The security situation on Tuesday intruded on the reception hosted by President Reuven Rivlin for winners of this year’s Shazar prize for Jewish historical research.
Rivlin welcomed the laureates, their families and members of the administrative public council of the Zalman Shazar Center, named for Israel’s third president. Rivlin repeated a statement that he had issued earlier in the morning in which he declared that he stood behind the security forces who had been working for the success of the morning’s operations for a long time. The president said he knew that the relevant people in the IDF, the government and the opposition had approved the operation – and that all involved had Israel’s security, and only that, in mind.
Rivlin added that this is not a time for political squabbles, saying that those who continue to engage in them bring no credit to themselves. It was time to stop such activity immediately, he said. He also urged the public to listen to all life-saving instructions from the IDF Home Front Command, and for everyone to take good care of themselves.
More than a million students did not attend classes on Tuesday due to the closure of schools and universities in the South and Center of the country.
In addition, the Austrian Cultural Forum, which had a European Book Club event scheduled for a musical performance on Tuesday night, posted a cancellation notice. The Polish Embassy, which had planned a reception for Polish Independence and Armed Forces Day, sent out a cancellation notice in which it stated that, for reasons beyond its control due to the security situation and binding instructions issued by the Home Front Command of the Israel Defense Force, the Independence Day reception and concert that had been planned would not take place.
With regard to the Shazar prizes, Rivlin noted that Shazar had been a man who was deeply interested in studies of the humanities and in the history of the Jewish people, and it was therefore fitting that a center and prizes dealing with these issues be named in his memory.
RIVLIN TOLD first prize winner Havi Dreyfus that her book on the end of the Warsaw Ghetto was riveting, offered new insights, and that he had been unable to put it down until he finished it. Dreyfus is a senior lecturer in the Department of Jewish History at Tel Aviv University, specializing in Jewish and Polish relations, and head of Yad Vashem’s research department on the history of the Holocaust in Poland.
She noted that most of the major research into Holocaust history had been done by academics living outside of Israel, adding that it was an important challenge to raise a new generation of dedicated Israeli researchers of Holocaust history, who could look at the past with a fresh perspective and distinguish between interpretations of history and reality.
Former Mossad Chief Efraim Halevy, who is the immediate past chairman of the Shazar Center’s eleven-member administrative public council, said that although he is not a historian himself, one thing he has learned in the company of historians is that if the Torah has 70 faces, history has 77. Every historian views history from a different perspective, he said, and the perspective of time is an influential factor.
Relating to the current security situation, Halevy surmised that future historians will analyze what was said about it, who said it, why it was said, and when it was said.
Halevy emphasized the influence that individual Jews had on the world over the past hundred years, and suggested that more attention be paid to such people. He singled out two vastly different individuals as examples, saying that it was not enough to focus on historical events, but also on the individuals who influenced those events.
The first person he mentioned was Michael Blumenthal, an Austrian Jew who had been among those who, together with other refugees from Nazi persecution, had found a haven in China during the Second World War. Afterwards, he migrated to America where he served as US Secretary of the Treasury, and had a profound influence on America’s economy.
THE SECOND was former Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov, who died in June, 2015. Primakov was an academic, a politician, a diplomat, and a prime minister in addition to other attributes. He had made such a significant impact on the Soviet Union and the world that last month, on the 90th anniversary of his birth, academic institutions around the world, including in Israel, paid tribute to his memory by having conferences based on the life of this multi-faceted man.
After the Soviet Union severed diplomatic ties with Israel in 1967, Halevy disclosed, secret relations between the two continued. From 1973 onwards, he had been Israel’s contact man to Primakov. He did not know whether Primakov was Jewish. He never confirmed or denied it, although after his death, there was reason to believe that he was Jewish.
Although Halevy did not quote Google, it is a prime example of the diversity of opinion that he referred to in his opening remarks. In the various biographical entries about Primakov, one states that, “his parents were Jewish and the family name was originally ‘Finkelstein.’” Another states that he was half Jewish and half Russian. Yet another says that he was born in Ukraine to a Jewish mother and a Russian father, and yet another said that he reportedly had Jewish roots.
Primakov met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during the latter’s first stint as prime minister, Halevy said, and found him to be interesting.
Although Halevy did not say when or where the meeting took place, it happened to be in Jerusalem in October 1997, during Primakov’s tour of the Middle East with the aim of reviving peace talks.
Even then, much of the conversation centered around Iran.
Prof. Margalit Shilo of Bar-Ilan University, who headed the prize committee, said that it was very difficult to decide who was deserving, and it was only because the committee had worked in such close cohesion and cooperation that it was able to choose the winner and the runners up, who are: Prof. Devorah Cohen for her book on Leadership without (gender) Limits; Moti Benmelech on The Life and Death of Shlomo Molcho – the Portuguese mystic and pseudomessiah; and Chaim Bitton for his thesis The Twilight of a Community – the Jews of Morocco in Transit Camps 1947-1956.
All of these works contribute greatly to the knowledge of Jewish history in the diversity of its subject matter, she said.