If there are indeed rifts in the Israel-US relationship as most of the media in Israel and some in America would have us believe, they were put aside on Wednesday night, or alternately one could say that people at the top of the totem pole are very good actors. There were cordial, even affectionate relations all round when US Ambassador Dan Shapiro and his wife, Julie Fisher , in celebration of America’s 239th Independence Day, hosted at their residence some 2,000 people of different stars and stripes – members of Congress; American expats; Israeli Jews; Christians and Muslims; straights; gays; government ministers; members of Knesset; business leaders; representatives of the visual and performing arts, such as Idan Reichel (who brought his infant daughter), David Broza , Shlomi Shabat and Eyal Golan , who all posed for endless selfies with other guests; military personnel, including IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Gadi Eisenkot ; and diplomats.
As always, the two guests of honor were the president and the prime minister of Israel, and as always, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu came with his wife, Sara . After Shapiro’s address, Netanyahu got up and embraced him, and after Netanyahu’s address, Shapiro rose from his seat and embraced him. Their speeches were mutually complimentary – to each other and to each other’s country and of course to the special friendship and alliance between the two countries. At the outset, Shapiro, speaking on behalf of US President Barack Obama , Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State John Kerry , welcomed President Reuven Rivlin , who was there for the first time in his current capacity, thanked Netanyahu and his wife for their long years of friendship, and thanked Israel for its partnership and friendship with America. He greeted his Muslim guests with “Ramadan mubarak ” and thanked the American companies that had sponsored the event and were contributing to economic relations between America and Israel. One of those companies was Noble Energy, which is so much in the news of late. In welcoming the members of the diplomatic community, Shapiro singled out Canadian Ambassador Vivian Bercovici because the date was actually that of Canada Day.
Shapiro described relations between the US and Israel as “an unshakable alliance” and said that the founding fathers of the US had been deeply influenced by Jewish tradition and the Bible. He also spoke of how America stands with Israel in the trenches fighting every day and wherever Israel’s legitimacy and right to exist are called into question. He condemned the “outrageous terrorist attacks” on Israelis and expressed condolences to the families of the victims. Shapiro also reiterated America’s commitment to the goal of a comprehensive Israeli-Arab peace and a two-state solution.
Rivlin also referred to Ramadan and wished the Muslim guests “ Ramadan kareem.” Alluding to the acts of terrorism, he said that Ramadan should be celebrated as a festival of peace and love. Recalling what America meant to him as a boy and a young man in Jerusalem, Rivlin listed John Wayne, Gary Cooper, Rita Hayworth, Marlon Brando and a bright red Cadillac de Ville. On a more serious note Rivlin said that Israel’s relations with America were first and foremost of an emotional nature, due to the role it played in freeing Europe from the Nazis and its ongoing stand for freedom and liberty and against tyranny.
“On the Fourth of July, all Israelis unite with our American brothers and sisters. It’s our celebration, too. That’s because the history of our two countries is remarkably intertwined,” said Netanyahu. The founding fathers of the United States were inspired by the Bible, and specifically by the book of the Exodus, by the dream of building freedom in a new Promised Land, noting that when one stands in the chamber of the American Congress, “you see right across you the image of one man – Moses, with a quote from the Bible.”
Since the establishment of the United States, he continued, the vision of justice and the vision of peace espoused by the prophets of Israel served as a guiding light for Americans from Thomas Jefferson to Abraham Lincoln to Martin Luther King and to many others seeking to form a more perfect union. Just as the heritage of the Jewish people inspired America, said Netanyahu, “America inspired us.” The founding fathers of Zionism were inspired by the American Revolution and the ideas of freedom and liberty, he said. “Zionism has always been about freedom, about national freedom, the Jewish people returning to our ancestral homeland to rebuild our one and only sovereign state. But it’s also been about personal freedom. We built the State of Israel on the same democratic foundations upon which the United States was built.”
Moving into the present, Netanyahu spoke of the tyranny plaguing the Middle East, where majorities are oppressed, minorities are persecuted, women are subjugated, gays are lynched, and the press, if there is any, is muzzled. In this turbulent and violent Middle East, he declared, Israel stands out as a beacon of freedom and human rights. “The Middle East is imploding all around us. States that have existed for a century are disintegrating. The forces of militant Islam are rushing to fill the void – the militant Sunnis led by ISIS, the militant Shi’ites led by Iran.”
It goes without saying that Netanyahu could not deliver a Fourth of July address without mentioning Iran, which he said “conducts a campaign of aggression in the region and terrorism worldwide.” In the fight against terrorism, Netanyahu emphasized, “We stand with America. America stands with us. Iran’s quest for a nuclear weapon, Iran’s worldwide campaign of terrorism and aggression, must be stopped. So, too, must the campaign of ISIS, whose savagery is now sweeping the Middle East.” In this context Netanyahu referred to recent terrorist attacks in Israel and Egypt. “We see ISIS at the gates – across the border in the Golan, across the border in Egypt. We send our condolences to the government and people of Egypt for the fallen Egyptians slain by ISIS terror.”
Getting back to Israel’s relations with America, Netanyahu said: “The values we share are at the heart of the unbreakable bond between the United States and Israel. We are family. We are mishpucha . And we are partners.” In concluding, Netanyahu expressed appreciation to Obama, the United States Congress and the people of America for their continued support. “Israel has no better friend than America, and America has no better friend than Israel,” said Netanyahu, but he warned: “Neither one of us can take life and liberty and the pursuit of happiness for granted. Americans and Israelis have paid a high price to protect these sacred principles. We are stronger when we face our great challenges together.”
As always, the festivities ended with a magnificent display of fireworks provided by Gett Fireworks. The expressions of awe and delight on the faces of Rivlin and Netanyahu proved that no matter how high a position one reaches, the residue of the child in all of us remains. Entertainment for the evening was provided by the Tel Aviv Quintet from the Israel Conservatory of Music, the Touch ‘n’ Go Ensemble of the US Air Forces in Europe, the Whiffenpoofs of Yale University and the hip hop duo Kafe Shahor Hazak. Outside of the residence a sizable group of social activists mounted a protest against the government’s policy on the control of off-shore natural gas resources.
■ EQUAL RIGHTS for Arab citizens are something that Rivlin promotes on a frequent basis. There will be more equality than usual on Sunday when he hosts an Iftar dinner for leaders of Muslim communities in Israel, because the fast of the 17th of Tamuz this year coincides with Ramadan. The 17th of Tamuz is actually on Saturday, but as Jews don’t fast on Shabbat unless Yom Kippur happens to fall on a Saturday, the fast was moved to Sunday. Actually, the Muslims have it better because they only have to wait to a little after twilight to break the fast, whereas Jews have to wait until it’s properly dark. The fast for Jews officially concludes at 8:16 p.m.
■ WITH ALL the anti-Iran sentiment, people are inclined to forget that in the early years of the state, Iran was the second Muslim-majority country to establish diplomatic relations with Israel, send a diplomatic representative to Israel in March 1950, and to subsequently host an Israeli embassy in its capital. Meir Ezri , Israel’s first ambassador to Iran, who served from 1958 to 1973, died this week at age 92. Ezri, who was born in Iran, immigrated to Israel in 1950, was active in the Jewish Agency and worked diligently towards creating diplomatic, economic and security ties between the land of his forefathers and the land of his birth.
■ SO NEAR and yet so far. Yehuda Michael, a charming and articulate young man from Israel’s Ethiopian community who did his military service in the Border Police, has won a scholarship to Brandeis University and was eagerly looking forward to being able to defend Israel’s image on campus. But there’s a snag and he may not be able to do so. When he applied two weeks and three days before the expiration of the deadline for entries, he did not imagine that he would be accepted, and was overjoyed when notified to the contrary last Friday. The class begins on August 27, and he is now in a frenzy to complete arrangements such as his final university exams and seminar papers in Israel, filling out registration forms and visa application forms.
The snag lies in the fact that the scholarship does not include living expenses – housing, health insurance, transportation and some other expenses – and he is expected to show proof of his ability to support himself. If he fails to do so by July 15, he will lose the scholarship, and it will be transferred to the next candidate. Because he has no family, he has no backup support. His savings are meager, because whatever money he did have paid for his university tuition toward his BA degree and for his rent. He can pay for his flight to the United States and has enough money for his first month on campus. He hopes to find work in order to be able to support himself during the period he will spend at Brandeis. However, if he does not get financial help quickly, he won’t get to Brandeis. If there is an organization or an individual willing to lend him money or to sponsor him, please email the address at the bottom of this column.
■ IT’S PAR for the course for an ambassador hosting a national day reception to thank the minister representing the government for coming to honor his country. In the case of Croatian Ambassador Pjer Simunovic , it was more than mere politeness. Ministers from the present government have begged off from this line of duty. MK Bennie Begin, during his brief stint as a minister, was one of the exceptions. Environmental Protection Minister Avi Gabai , who was scheduled to attend the Croatian event and then notified the Foreign Ministry that he was unable to do so, changed his mind again almost literally in the last minute and showed up at the Dan Hotel in Tel Aviv much to the ambassador’s delight, though some of his colleagues were peeved, because ambassadors who had been scheduled to represent the government at their events had bowed out due to urgent Knesset business. In view of the natural gas debate going on in the Knesset, some ambassadors could not fathom Gabai’s presence. It had to be explained to them that Gabai was the only minister free to fulfill such an obligation, because he is not an MK.
In welcoming the guests, Simunovic said that June 25, 1991, had been a historic date in his country. This was the day on which Sabor, the Croatian parliament, had proclaimed Croatia’s independence and sovereignty, following the collapse of communism and disintegration of the former federal state of Yugoslavia. Since that day, said the ambassador, Croatia has been able to defend its freedom and independence, and has joined the community of Western democracies by becoming a member of NATO and the European Union. Croatia has forged strong ties with Israel in all spheres, said Simunovic, adding that his country remains fully committed to expanding the full spectrum of its relations with Israel.
“Our deep respect is reserved for Israel’s most admirable successes, for its genuine miracles,” he said as he voiced his blessings for peace and prosperity for the State of Israel, including a just and lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians. Simunovic also expressed condolences for the victims of the recent terrorist attacks in the region and in Europe.
Gabai disdained the text that had been prpared for him by the Foreign Ministry’s Protocol Department and spoke extemporaneous - ly. He referred to the shared values and interests between Israel and Croatia, to their current friendship, and the difficult path to independence which both countries had over - come.
As has been previously mentioned in this column, Dan Hotels, which has so many embassies on its list of clientele, tries to introduce the traditional foods of those embassies whenever any of them has a function at one of the hotels in the chain. In this case the hotel included shtrukli, a Croatian pastry similar to burekas, prepared by Dan Hotel chef Guy Kalfat .
■ THERE WAS great excitement at the Slovenian reception when the word spread that Netanyahu would be briefing ambassadors the following day. All the ambassadors present had been invited to a briefing at the For - eign Ministry, but in the absence of a full time minister, several had decided to give the briefing a miss. Simunovic was apparently the first to learn that the briefing would be given by Netanyahu, who is also the custodian of the Foreign Minister’s portfolio. The rumor spread like wildfire but could not be confirmed by Foreign Ministry personnel who were present, because they had not yet been told. But the ambassadors were unanimous in their decision that if it was indeed true, they would all be in Jerusalem on Wednesday.
■ THERE WAS no government minister at the relatively intimate reception hosted by Slovenian Ambassador Alenka Suhudolnik , and the message of the government was delivered by Aviv Shir-On , the Foreign Ministry’s deputy director-general for Europe, who had spent a year in his diplomatic year as nonresident ambassador to Slovenia. Israel was one of the first countries to recognize Slovenia and also provided assistance in Slovenia’s War of Independence, he said. One of Slovenia’s similarities to Israel, he observed, is its tremendous ability with regard to innovation. The Israeli best-seller Start-Up Nation has been translated into Slovenian, as have many other books by Israeli authors, said Shir-On. While Israel and Slovenia enjoy a very good relationship, said Shir-On, there is a lot of untapped potential in the economic and cultural fields.
For Suhudolnik, it was a bittersweet occasion. This was the last of four such receptions that she has hosted. She is winding up her tenure and will leave toward the end of the year. She thanked all the Israelis who had made her feel that Israel was her home. She was happy to report a 2.7 percent growth last year in her country’s GDP and said that the first quarter of this year looked even better. One of the things she had learned in Israel was to make short speeches, she said. The first time that she had hosted such a reception was on the longest day of the year. Her friend Austrian Ambassador Franz-Josef Kuglitsch, eyeing the sheaf of papers she was carrying, said that it looked like a very long speech. She quickly got the message that even though it was the longest day, it did not have to be the longest speech, and she discarded much of it. Suhodolnik, together with Yossi Weiss, the Israel representative for Adria Airways, announced that Ela Erbežnik was the winner of a Slovenia photo contest, saying that it had been difficult to make a choice because so many wonderful photos had been submitted.
■ TO COMMEMORATE the sudden passing a month ago of Prof. Robert Wistrich , the Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Antisemitism at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem has organized a commemorative evening dedicated to the man and his work The event at the Maiersdorf Faculty Club on the university’s Mount Scopus campus will take place on Tuesday evening, July 7. All addresses will be delivered in English. Among the speakers will be former Canadian justice minister Irwin Cotler, with Dubi Wistrich speaking on behalf of the family.
■ TO WELCOME the summer season, Rafi Sadeh , the CEO of the Dan Hotel chain, hosted a reception with a Thai flavor for the company’s regular clientele, and naturally invited Thai Ambassador Angsana Sihapitak . The event at the Dan Accadia on the Herzliya beachfront also heralded the launch of the Thailand at the Dan Hotels project whereby a certain number of Thai culinary delights will appear on buffets and restaurant menus at all Dan hotels. The Dan chain has quite a long history of promoting Thai cuisine. Many of the Who’s Who of the chain mingled with the guests not only to get their opinions of the quality of the Thai food but also to strengthen relations between the chain and its patrons.