Grapevine: Party of all parties for Peres

Highly publicized gala evening Monday of the Peres Academic Center turned out to be one of the most meaningful events the country has ever known.

By
June 18, 2013 22:05
PRESIDENT SHIMON PERES and former US president Bill Clinton at the Peres Academic Center in Rehovot.

Clinton and Peres at Peres Center 370. (photo credit: Steve Linde)

The highly publicized gala evening of the Peres Academic Center in Rehovot – despite all the controversy that had preceded it, particularly in regard to the fee for the keynote speaker, former US president Bill Clinton – turned out to be one of the most meaningful events the country has ever known. After all the hullabaloo over the $500,000 that was being paid to Clinton, and the repercussions the payment was having on the reputations of President Shimon Peres (who actually had nothing to do with the financial arrangements) and Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund, which was allegedly footing the bill, the KKL-JNF withdrew from the event.

Clinton, with the wisdom of Solomon, decided that his foundation could live without the promised half million dollars and that the money should stay in Israel, to be used for scholarships for Peres Academic Center students. In announcing this, PAC president Prof. Ron Shapira, who is the former dean of the Faculty of Law at Bar-Ilan University, said that PAC would match the money from its own budget.

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Introducing PAC to the hundreds of people from Israel and abroad, Shapira said this follows Peres’s vision that access to higher education is a basic, universal human right. He also paid tribute to PAC founder and chairwoman Ofra Elul, who also chairs the board of Nitzan, the Israeli Association of Children and Adults with Learning Disabilities; and to Rehovot Mayor Rahamim Maloul, who has been a solid supporter of PAC. Among the people in the audience, which included government ministers, MKs, leading academics, captains of industry and several international personalities, who had flown in from abroad to attend the Presidential Facing Tomorrow Conference and to join Peres in celebrating his 90th birthday, were Rwandan President Paul Kagame and his wife Jeanette, and entertainment mogul Haim Saban, who arrived together with Clinton and warmly embraced Peres.

There were also a few PAC students in the audience, but the majority were gathered at the Top Doran Event Hall in Rehovot, to watch the proceedings via satellite. The PAC administration did not want any of its students to miss out. PAC, established in 2006, sits on an undeveloped tract of land, part of which was magnificently – albeit temporarily– outfitted as a huge, sophisticated lounge-cum-dining room with a carpeted floor, white and beige tables, chairs and sofas, strategically placed food islands and magnificent floral arrangements. All the chairs in the adjacent grandstand had been covered with cloth and the stairs with red carpet. The pyrotechnics that lit up the night sky were breathtaking in their scope and artistry.

The only thing that marred the evening for this columnist was sitting in the row in front of married journalists Guy Meroz and Orly Vilnai, who kept talking throughout Clinton’s impressive speech, while everyone else sat in rapt attention. Being television stars does not give one license to spoil the enjoyment of others.

The president, in welcoming Clinton, told him that his coming to Israel was a holiday for the nation, and said he was one of the most beloved of people “and the greatest leader of our age.” Peres also called Clinton “a great and moving friend of the Jewish people and the State of Israel.” Furthermore, he described Clinton as “the American dream and the hope of our time,” adding that the former US president had conquered the hearts of people all over the world.

Peres also commended Clinton as being a master of the impossible, having left office with a huge budgetary surplus in a world where everyone else has a deficit.



From an Israeli perspective, Clinton’s greatest accomplishment was in bringing prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and Fatah leader Yasser Arafat together, said Peres. He noted the strong friendship that had existed between Clinton and Rabin, and said that Clinton’s parting words in reaction to Rabin’s assassination, “shalom, haver,” “are still in the hearts of all the people.”

Clinton mounted the stage after hearing a superbly presented duet of The Impossible Dream by Miri Mesika and David D’Or. He acknowledged that he and Peres had had their fair share of tilting at windmills. “You need your vision and your dreams to get from where we are to where we’ve got to go,” he said. Recalling that he had also attended Peres’s 80th birthday celebration, Clinton said that one of the reasons Peres has lived so long is because he has always lived in the future. “Just tonight, he promised to celebrate my 80th birthday, my 90th birthday and that he would speak at my funeral,” he quipped.

Clinton also referred to the historic meeting between Rabin and Arafat.

Clinton had persuaded Arafat to come to the meeting without his gun, and persuaded an unwilling Rabin to shake hands with Arafat. When Rabin finally agreed, it was on the proviso that there would be no kissing.

■ CLINTON IS one of many dignitaries, celebrities, high-powered business people and others of influence and renown who have flown in to Israel this week to say “happy birthday” to Peres, and to participate in the Facing Tomorrow conference which is a Peres initiative. Former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev, who had intended to be at the festivities, canceled at the last minute due to ill health but sent warm greetings.

Greetings were also sent by German Chancellor Angela Merkel; Russian President Vladimir Putin; French President Francois Hollande, UN Secretary- General Ban Ki-moon; Pope Francis, with whom Peres met recently in the Vatican; and many others.

The various messages have saluted Peres as a statesman, a visionary and a leader who seeks peace. Several of the messages also included comments about what Israel has achieved in 65 years of statehood, and the role that Peres has played in helping to jump start many of the nation’s accomplishments.

Clinton, in fact, commented in Rehovot that insufficient credit has been given to Peres for what he did to build up Israel’s defense establishment.

If people admired the stamina of Israel’s president in the past, his marathon of meetings this week should earn him further kudos. Just a few of the things that were on his agenda this week include: a meeting with singing star Barbra Streisand and children from the Make-A-Wish Foundation; the Peres Academic Center gala; and meetings yesterday with Dutch Foreign Minister Frans Timmermans, actor, director and producer Robert De Niro, Cisco Systems chairman John Chambers, and Prince Albert of Monaco. Timmermans, incidentally, brought an invitation from Holland’s new King Willem- Alexander to visit the Netherlands.

Later in the day, Peres opened the “Tomorrow: State of Mind” brain science exhibition; attended a special reception for his birthday; and opened the Presidential Conference.

This morning he will award the Presidential Medal of Distinction to Clinton.

Earlier this year he awarded it to US President Barack Obama, and last year to former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger. Peres will be attending several of the conference sessions today and tomorrow, and will be conducting a series of meetings. Not bad for someone whose actual 90th birthday will be on August 2.

Clinton will celebrate his 67th birthday on August 19; De Niro will turn 70 on August 17; and Sheldon Adelson, one of the most generous of philanthropists with regard to Israel, will celebrate his 80th birthday on August 4. Peres will join Adelson and his wife Miriam on June 26 at Tel Aviv’s Nokia Arena for a Taglit-Birthright summer mega-event. The Adelsons have contributed in excess of $100 million to Birthright to ensure that as many Jewish young adults living in the Diaspora as possible get the chance to visit Israel at least once, and become imbued with the Israel experience in the company of their peers.

■ IN AN era in which history is rapidly being forgotten, journalism remains one of those professions in which history is a vital component to a wellresearched story. Every investigative journalist knows that today’s news hinges on developments of yesterday and yesteryear. Thus, in a city like Jerusalem, it was more than appropriate to establish an international press club in an historic setting that nonetheless has great meaning for people still living.

The Jerusalem Press Club, which officially opened this week, is part of the rehabilitation of the sprawling Mishkenot Sha’ananim-Yemin Moshe neighborhood – which was the first neighborhood outside the Old City built on a hill opposite Mount Zion by British banker and philanthropist Sir Moses Montefiore, with the help of funds that he had secured from American businessman and philanthropist Judah Touro. There was bitter fighting in the area during the War of Independence and most of the residents left. Only the poorest of the poor remained in what essentially became a no man’s land, due to its vulnerability to sniper attacks by Jordanian legionnaires. As a result, Mishkenot Sha’ananim fell into a derelict state.

Following the reunification of Jerusalem, the legendary Teddy Kollek, who was mayor at the time, embarked on an ambitious rehabilitation project to not only restore and preserve Mishkenot Sha’ananim, but to expand and upgrade it. He did this through the Jerusalem Foundation that he established in 1966, a year after his election as mayor. Over time, the Mishkenot Guest House, inaugurated in 1973, was established as a place of inspiration for musicians, writers, poets and artists. The Jerusalem Music Center – also established in 1973 at the initiative of violinist Isaac Stern and the Konrad Adenauer Conference Center, and officially inaugurated in 2001 – added new dimensions to Mishkenot Sha’ananim, as did the Jerusalem Center for Ethics established in 1997, and the INFO Press Club, the precursor of the Jerusalem Press Club that was established seven years ago.

The complex also contains the dairy Montefiore Restaurant, and within the framework of the JPC, the Touro meat restaurant – both of which are kosher.

The JPC is located in what was the famous, upscale Mishkenot restaurant operated by Moiz Peer, who was invited to the official opening of the JPC but was too emotionally overcome to attend.

However, Kollek’s daughter Osnat was there, as were sisters Pnina Kirschenbaum – who was a senior member of the staff of president Chaim Herzog – and Yocheved Ram, who were born in Mishkenot and whose brother Avraham Kirschenbaum, then aged 22, was killed by the British in March 1948 while defending his home. The Kirschenbaum home behind doors four and five was a small two-room apartment in the row of houses that directly faced the Old City, and originally belonged to their grandmother Elka Eizenman, whose brother was the grandfather of Mike Ronnen, The Jerusalem Post’s veteran art editor and critic, who died four years ago.

Also present were members of the Montefiore family and Eli Eshed, a relative of Zev and Yehoshua Wolfensohn, the original operators of the Yemin Moshe windmill. There were also Israeli and American interns who were studying journalism and were living symbols of the future; several foreign correspondents; and local journalists, the most veteran of which was Israel Prize laureate David Rubinger, whose photographic record of the birth and development of the state is an historic treasure. Rubinger, who will celebrate his 89th birthday on June 29, has been a professional photojournalist for most of his adult life. He looks nowhere near his age, by the way.

Prior to the event, JPC director Uri Dromi took Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat on a tour of the premises, which contain an exhibition with photos supplied by the Foreign Press Association. The exhibition was curated by Rubinger, who is one of the founding members of the FPA. On one of the tables in the small but comfortable lounge, Kollek’s My Jerusalem sat atop a small stack of books. On another table, visitors could leaf through the photographs in a book titled Israel First View, as seen by the Earl of Snowden – otherwise known as photographer Antony Armstrong Jones, who is the former brother-in-law of England’s Queen Elizabeth II. The piece de resistance in the room is a typewriter, the oncevalued tool of every journalist. In this social media age dominated by Facebook and Twitter, something else that could be considered a relic is modesty – given that Facebook and Twitter are essentially vehicles for self-aggrandizement.

Sandor Frankel, a highly respected American lawyer and one of the trustees of the Helmsley Foundation, which handsomely funded the construction of JPC and has granted millions of dollars to numerous projects and institutions in Israel, spoke after Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky– who when approached to speak at the event had asked whether he should talk about his work in various ministerial positions, or in his current position. He had been told: “We want you to speak about what a good time it was for journalists in the Soviet Union.” When it was Frankel’s turn to speak, he said: “I thought I knew all the miracles of Israel and Jerusalem, but that a guy from the Bronx should get to speak after Natan Sharansky – that’s truly a miracle.”

■ EACH YEAR, the British ambassador, together with the Israel, Britain and the Commonwealth Association, hosts a reception at his residence to which a prominent personality is invited to speak. This year’s speaker was MK Dov Lipman, who despite his American accent managed to enchant his largely British audience.

In introducing him, British Ambassador Matthew Gould quoted Rabbi Aharon Feldman, Lipman’s former rosh yeshiva at the Ner Israel Rabbinical College, who had called him a wicked apostate but later apologized and instead called him an unintentional sinner. “We are all unintentional sinners,” said Gould, by manner of assuring Lipman that he was part of an inclusive circle.

Lipman shared his vision of a form of national unity without labels – a society in which people would respect each others’ opinions and ideologies even if they disagreed with them. In his own Yesh Atid party, he said, secular and religious members explain their lifestyles to each other without either side trying to convert or denigrate the other. From his perspective, what was important was the sharing of knowledge to promote understanding and reduce intolerance.

Lipman devoted much of his address to defending party leader Yair Lapid, saying that the public had the wrong impression of him. Lipman, who describes himself as haredi, but only for the purpose of explaining his background and values, said that when he joined Yesh Atid, it was essentially because he felt that he could play a role in reaching out to the haredi community. He had no aspirations to be a legislator, especially given that he was No. 17 on the Yesh Atid list – at a time when political pundits predicted that the party would get far fewer Knesset seats than was actually the case. But as election day drew nearer, so did his chances of becoming an MK – so much so that on the night before the elections, he went to the Western Wall to pray.

There, he sent an SMS to Lapid, who instantly wrote back advising Lipman that his place in the Knesset was assured, and that Lapid was now making a special effort to get the No.

18, Boaz Toporovsky, into the Knesset as well.

On the actual night of the elections, Lipman faced a dilemma. At 9:58 p.m., just before the television announcements of the exit poll results, he was standing next the totally secular Yael German, who is now health minister. He knew that if the results were as good as everyone hoped, she was likely to spontaneously turn around and hug him.

He also knew that the television cameras of Channels 1, 2 and 10 were trained on them, and if she did so, he would be dead meat in the haredi world – yet he could not insult her by backing off. As he had thought, German did turn towards him and held out her arms in triumph. But instead of hugging him, she hugged herself, respecting the fact that he is an Orthodox rabbi.

Though an irrepressible optimist, Lipman is not entirely impervious to some of the things said about him in the Knesset. The nicest things they say, without necessarily intending to be complimentary, is that he is a dreamer who believes in miracles.

He makes no effort to deny that he is, but says that he has every reason to believe in miracles, in addition to the miracle of the State of Israel.

Seventy years ago, his grandmother was languishing in Auschwitz, said Lipman, and not too long ago she visited him at the Knesset. That’s one miracle.

Another goes back to the time when he was a boy and Jews demonstrated regularly outside the Soviet Embassy in Washington, calling for the freedom of the Jews of the Soviet Union. On one occasion they decided to have a silent vigil, with people holding placards. The placard that Lipman carried called for the release of a prisoner of Zion by the name of Yuli Edelstein. That same Yuli Edelstein is now speaker of the Knesset in which Lipman serves.

■ ONE OF the highlights of the Australian trade missions that come to Israel is a traditional Friday night dinner in Jerusalem, following attendance at Shabbat services at the Jerusalem Great Synagogue as the guests of vice president Zali Jaffe. Several of the trade mission participants – sometimes even the majority – are not Jewish, and the visit to the synagogue is often their first experience in learning something about the Jewish religion and its traditions.

This was the case among several of the participants in the 45-member Australian trade mission that was in Israel last week. Several of its non-Jewish members have been doing business with Israel for years but never spent more than 48 hours in the country, flying in for a conference or a series of meetings in Tel Aviv but never getting to Jerusalem – until last week. Paul Israel, the executive director of the Israel-Australia, New Zealand & Oceania Chamber of Commerce, always makes sure that the program is not entirely business.

He ensured that the time in Jerusalem included a visit to Yad Vashem, where even some of the people who had been to Israel before and have frequent dealings with colleagues in the Australian Jewish community, had difficulty in processing so much evidence of man’s inhumanity to man.

On a happier note, some of these same people were pleasantly surprised by the range of Jewish liturgical music as sung by the Great Synagogue choir.

This particular trade mission actually consisted of two delegations: one being gas and energy, led by Kevin McCann, chairman of Macquarie Bank and Origin Energy; and the other a venture capital and entrepreneurs delegation led by Roger Allen, chairman of Allen and Buckeridge, Australia’s largest venture capital firm.

McCann, whose many hats include that of being a fellow of the University of Sydney senate as well as a member of the university’s business school advisory board, in the course of his visit here met with Israeli banking associates, people in the energy field, the president of Tel Aviv University and academics at the Weizmann Institute of Science. He was sufficiently impressed to announce at the Friday night dinner that when he returns to Australia, he will become an ambassador for Israel.

At the dinner, McCann sat at the same table as Dr. Tamar Jaffe- Mittwoch, the director of the Israel Science Foundation. He quipped that until then, he had always thought of Tamar as a natural gas field in the Mediterranean, but in the future he would also think of Tamar as a scientist.

Allen was equally enthusiastic and said that the visit to Israel was an inspiration for anyone who wanted to see how much ingenuity and innovation could result from so few resources.

■ THE FACT that the principal shareholders in an international hotel chain are Jewish does not guarantee the presence of that chain in Israel. The Pritzker family, which started off the Hyatt chain after purchasing Hyatt House at Los Angeles Airport nearly 60 years ago, actually did venture into Israel and had properties in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and the Dead Sea – which were subsequently taken over by the Dan Chain and Le Meridien, respectively.

Today, Hyatt, which now has more than 500 properties in many parts of the world, is not represented in Israel at all.

However, former employees of the Hyatt Regency Jerusalem, which opened its doors on Mount Scopus on August 8, 1987, have remained in contact with each other. Hotel staff, because they work in teams, are often like extended families, and this has certainly been the case among the original members of the HRJ, which is now a Dan hotel.

When it was first opened, HRJ was described as one of the most beautiful hotels in the capital. Even though subsequent hotel complexes have been no less impressive, the terraced building on Mount Scopus continues to stand out on the Jerusalem horizon, where so many beautiful constructions are being dwarfed by highrise towers.

Last week, two of the people who were part of the original HRJ team, Iris Mazel and Miri Storfer of the sales and marketing division, organized a reunion which was attended by 150 people. Master of ceremonies for the evening was television personality Danny Roup, who back in 1987 was an HRJ receptionist.

Several other staff members who were in less senior positions at the time have moved on to far more influential roles in the hotel industry or in other fields. David Cohen, who was the manager of the hotel’s Valentino restaurant, is now the general manager of the David Intercontinental restaurant in Tel Aviv. Sharon Fleischer, who worked as a concierge, is now vice president of regulation and government affairs at Bezeq. Gadi Hessen, who was rooms division manager, is now overseeing the October opening of Herzliya’s Ritz-Carlton Hotel. Tami Mazel Shahar, who worked in the concierge department, is now vice president of international sales operations at 3M.

Moshe Sand, who was general manager of the hotel, has established his own management company that manages several hotels in Europe and Israel. Ezra Astruc, who was public relations manager, now owns King David 28/Gallery for Events, which caters high-end affairs. Louisa Varaclas, who was reception manager, is now the director of the Cyprus Tourism Organization in Israel. Former banquet manager Moussa Quazzaz is now the general manager of the Legacy Hotel in Jerusalem. Uri Avrouskin, who started his career in tourism as front office receptionist at the HRJ, is now general manager of Kenes Tours. And this is just the tip of the iceberg.

Not all of the hotel’s employees went elsewhere in pursuing career goals or due to changes in management.

Thirty eight are still at the hotel, now as employees of the Dan chain. Rumor has it that the Hyatt is considering coming back to Israel and is looking for new locations. If it does, it’s highly doubtful that it can reclaim its properties, and will have to build anew.

■ TONIGHT, WEDNESDAY, while Barkat attends the gala dinner of the Jerusalem College of Technology honoring alumni and faculty who are contributing to Israel’s security, on the other side of town, Hitorerut-Wake-Up Jerusalem, headed by Ofer Berkowitz, will be launching its election campaign at the Gerard Behar Center. There, in addition to addresses by Berkowitz and the party’s No. 2 candidate, Hanan Rubin, the party’s full list of candidates for the October elections will be revealed.

Hitorerut, made up of secular and religious Jerusalemites, wants to ensure that the city remains pluralistic and does not become an enclave for the religiously observant. Rubin, who is religiously observant, has participated in demonstrations designed to ensure that the Cinema City currently under construction in the capital’s national precinct will be open on Shabbat – so that secular residents will have one more place to go, instead of seeking entertainment outside the city. Rubin is the son of former Jerusalem City Council comptroller Shulamit Rubin and the late Yaacov Rubin, who inter alia was chairman of the Israel Bar Association.

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