When Spanish Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Garcia-Margallo called on President Reuven Rivlin Wednesday and they had dispensed with the usual niceties, the Spanish visitor said that before they got around to their diplomatic discussion, he wanted to ask Rivlin a question. Knowing Rivlin is a lifelong soccer fan, Garcia-Margallo wanted to know, “Are you a fan of Barcelona or Real Madrid?” Rivlin replied that traditionally he was a fan of Real Madrid, whose progress he had been following for some 50 years, “but Barcelona is great.”
He also revealed that there is a dispute within the Rivlin family over which is the better team. “I’m in conflict with my grandchildren over [Lionel] Messi and [Cristiano] Ronaldo,” he confided.
Because he’s a multi-generational Jerusalemite, he continued, none of his grandchildren could convince him to root for a Tel Aviv team, and similarly they can’t persuade him to switch allegiance from Real Madrid to Barcelona.
The first time he traveled abroad after completing his army service, Rivlin said, it was to go to Madrid to watch Real Madrid play. He also went to Paris in 1979 to watch Real Madrid play against Liverpool in the European Cup finals.
“But Real Madrid lost,” said Garcia-Magallo.
“We like Liverpool,” conceded Rivlin, “but we went to Paris because we wanted to see Real Madrid win.”
During their discussion Garcia-Magallo also conveyed an invitation from the king of Spain to visit his country, and Rivlin readily accepted – anticipating that the visit will take place some time this year.
One of the things Rivlin and the monarch will have in common is Jerusalem. Rivlin injects something about Jerusalem into all of his conversations with foreign dignitaries, and among the many titles of Spain’s king is that of King of Jerusalem. When Rivlin meets with King Felipe VI, he might have trouble acknowledging that title, and be more inclined to think of King David.
King Felipe is familiar with the President’s Residence, having visited while still crown prince in 2011 to mark the 25th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Spain and Israel. His father, King Juan Carlos, came to Israel in 1993 and addressed the Knesset.
A year earlier, president Chaim Herzog had paid an historic visit to Spain marking the 500th anniversary of the expulsion of the Jews. He and the king had prayed together at Madrid’s Beth Yaakov synagogue, where in respect to Jewish tradition the king wore a kippa. Herzog said at the time that the reconciliation, 500 years after the Spanish Inquisition, “closes one more of the many painful cycles in the history of our people.
We cannot change the past, but we can learn its lessons and thus assure a better future for ourselves and humanity.”
Rivlin, in his conversation with Garcia-Magallo, also raised the issue of Spain granting nationality to all Sephardi Jews who could prove descent from ancestors exiled toward the end of the 15th century. Applications for citizenship under these conditions were initially approved by the Spanish Federation of Jewish Communities or by rabbis in the applicants’ places of residence, but proof now has to be submitted to Spain’s Justice Ministry, said Garcia-Magallo.
Rivlin wanted to know what happened in cases of mixed marriages. Although he is Ashkenazi, he is certain that his ancestors were among the Jews expelled from Spain, even though his antecedents – who came to Jerusalem in 1809 – had lived for a long time in Lithuania. Moreover, his children married into families from Yemen, Morocco, Iraq and Eastern Europe, and similar mixes were commonplace in Israel. Would the progeny of unions in which only one side could prove Sephardic descent be eligible for Spanish citizenship? Garcia-Magallo confessed that he didn’t know, but said he would check it out.
■ EARLIER THAT day, Rivlin had hosted an American Israel Public Affairs Committee delegation, which gave him several rousing and standing ovations.
AIPAC board chairman Michael Kassen, who introduced Rivlin to the gathering and read out part of the president’s CV, said Rivlin was known to be a football fan. Rivlin corrected him, saying, “It’s soccer, not football.”
There is indeed a distinct difference.
Later on, without disclosing that Rivlin is a vegetarian, Kassen said that if anyone wanted to invite Rivlin to dinner, they should know his favorite food is eggplant in spicy tomato sauce.
All in all, it was a busy day for Rivlin. He also met with an eight-member delegation of right-wing opinion-makers, who had been critical of what they perceived as his moving away from the Right and toward the Left. The group included Haleli Jabotinsky, the great-granddaughter of Rivlin’s guiding light Ze’ev Jabotinsky. Rivlin assured them that he continues to cling to the ideology with which he grew up, and said he had never deviated from it.
He was still a Betarist, he said, and a disciple of Jabotinsky, and proud to have come from the national camp. “I am a man of the whole of the Land of Israel, the way that I always was. I believe that we have to build not out of revenge or steps against the enemy, but out of love.”
While condemning the insults and abusive comments to which Rivlin had been subjected by some right-wing elements, the delegation noted that the right-wing public had been disappointed, distressed and even outraged by some of the things Rivlin had said – such as that Israel is a sick society, or that there are terrorists in the Israeli camp as well as in the Palestinian camp. They had also been shocked by his outright condemnation of “price-tag” activists, while refraining from equally condemning Arab stone throwers.
Rivlin made the point that he condemns the perpetrators of terror regardless of who they are and where they come from.
Generally speaking, meetings between the president and any group or individual last from 15 minutes to an hour, very seldom more than that. This particular meeting was intense and sometimes painful, and although 45 minutes had been allocated, it stretched to two hours.
■ EVERY IMMIGRANT group brings its problems as part of its baggage. Arguably, the most common problem other than language and culture is that of halachic identity.
Many immigrants believing themselves to be Jewish, and practicing Jewish traditions to one degree or another, are shocked when they come to register to get married and the rabbinical authorities question their Jewish identity.
Many immigrants from the former Soviet Union, Ethiopia and India have been forced to confront this problem. Some have traveled to Cyprus or places further afield to undergo a civil marriage – which is recognized in Israel, but cannot be performed here. Some go through a conversion process, and some simply set up house with their significant other without entering into the institution of marriage. There are also those who suffer a broken heart because they feel they don’t need to convert, but their significant other refuses to marry someone who isn’t recognized as Jewish, regardless of how much Jewish blood flows through their veins.
Now, according to a report on Arutz Sheva, the problem of halachic identity will be exacerbated by the anticipated influx of French immigrants. Happily, many will not have a language problem; French Jews interviewed on Israeli radio and television stations over the past 10 days speak a remarkably good Hebrew. But according to Ami Conversion Ulpan director Naftali Kandler, of the 10,000 French Jews who are expected to arrive as immigrants in 2015, around 15 percent will be technically non-Jewish due to assimilation and intermarriage. Kandler said that assimilation statistics in France are somewhere between 40% to 70%, depending on the particular community.
Kandler urged the Chief Rabbinate to avoid repetition of the mistake made with the massive immigration from Russia and the Soviet Union in the 1990s, and to open large-scale conversion centers to determine the Jewish status of new immigrants and if necessary, provide a study program that will lead to conversion and full integration into Israeli society.
■ REACTING TO criticism of his participation in the massive unity rally in Paris this week, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday night told a mega-gathering of Taglit-Birthright participants from around the globe who congregated at the Jerusalem International Convention Center that he was proud to represent Israel alongside world leaders as they marched in Paris, united in the fight against terrorism. The French citizens rightfully proclaimed “Je suis Charlie,” he said, “but the relevant question remains: Can Jews everywhere march in the streets and proclaim ‘Je suis Juif?’” In Israel, Netanyahu continued, every Jew can say “I am a Jew,” without any fear or hesitation and with great pride. The prime minister called on Jews around the world to come to Israel, telling them this was their land and birthright.
The mega-event was in celebration of Taglit’s 15th anniversary; founders Michael and Judy Steinhardt were in the audience.
Emotions ran high as thousands of participants stood for a moment of silence in memory of Yoav Hattab, one of the victims of last week’s terror attack on a kosher supermarket in Paris – who only two weeks prior had visited Israel with Taglit, and had already decided to live in Israel. Unfortunately, he returned in a coffin.
Earlier this week, 20 donors and dedicated supporters from the Birthright Israel Foundation’s Benefactors Circle arrived in Israel and met with Rivlin. Among them were: Chieftain Capital Management managing director Tom Stern and his wife, Denise; Ulysses Management president Joshua Nash; Clarfeld Wealth Strategists and Financial Confidantes CEO Rob Clarfeld and his wife, Kirsten; Tenth Avenue Holdings CEO Joel Citron; Newtyn Partners CFO Aaron Fischer; and Maimonides Fund president Mark Charendoff.
■ ALTHOUGH DIPLOMATIC spouses have household help, many of them like to spend time in the kitchen cooking, not just for their families but also for guests. That may have been one of the reasons that the guest speaker at the Diplomatic Spouses Club Israel this week was Tom Franz, 2013’s charismatic winner of the popular MasterChef contest.
Franz has since made quite a reputation for himself. The DSCI members who filled the living room at the Austrian ambassador’s residence in Herzliya Pituah, where they were hosted by the ambassador’s wife Maria Kuglitsch, found him to be charismatic and determined – as he described his conversion to Judaism and his struggle to win the reality show competition, saying it was a personal journey strewn with many obstacles along the way. But now, everyone knows the German-born master chef, and Franz can’t walk the streets of Tel Aviv without someone stopping to congratulate or compliment him. He has more invitations to speak or to cater than two human beings could fill.
Not only did he speak at DSCI’s monthly meeting, but he good-naturedly tasted dishes that members created from recipes found in So schmeckt Israel, his first book after the big win, on the flavor of Israeli cuisine. Without complaint, he sipped members’ cream of fennel soup, made to his exact specifications, as was his Israel salad of oranges and black olives – which has become a big hit that “we love as much as we are captivated by him,” said Mary Knight, whose husband, Bill Grant, is deputy chief of mission at the US Embassy.
Franz’s audience was enchanted and touched by his earnest retelling of his life to date: a law career that wasn’t fulfilling; choices about where he wanted to settle, far from Germany, which would certainly hurt his parents; a religious conversion to Judaism that was full of roadblocks, including the mastering of a new language; and a latent talent for cooking he simply took for granted, and felt no urge to flaunt. However, his self-awareness, a level head and a well-directed inner voice propelled him steadily forward, despite the difficulties, to a faith that nourished him and a woman who complemented him.
Today, he lives in Israel with that woman – his wife, Dana – and their two sons. And he is winning at life, far beyond his original expectations of himself and the elusive happiness he thought might pass him by.
■ IF RESULTS of primaries, mergers and reserved slots for women are any indication of what the 20th Knesset will comprise, it would seem at this stage that while there may not be more women legislators than ever before, women will nonetheless wield greater influence.
The 19th Knesset with 27 women was an all-time record, but still fell dismally short – given that women comprise more than 50 percent of the population. But with the Zionist Camp list that includes Tzipi Livni, Shelly Yacimovich, Stav Shaffir and Merav Michaeli in guaranteed Knesset seats; Miri Regev in one of the top spots in the Likud; Ayelet Shaked in Bayit Yehudi; as well as women figuring prominently on other lists, the distaff influence will weigh with greater force in the incoming Knesset.
On top of all that, Miriam Naor was yesterday appointed president the Supreme Court – the second woman in a little over eight years to hold the position. Let’s not forget that a woman is also governor of the Bank of Israel, two women hold the top positions in two leading banks, a woman is president of Ben-Gurion University and another woman is president of the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities. And that’s just a short list.
■ LABOR PARTY candidates, who inundated members with phone calls, emails and texts, voiced appreciation to voters at the presentation at Kibbutz Shefayim of winners of realistic places in the Labor primary. But only Miki Rosenthal, on the morning the results were announced, immediately sent out an SMS thanking all those who had placed their confidence in him.
■ SECOND-GENERATION candidate Omar Bar-Lev, who scored well and abstained from wheeling and dealing, has followed his late father in more ways than one.
His father, Haim Bar-Lev, was an IDF chief of staff; Omer didn’t get quite that far, but he was a commander of the General Staff Reconnaissance Unit and later a brigade commander. Both father and son studied at two different universities: Haim Bar-Lev studied business management and economics at Columbia University and political science at the University of Paris; Omer Bar-Lev studied agronomy at the Hebrew University and international relations and strategy at Tel Aviv University.
Haim Bar-Lev was a member of the Labor Party, and his son is also a member; the essential difference is that his father was the party’s secretary-general from 1977 to 1984.
Haim Bar-Lev held three ministerial portfolios: trade and industry, development and police, whereas Omer has not yet held any portfolio because Labor was in opposition during his Knesset term.
Interviewed on Channel 1 on the night of the Labor primary and asked whether he wanted to be defense minister, he said he didn’t think it was necessary for a good defense minister to be an IDF officer – commenting that Shimon Peres, who had been very good in that post, had never gotten past the rank of private in his army service.
One other area in which Omer has yet to catch up with his father is diplomacy. Two years prior to his death, Haim Bar-Lev was appointed ambassador to Russia.[email protected]