocate for giving more support to the media, so it will be better-equipped to expose corruption.

At religious events of this kind, it is not uncommon for men and women to sit separately, with a screen usually coming down the center of the room to designate gender division. However, on this occasion, there were so many men that women were literally relegated to the side – and were positioned so badly that most could see neither the stage nor the video screen. Yet members of the president’s female staff plus the writer of this column chose to be in the men’s section, albeit against the wall – and to the credit of every male present, not one asked them to leave or to join the other women.

■ GENERALLY SPEAKING, no ambassador likes to have someone else steal his thunder at his country’s National Day celebration – yet Doulat Kuanyshev, the recently arrived ambassador of Kazakhstan, not only expected but welcomed it both publicly and privately. At the reception he hosted to mark Kazakhstan’s 23rd anniversary of independence, he welcomed one of his predecessors, Byrganym Aitimova, Kazakhstan’s first ambassador to Israel who currently serves as her country’s permanent representative to the UN.

Aitimova was in Israel as the personal envoy of Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev to ask for support for the country’s candidature for non-permanent membership in the UN Security Council for the period 2017-2018. Towards this end, she met with Rivlin, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman. She also made a point of sitting down with former president Shimon Peres, who is a personal friend of Nazarbayev’s and has attended the inter-religious and interracial dialogues convened by the Kazakh president in hopes of bringing world peace.

Aside from official business, the visit was a series of joyful reunions for Aitimova, who has many friends in Israel in many spheres of society. At the reception hosted by Kuanyshev, who also happens to be a personal friend of hers, she was thrilled to see Immigration and Absorption Minister Sofa Landver, who was representing the government. The two women fell into each other’s arms and began chattering merrily in Russian like two schoolgirls. Another figure from the past was former prime minister and defense minister Ehud Barak, who Kuanyshev invited to join the official party on the dais; Agriculture Minister Yair Shamir, who arrived when the speeches were over, was also invited to the dais.

Throughout the evening, Aitimova was surrounded either by members of Israel’s Kazakh community, who had known her when she was ambassador; or by members of the International Women’s Club, who could not stop complimenting her chic appearance.

In his address, Kuanyshev spoke of his pride in being appointed to serve in Israel, and how pleased he was to have Aitimova join him at the reception. In the short period he has been in Israel, he has learned Kazakhstan has many friends in Israel; relations between the two countries are frank and friendly, he noted, and marked by open dialogue. There is close cooperation on all levels between the two governments, especially in agriculture, telecommunications, healthcare and security, with special attention to fighting terrorism.

Characterizing his country as an example of pluralistic harmony, Kuanyshev said there are a hundred ethnic groups in Kazakhstan, including the Jewish community – which maintains the largest synagogue in Central Asia.

As almost always happens at events of this kind, the noise level was more than annoying, making it difficult for those guests who were genuinely interested in what was being said, or were sufficiently polite to refrain from speaking during the speeches, to hear the ambassador’s remarks. An embassy member approached the microphone and asked guests to be considerate of Landver, but he may as well have spoken to the wall.

The crescendo of babble rose as she spoke, to the extent she almost had to scream into the microphone to be heard. Even people standing in the front row, where they could be seen from the dais, were talking. One Anglo who rarely attends such events was shocked, saying he had never encountered such rudeness.

Landver spoke in Hebrew, and Shlomo Morgan of the Foreign Ministry’s protocol department read out her address in English. Morgan was also upset by the noise and asked those present to show a little respect; that request was likewise ignored.

Landver said Jerusalem-Astana relations are based on mutual respect, common values, common heritage and similar interests in various fields. She also noted that Kazakhstan’s Jewish community and Israelis of Kazakh descent serve as a human bridge in the enhancement of bilateral relations. Over the past year, she continued, bilateral links between the two countries have expanded significantly, as illustrated by the many high-level visits in both directions – most notably in the visit to Israel by former Kazakh defense minister Adilbek Dzhaksybekov.

Moving back in time, Landver said Israel will always remember the hospitality of the Kazakh people, who offered refuge to tens of thousands of Jews during World War II.

As is always the case at Kazakhstan receptions, guests were treated to song and dance. Three extraordinarily graceful dancers, dressed in traditional costumes, actually managed to lower the tone of the talk as people gathered to watch. Singer Haydus Omarov, who has an operatic voice but also sings his country’s favorite pop songs, had many of his fellow countrymen singing along and dancing.

■ WHO SAYS you can’t dance at two weddings at the same time? Well, it wasn’t exactly at the same time, but nearly.

On the same night as the Kazakh event, Chinese Ambassador Gao Yanping had a farewell reception at Tel Aviv’s Dan Hotel, where guests included Barak and his wife, Nili Priel; Shamir; Liberman; former interior minister Gideon Sa’ar and his wife, television broadcaster Geula Even; Attorney- General Yehuda Weinstein, who shook hands with Liberman but presumably did not reveal the political earthquake awaiting the foreign minister’s Yisrael Beytenu party the following day; Eugene Kandel, head of the National Economic Council; Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai; Hebrew University president Menahem Ben-Sasson; Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund chairman Efi Stenzler; former agriculture minister Orit Noked; and many other well-known figures from Israel’s business, political and diplomatic communities who had befriended Gao and worked with her during the three years that she spent in Israel.

The 300 guests were able to sample both Israeli and authentic Chinese cuisine. The Chinese Embassy put two of its chefs at the disposal of Dan Hotel chef Oved Alafia, and they added to the Chinese flavor of the evening.

Liberman praised Gao for the tremendous amount she had done to advance and strengthen Sino-Israel relations on all levels, while Gao made a point of thanking each and every one of the people who had cooperated with and supported her in her work. She pledged to remain a great friend of Israel’s and said she would continue to promote good relations between China and Israel in all her future roles.

■ OF ALL the television viewers who watched the Channel 2 reality show The Race to the Million, the ones arguably most glued to their sets were those of Georgian origin – not least of whom was Georgian Ambassador Paata Kalandadze. The reason: For six episodes, the contest was located in Georgia, and viewers were given a broad range of scenes of the country.

For Georgian viewers, it was a mix of pride and nostalgia. Kalandadze was so moved by the whole thing that he decided to host a reception replete with Georgian delicacies and wines at the Georgian Embassy in honor of the participants, who had brought his country to the attention of the Israeli public.

The contestants told Kalandadze of the warm hospitality and cooperation they had received from his fellow countrymen and women during the relatively long period they had spent in Georgia. The ambassador, for his part, explained that the good relations between Georgians and Jews can be traced back 2,600 years. Georgia was one of the regions in which Jews who had become dispersed in the immediate aftermath of the destruction of the First Temple found refuge.

When asked why Georgia was chosen as a major location, Reshet producers replied that it was simply because people in Israel had demonstrated such an interest in Georgia. Kalandadze was not surprised and told his guests that during the summer, some 80,000 Israelis had visited the country.

Coincidentally, in the same week Kalandadze held his reception, Harry Wall, founder of the YouTube travelogue series on Jewish heritage and contemporary life around the world – which combines his longtime passions of travel, Jewish heritage and reportage – released his report on Georgia. A Jewish Journey Along the Silk Road features glorious photography by Richard Nowitz, in what Wall terms “a snapshot of Jewish life and culture.” Both Wall and Nowitz are Americans who lived in Israel for several years before returning to the US, but still have many friends in Israel.

■ AMONG THE negative characteristics of Israelis is what is termed in Hebrew as ein firgun – an inability to be gracious about and appreciative of another’s success.

Given his popularity, one would have thought that when outgoing IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Benny Gantz came to take his leave of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, there would have been a full house to thank him for his service and wish him well in whatever he undertakes in the future.

But no: Out of the 17 committee members, only five showed up, plus Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein. The five included committee chairman Ze’ev Elkin (Likud); Kadima chairman Shaul Mofaz, who happens to be a former chief of staff himself; former defense minister Nissim Ze’ev (Shas); Merav Michaeli (Labor); and Meir Porush (United Torah Judaism).

Michaeli even posed for a selfie with Gantz, but got him to click the camera – because as she said in a post on her Facebook, “he has the longer reach.” Michaeli also made a point of praising Gantz’s qualities and his level of cooperation with the Knesset.

Gantz was not oblivious to the small turnout, and observed that what the forum lacked in quantity was compensated by its quality.

■ IT’S NOT only people on the Center-Left who live to a venerable age; those on the Right have also been granted longevity. Former MK and firebrand of the now defunct Tehiya party, Geula Cohen, who happens to be the mother of Deputy Foreign Minister Tzachi Hanegbi, turned 89 on Christmas Day; and former Likud MK and foreign and defense minister Moshe Arens turns 89 on Saturday. Both are still energetic and active in many spheres.

So-called experts used to explain the extraordinary long lives of numerous biblical characters by saying that in those days, time was calculated differently, and nobody lived for that many years. However, as increasing numbers of people around the world are now living to celebrate triple-digit birthdays while also staying in possession of their faculties, it seems the Bible – which also tells us there is nothing new under the sun – is indeed the book of prophecy.

It should also be remembered that residents of the Caucasus Mountains have for centuries been living to ages well past 100.

■ NO ONE, including his staunchest rivals, will deny Netanyahu works hard and gets very little sleep, but his monthly salary is only NIS 47,300. Although the president may be working just as many long hours, he does not have the responsibilities of the prime minister, yet earns NIS 56,550. Of course both sums are exceedingly high in relation to the basic wage, but compared to what others in high office are earning, two of the most important people in the country are getting bobkes. In contrast, senior physicians and hospital directors and managers are receiving monthly salaries in excess of NIS 100,000. They are doing important work, and many work more than an eight-hour day – but so does the prime minister.

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