Is Russian President Vladimir Putin planning to visit Israel in January 2020? If he does come, it will be his third trip in just under 15 years.
Putin visited Israel in April 2005 and met with president Moshe Katsav, prime minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. He came again in June 2012, when he met with president Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and now there is a chance that he will visit Israel for a third time this coming January to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz by soldiers of the Red Army.
Some of those liberators and some of the people they freed live in Israel, and in both cases are in the twilight of their lives and fairly frail. The commemoration ceremonies at Yad Vashem and other institutions dedicated to the perpetuation of Holocaust awareness and memory will probably be the last that they attend. Soon there will be no survivors, no witnesses to tell the story.
The possibility that Putin will come to Israel was mentioned last week by President Reuven Rivlin near the conclusion of his address at the Russian national day celebration at the Dan Accadia hotel in Herzliya Pituah.
Russian Embassy senior staff were crowing last Thursday night not only due to the presence of Rivlin, but also as they kept eyeing United States Ambassador David Friedman, who had accepted the invitation of his Russian counterpart, Anatoly Viktorov, to join in the festivities. Friedman is such a busy ambassador, hosting events at his residence or attending conferences, that he is seldom seen at the receptions hosted by his colleagues in honor of the national days of their respective countries.
As relations between Washington and Moscow are somewhat strained at the moment, the Russians were not sure, until Friedman walked into the Dan Accadia, that he would actually show up. But there was no reason for him not to. After all, when Friedman invited Viktorov to the American Independence Day reception at the Avenue in Airport City last year, Viktorov showed up with his wife, Olga – and reciprocity is part of diplomacy.
The Russians have always known how to throw a great party, and this one was no exception. In fact, in many respects, it surpassed all of its predecessors, partially because of the venue.
For Sheldon Ritz, the Dan chain’s affable director of sales for embassies and government ministries, the occasion was a wonderful opportunity to showcase the Dan Accadia, which he said had never before been chosen by any embassy for a national day reception. He found this strange considering that most ambassadors live close by. The hotel outdid itself in the arrangements. Not only was the cuisine superb, with many of the guests coming back to the food islands for second and third helpings, but the whole affair was held on three outdoor levels of the hotel complex, so that the 500 guests could mingle freely with no sense of overcrowding.
The event was also a coup for Ronen Nissenbaum, the president and CEO of Dan Hotels, who was previously managing director of the Waldorf Astoria New York. Nissenbaum has held executive positions in some of the most prestigious hotels in the world, and although the Dan Accadia is not lacking in prestige, he wants to see more international functions such as national day receptions, especially as this hotel has more banqueting facilities than most others.
Most events of this kind begin at 7 p.m., but because Rivlin, who was the guest of honor, had another event in Tel Aviv that evening, the reception officially began at 8 p.m. Oddly enough in a country in which nearly every event starts considerably later than the time stated on the invitation, there were already many people present before 7 p.m., congregating at the top of the three levels.
Viktorov and his wife also arrived early and mingled with their guests, spending time talking to heavily bemedaled veterans of the Red Army and to delegations from the Greek Orthodox and Russian Orthodox churches. Kazakhstan Ambassador Doulat Kuanyshev, who is widely regarded as one of the most perfect gentlemen in the diplomatic corps, came with a huge bouquet of flowers for Olga Viktorov.
When the formalities eventually began, Viktorov said that the Russian Federation is open to the most broad engagement with all partners, believing that the most important task is to join efforts against real challenges faced by humankind, such as terrorism, drug trafficking, risks of violating nuclear nonproliferation agreements, and the use of cyber technologies for criminal purposes. He emphasized that Russia is not leaning toward confrontation with anyone. “It is quite the other way around,” he insisted. “We are advocating solutions to all problems, based on equality and mutual respect.”
It is gratifying, he added, that relations between Russia and Israel are based on such foundations. In this context, he underlined the bilateral partnership at the highest level, including the significant role of the Russian Federation in strengthening peace and stability in the Middle East.
Rivlin referred to Russia as “one of Israel’s closest allies and greatest friends” and reiterated Israel’s appreciation for Russia’s support and Putin’s personal involvement in securing the return to Israel of the remains of Zachary Baumel, who fought in the First Lebanon War (1982).
Confirming earlier statements by Viktorov, Rivlin said: “Today, Russia and Israel face challenges together and turn them into opportunities together. We work together to fight terrorism and forces that threaten the stability of our region and our world. Russia knows what it means to face threats and the cost of defeating them.” Looking out at the veterans of the Red Army, Rivlin said that Russia had paid a very heavy price in its effort to fight and defeat the Nazis. It was a sacrifice that should never be forgotten, he said.
He also praised Putin as Israel’s “great ally” in the fight against the resurgence of antisemitism.
Rivlin attends many more national day receptions than did his predecessors. It’s a given that the president of Israel is always at the American Independence Day reception, but not necessarily those of other countries. Rivlin has also attended such receptions hosted by the ambassadors of Egypt, Jordan, China and Italy. His immediate predecessor, Peres, always made a point of attending Bastille Day receptions at the residence of the French ambassador, but even if he was inclined to do so this year, Rivlin would not be able to because he will be out of the country. He will be paying a state visit to the Republic of South Korea at the invitation of President Moon Jae-in, and will be in the innovative Asian country from July 14-18.
South Korea, like Israel, gained its independence in 1948 and, again like Israel, has built up a healthy, innovation-based economy with a strong hi-tech base.
■ THERE IS a certain irony in the fact that former Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi died on the day that the memory of Peres was being honored at the annual state memorial for deceased presidents and prime ministers. At the ceremony, held at the President’s Residence, Peres was honored together with Israel’s second president, Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, and former prime ministers Levi Eshkol and Golda Meir.
What was ironic was that the event took place so close to the seventh anniversary of the controversial correspondence between Peres and Morsi. Israel’s president had written to his Egyptian counterpart to congratulate him on becoming president and to wish him well during Ramadan. This despite the fact that Morsi, as a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, had made virulently anti-Israel statements over the years.
In his reciprocal letter, Morsi wrote that he was looking forward to “exerting our best efforts to get the Middle East peace process back to its right track, in order to achieve security and stability for all people of the region, including the Israeli people.” The letter was faxed to Peres from the Egyptian Embassy in Tel Aviv. When its contents were made public, there were both angry denials and reluctant confirmations by Egyptian sources as to its authenticity.
In October of the same year, when Egyptian ambassador Atef Salem presented his credentials to Peres, the letter of credence from Morsi, which had been prepared in the same month as the previous letter – namely in July – in its opening sentence contained the words “Great and good friend, being desirous of maintaining and strengthening the cordial relations which so happily exist between our two countries, I have selected Mr. Atef Mohamed Salem Sayd El Ahl to be our ambassador extraordinary and plenipotentiary.” This letter, too, sparked controversy.
Beneath the pergola at the entrance to the main hall of the President’s Residence on Monday, a series of photographs of deceased presidents and prime ministers, mounted on wooden easels, contained enlarged portraits, each accompanied by an action shot of that individual.
The ceremony inside the building began with very brief alternating films clips of prime ministers and presidents, beginning with Israel’s founding prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, proclaiming the establishment of the State of Israel, and continuing with Chaim Weizmann, Moshe Sharett, Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, Levi Eshkol, Zalman Shazar, Golda Meir, Ephraim Katzir, Yitzhak Rabin, Yitzhak Navon, Menachem Begin, Chaim Herzog, Yitzhak Shamir, Ezer Weizman, Sharon and Peres. The only former president still living is Katsav, while two former prime ministers, Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert, are also still living, and both are still quite vocal.
■ LESS THAN a month following the death of the president’s wife, Nechama Rivlin, Na’amat, the Histadrut women’s organization, has decided to establish a NIS 10,000 scholarship in gender studies in her memory, so that her name will remain in the public consciousness in perpetuity. The creation of the scholarship was announced by Na’amat chairwoman Hagit Pe’er, who also sent a letter to this effect to President Rivlin.
■ YOGA IS gaining in popularity in Israel. It is not uncommon to see groups of yoga practitioners in parks and on beaches, but on Thursday they will be in their multitudes at Hatachana – The New Station compound in Tel Aviv-Jaffa for the 5th International Day of Yoga, which could arguably be described as India’s most successful export. Among those attending will be Indian Ambassador Pavan Kapoor. There will also be Indian snacks available, and the added incentive is the opportunity to win a trip to Goa, India’s most exciting tourist destination, courtesy of Carmel Tours.
■ INVITEES TO the American Independence Day reception will be congratulating Friedman and his wife, Tammy, not only on the 243rd anniversary of America’s independence but also on the engagement of their daughter Talia to Sam Schubert of Dayton, Ohio. The big question is: Will the wedding be in Jerusalem or New York?
■ EVEN BEFORE the American Independence Day festivities, the American woman who is at the peak of popularity polls in Israel will be coming for a return visit. Former US permanent representative to the United Nations Nikki Haley will be the keynote speaker at a June 27 forum on US-Israel Relations hosted by the Israel Hayom group. During her two years at the UN, Haley was an outstanding defender of Israel, never hesitant to call injustice for what it was.
Some 500 people have been invited to attend the forum at the Jerusalem Archaeological Park-Davidson Center, where other speakers will include Rivlin and Netanyahu.
■ MEANWHILE, KNESSET Speaker Yuli Edelstein last week tweeted above a photograph of himself and his wife, Irina Nevzlin, “Celebrating our wedding anniversary and wishing us many more years of happiness and love together. Shabbat Shalom to all of you.”
The actual anniversary, at least according to the Gregorian calendar, is June 20, but after his tweet, Edelstein, who married his wife three years ago, got more than a thousand responses.
■ IN ISRAEL this week to receive an honorary doctorate from the Hebrew University was Sen. Linda Frum, a member of the Conservative Senate Caucus as well as a very active member of the Jewish community. A dedicated advocate for human rights and for the preservation of Holocaust memory, she has been prominent in other spheres as well, such as eliminating foreign funding in Canadian elections; culture; health and commerce. She also introduced the Canadian Jewish Heritage Month Act, by which the contribution of its Jewish citizens to Canada’s development in many spheres is recognized every May.
Prior to her appointment 10 years ago by then-prime minister Stephen Harper, known to be a great supporter of Israel, Frum was an award-winning journalist and author. When Harper called her to ask if she would like to serve as a senator, she disclosed this week at a cocktail reception at the David Citadel Hotel in Jerusalem, hosted in her honor by the Canadian Embassy and the Center for Israel and Jewish Affairs, which is part of the Canadian Jewish Federation, she asked if she could call him back, because she had to discuss it first with Howard. Her husband, Howard Sokolowski, who came to Israel with her, was all in favor.
David Cooper, CIJA’s vice president for government relations, said that there are very few people for whom he would be happy to hop on plane from Ottawa and spend 12 hours coming to Israel. Frum is one of those people.
Among the Israel organizations that Frum supports is NGO Monitor, whose president and founder, Gerald Steinberg, said that her leadership is remarkable, and that she knows how to hold a critical discussion in a dignified and civil way in a polarized world.
Canadian Ambassador Deborah Lyons recalled growing up listening to the senator’s mother, Barbara Frum, an acclaimed radio and television broadcaster famous for her interviews. When she was at the embassy in Washington, said Lyons, she greatly appreciated the help and advice given to her by the senator’s brother David Frum, a political commentator and speechwriter for George W. Bush.
Lyons revealed a previously untold story about how she became really close with the senator. She had been Canada’s ambassador to Israel for all of 48 hours when she had to attend the funeral of Peres. Frum had also come to represent Canada. The two somehow became separated from the Canadian delegation, the upshot of which was that after the funeral, the bus left Mount Herzl without them. Both were wearing high heels, and neither was familiar with the terrain. They wandered around not knowing where they were going, with Lyons becoming increasingly concerned about what the senator would think of her incompetence. But when an embassy car finally came to fetch them, Frum thanked her for the adventure.
Lyons commented that it was “perfect timing” for Frum to receive her honorary doctorate in the 70th anniversary year of Canada-Israel diplomatic ties. Support for Israel is not a partisan issue in Canada, she said. “Israel is too important to become everyone’s football,” she declared. A seasoned diplomat, Lyons said that she is the luckiest ambassador because “being an ambassador in Israel makes you a better person.” Frum’s response was, “You’re not the luckiest ambassador – you’re the best ambassador.” This was confirmed by David Weinberg, the director of CIJA’s Israel office, who said that Lyons had applied for an extension of her tenure, “and we all hope she gets it.”
■ IT’S NOT unusual to see ultra-Orthodox politicians and other religious dignitaries being interviewed on commercial television. Some insist that if the program is to be rebroadcast on the Sabbath or a religious festival, it should contain a subtitle stating that it was recorded on a regular weekday. The ultra-ultra-Orthodox want a guarantee that it will not be rebroadcast on the Sabbath or a religious festival; and if they don’t get that guarantee in writing, they call off the interview.
But now there is an online ultra-Orthodox TV station, where that condition does not have to be imposed. Kol Barama, the ultra-Orthodox radio station, recently began broadcasting televised news online with Moshe Glasner as the presenter. For the immediate future, such broadcasts will be available only on Thursdays on the Kol Barama website. Glasner will continue with his regular radio broadcasts. According to Kol Barama CEO Ariel Deri, the plan is for nightly televised newscasts at 7 p.m. with the focus on issues that are of particular interest to the ultra-Orthodox community.
■ “SEE YOU in Kazimierz” is the watchword of the annual Krakow Jewish Festival, which this year will be held from June 21 to 30, inclusive. Kazimierz is Krakow’s old Jewish Quarter, where synagogues still stand, though not all function as such. Over the past three decades Krakow has experienced a gradual renewal of Jewish life.
Aside from the usual roots tours by Zionist youth groups, Israeli high schoolers, Holocaust survivor families and individuals, Jewish life in Krakow was revived by a non-Jew, Janusz Makuch, who as a teenager heard that there had once been many Jews in Krakow and wanted to learn what happened to them. There was nothing he could do about those who had been murdered by the Nazis, but he could do something about Jewish culture, to ensure that it did not die with Krakow’s Jews. And so he introduced the Krakow Jewish Festival, which initially began on a modest scale and mushroomed from year to year, attracting Jews and non-Jews from all over Poland and around the globe. It also attracts Jewish singers, dancers, musicians, filmmakers, lecturers and teachers from Israel and the Jewish world.
The festival includes cantorial concerts, modern Israeli music, Yiddish cabaret, Jewish films, lectures, hassidic dancing, Israeli folk dancing, Jewish cuisine (both kosher and nonkosher) and many more aspects of Jewish culture. Thousands of people descend on Kazimierz during the festival, and happily there are plenty of hotels in Kazimierz and central Krakow to accommodate them.
Makuch can be seen all over the place, looking and sounding as if he had just come off the set of Tevye the Dairyman. Last year, during Israel’s 70th anniversary celebrations, Ambassador to Poland Anna Azari presented Makuch with the Friend of Israel Award, in recognition of what he has done to revive Jewish culture in Poland. Warsaw and other cities have followed Krakow’s lead with Jewish festivals of their own, but on a somewhat smaller scale.
During the rest of the year, canned Jewish music can be heard coming out of galleries and museums in Kazimierz, and sometimes from JCC Krakow, where there are numerous activities. Chabad and Shavei Israel are very active in the city, with the result that totally assimilated Jews are coming out of the woodwork and drawing closer to their heritage.
A couple of months back, at the initiative of the International March for the Living, more than 200 young leaders, both Jewish and non-Jewish, from 10 countries gathered at Krakow’s famed Jagiellonian University, which offers various courses in Jewish studies and often hosts Jewish-themed conferences. They had come to discuss how to cope with the current scourge of rising worldwide antisemitism.
The university, the oldest in Poland, the second-oldest in Eastern Europe and one of the oldest in the world, was established seven centuries ago, and even at the height of antisemitism in Poland had some Jewish studies on its curriculum, but nothing as comprehensive as it has now.
Polish-Jewish filmmaker and Emmy award winner Slawomir Grunberg, who lives in the US, but who commutes to his native country to make documentaries, will at the end of June begin filming Hidden Heritage, a feature documentary about the revival of Jewish life in Krakow seen through the eyes of Polish citizens, some of whom grew up under the Communist regime, and have rediscovered their Jewish connections, and what this means to them in an environment that in some places is once again becoming hostile to Jews.
■ SOME PEOPLE have trouble tweeting in one language, but Polish Ambassador Marek Magierowski tweets in three, depending on the type of readership for whom the message is intended. Sometimes he tweets in English, sometimes in Polish, and sometimes in Hebrew. The messages are not translations of each other.
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