Although everyone in a group of some 30 senior civil servants who met with President Reuven Rivlin last Thursday came appropriately attired for a meeting with the president, with the men in suits and ties, Rivlin himself was tieless, explaining that he was under orders from his physician not to wear a tie, following his recent acquisition of a pacemaker.
During the week, he had met with the president of the Hellenic parliament, Nikos Voutsis, and the prime minister of Croatia, Andrej Plenkovic, as well as diplomats from Asia and the Pacific, who in deference to his tieless state had removed their own ties, he said. To be honest, he added, he prefers to go tieless, because it gives him a greater sense of freedom. The civil servants, however, left their ties in place.
Rivlin’s own tie was back in place this week at a meeting that he held with Arab and Druse leaders, who came to share some of their grievances with him.
The civil service group comprised the first graduates of the Institute for Senior Civil Servants.
Following his appointment as civil service commissioner in May 2011, Moshe Dayan set about devising and implementing reforms with the aim of filling senior civil service positions with the best possible human resources to help facilitate proper governance and to avoid pitfalls not seen, or ignored, by politicians.
These reforms included the establishment of the Institute for Senior Civil Servants, incorporating the various disciplines used in government ministries and organizations as well as in institutions under each ministerial aegis.
The pioneer graduates of the first class met with Rivlin after completing a 10-months course.
“We are in an uneasy period of defining the roles of senior civil servants compared to elected officials,” Dayan told Rivlin, as he presented the senior civil servants to him – among them people with expert knowledge and experience in healthcare, social welfare, law and local government.
Thinking ahead, Dayan was confident that in the years to come the institute will earn a respected place in the eyes of both the public and the government.
“We will get better quality governance as a result,” he said. There are 850 senior civil servants all told, he added, “and they have the responsibility of the functioning of the state on their shoulders.”
Taking into account their collective value, Dayan declared that these human resources were far more important to the country than natural resources.
Rivlin told the graduates that they were the regulators in a democratic system.
Speaking as a former member of Knesset, Rivlin said: “You give us not the privilege conferred on us by the public but the duty, by telling us what is forbidden and what is taboo.”
Commending Dayan, who will complete his tenure in May, for his achievements in his post, Rivlin said: “A strong civil service commissioner is the [safety] barrier between the administration and the public.” He was happy, he continued, that the civil service network reinvents itself from time to time so as to safeguard the interests of the public, and to ensure that the needs of the nation take precedence over political interests.
Conceding that politicians who are stopped in their tracks by senior civil servants may ask who needs them, the fact of the matter, said Rivlin, is that “I don’t see how we can run the state without you. You are the backbone of our democracy.”
Speaking on behalf of her fellow graduates, Dr. Orly Weinstein, director of the Division of Government Medical Centers in the Health Ministry, said that it had been a wonderful opportunity for all of them to learn from one another. She also emphasized the importance of bringing more government services to peripheral communities, and for senior public servants to be paradigms for the people with whom they work.
■ GENERALLY SPEAKING, as time goes by there is a falloff in attendance at memorial ceremonies for people who were once in the forefront of society as politicians, philanthropists, cultural icons and socials activists. Last week, at the 10th anniversary memorial for politician Yuri Shtern, there were some 50 people at Har Hamenuhot cemetery in Jerusalem, but afterward many more, including non-Jerusalemites, braved the inclement weather and filled the Teddy Kollek Hall of the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies for a memorial tribute with a difference.
This was more in the nature of the celebration of a life than the mourning of a death. The event, conducted in Russian and Hebrew, was also attended by people who never knew Shtern but who either work at or benefit from the Yuli Shtern Holistic Center at Shaare Zedek Medical Center’s oncology department, which provides complimentary treatment for people with cancer.
Shtern died of cancer on January 16, 2007, at age 57. His family established a foundation in his memory aimed at helping other cancer sufferers and their families. His wife, Lena, was qualified in the practice of alternative medicine when Shtern was diagnosed, and the holistic treatments that she gave him were of inestimable value in relieving his pain and improving the quality of his life.
After Yuri’s death Lena Shtern was determined to make life easier for other cancer sufferers and to create greater awareness of the value of holistic therapy. She reached an agreement with Shaare Zedek, and today some 150 volunteers trained in holistic therapy come daily to administer care to cancer patients. The treatment is free of charge, and a symbolic fee is charged to family members who may also want to undergo holistic treatment to rid themselves of the tensions that accompany caring relatives of terminally ill people.
The memorial evening was largely devoted to the music that Yuri loved and to video clips from the many aspects of his life, put together by Gideon Dubinsky and Ella Kosakov, who documented Shtern’s career both in Moscow and Jerusalem. They’ve also documented other immigrants from the former Soviet Union who became prominent figures in Israel.
■ THERE WERE many children in the mass waves of immigration from the Soviet Union and later from the Commonwealth of Independent States of the former Soviet Union.
These youngsters did not want to be called immigrants. They wanted to be Israelis in every way possible, and for years rejected their Russian cultural heritage, refusing to read Russian literature or sing Russian songs.
Although they preferred not to speak Russian if they could help it, there was no option when communicating with parents and grandparents who simply found it impossible to learn Hebrew. Now young men and women, they are known in Hebrew as dor vahetzi – the 1.5 generation, in that they were born in the Soviet Union but spent most of their lives in Israel.
Shtern’s daughter, Polina, and son, Marik, belong in this group, as do singers Alex Rif and Shmuel Zeltser, who sang songs written by Shtern as well as Zeltser’s compositions and popular Russian songs translated by him into Hebrew.
Rif, who was born in Ukraine and came to Israel at age five, said that she had shunned everything Russian until three years ago when her grandmother died, after which she felt a terrible need to express herself in Russian and to introduce her Israeli friends to Russian culture, which suddenly meant more to her than listening to any song sung by Arik Einstein. She happened to meet Marik, told him how she felt, and he told her about the Dor Vahetzi group and invited her to join. Rif and Zeltser are a great duo, and the crowd simply roared its approval.
■ ISRAEL’S FORMER ambassador to Moscow Dorit Golender, who had previously been the head of the Russian-language division of Radio Reka, knew Shtern well, having interviewed him many times. In 2011, she received a telephone call from Lena Shtern asking her if she thought it was possible to have a memorial event for Yuri in Moscow, where he still had so many friends. The year coincided with the 20th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Israel and the Russian Federation, and so it was relatively easy to gain support for such a venture, which was held at the packed Taganka Theater. The huge number of people who had come to honor Shtern’s memory was not surprising, because he had been a living bridge between Jerusalem and Moscow, loving both, said his wife.
Speaking in Jerusalem last week, Golender recalled that when she was still working in radio, Shtern would call her late at night and ask her opinion about a poem that he had translated from Russian to Hebrew or Hebrew to Russian, and a minute later it would pop out of her telex machine.
Prior to his aliya in 1981, Shtern had been active in the Jewish underground. In Israel he instantly became active on behalf of other Soviet immigrants. Following the fall of the Iron Curtain, Shtern was Israel’s first representative of the Israel Chamber of Commerce in Russia, serving in the position from 1990 to 1992. He was actively engaged during and after this period in strengthening relations on all levels between the country of his birth and the country of his ancestors.
He became a member of Knesset in 1996, serving for 10 years up until his death. He was initially a member of Yisrael BaAliyah, but following disputes within the party, he joined Yisrael Beytenu.
In film clips, and again last Thursday night, there were many, including Rivlin in his prepresidential role on film, who spoke of Shtern’s amazing energy and his extraordinary, broad range of interests and knowledge.
Although he had a PhD in economics, his curiosity was wide and limitless. He was interested in everything. He was an extremely active legislator, formulating bills for the support of new immigrants, funding films produced in Israel, defending the environment and upholding the honor of veterans of the Red Army.
Someone told a story on Thursday night about a Red Army veteran who complained to Shtern that he had not received the medals to which he was entitled. Shtern settled the matter by writing a letter to President Vladimir Putin.
One of Shtern’s most far-reaching acts was the establishment of the Knesset Christian Allies Caucus, which he chaired. He also chaired the Israel-Russia Parliamentary Friendship Group in both the 14th and 15th Knessets.
■ JEWISH AGENCY Chairman Natan Sharansky, who on January 20 celebrated his 69th birthday, and who on February 11 will celebrate the 31st anniversary of his arrival in Israel following his release from a Soviet prison, recalled at the memorial evening for Shtern that a few days after settling into his new environment he learned that the Israeli authorities had not planned any grand welcome for him, even though he was accorded one in the final analysis. In America, people who had been involved in the struggle for Soviet Jewry and in efforts to free Sharansky were ecstatic, but in Israel it was no big deal other than among members of the Russian community. Shtern had hired a hall in which to have a tumultuous welcome for Sharansky, and when Shimon Peres, who was then prime minister, heard about it, he immediately ordered a gala welcome.
“That’s the way to get things done,” said Sharansky. Demonstrations and protest meetings don’t always work, but doing something that overrides the people in power is much more likely to be effective, he advised.
■ WHAT HAPPENS to be special about January 26 is that it is the national day of both India and Australia. In Tel Aviv, Indian Ambassador Pavan Kapoor hosted a modest ceremony at the Indian Embassy to mark India’s 68th Republic Day, along with the 25th anniversary of full diplomatic ties between India and Israel.
In actual fact, India officially recognized Israel in September 1950, but diplomatic ties did not exceed consular status till October 1992, when Pradeep Kumar Singh became India’s first ambassador to Israel and presented credentials to President Chaim Herzog.
Last week Kapoor hoisted the national flag in front of the embassy, after which members and friends of the embassy sang the Indian national anthem. The ambassador then read out the address of India’s President Pranab Mukherjee. Nearly all the Indian women who attended wore colorful saris, and were indeed representative of their homeland.
■ IF THERE was any kind of Australia Day celebration, most Aussie expats in Israel knew little or nothing about it. Last year and the year before, there were social media notices about pub meetings in Tel Aviv on the night of January 26, but if there were such meetings this year, they were not placed in the public square of social media.
In the previous two years, Australian Ambassador Dave Sharma, who’s very good at making social chit chat, joined expats from down under in downing a mug of beer – but if he did so this year, it would have also been to raise a toast to Linda Marion Dessau, the first female governor of Victoria, who was one of more than 30 people of the Jewish faith to be listed in this year’s Australia Day awards.
■ AN ARTICLE in Friday’s Haaretz devoted to the gifts received by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, had a clever but unkind headline that was a wordplay on the prime minister’s surname, which means “given by God.” The headline was “Mr. and Mrs. Lakahyahu,” which means “taken by God.” It is obvious from his oratory that the prime minister thinks highly of himself, but it’s doubtful that he thinks quite that high.
■ APROPOS NETANYAHU , many have called for him to appoint a permanent foreign minister and a permanent communications minister, arguing that in view of all that he has to contend with time-wise, mentally and physically in dealing with police investigations into his conduct, plus the manifold affairs of state, he cannot possibly give enough of his attention to items on the national agenda.
Netanyahu’s physical and mental strength will be tested even further this month, when he goes to America to meet with President Donald Trump, returns to Israel for a day or two, then flies to Singapore and Australia. In a span of a week and a half, he will change time zones at least half a dozen times. That’s pretty grueling even for a frequent flyer.
■ WITH REGARD to Trump, he appeared in an archive interview with Guy Zohar during Channel 10’s 15th anniversary celebrations.
While 15 is not a particularly auspicious anniversary number, for Channel 10, which was on the verge of closure, it certainly was.
Since it first went to air on January 28, 2002, Channel 10 has been mired in financial crises, lawsuits, licensing problems and controversy. Shareholders Yossi Maiman, Ron Lauder and Arnon Milchan sank tens of millions of dollars into this broadcast venture, until they got sick of it. On top of mounting debts, Channel 10’s investigative reports, though certainly newsworthy, were the cause of legal and fiscal strife. There were several occasions in which the channel was on the edge of the abyss, and in December 2014 it was literally days away from demise.
It got a six months’ reprieve until after the Knesset elections.
This time frame also provided an opportunity to search for new investors, and in May 2015 the RGE media group comprising Leonard Blavatnik, Aviv Giladi and Udi Recanati acquired 51% of Channel 10 stock.
A month later, Channel 10 received a 15-year license from the council of the Second Television and Radio Authority.
As part of the anniversary broadcast last Sunday night, some of the past and present news presenters sat with Guy Pines, who interviewed them about how the style and content of news presentation has changed over the years and about some of the successes and failures of Oshrat Kotler, Yaakov Eilon, Miki Haimovich, Tali Moreno, Tamar Ish Shalom and Zohar. All of them could list some impressive interviews they’d conducted, but Zohar was the only member of the group who could boast of having interviewed Trump.
The interview had taken place long before Trump announced his intention of running for president. In those days Trump had dark hair but was just as aggressive as he is now.
Zohar asked him if he cried, if he laughed and whether he had any money on him.
Trump replied that he doesn’t cry, he often laughs and he seldom carries much cash. He didn’t need to, he explained, because he was recognized in every restaurant he entered, and the meal was on the house. Zohar asked him about regrets, to which Trump replied: “I don’t think you should ever regret what you’ve done, but you should learn from your mistakes and never repeat them.”
■ MEXICAN TY COON Carlos Slim, ranked by Forbes as the fourth-richest man in the world, and who was persuaded by Shimon Peres in November 2013 to invest in Israel, met Trump in December 2016, when the latter visited Mexico. At a rare press conference last Saturday, the day before his 77th birthday, Slim said that he’s reading Trump’s book Great Again: How to Fix our Crippled America. Slim, who’s taking notes from the book, urged reporters to read it in order to better understand why Trump is not always politically correct.
Trump’s strategy, he said, is to shock and provoke. But Slim believes that Trump is “not a terminator, he’s a negotiator.”
■ AT THE farewell reception hosted a little over a year ago by Japanese ambassador Shigeo Matsutomi and his effervescent wife, Kaori, prior to their current assignment in Poland, the usually sparkling Kaori Matsutomi, who made many friends in Israel, could not control her tears. She really enjoyed her time in Israel, and she loved the country. She promised that she would return, and she is keeping that promise within the next few days, when she expects to land at Ben-Gurion Airport and to have some happy reunions. Meanwhile, she has maintained social media connections with several of her Israeli friends, who just can’t wait to see her again.
■ ON THE subject of Japan, the Japanese Embassy hosted screenings at the Tel Aviv and Jerusalem cinematheques of the inspiring feature film Persona Non Grata, which tells the story of Chiune Sugihara, the Japanese consul in Lithuania who issued hundreds of transit visas to Jews fleeing the Nazis.
Sugihara was also a superb intelligence agent, whose talents in this field were known by both the Russians and the Germans.
Prior to being assigned to Lithuania, he was assigned to Moscow, but the Russians refused to accept him, and Lithuania was as close to Russia as he could get.
This extraordinary, sensitive film was shot entirely in Poland, even though it depicts scenes in Manchuria, Japan, Lithuania, Germany, Poland, Romania and even the coastline of what was then Palestine. American Japanese director Cellin Gluck is the son of an American Jewish father and a Japanese mother, and therefore has a dual understanding of the situation.
Sugihara, sometimes known as the Japanese Oscar Schindler, was ostracized by the Japanese Foreign Ministry after the war, so much so that when Menachem Mishori, one of the people to whom Sugihara had issued a visa, went to inquire about him at Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Tokyo, he was told that no such person had ever served there. This distancing from Sugihara by the Foreign Ministry serves to introduce him to the audience.
Today, Japan’s Foreign Ministry takes a completely different attitude. In Jerusalem on Sunday, Yamamoto Toshio, the deputy chief of mission at the Japanese Embassy in Tel Aviv, could not speak highly enough of Sugihara. This year marks the 65th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Israel and Japan, he said, but the film shows that the connection goes much beyond that. He was delighted to see so many descendants of people who had received Sugihara visas.
There were also actual recipients of these visas in the auditorium, among them Nina Admoni, who was a child at the time, and whose family, with the aid of the transit visa, had gone to Shanghai and from there to the United States. While studying at Berkeley University in California, she met a young Jerusalemite. They fell in love, and after their marriage, she returned with him to Jerusalem. Her husband is Nahum Admoni, a former head of the Mossad.
Though not included in the film, one of the thousands of people saved by Sugihara was Zerah Warhaftig, who persuaded him to issue visas for the whole of the Mir Yeshiva.
Warhaftig subsequently became a signatory to Israel’s Declaration of Independence, a government minister and a founder of Bar- Ilan University.
Members of Sugihara’s family have been to Israel, most recently – according to Prof.
Meron Medzini, who teaches Japanese history in the Hebrew University’s department of Asian studies – his youngest son, Nobuki Sugihara, the only one of four brothers who is still living. In 1968, at the invitation of Israel’s Foreign Ministry, Nobuki came to study at the Hebrew University.
The film is a wonderful tribute to a great man who sought no honors, and hopefully will be shown for long periods in commercial theaters throughout Israel.