It cannot be said that President Reuven Rivlin does not maintain an evenhanded policy.
This past Tuesday night, he participated in Slichot services in the synagogue in the presidential compound.
On Thursday, together with Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar, he went to the northern town of Kafr Yasif to celebrate Id al-Adha with hundreds of Arab and Druse notables from the political sphere, academia, law, religion and public service. Kafr Yasif has a mixed population of Christians, Muslims and Druse.
The presidential synagogue was inaugurated in the presence of late Shas spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef and other leading rabbinical figures during the term of president Moshe Katsav, one of many donations to Jerusalem by American philanthropist Ira Rennert. Small and beautifully furnished, the synagogue has a regular morning minyan, and its members were delighted to have Rivlin accept their invitation to join them for penitential prayers. Yet even in the presidential synagogue, where the service was led by IDF chief cantor Shai Abramson, Rivlin declined to take the seat of honor but sat instead with other worshipers – who included Moti Peretz and Nachman Kupietzky, among the original members of the prayer quorum.
Lenny Davidman – son of the late Ruby Davidman, another member of the original minyan – attends now to perpetuate his father’s tradition. Kupietzky’s grandsons Chanan and Matanel also attend. Throughout the years, various eminent rabbis join the regular group, which convenes at 7:30 a.m.
■ RIVLIN IS an ardent advocate for tolerance and mutual understanding.
Throughout his political career and since becoming president, he has spoken out against violence and discrimination and waved the banner of equal rights for Israel’s minorities. Now, he has won international brownie points for himself by joining 11-year-old Jaffa resident George Amira in a silent anti-discrimination, anti-violence campaign, which the youngster initiated on Facebook after he had been bullied and harassed at school.
Amira recorded a number of the humiliating epithets directed toward him, and he got the message across in a short but very moving video to tens of thousands of people. The video elicited many thousands of responses, including from Rivlin, who this week invited him and his family to the President’s Residence.
There, the two of them starred – in only two takes – in another video, in which they said nothing but alternately held up signs that read in Hebrew: Don’t judge me for who I am; Look at me and then at yourselves; We are exactly the same; Violence, hostility, bullying, racism; These are only some of the bad things people live with every day here in Israel; These are only some of the things which should not exist in our country; Let’s promise ourselves that this year we’ll work toward tolerance, empathy, unity, equality, values we must have in our society.
The video prompted extremely favorable responses from around the globe, and gave Rivlin a distinctly statesmanlike image, despite his usual hail-fellow-well-met personality.
■ NEARLY ALL foreign diplomats stationed in Israel find ways of getting members of the country’s Jewish and Arab communities to socialize together, but arguably none more so than the Americans. This is not only because they have the largest embassy, Arab citizens of Israel work side-byside with Israelis and Americans there, but also because they invite more than a token number of Arab guests to their receptions and dinners.
That was also the case on Tuesday, when US Embassy deputy chief of mission William Grant and his wife, Mary, welcomed a very mixed gathering of people from many parts of the country to a reception in honor of the two new senior members of the embassy: public affairs counselor Thomas Genton and new Consul- General David Schwartz. The event was hosted in the Grants’ spacious home in Herzliya Pituah, and although the innate American politeness was continuously present, the general atmosphere was one of easy informality.
Grant described the guests of honor as “experienced, high-ranking US diplomats,” adding that Israel is a majorleague assignment for American diplomats.
“We need to have people [here] who are at the top of the game, because your country requires it,” said Grant.
Borrowing from the speech Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu made at the UN, Grant declared: “We need Derek Jeters at the embassy.” Realizing not everyone was familiar with Jeter, Grant explained he was a great American baseball star. Netanyahu had referred to Jeter in a somewhat different context, stating: “... to say that Iran doesn’t practice terrorism is like saying Derek Jeter never played shortstop for the New York Yankees.”
In wishing his Jewish guests “Gmar hatima tova and Shana tova,” Grant did not forget also to wish his Muslim guests a happy Id al-Adha.
Genton, who arrived in Israel at the beginning of July, has been working hard in the embassy’s public affairs section. His previous assignments were mostly in Africa, Latin America and Washington, though he also served in Spain. His wife, Sarah, is currently completing an assignment at the US State Department and she will join him later in the year. The Gentons have two adult daughters.
Looking out at the large number of guests on his back lawn, Grant told them they were part of the bilateral, multi-level relationship between the US and Israel. The gathering occurred less than 24 hours before the meeting between US President Barack Obama and Netanyahu, and Grant made a point of mentioning that no head of government has had as many meetings with the American president as the prime minister of Israel.
Genton said that while it was very flattering to be compared to Jeter, he wasn’t sure how to accept the compliment – given that the ballplayer has announced he’s retiring.
Under normal circumstances, Genton continued, Tuesday night’s reception would have taken place three months earlier, but he had arrived in the midst of the turmoil surrounding the murders of the three yeshiva students.
This gave him an acute understanding of the situation and “the urgent need for peace in the region.”
American Independence Day celebrations had been toned down out of respect for the circumstances, which gave Genton an even greater sense of the gravity of the situation. Independence Day for Americans, especially those celebrating abroad without family, is a tremendous experience, he said, but this year it was more lowkey.
Schwartz is no stranger to Israel. He first came with his high school class in 1974 and spent six weeks touring the country; he came again in 1979 and spent a year at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. The first visit, he said, was soon after the Yom Kippur War, and the second after the signing of the Camp David Accords. Both events, together with visits to Israel, “helped form who I am,” he said. He came again in 2010 and traveled all over the country. He is happy now to be in an official capacity “working with strategic partners and friends” again.
Schwartz told the crowd: “What we do only happens with you making it happen.” Although the event was primarily a reception to welcome him and Genton, he observed, it was also an opportunity to thank all those who had been working in partnership with the American Embassy.
Schwartz previously served in Taiwan, Thailand, Iraq and Washington.
His last position was in fraud prevention.
His wife, Ruth, who will join him shortly, is a physician working on tuberculosis vaccines.
Schwartz explained the work of the consular section by saying it is the public face of the embassy, and it is the first experience with an American official for many Israelis. Some 1,000 people walk through the embassy each day seeking consular services.
“We’re the biggest [embassy] in the Middle East, and we facilitate travel to the US for 130,000 Israelis every year,” he noted.
Preempting complaints about the difficulty in securing visas, Schwartz asserted: “With visas we strive to say yes, so long as it’s legally permissible.”
The consulate provides cradle-tograve services, he added, and it also has a special US citizens’ service unit.
■ SEVERAL WELL-known personalities were gathered in El Al’s King David Lounge at Ben-Gurion Airport this week, but none of them were flying abroad. In fact, they all managed to get past the immigration control officers without passport or boarding pass.
They were present for the opening of an exhibition of bronze sculptures by artist Ilana Fattal, under the title “From Place to Place.” Among them were El Al CEO David Maimon; Regional Development Minister Silvan Shalom and his wife, Judy Shalom Nir-Mozes; singer Orna Datz; MK Shaul Mofaz and his wife, Orit; Shmuel and Anat Frenkel; Michal Yanai and her husband, Ben Muscal; and Hannah Gertler, who frequently works with Nir-Mozes on philanthropic projects.
Fattal, a Sabra, has been living and working in London since 1992. Her sculptures have both Jewish and universal themes. In addition to the exhibition in the King David Lounge, Fatal makes work available for fund-raisers by OneFamily, an organization which takes care of Israeli victims of terror.
El Al is dedicated to promoting Israeli art and artists, and Fattal is one of several whose creativity has been displayed in the King David Lounge.
■ IT’S NOT certain whether one prerequisite for being president is ability as a raconteur, but the members of Israel’s Presidents’ Club (with the possible exception of Moshe Katsav) are all great storytellers with large stores of anecdotes. Building on this treasure trove, Yossi Alfi – whose annual Succot International Storytelling Festival at the Givatayim Theater has become not just a tradition, but a favorite source of television and radio reruns – invited President Rivlin and former presidents Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Navon to open this year’s festival on October 9.
Rivlin and Navon are both nativeborn, multi-generational Jerusalemites, who frequently pepper their stories with tales of Jerusalem characters.
Both Peres and Navon are nonagenarians who witnessed and participated in the establishment of the state and contributed to its development. Both men are disciples of founding Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, with whom they worked closely, while Rivlin was raised on the philosophy of Ze’ev Jabotinsky.
The festival continues until October 18, and participants throughout the week will include, among many others, prolific prize-winning author and lecturer Amos Oz, actresses Lea Koenig and Yona Elian, singer Shai Gabso, actor Uri Gavriel, Senior Citizens Minister Uri Orbach, and journalist and Army Radio commander Yaron Dekel.
As far as is known, the Israeli festival is the largest marathon storytelling event of its kind in the world, featuring more than 800 people including singers, musicians, comedians, thespians, philosophers, politicians, retired military officers and then some. In this, its 21st year, the festival will also host prominent figures from the Netherlands, Romania, Iran, Poland and Portugal.
■ TIMING IS everything. Next Tuesday, Spanish Ambassador Fernando Carderera Soler will host a reception in honor of his country’s National Day and its candidature for membership in the UN Security Council for the period of 2015-2016. On Tuesday, Soler was at Yad Vashem to participate in a ceremony posthumously honoring Sebastián de Romero Radigales of Spain as a Righteous Among the Nations. The medal and certificate of honor were presented to Radigales’s granddaughter Elena Colitto Castelli in the presence of Soler, Holocaust survivor Isaac Revah, family and friends.
Radigales arrived in Athens in 1943 as the newly appointed head of the Spanish diplomatic delegation, almost in sync with the start of deportations of Jews from Salonika to Auschwitz.
The thriving Jewish community, which had existed since the Hellenic era, was almost completely destroyed; 48,000 of their number were deported over a five-month period.
For pragmatic reasons, the Germans agreed not to deport Jews holding Italian and Spanish citizenship, on the condition they return to their home countries. Thus Italian Jews were spared and could return to Italy, but Spanish Jews were hit with the reluctance of the Spanish government to allow their repatriation.
This was the situation when Radigales arrived in Athens. In a letter dated April 15, 1943, written shortly after his arrival, Radigales thanked foreign minister Jordana for his nomination and added that he was now working hard to arrange the repatriation of 510 Jews from Salonika who had Spanish citizenship. Despite Jordana’s instructions “to maintain a passive approach and to avoid any personal initiative,” Radigales relentlessly continued to negotiate on behalf of Jews with German and Spanish authorities.
On August 13, 1943, a group of 367 Jews with Spanish citizenship arrived in Bergen-Belsen. Radigales tirelessly continued the effort to protect these Jews. Eventually the Spanish government changed its position and permitted the transfer of the group to Spanish Morocco. Their travel documents bore Radigales’s signature.
Isaac Revah, a child at the time, recalled how his group was permitted to leave the camp in February 1944.
“Being released from a Nazi camp is an extraordinary event. It all happened thanks to an outstandingly courageous and humane man,” he wrote to Yad Vashem.
Revah did not forget his rescuer’s actions, and applied to Yad Vashem to have Radigales honored and recognized as Righteous Among the Nations.
Radigales did everything in his power to help the Jews in Athens. He also intervened with the German authorities to have Jews released from the Haidari detention camp; assisted those who went into hiding; and safeguarded the belongings of arrested Jews to ensure that their property would be returned to the owners or rightful heirs after the war – actions that went above and beyond his offficial duty as a diplomat, and often against his government’s policies.
Radigales passed away in 1970, having proved that regardless of the inhumane policies some governments might adopt, there are decent people in every country who put enlightened values above all. After his death it took another 16 years for Spain to establish diplomatic relations with Israel.
Spain waited 5 centuries to reverse its anti-Jewish policy, which was marked by the Spanish Inquisition and the expulsion of the Jews from the country in 1492. Exactly five hundred years later, Israel’s sixth president Chaim Herzog went to Spain in March, and he was greeted in Madrid by thenprime minister Felipe Gonzalez Marquez, who said, “We are experiencing a new era of tolerance, and re-encounter between Spain and the Jews.”
When attending a dinner hosted by King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia, Herzog said: “I wonder if all those great immortals – Maimonides, Ibn Gvirol, Nahmanides, Shmuel Hanagid and Judah Halevi, to name a few – ever dreamed for one moment that the president of an independent State of Israel would stand here, in the royal palace of the Kingdom of Spain, and recall their great and significant traditions and contributions to our common culture.”
■ WHILE ON the subject of Spain, it’s possible that Mango, the Spanish fashion giant, may be moving out of Israel. It has notified its franchisee Elbit Trade and Retail (a subsidiary of Elbit Imaging, which is controlled by the cash-strapped Moti Zisser), that it will not extend its contract and is severing relations with the company.
Meanwhile, ETR is continuing business as usual and next week is opening the largest of the 29 Mango stores in Israel, a 600-sq.m. showcase and retail facility in Kiryat Ata. Earlier this year, Mango moved one of its Jerusalem stores out of the Mamilla Mall to the Hadar Mall in the Talpiot Industrial Zone. The Mamilla site is being taken over by Zara, another Spanish fashion giant, which has gone through several Israel franchisees including ETR. The former Mango store in Mamilla is being rebuilt from scratch. Foremost among investors trying to keep Mango in Israel is Harel Wizel, CEO of the Fox Group, which already has 10 fashion, beauty and housewares brands under its belt.
■ THE 1973 Yom Kippur War, which broke out on October 6 and took Israel by surprise and exacted an enormous toll in casualties on all countries involved, is referred to as the October War in Egypt. Also on October 6, Egyptian president Anwar Sadat, who had endeared himself so greatly to the people of Israel as the peacemaker from the most powerful country in the Arab world, was assassinated in 1981. It happened during the annual victory parade celebrating the crossing of the Suez Canal by the Egyptian army at the onset of the 1973 war.
In Israel each year, there is a reliving of the Yom Kippur War in both the electronic and print media, with old stories reviewed and new stories told.
The new stories have never been disclosed before, but remain like festering sores on the psyches of those who fought in the war, and those who waited for them to come home and have coped since with all the challenges that face families of shellshocked and mentally and/or physically disabled soldiers and medics.
On Monday night, October 6, at 9 p.m., Channel 1 will screen a documentary that shows the effect of the Yom Kippur War on the next generation, through the offspring of soldiers who fought with the Seventh Armored Brigade on the Golan Heights and were seriously wounded.
There will be three other films related to the war in the post midnight-loop between midnight Monday and predawn Tuesday.
Gmar hatima tova!