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PRIOR TO his state visit to Australia in February-March, 2005 President Moshe Katsav's office was approached by one of the thousands of Israeli expatriates living down under with the request that he conduct a separate meeting with them in addition to any meetings he might have with the Jewish community in general.
The request was made to an official at Beit Hanassi who may not have passed it on to the president, as a result of which a golden opportunity to try to persuade a significant number of Israelis to come home was lost. However, former chief of General Staff Lt. Gen. (Res) Moshe Ya'alon is not making that mistake. Ya'alon is scheduled to be in Australia in the last week of November and will be addressing audiences at several public meetings, including at least one in Hebrew. Given the strong Zionist leanings of the Australian Jewish community in general, and its Israeli component in particular, he will be addressing packed halls regardless of whether he speaks in Hebrew or English.
ON ANOTHER semi-related issue, Israel's Ambassador to Australia Naftali Tamir, who was recalled to explain the allegedly racist remarks attributed to him by Ha'aretz in an interview that he gave while on home leave, told the national daily The Australian he was confident that he would be returning to Australia to resume his duties. That in fact did happen even though his term may be cut short. Tamir did not return to a red-carpet welcome. Some Jewish leaders who had been in frequent telephone contact with Australians in Israel to attend the meeting of the Jewish Agency's Board of Governors were so opposed to his return that they seriously considered writing a letter of protest to the Foreign Ministry.
Even before he made the unfortunate comments that have stamped a blot on his career, Tamir is said to have irritated people in Australia by being too aggressively Israeli. He may still be able to redeem himself in the months ahead, depending on events on both sides of the world and the way he responds to them - but it will be a tough slog.
IN A country in which there are unisex names such as Simcha and Yona, the moderator of an event should take care to meet guests who may be publicly called upon for any number of reasons. Yishai Avital of the Beersheba Foundation, learned just how important this is during last week's ceremony marking the 89th anniversary of the Battle of Beersheba, won largely by the Australian Light Horse Brigade. There were two wreath laying ceremonies - the first at the Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery and the second at the Turkish obelisk. In most cases, it was the same people laying wreaths at both sites. The first time around when Avital announced the name of South African First Secretary Judika Tladi, he made an understandable gender error, and apologized profusely for any embarrassment caused. The second time around, he was already aware that the first secretary is male and not female. It's unlikely that he'll ever make that mistake again.
AND ONE last item with an Australian content. Australian Ambassador James Larsen was fortunate that he had two dinner engagements this week not only at the same time but at the same hotel. The first was a dinner attended by Vice Premier Shimon Peres in honor of several visiting Communications Ministers who are in Israel for Telecom 2006. Larsen was there to accompany Helen Coonan, Australia's federal minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts, who is in Israel both for Telecom and the Prime Minister's Conference at which she is one of the keynote speakers.
Larsen's wife Antoinette was upstairs at the annual Balfour Dinner hosted by the Israel Britain and the Commonwealth Association. Larsen missed the speeches at the Balfour dinner but got there in time for dessert, enthusing about the amazingly busy social life in Israel. He was also enthusiastic about Peres's address, the bottom line of which was that peace process efforts on a government to government level had all but been exhausted, but could still succeed on a people to people level with better education, information technology and increased trade. Antoinette Larsen is also a diplomat, but currently on leave. In fact, she's not only the wife of a diplomat, but also the daughter of a diplomat. Her father, Dr. Robert Merrilees, now an eminent archaeologist was Australia's ambassador to Israel from 1983 to 1987. Old friends and acquaintances wanting to meet him again will have that opportunity when he arrives towards the end of November, on a three weeks visit.
MONDAY WAS a relatively good day for President Katsav in that the Knesset vote on his suspension or the limiting of his powers was postponed because its sponsors were unable to muster sufficient support. But Katsav, who last week experienced the embarrassment of a ministerial and MK boycott when only one minister and three MKs came to Beit Hanassi for the Rabin memorial ceremony, would have been greatly heartened had he been a fly on the wall at the Balfour Dinner. Tradition remains tradition with the British, and since most of the participants were either British diplomats or British expatriates, when British Ambassador Tom Phillips asked everyone to charge their glasses and be upstanding as he proposed the toast to the president of the State of Israel, the whole room rose as one and echoed the toast in the proper manner.
PHILIPS, WHO sees Balfour's portrait whenever he enters his dining room, revealed a little known fact about the man to whom Israel owes so much. Referring to the portrait, Philips said: "He gazes away to his right with a look of profound intelligence and introspection. There is a touch of sadness in his face and something of a dreamer about the man. No hint of the sportsman who played tennis and golf whenever possible - but he looks as languid and imperturbable as his reputation has him. To his contemporaries, he clearly appeared to rise to the top without too much effort."
To illustrate this Philips referred to the Balfour family influence as one of the possible origins of the phrase "Bob's your uncle." When Balfour was unexpectedly promoted in 1879 to the high profile job of chief secretary for Ireland by then prime minister Lord Salisbury, it seemed like a clear-cut case of nepotism. The prime minister happened to be Balfour's uncle Robert. For all that, remarked Philips, Balfour did rather well, confounding his critics, and some years later became prime minister himself.
Speaking about his pleasure at being back in Israel, where from 1990 to 1993 he had swerved as consul general and deputy head of mission, Philips said that he had always hoped to come back to the country that means more to him both personally and professionally than any of his other postings. He knew it was going to be busy, but he didn't realize quite how busy, arriving in the middle of the Lebanese war, dealing with normal diplomatic business and introductory calls, having an apparently armed intruder at the embassy and having to arrange the visit of Prime Minister Tony Blair.
He didn't expect things to get any easier, he admitted. Sometimes he remembered the words of Henry Kissinger: "There can't be a crisis next week - my schedule is already full." One of the rewards of being posted to Israel said Philips is that "You know your cables will be read in London."
THE BALFOUR Dinner traditionally has both a British and an Israeli speaker. In this case, the representative for Israel was former cabinet minister Dan Meridor, who took to task those people not sufficiently au fait with history who claim that the creation of the State of Israel was to compensate the Jews for the Holocaust. The 1917 Balfour Declaration, he reminded his audience, was well in advance of the Holocaust, and was in his view one of the most dramatic declarations in Jewish history, paving the way for the creation of the Jewish state envisaged by Herzl at the first Zionist Congress in Basle in 1897. What neither Philips nor Meridor mentioned was that Balfour was born in 1848, exactly a century before the creation of the State of Israel.
VISITORS TO Beit Hanassi might notice a slightly built, dark-haired, sharp-featured young man, who can usually be seen in one of the doorways. His name is Israel Katsav and he's one of the five offspring of Moshe and Gila Katsav. During the week, he lives at Beit Hanassi to be close to his parents, and currently to give them moral support. He's also one of the Katsav family spokespeople. He was seen again last week standing in the entrance way to the reception hall during the ceremony commemorating the 11th anniversary of the assassination of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin. The younger Katsav stood alongside Yona Sheindorf, the president's legal adviser whose name has cropped up in the media as one of the members of the Beit Hanassi staff questioned by police in the course of their investigations.
AFTER RETURNING to Israel from home leave, Costa Rican ambassador Noemy Baruch, whose government decided to remove its embassy from Jerusalem, has found a new residence in Ramat Aviv Gimmel. "There's no joy in it," she admits, but government decisions have to be obeyed.
IT'S FAIRLY common to see diplomats running in and out of the Tel Aviv Hilton both on social occasions and when they are taking care of the needs of visiting dignitaries from their home countries. Sometimes it's a back-to-back affair. Last week, Georgian Ambassador Lasha Zhvania was rushing around on behalf of President Mikhail Saakashvili. This week it was Georgia's economics minister. Ambassadors of other countries were there due to the number of Telecom briefings that were held on the premises with the participation of visiting government ministers from several states.
IN AN intensive tour of Israel last week, a small delegation of American Friends of the Hebrew University from the US West Coast met with numerous Israeli academics as well as with political leaders to get the sense of where Israel is going and what its priorities are at this point in time. The learning experience also extended to the delegation's palates. One of the places that members were taken to for both the ambience and the cuisine was Darna, one of Jerusalem's showcase Moroccan restaurants, where they were so fascinated by the traditional Moroccan tea-pouring ceremony, that their attention was temporarily diverted from their speakers, Zalman Shoval, a former ambassador to the US, and Dr. Raymond Kaempfer, the Philip Marcus professor of Molecular Biology and Cancer Research in the Department of Molecular Virology at the Hebrew University Hadassah School of Medicine. The Dutch-born Kaempfer, a child Holocaust survivor, who is mentioned in Anne Frank's Diary, last year won the largest grant ever given to an Israeli researcher. He received $5.6 million from the US National Institute of Health to continue his work in developing drugs to combat deadly toxins.
Trying to inject a little humor into so serious a subject the very personable Kaempfer, aware of Shoval's expertise in international politics, said that he would give a brief review of relations between the European Union and Israel. To which Shoval spontaneously quipped: "Good, I'll speak about medicine."
Events in 2006 had shown that there was a changed reality on the ground in terms of threats, said Kaempfer, citing primitive missiles with biological payloads that can be used to achieve strategic goals. "Toxins are easy to prepare by people who don't even have a Bachelor's degree," he said, explaining that plants that spew out toxins could easily be grown in people's backyards, and that as yet, there was no vaccine against them. Kaempfer is working towards overcoming that obstacle, and in fact has done a lot of research work in that direction for the US Government. So far, he and his team have been able to develop small molecules that can rescue animals in toxic shock. "We're developing something against the most vicious things that kill people," he said, and explained that these molecules can block four different types of autoimmune diseases. "We understand how the molecules work and what they block in human cells. We've discovered the mechanism behind autoimmune diseases and these molecules have the same mechanism."
The bottom line is that if these molecules are developed to maximum potential, there will be antidotes for what are currently lethal effects of biological warfare. Looking beyond the humane aspect of his work, Kaempfer emphasized the importance of developing these molecules, "Because there's a very big market that will bring money to the Hebrew University."
The dinner was held in one of the restaurant's private rooms, but the waiter seemed oblivious to the fact that the diners were politely refraining from eating while they were being addressed, and he kept coming in with more dishes and making more clatter, so that when it was Shoval's turn to speak, he remarked that any Israeli ambassador is used to noise while Jewish audiences eat. Taking his cue from Kaempfer, Shoval warned that the deadly threat affects the whole of the free world "which is entering a long corridor which may take decades to cross."
On matters closer to home, Shoval pulled no punches and in reviewing Israel's conduct in the recent war in Lebanon called it "a debacle and a failure in management."
THE SATURDAY night winter lectures at Jerusalem's Great Synagogue are so popular that the congregation's powers that-be decided to add an extra dimension, with a much smaller gathering than usual to discuss a particular issue rather than to spend most of the evening listening to one speaker. Great Synagogue chairman Asher Schapiro confessed that he'd made a lot of enemies because he had turned away twenty couples who wanted to participate. Even then, the number of people exceeded the limit that organizers had set themselves, and instead of 75 there were 80. Internationally respected rabbi, lecturer, author and Jerusalem Post columnist Rabbi Berl Wein kicked off the new "Challenging the Mind" series which on this occasion explored civil behavior in a Jewish state and the compatibility of Torah ideals with reality.
Schapiro said the idea had come to him at Succot when he'd gone to buy an etrog. He'd been about to park, when someone cut in ahead of him. When he was inspecting the etrogim, he was jostled from all directions, and someone even took an etrog out of his hand. In Schapiro's view these things were symptomatic of the general lack of menschlechkeit in the country. He found it untenable that people in their zeal to perform a Torah mitzvah did not consider the rights and sensitivities of others. Declaring himself to be opposed to the Gay Pride Parade, Schapiro queried where it says in Jewish tradition that if it takes place Jerusalem will burn and people will die.
He was equally concerned about where it says that if people drive on Shabbat that other people should throw stones at them. Wein, in presenting an example of good behavior towards others in the performing of one's own mitzvot, quoted Mussar Movement leader Rabbi Israel Salantar, who was famous for saying that when you wrap yourself in your talit be careful not to knock the other man's eyes out with your tzitzit.
In Wein's view, Jewish value systems have changed. At meetings, there is a cacophony of sound. "We shout at each other; we don't talk to each other, and so we don't hear what the other has to say," he said. The root of the problem, in Wein's view and that of others present, is in education - or rather the lack of it both at home and at school. Generally speaking, said Wein, there is a need for greater tolerance, re-education and personal example. Rabbi Naftali Weinberg of the Machon Ahavat Emet disclosed that his organization was working towards this goal and was trying to introduce education aimed at respect for the other in the haredi and state religious school systems. After several people had spoken their piece, Wein was supposed to sum up, but by that time, in the view of most of the participants, the hour was late, and they simply got up and left - which means that as usual many of them were not listening, or if they were they decided that whatever had been said did not apply to them.
IT'S A given that there are lots of coffee shops in Tel Aviv, but the general public may not have given the matter much thought beyond exploring some of the newer facilities. However, Batya Carmiel, the curator of the photographic exhibition of Tel Aviv coffee shops that opened this week at the Eretz Israel Museum, was curious about the history of Tel Aviv cafe society, and not just with regard to legendary places such as Roval Pinati Kassit, and Abie Nathan's fabled California. There were many others, long forgotten, that she discovered when researching for the exhibit. Now in frequent demand for interviews, Carmiel says Tel Aviv was always a coffee shop city because it was intrinsically a European city that despite the Zionist ideologies and idealism which brought so many to Israel continued to perpetuate a bourgeois culture. Indeed, in many of the older photographs, the men - even those who were part of famed bohemian circles - are seen in suits and the women are equally well dressed despite the austerity of the pre-State and immediate post-State period.
FEW THINGS in this world can be taken for granted, especially in Israel, and even more especially the promises of politicians. The Academic Club made up primarily of supporters of the Netanya Academic College had invited Finance Minister Avraham Hirchson to address the club's founding meeting which had attracted a large gathering of Israel's most affluent and influential personalities. However, in what was literally the last minute, Hirchson had to bow out due to the protracted Knesset discussion on the budget. In telephone conversations with Gideon Hamburger, chairman of the Friends of the Netanya Academic College and NAC President Prof. Zvi Arad, Hirchson promised to address The Academic Club on some future occasion. Most institutions and organizations know that even when the finance minister does attend their events it's not a sign that they will receive an additional allocation from the government. Funding comes from other sources. Arad noted that businessman Benny Steinmetz and his wife Anise, following the example set by Yitzhak Tshuva and his wife Haya, had donated a large sum to the college to be used exclusively for scholarships. The Tshuvas give 300 scholarships to NAC each year.
EVEN THOUGH Ramadan is already well behind them, members of the International Women's Club can't stop raving about the IWC's inaugural Arabic Culture and Conversation event hosted by Vincenza Alayed, the wife of the Jordanian ambassador. It wasn't just the ambience, the display of Jordanian arts and crafts or the additional vocabulary that impressed them. It was the fact that she served them a delicious meal of Jordanian delicacies, even though it was Ramadan and she herself did not partake of the food. With hindsight, several of the women present said that had they realized when the event was being planned that it would intrude on her religious observance, they would have asked for it to be postponed to another date. But it simply didn't occur to them till afterwards, and the warmly hospitable Alayed didn't say anything in advance. What some of them may not have known was that Alayed was not fasting, but simply not eating in public out of respect for her husband and his religion. She is neither a Muslim nor a Jordanian by birth. She was born in England to Italian parents, and is a Catholic both by birth and conviction.