Grapevine: A morning of diplomacy

Some of the ambassadors were not exactly new and have been in the country for more than two months.

December 13, 2016 20:45
Kemal Okem, new Turkish ambassador to Israel, shakes Israeli president's hand

Kemal Okem, new Turkish ambassador to Israel, shakes Israeli president's hand. (photo credit: MARK NEYMAN / GPO)

There was great excitement at the President’s Residence on Monday, when the whole of the morning was taken up with new ambassadors presenting credentials.

Some of the ambassadors were not exactly new and have been in the country for more than two months.

Although it was an important day for all of them, the ambassador who received the most attention was understandably Turkey’s Ambassador Kemal Okem, who did not merely go through the usual motions of presenting his credentials and his predecessor’s letter of recall, but, in addition to his tête-à-tête with President Reuven Rivlin, was given a lectern from which to make a statement, after Rivlin himself had made one.

Later, at the traditional vin d’honneur at the King David Hotel, Okem joined Hélène Le Gal of France, Deborah Lyons of Canada, Sara Angelina Solis Casteneda of Guatemala and non-resident Ambassador Sman Manan of Cambodia, who is stationed in Cairo, who had each presented their credentials in individual ceremonies throughout the morning.

After that reception was over, several of the guests and many more waiting outside in the lobby crossed into the next room for another sumptuous reception that was hosted by Okem alone. The festivities continued well into the afternoon.

■ THE FIRST three of the five ambassadors who presented credentials were women, bringing the total number of women heads of diplomatic missions in Israel to 12, if one counts Croatia’s charge d’affaires Tina Krce, whose embassy has been without an ambassador since mid April. It would seem that just as law as a profession is gradually being dominated by women, diplomacy, too, is succumbing to the distaff side.

Chile’s Ambassador Monica Jimenez, who in a previous posting belonged to a group of women ambassadors at the Vatican, would like to form a similar group in Israel, because she believes that as with most things, women have a different approach to diplomacy than men and should have an avenue in which to share their experiences.

■ BUT GETTING back to Monday, Le Gal, who served in Israel some 20 years ago, told Rivlin that it is “an honor and a joy” to be back and that it feels just like a homecoming.

Recalling how France had helped Israel with its security needs in its early years, she said that security is still an important part of the relationship, especially in the sphere of counterterrorism.

Some ambassadors are a little nervous when they speak to the president, though he does his best to put them at ease. Lyons, whom Rivlin had met on at least two previous occasions, proved to be a little feisty and with a delicious sense of humor, which may have been honed in her previous posting as ambassador to Afghanistan. She wanted to take Rivlin skating in Canada, but if time didn’t permit, she said, she could just as easily take him to Beit Canada in Metulla, which houses Israel’s only permanent skating rink and where Jewish and Arab children play ice hockey with one another.

Next year Canada will celebrate its 150th anniversary of confederation, and the whole year will be taken up with events throughout the country. Lyons is hoping to get Rivlin to Ottawa for the key festivities. Meanwhile, an Israel-Canada government-to-government meeting is in the works.

Guatemala’s Solis Casteneda, in addition to being a diplomat, is an expert on the Mesoamerican Maya civilization, and told Rivlin that she would dearly love to lecture on the subject in Israel. Rivlin was sure that the country’s universities would be only too happy to avail themselves of her knowledge.

Cambodia’s Sman Manan came in a military uniform with gold embroidered epaulets and cuffs, and spoke with great feeling about what Mashav, the Foreign Ministry’s agency for international development cooperation, has done for his country in the realm of agriculture.

“We have the land, but we don’t have the technology,” he said. Israel has also helped Cambodia with medical services through the Cambodian Red Cross, and many Israeli doctors have voluntarily traveled to Cambodia to perform eye surgeries.

■ RIVLIN MEETS with different segments of Israel’s demographic mosaic not only on a daily basis but sometimes on an hourly basis, meeting groups and individuals in completely different fields and from totally different backgrounds, though this week his week more or less began with literature and will end with literature.

At the beginning of the week, he presided over the Shazar Prize, which was awarded to Michal Shaul for her work in Holocaust studies, and on Friday he and his wife, Nechama, will go to Tel Aviv to join in the Cameri Theater’s tribute to best-selling author A.B.

Yehoshua, on the occasion of his 80th birthday.

Politically, Rivlin and Yehoshua are poles apart. Rivlin is a lifelong disciple of Jabotinsky and was previously a Likud MK, whereas Yehoshua is a peace movement activist who attended the signing of the Geneva accord.

What do they have in common, aside from the fact that Rivlin is an avid reader? They are both multigenerational Jerusalemites, who went to the same school – Gymnasia Rehavia – and later studied at the Hebrew University.

But there the similarity ends. Whereas Rivlin is personally and by virtue of his position a symbol of Jerusalem, Yehoshua hasn’t lived in the capital for a long time. Their roots are also different. Yehoshua is of Sephardi background with roots in Morocco on his mother’s side, whereas Rivlin is Ashkenazi with roots in Lithuania.

■ REGIONAL COOPERATION Deputy Minister Ayoub Kara has a reputation for doing almost anything to get his name in the media.

His current ploy in that respect is to be the member of government available to attend national day receptions. Most ministers prefer not to attend such events and have to be cajoled or bullied into doing so. But Kara is only too pleased and has represented the government at several consecutive events of this kind hosted by various heads of diplomatic missions.

When he reads his speech in Hebrew, he does a fairly good job, especially as the text is prepared by the Foreign Ministry, and it’s the delivery that makes the impact. But Kara, whose English is appalling, with glaring mispronunciations and nonexistent grammar, insists on either interposing his bad English into the good Hebrew or reading the speech in English and altering some of the text along the way. He does not read English well and is agonizingly slow. Some might give him an A for effort, but that’s only the first time they hear him. After two or three or more times, it becomes painful.

What is puzzling is that ministers who had been scheduled to appear at certain receptions are suddenly replaced by Kara. Welfare and Social Services Minister Haim Katz was supposed to appear at the Japanese reception, and Social Equality Minister Gila Gamliel at the Kenyan. But it was Kara who arrived.

■ THE JAPANESE reception in honor of the 83rd birthday of Emperor Akihito was different from that hosted by previous Japanese ambassadors. It was very obviously a mini trade fair. Whereas in the past, there were buffet tables laden with a huge variety of food in the large marquee set up on the back lawn, this time there were displays of Japanese products, most notably a variety of Japanese beverages, with many guests sampling different kinds of Japanese beer. Also on display was a mixed seafood sushi which guests were asked to taste without adding soy sauce, and there was a wonderful aroma of tempura emanating from an open kitchen. Also, there were infinitely more Japanese businesspeople among the guests than in years gone by, indicating an ever-increasing growth in two-way trade and investment.

Ambassador Koji Tomita could not quite come to terms with the fact that a year has already passed since his arrival in Israel. Time seems to fly much faster in Israel than anywhere else that he has served in his 35 years of professional life, he said, attributing this to Israel being “a very dynamic country with dynamic people. Never a dull moment.”

Exchange visits to each other’s countries by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in 2014 and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in January of this year were in Tomita’s perception big catalysts for progress in all categories of the bilateral relationship. “I can say with much confidence that we are raising our game to a completely different level.”

Though very different historically and culturally, Israelis and Japanese, Tomita believes, are natural partners, who by bringing their unique talents together can create something special. He instanced the martial arts, which he categorized as the first real connection between the peoples of the two countries.

“Many Israelis came to appreciate our culture through judo, karate, aikido and so forth,” Tomita said. “And they didn’t just learn our arts, but injected their own spirits of daring and tenacity, creating their unique playing style and producing in time the world-class athletes in these events. I am very pleased to welcome some of your Olympic medalists tonight, including Yarden Gerbi, who just won the bronze medal in the Rio Games. My only complaint is she won the medal by beating the Japanese player.”

As happened with the martial arts, he said, unique partnerships can be developed in other areas as well.

Gerbi, whose love affair with judo began when she was six years old, said that she had visited Japan many times to train and to compete.

“I love everything about it – the people, the respect, Tokyo City and, I must be honest, the food.”

Referring to Miku Tashiro, whom she defeated in Rio de Janeiro, thus winning an Olympic bronze medal, Gerbi said: “She is a great athlete and a very kind person. I’m sorry it had to finish like this for her. I wish she could be next to my side on the podium with a medal. She is my friend.”

Projecting ahead to the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, Gerbi said: “The organization will be perfect.

The games will be amazing. All we have left is to win – which will be very hard against Japan at home, but I’m looking forward to it.”

■ ON THURSDAY, the Japanese ambassador will host another reception, this time to confer on Prof. Meron Medzini and architect Arie Kutz the 2016 Autumn Imperial Decorations of the Rising Sun, Gold Rays with Neck Ribbon.

Medzini, 84, a former director of the Government Press Office, former adjunct associate professor in the department of East Asian studies, Faculty of Humanities, Tel Aviv University, and adjunct associate professor in the department of Asian studies, Faculty of Humanities, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, will be decorated for his contribution to the development of Japanese studies and promoting the understanding of Japan in Israel.

Kutz, an architect and city planner, chairman of the Israel-Japan Friendship Society and adjunct lecturer at Tel Aviv University, will be decorated for his service in promoting friendly relations and mutual understanding between Israel and Japan. The two Israelis are among 96 foreign recipients of Japanese decorations for 2016.

■ ALSO SCHEDULED to be conferred with a decoration on Thursday, but in another part of Herzliya Pituah, is Yad Vashem chairman Avner Shalev, who will receive the title of the Order of Civil Merit. Spanish Ambassador Fernando Carderera will present Shalev with the award, at a ceremony at his residence.

Shalev is being awarded for his years of public service as chairman of Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center, and for the significant strides he has made in Holocaust education and commemoration in Israel and around the world.

The prestigious Order of Civil Merit was established to recognize extraordinary service of Spaniards and foreign citizens on behalf of the king of Spain and Spanish nation. There are several grades of this citation. Previous recipients of the various levels of the Order of Civil Merit have included heads of state, as well as several kings, queens and other members of royalty.

■ COLOMBIAN AMBASSADOR Fernando Alzate Donoso last week hosted a reception in honor of Colombia’s Minister of Culture Mariana Garcés Córdoba, who was in Israel for four days to explore ways in which to advance bilateral cultural exchanges.

This was her first visit, and it was timed for an international cultural exchange market which is conducted by the Suzanne Dellal Center in Tel Aviv. However, she managed to get to Jerusalem and to spend time in Yad Vashem as well as in the Old City, where she visited the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

She was totally fascinated by Yad Vashem, not only by the exhibitions but by the architecture, which she considered to be absolutely right for a museum of this kind. She was equally impressed by the exhibitions, the quality of which surprised her. The whole experience was emotionally moving “and we all came out crying.”

Garcés Córdoba, whose background is cultural rather than political, had the feeling that the curators at Yad Vashem had made so much sense out of everything on display.

“When you go through Yad Vashem, you learn to understand this horrible part of history and say Never Again!” Every person in the world should come to Yad Vashem, she declared, and if they can’t do so physically, they should at least familiarize themselves with the Yad Vashem website.

Garcés Córdoba also met with Culture and Sport Minister Miri Regev, whom she invited to Colombia. Regev said she would love to visit, but she has other commitments, including a visit to Mexico. However, she promised that she would try to fit Colombia into her schedule. The two ministers discussed dance and cinema as well as books and libraries.

Garcés Córdoba has suggested that other leading figures in Israel’s cultural scene visit Colombia toward the end of next year to participate in MICSUR, the cultural industries market in Bogota. MICSUR is the main cultural exchange outlet in South America.

Garcés Córdoba enthused over the first visit to Colombia by the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of Zubin Mehta and was thrilled at the thought that the IPO will once again perform in Bogota in 2018.

But before that she hopes to be back in Israel when she gets some vacation time. Four days is simply not long enough in which to get a proper appreciation of the country and what it has to offer culturally, she said.

■ REGULAR READERS of The Jerusalem Post have their favorite writers and, over the years, have become used to seeing particular bylines, but none as frequently as that of Health and Science Editor Judy Siegel, who these days is the most veteran of the reporters on the editorial staff, with a little more than four decades of writing behind her on subjects such as the presidency, immigrant absorption, the Israel Broadcasting Authority, the Jewish world, religious affairs, and occasionally the Jerusalem Municipality when it related to any of her beats. In other words, although she has been specializing in health and science for some 30 years, she is in fact an experienced general reporter, familiar with a wide range of issues.

Yakir Feldman, who is a copy editor at the paper, discovered that in her years at the Post, Siegel had published in excess of 30,000 stories – sometimes three or four or even more on any given day, and figured out that if she had written only one story a day, it would take some 80 years to write them all. He wanted to celebrate her unique feat, but she declined. Together with other staff members, he went ahead and did it anyway, and although few things remain secret in the office, Siegel was indeed surprised, though she did ask at the beginning of the editorial meeting, which preceded the celebration, why there was so much food on the table.

■ SEEING IS believing, which is the main reason that Ambassador to the United Nations Danny Danon accompanied 14 other ambassadors to the UN on an Israel visit organized by the American Jewish Committee’s Project Interchange. The tour was led by Aaron Jacob, AJC director of diplomatic affairs. The group included ambassadors from Africa, Asia, Europe and Latin America. Among the places they toured was United Hatzalah headquarters, in order to learn more about the lifesaving work that the organization is doing across Israel.

Noting that he had come with ambassadors from four continents, Danon said: “The United Nations is obsessed in the way that they deal with Israel, and it is important for us to show the ambassadors the reality on the ground, the challenges that we face and the hard facts, so that they see it with their own eyes, without the interpretations, lies and incitement.”

Danon said that it was especially important for the ambassadors to see the work that United Hatzalah volunteers are doing across Israel and around the globe. “During our tour of Jerusalem, it was important for us that the ambassadors visit the headquarters of United Hatzalah, so that they could be exposed to the important work that the organization, its staff and professional volunteers are doing in saving lives every day,” said Danon.

■ YIDDISH CONTINUES to be alive and well on the fifth floor of Tel Aviv’s Central Bus Station, where Yung Yidish founder Mendy Cahan continues to perform along with other artists who love Yiddish songs, Yiddish literature and the Yiddish language.

Cahan, who performs throughout the Jewish world, singing, dancing and telling stories in Yiddish, will appear this Thursday night with Polina Belilovsky in a program that includes songs of Édith Piaff, Mordechai Gebirtig and Molly Picon as well as other famous musical hits from around the world, all performed in Yiddish.

Belilovsky, a Russian-born folk singer and graduate of Moscow University’s music department, has been interested in folklore since childhood, and says: “Yiddish folklore is an ocean with many treasures in it. I see it as my mission to discover these treasures and open them to the world.” Belilovsky has an extensive folk song repertoire, from which she performs on stages around the world.

Strongly influenced by Piaf, Belilovsky says: “I inherited from her the ability to ‘live’ the song, her temperament and the sincere expression of emotions. There is also a physical similarity between me and her, which got me the nickname ‘The Jewish Piaf.”” Cahan, who was born in Antwerp, has performed on many stages as well as on screen.

He has also written a book and has founded several cultural centers for the preservation and dissemination of Yiddish.

■ ON FRIDAY of last week a poignant reunion took place at the Dan Hotel in Jerusalem where Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, the chief rabbi of Tel Aviv, and some 30 couples came together to commemorate the 20th anniversary of their initial participation in the annual March of the Living. Lau, a child Holocaust survivor and chairman of the Yad Vashem Council, attends the March of the Living every year.

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