Grapevine: It’s shalom, not good-bye

By
June 20, 2017 21:34

Ambassador Sharma will be back at the end of October to join in celebrations of the centenary of the 1917 victory by Australian and New Zealand Light Horse regiments in the Battle of Beersheba.




Dave Sharma

RACHEL LORD and her husband, outgoing Australian Ambassador to Israel Dave Sharma. (photo credit:Courtesy)

Only hours before leaving Israel last Thursday after concluding his posting here, popular Australian Ambassador Dave Sharma gave a telephone interview late Wednesday night to The Jerusalem Post.

He had broken two previous appointments for a face-to-face interview because there were so many farewells for him and there were so many issues to finalize before leaving his office in Tel Aviv for the last time.

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But it’s not good-bye, it’s merely shalom, because Sharma will be back at the end of October to join in celebrations of the centenary of the 1917 victory by Australian and New Zealand Light Horse regiments in the Battle of Beersheba.

That he had planned this trip long before leaving Israel is indicative of how he feels about the country, said Sharma. He had a lot to do with planning the centenary celebration, and he wants to see it to its conclusion.

Sharma spoke to the Post after he and his wife, human rights lawyer Rachel Lord, returned from dinner at the Gazebbo restaurant on the Herzliya boardwalk. It was where they had dinner on their first night in Israel four years ago, and it was where they chose to have dinner on their last night in the country.

Sharma intends to keep up with his Israel contacts and with the Jewish community at home after returning to Australia, and said that he will continue reading the Post online.

The youngest-ever Australian ambassador, Sharma was only 37 when he arrived in Israel in mid-2013. Although Israel was not his first overseas posting, it was his first ambassadorial posting. His two immediate predecessors, James Larsen and Andrea Faulkner, had also been first-time ambassadors, and his successor, Chris Cannan, a veteran career diplomat who arrived the day after Sharma left, is also a first-time ambassador.

Cannan hit the ground running and has already met with Foreign Ministry director- general Yuval Rotem, who is a former ambassador to Australia, and with Mark Sofer, Foreign Ministry deputy director- general for Asia and the Pacific, who is due to take up his position as ambassador to Australia after the High Holy Days. Cannan also met with Foreign Ministry chief of protocol Meron Reuben.

Sharma, who is widely considered to be one of the most pro-Israel ambassadors of the current era, knew a little about Israel before his appointment as ambassador, but not very much. While serving in Washington from 2006 to 2009, his brief was to cover US-Middle East politics, and what he knew about Israel was mainly from the prism of Washington.

“There’s an advantage to not knowing much, because you come open-minded and without any ideological baggage” he said.

What he will miss most about Israel is the energy that motivates people. “There’s always something going on, and there’s a high degree of energy behind it,” he said.

Sharma and his wife went beyond the call of diplomatic duty.

They visited the Ziv Medical Center in Safed and were so impressed with the treatment given to Syrian patients that Lord decided to become a goodwill ambassador for Israel on this basis alone. They hosted an event at the Australian residence in behalf of the hospital, to make other diplomats, who may not have visited, aware of what was being done. Lord had a special interest because she had previously worked on Syrian issues in Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

Following the terrorist attack on the Kehillat Bnei Torah Synagogue in Jerusalem’s Har Nof neighborhood in November 2014, in which four congregants and a police officer died, Sharma went to the city’s Hadassah Medical Center to donate blood, saying it was the only constructive thing he could do. In June 2016, on the day after a terrorist attack on Sarona Market in Tel Aviv, Sharma, in a show of solidarity, took members of his staff to have lunch there.

Although Sharma, during his youth in Sydney, had lived next door to a Hungarian Jewish family that had fled the Holocaust, he didn’t really have much to do with Holocaust survivors until he came to Israel and visited them in their clubs. He also went many times to Yad Vashem, first on his own, then with his family, and subsequently with visiting Australian dignitaries.

“There’s always another angle that captivates you when you’re there,” he said.

He’s also run in a marathon in behalf of Holocaust survivors, and has been involved in a hands-on capacity in an Australian initiative of cleaning up Israel’s beaches.

He has swum across the Sea of Galilee, has gone hiking and cycling in many parts of the country, played soccer with Israeli and Palestinian youngsters under the sponsorship of the Peres Center for Peace and Innovation and, unlike other ambassadors, had no qualms about visiting a government minister in his east Jerusalem office.

He engaged in many activities that somehow eluded his colleagues, because he believes in experiencing life to the full and almost always accepted invitations to anything unusual that caught his interest. He will talk about some of these things back home to present a perspective of Israel different from what the public tends to get from the media about the country. He not only learned about Israel as a country but also got a taste of Jewish traditions and holidays, especially Shabbat, Sukkot and Hanukka. To please his children, he even built a sukka. He’s particularly interested in history and was fascinated by the way that civilization worked for the three monotheistic faiths, the different epochs in history and the cultural legacy. “It was all a very informative experience,” he said.

Overall, Israel and Australia have enjoyed a long and warm relationship, with an occasional lapse here and there, but current relations are as good as they have ever been, as evidenced by the dramatic increase in trade missions from Australia. Only a few years ago, there were only three or four missions a year, and this year there are 30, said Sharma, who has hosted trade and other missions at the Australian residence.

There were two such missions touring Israel during the week of his departure. “I can’t keep pace anymore,” he said. “The increase reflects the growing level of interest in oil, gas, renewable energy and clean energy.”

Sharma, his wife and their three daughters did not go home immediately. They’re spending a little time in Spain and Italy first, “so we can wean ourselves off Israel.”

After that, it’s not back to Canberra, but to Sydney, where they have family. Sharma has five to six months of service leave due to him, and during this time Lord will go back to work, and he will center future activities around her.

But he will not be idle while on leave.

“My first year back is filled with speaking engagements,” he said, naming United Israel Appeal and Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael- Jewish National Fund as two of the organizations that have already made arrangements with him. Aside from being the youngest-ever Australian ambassador, Sharma also was the first ambassador to accompany a sitting Israeli prime minister to Australia, which was a real feather in his cap.

When he returns here in October, in addition to visiting Beersheba, he will also make it his business to go back to Herzliya and have dinner at the Gazebbo, will look up some of the many friends he’s made, and will spend a lot of time in Jerusalem, which he says “is a magical place that you never tire of.”

APROPOS THE two above-mentioned Australian trade missions – one was an investors and entrepreneurs mission from Western Australia led by banker John Poynton and venture capitalist Larry Lopez, and the other an Agri-Food mission from South Australia led by Mark Allison, CEO of Elders, a leading Australian agribusiness with a history that spans more than 175 years.

Participants from both groups wound up their week in Israel with a visit to Friday night services at Jerusalem’s Great Synagogue as the guests of synagogue president Zalli Jaffe, who subsequently, at a traditional Friday night dinner at the Mamilla Hotel, explained certain aspects of Jewish tradition, allowed himself to be integrated into conversations in which his interlocutors wanted his take on Qatar and US President Donald Trump, and lightened the atmosphere with a series of Jewish jokes – mostly in relation to the Rothschilds.

Jaffe, an international lawyer, is a superb raconteur, and he had people around the table roaring with laughter.

HUMBLE is not necessarily a word that one might apply to Zionist Union MK Erel Margalit, who is making a bid for the chairmanship of the Labor Party. But that’s the way he was described by Lopez, who has had business dealings with him. Margalit, who was a venture capitalist before becoming a legislator, is much admired by Lopez, who said that he is honest, a man of integrity, humble and hard working. Perhaps he should be running Margalit’s campaign, or better still, Margalit, who has done a lot for Jerusalem, should be running for mayor of the city in which he lives, instead of running for the Labor chairmanship.

FOR ITS reception marking the 119th anniversary of the Philippines’ independence and the 60th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations with Israel, the Philippine Embassy went all out in terms of patriotism. There was an exciting video illustrating the diversity of the Philippines, and members of the embassy shared traditional Filipino recipes with the chefs of the Tel Aviv Hilton to produce an array of tempting dishes.

Contrary to the usual arrangement, the well-stocked buffets remained closed till after the official proceedings. When they were opened, almost everyone raved about the chicken. When Reuben asked for the recipe, Ambassador Neal Imperial laughed and said that it had come from his driver, who had taught the Hilton chefs how to prepare it. The recipe had to be kosherized, he said, because the original was actually a pork dish.

Almost every Filipino woman in the room wore a traditional, delicately embroidered gown with the high-rising sleeves arched at the shoulder. Female Filipino diplomats are expected to include at least six such garments in their luggage. The men wore the traditional ivory-hued embroidered shirts.

Two magnificent Filipino singers had the guests in awe as they sang the national anthems of both countries.

For a pleasant change, there was no talking during the speeches. This was achieved by diplomatic strategy, with female members of the embassy dispersed throughout the room. If any guest started to talk, they were gently tapped on the arm and signaled to stop – and it worked beautifully.

Representing the government was Labor and Social Services Minister Haim Katz.

Imperial was particularly pleased that Katz, whom he called “a true champion for workers’ rights, including migrant workers, in Israel,” was the minister attending his event. Imperial voiced the hope that the ongoing negotiations for a labor agreement between their two countries would be successful.

“We expect it to create better conditions for Filipino caregivers in Israel and end, once and for all, the unlawful imposition of exorbitant fees that subject them to a form of debt bondage as a precondition for employment,” he said. “As leading advocates for the advancement of migrant workers’ rights in the Middle East, both Israel and the Philippines, I am certain, will not fail the more than 20,000 Filipino caregivers who are helping Israeli families cope with the challenges of illness and aging.”

Listing some of the highlights of the bilateral relationship, Imperial mentioned the ninth Philippines-Israel Joint Commission Meeting in Jerusalem last May; intelligence sharing and defense cooperation, which, he said, have become more robust; two-way tourism that continues to rise, with Israel becoming the Philippines’ fastest-growing tourism market; and agricultural cooperation whereby hundreds of Filipino agricultural students learn, through apprenticeship and classroom study, about Israel’s innovative farm practices and techniques as part of Mashav’s Agrostudies program.

Economically, Philippine GDP is poised to grow by 6.5%-7% this year, to once again become one of the fastest-growing economies in the Asia Pacific, said Imperial, who is also proud that this year his country is at the helm of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. The Philippines will this year be chairing and hosting three important summits: two ASEAN summits and the East Asian Summit in November, where the leaders of ASEAN, Australia, China, India, Japan, South Korea, the US and New Zealand will be convening in Manila to discuss and decide on matters vital to the prosperity and security of the region.

Katz, the son of Auschwitz survivors, made special mention of the fact that Philippine president Manuel L. Quezon had made a concerted effort to welcome European Jews during and immediately after the Holocaust. He also noted that in November 1947, the Philippines was the only Asian country that supported the UN partition plan that enabled the Jewish people to have a sovereign state of its own.

But the bond between Israel and the Philippines is not only through government action, Katz emphasized. Today, there are thousands of Filipino caregivers working in Israel. They have earned a reputation for their dedication, patience and compassion – and many of those benefiting from their care are Holocaust survivors, he said.

Katz welcomed the opportunity to publicly thank these “good, hard-working people who work so far from home and their families in order to finance the education of their children so that they should have a better future.

Katz expressed sorrow over the cruel terrorist attacks to which the people of the Philippines have been subjected, and said that when Muslims are forced to flee during Ramadan, no one can remain indifferent.

As brothers and sisters in the fight against terrorism, the Israel Embassy in Manila, on the instructions of Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, is examining ways in which to help Filipino refugees from terrorism. The Foreign Ministry has already allocated a budget for this purpose, he said.

JUST DAYS before one of the worst wildfires in the history of Portugal and the tragic death toll, which has risen to more than 60, Portuguese Ambassador Miguel de Almeida e Sousa hosted a national day reception at his residence in Kfar Shmaryahu. It was also a farewell. After just over five years in Israel, Almeida e Sousa, a jurist by training, is completing his term. Although there have been some differences between the Israeli and Portuguese governments, there has been progress toward closer relations, and this would not have been possible without the Israeli input, he said. Despite the fact that from time to time he was in a defensive position, he nonetheless enjoyed the period that he spent here, will maintain contact with the many friends that he has acquired, and will continue to be a friend of Israel, he said.

He is very pleased that during his term, Portugal, in 2014, had decided to confer Portuguese nationality on anyone who could prove descent from Portuguese Jews who were expelled during the 16th century.

“We are giving back not only a passport but a nationality,” he said. “We want to reconnect with the Jewish people and make up for what was a historical injustice.”

Some 400 Israelis have applied to the embassy to see if they are eligible for Portuguese citizenship. What annoyed him somewhat was that whenever he was asked to speak about the Jews of Portugal and he sought to talk about their contribution to Portugal’s culture and economy, the organizers tried to get him to talk about conversos, whereas he was more interested in talking about those Jews who did not convert.

Endorsing the ambassador’s comments about progress in bilateral relations, Communications Minister Ayoub Kara, who was representing the government, said that one of the proofs of this progress is the exchange of high-level dignitaries visiting each other’s countries, and he looks forward to the visit of Portuguese Defense Minister José Alberto Azeredo Lopes.

LAST WEEK a sheva brachot dinner was held at the OneFamily hall in Jerusalem in honor of Renana Meir and Or Cohen, who were married the previous Sunday. The bride is the daughter of Dafna Meir, who in January 2016 was murdered by a terrorist outside her home in Otniel. The bride’s father, Natan, remarried three weeks before his daughter stood under a bridal canopy.

His wife is Zohar Morgenstern.

Among the guests at the sheva brachot were Marc and Chantal Belzberg, who founded OneFamily and continue to lead it, and representatives of many bereaved families who lost loved ones to terrorism as well as people who themselves had been attacked by terrorists. Among them were David Hatuel, whose four daughters and first wife, Tali, were murdered in a shooting attack in Kissufim in 2004, and Meir Pavlovsky from Kiryat Arba, who was badly wounded in a stabbing attack in Hebron a year and a half ago. Against all odds, Pavlovsky recovered from his wounding and married his sweetheart, Katya.

Several weeks ago, Renana Meir visited her mother’s grave and placed a wedding invitation there. Later, she posted a photograph of the tombstone with the invitation and wrote: “Take me far, teach me to shout like there is no tomorrow. Promise me that nothing ever ends, that God stays. I was never afraid of the sea, but now every wave is intolerable. I have put an invitation on your grave and I beg that you arrive. I leave one hand for you on the way to the huppa, please come to hold it.”

OneFamily, which organized the sheva brachot, is known for helping victims of terrorism and their families to rebuild their lives. This is done through a combination of emotional, psychological and financial support. The organization supports more than 3,550 families, including wounded victims, bereaved relatives and trauma victims.

After the terrorist attack in which her mother was murdered, Renana joined OneFamily and is now one of its volunteers.

“We are so proud to host the sheva brachot for Renana and Or. It has been a tremendous experience getting to know Renana over the past year of her national service at OneFamily, and it’s astounding to watch her grow into a married woman before our eyes,” said Chantal Belzberg, who has become a surrogate mother to some of the people under the OneFamily umbrella. “We have all learned so much from her, just watching how she lives her life. She makes everyone feel comfortable, even when they feel they should be the ones comforting her. She speaks about choosing life despite the challenges, and she truly lives the way she speaks. We have grown very close, as all of us at OneFamily have been able to envelop her with love on a daily basis.”

ISRAEL FLYING Aid, which provides humanitarian assistance to victims of disaster circumstances, even in countries that have no diplomatic relations with Israel, is among the various organizations helping Syrians caught in the cross fire of civil war.

To draw attention to what IFA is doing, and to help with funding its activities, a few friends – Yishai Binnes, Gilad Weil, Shaked Green, Lior Hanoch, Meital Zalcberg, Dan Tzarfati and Guy Shallish – have organized a charity happening that will take place on Wednesday, June 21, at the historic Beit Alliance at 5 Ki’ach Street, adjacent to Jerusalem’s Mahaneh Yehuda market. Dubbed “Obvious Party,” it begins at 10 p.m. with dancing till the wee small hours. It is intended as a party for students aged 18 plus, and the entry fee is NIS 50.

IT’S NOT nice to bad-mouth the leader of your country when you are abroad.

But apparently that doesn’t bother Pulitzer Prize-winning American author Michael Chabon. Chabon was a guest on Monday morning on the Gam Ken Tarbut (Also Culture) program hosted by Goel Pinto on the Kan Tarbut radio station of the Israeli Broadcasting Corporation, Kan.

Chabon, who won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for his novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, about two Jewish youths from New York during World War II, is in Israel for the launch of the book Kingdom of Olives and Ash, an anthology of essays about Israel’s “occupation” of the West Bank written by various writers and edited together with his wife, author Ayelet Waldman.

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