Every year the heads of diplomatic missions in Israel come to the President’s Residence for a Rosh Hashana toast. The invitations do not include their spouses. This year, however, President Reuven Rivlin and his wife, Nechama, set a new precedent: They invited the spouses on Tuesday, but not at the same time as the ambassadors who will be hosted next week.
Many of them are members of the Diplomatic Spouses’ Club Israel. Julie Fisher, DSCI’s co-president, introduced the club to Rivlin and his wife during the event.
Fisher, also the wife of US Ambassador Dan Shapiro, said that the organization comprises 200 spouses – male and female – from 60 countries who participate in numerous programs designed to enhance their Israel experience. They also undertake activities in support of various charities, and at their regular lecture forums host prominent Israelis – including politicians – from almost every walk of life. The idea is “to see beyond the surface and beyond the headlines,” said Fisher.
New members, she added, often arrive in Israel fearful and concerned. But then “they fall in love with the country. It’s an amazing metamorphosis.”
She than gave an A-Z listing of the countries represented in the room beginning with Australia and ending with Zambia.
DSCI also helps to strengthen friendships between people of different countries, she said.
Rivlin said that he knew of the sacrifices made by spouses and partners of diplomats, and stated that as far as he was concerned, they are also diplomats for their countries and for Israel. He hoped that Israel would always have a place in their hearts. And assured them that “Israel will always have a place for you.”
Asked whether he thought that Israel could expand its relationships with countries in the Middle East, Rivlin said: “We have relations with countries all over the world except for those countries that don’t want to have relations with us.”
Relations with Egypt and Jordan he continued, “are like a dream come true, and there are connections with other countries around us even though we have not yet achieved peace.”
The immediate task, he said, is to build confidence with Israel’s neighbors as well as “confidence between religions and peoples.”
He was sure that many people in neighboring countries dream of being able to explore the pyramids in Egypt, then continue on to the Jordan River and from there to Jerusalem. This can happen only when there is peace, he said.
In response to a similar question, Rivlin said: “We cannot compromise unless we have confidence in the other side.”
He also explained the difficulties in having an Israeli Constitution which specifies a Jewish and Democratic State. The Arab population objects to the “Jewish” characterization and the ultra-Orthodox object to “democratic” one. He then touched briefly on the different streams of Judaism which exacerbate challenges for unity and described himself as “secular Orthodox.”
After Rivlin discussed such challenges, the DSCI group presented him and his wife with two large baskets of gifts containing products from the countries of those attending.
From the President’s Residence they went to the Jewish Agency Building where they were received by Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky.
Sharansky addressed them in the Weizmann hall, once the site of Jerusalem’s Knesset. He spoke about the history of the Jewish Agency and the World Zionist Organization and what they are doing today to help strengthen Jewish identity in the Diaspora, and also touched on what they can do on the home front in the Arab and Druse sectors.
On a personal level, he said that before June 1967, he didn’t particularly identify as a Jew and he didn’t know much about being Jewish other than the fact that there was a lot of anti-Semitism in Russia and that Jews suffered discrimination.
When Stalin died in 1953, Sharansky was five years old. His father told him that a miracle had occurred, because it was known that Stalin was preparing for another pogrom against the Jews, but he died before it was to be carried out. His father told him that at home they could be happy about this, but at school they had to pretend to be very sad. To this day, Sharansky does not know how many of his classmates were leading double lives, just as he was – pretending to be sad in public while rejoicing at home.
He grew up in a fairly assimilated environment, and only after Israel’s victory in the Six Day War, a major change occurred in Russia, and he and other Jews started learning about Israel and Jewish history. In the process, they discovered their Jewish identities.
The free world subsequently made it clear to them that they could open the gates of Russia.
Fisher recalled having participated in a demonstration for Sharansky, and Sharansky commented that Fisher’s husband had initially come to Israel as a young boy on a Jewish Agency program.
Among the gifts that Sharansky received from the DSCI was a chess set from Peru. As a child, he had always wanted to be a chess champion, he said, but the opportunity never presented itself. When he was in prison, he always won because he was playing chess in his head against himself.
But in 1996, when Russian Grandmaster Gary Kasparov came to Jerusalem, Sharansky played against him and won.
Kasparov was furious, but Sharansky told his audience – on a lighter note – that he had an advantage over Kasparov: the latter had not spent nine years playing chess in prison.