IN A so-called post-Zionist era, all it takes to prove that the flame of Zionism still burns in the Jewish heart, is a security crisis such as the one confronting Israel and the Jewish world.
One indication is the fact that there has been large scale immigration from France and the United States during Operation Protective Edge. More than 20 of those who arrived this week from the US with Nefesh B’Nefesh are going straight into the army, and some 30 of the arrivals have opted to live in the South. None of the people who had signed up for this flight of immigrants from the US dropped out, and many came with babies and young children. True, some of the French immigrants have come out of fear of rising anti-Semitic incidents in France, but many have come for ideological reasons. As always happens when Israel is under extreme threat, tourism is down, but solidarity missions are up and there have been and continue to be numerous missions from the Diaspora, all heading South to see for themselves the proximity of communities along the Gaza Strip to the places from which rockets are being fired in Gaza.
The Orthodox Union solidarity mission due to arrive towards the end of the week, led by Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb and Rabbi Steven Weil, will not only tour the South but will spend Shabbat in Sderot. Before returning to the US the mission will visit wounded soldiers in hospital and pay condolence calls to families of fallen soldiers.
Perhaps one of the greatest expressions of the lingering flame of Zionism was in the tens of thousands of people, including US Ambassador Dan Shapiro, who attended the late night funeral in Haifa of Sgt. Sean Carmeli, who had come from Texas to join the IDF. Very few people at the funeral actually knew him, but felt the need to pay their respects to a young man who could have easily chosen a safer more laid back and comfortable life style. Carmeli was one of several lone soldiers killed or wounded. While there have been many anti-Israel demonstrations around the world spurred by photos of Gazan casualties resulting from Israeli air strikes, foreign leaders and their governments have shown unusual understanding for Israel’s right to defend itself. That may well be because so many heads of diplomatic missions stationed in Israel have been to the South and have fled to shelters there as well as in their embassies and residences, experiencing the anxiety that accompanies a Color Red alert. In fact 50 of them were at Ashdod City Hall Monday for a briefing from Mayor Yehiel Lasri and Deputy Foreign Minister Tzachi Hanegbi when the sound of a siren shattered the whole area, and some of them went into momentary shock as they ran for shelter. The reports they have sent home have undoubtedly reflected those anxieties and have given foreign policy makers a clearer understanding.
Government ministers and Knesset members of have also taken their duties as representatives of the public much more seriously. They have paid frequent visits to southern communities and to hopitalized soldiers, talking to people of all ages and backgrounds to try to set their minds at rest. Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman may arguably hold the ministerial record for visiting the South. Knowing that seeing is believing, he has taken a series of visiting foreign ministers to the most dangerous areas where they have on occasion scurried to bomb shelters.
While Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has been busy doing an admirable job as the responsible adult, notwithstanding implied criticism from some of his ministers, his wife Sara has been visiting wounded soldiers in hospital and talking to their families. The prime minister, despite all his other concerns, has made time to visit some of the soldiers in the hospital as well as in the field. In fact, he’s doing so much in so many places, that it’s a wonder that he gets any sleep at all.
As for the wounded soldiers, they exemplify the spirit of Israel.
Those who are lightly wounded can’t wait to be discharged so that they can rejoin the front.
Their families, though worried about them, are for the most part encouraging their determination.
And then there are all the organizations and institutions that are providing fun days for children from the South and taking them to summer camps, museums, beaches and parks.
Some organizations are making purchases from southern merchants whose income has radically deteriorated.
And finally, but certainly not least, is the power of prayer.
Following a mass prayer rally at the Western Wall that was led last Saturday night by Rabbi Shlomo Amar, former chief rabbi, another even larger prayer meeting for the safety and success of the soldiers on the front lines will be held at the Western Wall Wednesday evening at 7 p.m. with the participation of Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef and Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau, along with many other prominent rabbis from around the country. Even so-called anti-Zionist rabbis have offered prayers for Israel to emerge safely from this battle for its existence.
Cynical Israelis? Post Zionism? Not if you take a close-up look.
■ PRESIDENT-ELECT Reuven Rivlin, whose inauguration will take place at the Knesset Thursday evening, has already slipped into his role through force of circumstance.
Rivlin joined Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat in visiting wounded soldiers at Hadassah University Medical Center, in Jerusalem’s Ein Kerem. Rivlin said that he was deeply moved by the courage and attitudes of the soldiers.
“We have fantastic young people who love peace and want peace,” he said, “but understand that inasmuch as they want peace, there is still a need to maintain the current policy because there are still those who refuse to accept the State of Israel as a fact of life, and our soldiers know this.”
“We did not declare war. It was declared upon us,” he said.
Rivlin will focus on a more ideological theme next Sunday evening in the flurry of his initial duties as Israel’s 10th president.
Although his name does not appear in any of the advertisements for the 74th anniversary commemoration of the death of Ze’ev Jabotinsky who was the ideologue of the democratically inclined Right, it is almost inconceivable that Rivlin, who for more than quarter of a century was a Likud MK, would fail to honor his ideological mentor at a state ceremony under the joint auspices of the Prime Ministers Office and the World Zionist Organization. However his spokesmen could not say for certain what he will be doing on Sunday, because so much has changed and is changing during Operation Protective Edge.
Nonetheless, with or without Rivlin, at this moment in time the venue remains the plaza of the National Institutions, more popularly known as the Jewish Agency compound on the capital’s King George Street. Speakers include former foreign and defense minister Moshe Arens, former cabinet secretary Arye Naor and Yaakov Hagoel, the head of the WZO’s Department for Activities in Israel and Countering Anti-Semitism.
■ PRESIDENT SHIMON Peres this week canceled a farewell event for journalists who have been covering his activities over the past seven years.
Peres had invited journalists to join him on Tuesday in a festive review of his term, but decided on Sunday afternoon that he had to clear his desk of most last minute commitments in order to fulfill his duty as president till the very last moment and devoted most of his time to visiting bereaved families of fallen soldiers and keeping tabs on developments on the battlefront.
However, he did manage to meet with Rwandan Foreign Affairs Minister Louise Mushikiwabo, and will meet Wednesday morning with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. He may also have a chance to meet with US Secretary of State John Kerry before handing over the reins.
■ ALTHOUGH THE government is not speaking to Hamas, several journalists who cover Palestinian issues, most certainly are, among them Gal Berger of Israel Radio whose reports include information he has gleaned from his conversations with high ranking Hamas personnel. While Hamas refuses to recognize Israel, it seems that its people have no problem in speaking to the Israeli media and quite often are actually truthful.
■ VETERAN MILITARY reporter Ron Ben-Yishai, who has been a radio, television and print media reporter and who works for Yediot Aharonot, has been covering armed conflicts in different parts of the world since the War of Attrition. Ben-Yishai in an interview last week with Israel Radio, was asked to compare reporting on war today as distinct from more than 40 years ago. In former years, he said, people knew more and spoke less. The tendency then was to be more security conscious and to exercise more self discipline and self censorship. In a digital age of advanced technology, time is of the essence and getting the story out is so urgent, that journalists have less time today in which to gather information and to check for accuracy, though many of them are working very hard. When the pace was more leisurely with no Internet, Facebook or Twitter journalists had more time in which to build up the story and to check and double check their facts, he said. Relating to the conflict, Ben-Yishai mentioned the almost incessant talking heads on every local television channel, with all the so-called experts voicing their opinions on what led up to the war and what will end it, when the fact is that at least for the last part, no-one really knows.
■ FORMER SHIN BET (Israel Security Agency) chief Carmi Gillon had been invited last Friday night to address an Australian trade mission led by Cameron Clyne, the Group CEO and managing director of the Australian National Bank that has assets in excess of $750 billion, 12.5 million customers and 42,000 employees. NAB is one of the four largest financial institutions in Australia. The dinner did not begin till after 9 p.m.
because it has become a custom among Australian trade missions, despite the fact that most of the members are not Jewish, to attend Friday night services at Jerusalem’s Great Synagogue.
Gillon arrived at the King David Hotel just a few minutes before the mission members and was shocked to see that with the exception of one other guest and two staff members behind the reception and concierge desks, that the lobby was empty.
“I’ve never seen the lobby empty before” he said both in wonder and concern, because among other things he is a member of the Board of Directors of the Dan Hotel chain of which the King David is the flagship.
The reason that Australian trade missions go to the Great Synagogue is because its vice president Zalli Jaffe, an international lawyer who has clients down under and travels to Australia at least two or three times a year, invites them and later joins them for dinner and explains aspects of Jewish religious traditions, particularly those pertaining to the Sabbath. On some previous occasions, Jaffe’s son Danel attended the Friday night dinner, but not this time. An officer in the IDF, he was in Gaza with the people under his command.
Zalli Jaffe told mission members of the tradition of blessing children on Friday night, and said that although Danel, who is his only son, was not present he wanted to recite a blessing for him and all the troops.
It was an extremely moving moment.
The evening also proved to be a reunion for Jaffe and Gillon who had both been born and raised in Jerusalem’s Rehavia neighborhood, had known each other as children, but somehow had not met before as adults. Two of the mission members, Rob Merkwitza and Rob Siganto, representing Bridge Point one of Australia’s leading providers of information security, data management and integration services were bowled over when Paul Israel, the executive director of the Israel Australia Chamber of Commerce that organized the mission’s itinerary told them that they would be sitting alongside the former head of Shin Bet.
Before it was Gillon’s turn to speak, each of the mission members, most of whom were in Israel for the first time, spoke of the highlights of their visit. Some had been thrilled to be briefed by former chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi.
Others were happy to have met with Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat who is also a professional hi-tech man as were several people on the mission. All those working in cyber technology had met Israeli counterparts and had been impressed with what they perceived as Israeli dynamism.
William Ulyate, the account manager for Checkpoint Australia and director of the Queensland Division of the Australia Israel Chamber of Commerce, enthused over the beauty of the synagogue service and the warmth of the welcome there.
Simon Rountree, the CEO of Camp Quality, a charity with a mission to create a better life for every child with cancer in Australia, met with similar organizations in Israel and is looking into the possibility of teaming up with one of them so that Israeli and Palestinian children can be brought to Australia for a vacation and to meet up with young Australian cancer patients, and Australians can be brought to Israel to meet up with their Israeli and Palestinian peers.
Taking his cue from Jaffe, Gillon said that as the Sabbath is a day of rest, he would not talk security business, aside from which he didn’t really have the latest security information.
“If I did have it” he quipped. “I wouldn’t tell you, because if I told you, I would have to kill you.”
Mission members told Gillon how safe they felt in Israel despite the sirens. They were almost laconic having experienced the first siren only minutes after checking into their rooms at the Tel Aviv Hilton.
They had been getting frantic messages from home from close family members who had been watching television and imagined them to be in the heart of the war zone. However, none of them packed up to return to Australia ahead of time, and according to Paul Israel, this was one of the largest Australian trade missions to date.
■ AUSTRALIAN AMBASSADOR Dave Sharma, who makes a point of spending time with all Australian trade missions and political delegations, did not accompany the mission to Jerusalem, but earlier in the week hosted a cocktail reception in their honor. Sharma is among the heads of diplomatic missions who have traveled South more than once in recent days. After spending a day in Sderot, Sharma went to Beersheba on July 15 after rockets were fired there from Gaza. Australia has a long history with Beersheba, and Sharma went there not only to see the damage but to express Australia’s solidarity with the capital of the South. There are a number of Australian social welfare projects in Beersheba, the most notable being the Park of the Australian Soldier that was built by the Pratt Foundation and inaugurated in April 2008 by President Shimon Peres and then Australian governor- general Michael Jeffery.
When Sharma went to Beersheba last week, he gained the impression that the people were having a very tough time. He spoke to Mayor Ruvik Danilovich, whom he regards as an inspirational leader and a great friend of Australia and to Amit Rayngold, deputy director of the Administration Department at the Beersheba Municipality. Sharma visited the mayor’s command bunker. Municipalities throughout the South have underground bunkers for emergency purposes to ensure that council work can continue with minimal disruption.
Sharma went to the site of what had been the home of an elderly woman. The house was completely destroyed, but miraculously the woman survived and was in Soroka University Medical Center, where Sharma visited two Beduin girls who had been seriously hurt by rocket shrapnel the previous day.
■ THE AUSTRALIAN trade mission was not the only one visiting Israel during a period of national trauma. The Chinese are just as brave. A 15-member delegation headed by real estate tycoon and billionaire Ronnie Chan came at the invitation of Eddy Cukierman, chairman of Cukierman Investments and managing partner of Catalyst CEL, a fund created to encourage bilateral economic relations between China and Israel. The Chinese toured the country despite the security situation, and like all other visitors were in a position to talk about the sirens when they went home. They also got to see the Iron Dome. Cukierman held a cocktail reception in honor of the Chinese at his home in Tel Aviv, and invited some of the leading figures from Israel’s business community. Members of the delegation were particularly interested in investing in Israeli hi-tech.
■ YET ANOTHER visitor who was undeterred by sirens and rockets was former Miss America, actress, singer and producer Vanessa Williams, who not only traveled the length and breadth of Israel, but also sent Facebook and Twitter posts to all her followers to let them share in her Holy Land experiences. Given the fact that so many other entertainers have canceled or postponed their appearances, Williams who as the guest of the Tourism Ministry wasn’t even performing and could just as easily have said that she’ll come when things are quieter, took the situation in stride and showed a keen interest in her surroundings wherever she went. She deserved a medal, but wasn’t offered one.
■ VISITORS TO the Jerusalem Film Festival could not get over the fact that Lia Van Leer, one of the great icons of Israel’s film industry, was present at so many events. Van Leer will celebrate her 90th birthday on August 8. Another icon who was seen at the Jerusalem Cinematheque was Menahem Golan, 86, one of the pioneers of Israeli cinema, who came for the screening of The Go-Go Boys, the documentary about him and his cousin Yoram Globus and their amazingly successful conquest of Hollywood with their Cannon Films company. Unlike so many other Israelis who go to Hollywood, Golan and Globus came home.