Grapevine: Israel’s president – hero of ‘The Guardian’

British newspaper The Guardian is not particularly well-disposed toward Israel, and certainly not toward its right-wing politicians.

By
January 1, 2015 21:57
Reuven Rivlin

Reuven Rivlin. (photo credit: HAIM ZACH/GPO)

 
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British newspaper The Guardian is not particularly well-disposed toward Israel, and certainly not toward its right-wing politicians.

For all that, former right-wing politician and current No. 1 citizen President Reuven Rivlin has been included in the paper’s series of “Heroes of 2014.”

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Journalist Jonathan Freedland wrote in a brief article published on December 31: “Reuven ‘Ruvi’ Rivlin is an unlikely hero. He is a lifelong member of Israel’s Likud party, and on the right of that right-wing bloc.

He is an advocate of Greater Israel, swallowing up the occupied territories that ought to form an independent Palestinian state. And yet, ever since his elevation to Israel’s largely ceremonial presidency in June, he has acted as something like his country’s conscience – both castigating what he sees as a national slide into racism and intolerance, and standing up for the civil rights of Palestinians.

“In November, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu backed the Jewish Nation-State bill that would enshrine discrimination against Israel’s 1.7 million Arab citizens, denying them the national rights accorded to Jews. Liberals and leftists denounced it, of course, but the most potent attack came from the presidential mansion. Earlier, Rivlin condemned surging bigotry as a ‘sickness’ that needed to be treated.

“In a video for the Jewish New Year, the 75-year-old president sat alongside an 11-year-old Palestinian boy who had been the victim of bullying. The two held up a series of cards, bearing slogans calling for mutual respect and dignity. One said: ‘We are exactly the same.’ Rivlin’s office may be ceremonial; his stand is anything but.”

The item was accompanied by a most flattering photograph, which indicates that even though Rivlin has focused on domestic rather than foreign affairs, people abroad admire him and are taking notice.



■ WHILE THE GUARDIAN has focused on Rivlin’s defense of the Arab population’s civil rights, the truth is that he is a defender of civil rights in general. This past Tuesday, when speaking at an international conference on the integration of haredim into the workforce, Rivlin – in advocating a partnership approach to the haredi community – said it was a mistake to continue to regard the ultra-Orthodox as a minority.

“One of the things I learned from my teachers is to look at the facts rather than the interpretation,” he said. “The fact is that at the moment, about one-fifth of all students in grades 1-6 are haredi. One obvious conclusion is that the haredi public has long ceased to be a minority.”

During the last Knesset, of which he was a member until his election to the presidency, Rivlin witnessed some stormy debates related to proposed legislation that would change the status quo vis-à-vis haredim. It bothered him that so many of the non-Orthodox MKs referred to haredim as a minority, but he acknowledged that the general public finds it difficult to digest that the community is now a significant demographic force here. He surmised that it might also be difficult for the haredim to realize they are no longer a minority, especially when in their own perception, they are targets of discrimination.

Rivlin told participants at the conference, which was organized by Malben/JDC and the Economy Ministry, that the opportunity was ripe for the establishment of a different relationship between the haredim and the various other factions that comprise Israeli society today: a relationship built on investment of equal effort, to understand the potential of the encounter between these groups.

“This is a relationship that is no longer based on a majority and minority, but a relationship of equal partnerships,” he said. “Different camps in Israeli society cannot dictate to the haredi public how to educate their children or how to conduct their lifestyle. The concept of partnership aims to replace solutions based on threats or coercion, with solutions based on compromise and understanding.”

Rivlin underscored that “when one group feels their world and cultural existence are under threat, it will not lead to a breakthrough in relations, but a withdrawal.” He was fearful this may be the case with the haredi community, after what transpired during the 19th Knesset – in which the emphasis was more on incorporating haredim into the IDF, and less on involving them in the economy.

■ REGARDLESS OF how popular any incumbent president or prime minister may be, their presence in a residential neighborhood is a source of discomfort not only to their immediate neighbors but to anyone living within a 100 meters, or any passerby who has to walk or drive past the homes of one of these two dignitaries. The problem is less disconcerting with regard to the President’s Residence than it is in relation to that of the prime minister.

The President’s Residence is on a wide main street, which on certain occasions such as Independence Day is cordoned off from the section leading from the entrance to the next-door Van Leer Institute, all the way to the end of the presidential complex. However, pedestrians can walk on the other side of the road (except when the president may be entertaining his American counterpart), and cars can drive past freely but cannot park in the area.

On the other hand, the Prime Minister’s Residence is on the corner of two small and narrow streets. Due to security considerations, which are much tighter than they are for the president, approximately a third of each of these two streets has permanent security barriers, some of which are electronically operated to enable cars to pass when necessary. When the prime minister is coming or going, all traffic on these streets and the surrounding area is brought to a halt, with lines of motor vehicles on the nearest main streets sometimes lining up for more than three blocks. Pedestrians are not allowed to pass either, including those who may live on one of the two streets which intersect at the residence.

In essence, what this means is that none of the prime minister’s neighbors can ever be sure they will be able to keep an appointment or arrive at the nearby Jerusalem Theater five minutes before the start of a film or a performance.

The prime minister never comes out of his house on foot; the last prime minister to walk out the front door and into the street was Yitzhak Rabin. In addition to a car that emerges from inside the property, a fleet of unmarked escort cars and police cars are waiting outside. Very often at different times of the day, a member of the Border Police or the prime minister’s security detail will tell pedestrians walking along Smolenskin Street or Balfour Road that they can’t continue. Protests that someone has a doctor’s appointment or needs to get to a certain bus which arrives only at half-hour intervals usually fall on deaf ears.

People thus inconvenienced are often told it will take only a minute or two, but sometimes it takes as long as 10 minutes – and one can only imagine how much this costs the economy. This is not intended as a criticism of the prime minister, but of the way the security operates. To make matters worse, there are weekly security exercises behind huge screens put up in the streets, during which no pedestrian or vehicle can pass.

When prime minister Ariel Sharon was in office, the writer of this column – who lives in one of the two small streets only three doors from the Prime Minister’s Residence – met him at a function, told him of the general inconvenience and suggested he have a compensatory block party for the neighbors, taking into account all the necessary security precautions. Sharon actually agreed but unfortunately collapsed soon afterward, and in addition to putting an end to his political career, it also put an end to any hopes for a block party.

However, in the case of President Rivlin and his wife, Nechama, the opposite is true. Realizing the neighbors suffer from every outdoor musical event at the presidential complex – such as military or police bands that rehearse and play the national anthems of the countries of ambassadors presenting credentials, or the various outdoor concerts – the Rivlins sent handwritten invitations to their neighbors to invite them for coffee and cake on January 19. This evolved from the first couple being invited to a neighbor’s home soon after taking up residence, and being unable to accept the invitation due to security reasons.

■ CONGRATULATIONS ARE in order to former Jerusalem Post editorin- chief Ari Rath, who celebrates his 90th birthday on January 6. Rath and Erwin Frenkel were appointed joint editors of the paper after Lea Ben-Dor, who had led the paper for a year, stepped down. Ben-Dor had been charged with the responsibility following the death of the legendary Ted Lurie, the paper’s second editor after founder Gershon Agron, had died in 1974.

Rath and Frankel steered the paper through highs and lows for a period of 15 years, during which time the publication was owned by the Histadrut labor federation.

When the Histadrut could longer afford the financial burden of maintaining the paper, the Post was sold to the Hollinger Canadian newspaper chain. Neither Rath nor Frenkel could live with the dictates of the new ownership, and both bowed out, albeit not simultaneously; Rath left first.

A legendary journalist with close ties to Israel’s founding fathers such as David Ben-Gurion, Shimon Peres, Teddy Kollek, Rabin and Abba Eban, Rath was at the forefront of the fledgling State of Israel’s major news events. Born in Austria, from which he fled at age 13 in 1938, he came with his brother to what was then Palestine, and lived for several years on Kibbutz Hamadia. After studying contemporary history and economics, he turned his hand to journalism, for which he had a natural flair. He joined the Post in 1957.

Despite ambivalent feelings about Austria, Rath realized the importance of establishing contact with Austrian political leaders such as Bruno Kreisky and Franz Vranitzky, each of whom served as chancellor of Austria. He also established close connections with chancellors Willy Brandt and Helmut Kohl, as well as with influential German publisher Axel Springer.

To his staff, Rath was more than an editor; he was a father figure who could almost always be relied on to help when there was a family or financial problem. In fact, on his watch, the expression “Jerusalem Post family” had real meaning and was not merely lip service.

After leaving the Post, Rath worked as a freelance writer; taught at Germany’s University of Potsdam; and was the news editor of the online journal Partners for Peace, an editorial board member of the Palestine-Israel Journal and a founding member of the Next Century Foundation, which operates in conflict zones around the world, working for peace and reconciliation.

Rath has also appeared in documentary films about Austrian Jews and the Holocaust.

Though offered restoration of his Austrian citizenship, Rath declined for many years, even though he had been on many visits to his native Vienna. But finally in May 2005, four months after his 80th birthday, Rath became Austrian again with the visit to Jerusalem by then-Austrian foreign minister Ursula Plassnik – who presented him with an official citizen’s document.

In 2011, during a visit to Austria for the commemoration of the 100th anniversary of Kreisky’s birth, Rath had an appendicitis attack that required a relatively long period of recuperation. During that time, Rath became reacquainted with his home country. It was a different experience actually living there on a day-to-day basis, whereas in the past he had come for brief visits, and he was surprised to feel so much at home.

While in Austria, he wrote his autobiography, Ari Means Lion, which has taken him on book launches to different parts of Europe, America and Israel. He is invited to give lectures and readings, and has become the darling of the Viennese press.

Rath has also been the recipient of numerous international awards, not only for his journalism but for his activities in the Israeli-Palestinian peace camp.

■ ALSO CELEBRATING a birthday, but not yet a round-figure milestone, is veteran Jerusalem-based filmmaker Larry Frisch – who doesn’t look anywhere near his 85 years. Still straight-backed and athletic, Frisch celebrated in style at the Jerusalem Cinematheque last Friday, with not only friends and colleagues filling the auditorium, but also his daughter Tamar and her husband, who flew in from France, alongside his son Hillel, a professor at Bar-Ilan University who came with his wife.

Several of Frisch’s grandchildren and one of his 13 great-grandchildren were also present.

Film historian Yaakov Gross put together a remarkable collage of Frisch’s films, and spoke of the significant contribution Frisch had made to the development of Israel’s film industry.

Frisch is involved in a number of community activities, and representatives showed up to congratulate him, present floral tributes and publicly laud the assistance he has given as an adviser and participant.

Among them were members of the Hovevei Ha’Musica orchestra, where Frisch has participated in music-making for the past 28 years; Jerusalem Community TV representative Moshe Jonas; and Moreshet Yisrael synagogue choir leader Anat Rubinstein. Cinematheque founder Lia Van Leer was also present, as was journalist Judy Lash Balint, who had interviewed Frisch for VOI Internet radio just a few days before.

Frisch first came to Israel in 1949 with his father, Daniel Frisch, who was the president of the Zionist Organization of America and after whom a street in Tel Aviv is named.

■ AFTER THREE months of hype about celebrated anchorman Ya’akov Eilon, his takeover as Channel 1’s Mabat News presenter is about to become a reality on January 5. When that happens, Eilon will have the distinction of having worked at almost every TV news outlet in Israel, and although he is considered a star, the places he has left have continued to shine quite brightly without him.

Despite his star quality, he has not yet been dubbed “Mr. Television,” a title still held by Haim Yavin, now 82 and still producing television documentaries and making on-camera appearances. Admittedly, Yavin earned his title in an era when the only competition was from Israel’s neighboring countries – whose programs were mostly in Arabic and therefore could not be appreciated by many Israelis, who neither speak nor understand Arabic.

Once there was real competition in Hebrew, first from Channel 2 and then from Channel 10, Yavin’s popularity began to wane, but he was still considered the country’s leading authority on TV; programs he has made or programs about him continue to be aired on various channels.

Eilon was the founding news anchor on Channel 2, where he spent seven years, and then became the founding news anchor on Channel 10, where he was kingpin for almost a decade before resigning in February 2012. A few months later he joined Mako, the digital arm of Keshet Broadcasting, where he headed the news department. In addition, he also broadcast in English on i24, and hosted an economics program in Hebrew on Channel 9.

It is anticipated he will be the head news presenter in the aftermath of the liquidation of the Israel Broadcasting Authority, and the inauguration of new public broadcasting service – which was initially planned for March 2015, but in all probability will be delayed until after the formation of a new government.

■ SDEROT, THE fashion capital of Israel? Improbable though it may sound, a growing numbers of girls there are proving their creative capabilities and dreaming of careers in haute couture.

Credit for this outpouring of talent belongs to Sabina Sternklar-Davis of New York, who donated her bat mitzva money amounting to NIS 40,000 toward the establishment of a fashion design class for Sderot girls in her age group. Sabina attends a similar class in New York, and wanted to share the fun and the creative challenges she enjoys with girls living close to the border with Gaza.

She donated the funds to set up a fashion training program that is also available to girls living in communities neighboring Sderot.

Sabina’s parents, Sarah Sternklar and Marvinn Davis, who have been involved with Sderot for several years, contacted the staff of the UJA Federation of New York to help activate the project. The upshot was a fashion show in Sderot last week, as the first fruits of the young Sternklar- Davis’s initiative.

■ HIS RELATIVES and friends were shocked at the premature death of Haifa lawyer Adam Fish, a prominent civil rights and environmental protection activist. In addition to being a partner in a leading law firm and a former member of the Haifa City Council, Fish was also a sought-after lecturer on civil rights, environmental protection, security offenses, sexual harassment, election law and other subjects. In 2013, he was a recipient of the President’s Prize for Volunteerism, in recognition of the pro bono legal services he had given to people from weaker sections of society over a period of 30 years.

Fish, 57, died last Friday in the course of a cycling tour in the Negev – and in death as in life, was a symbol of Israel’s demographic mosaic.

In a large condolence notice placed in the Hebrew media by close to 60 of his friends, the surnames were those of members of the Ashkenazi, Sephardi, North African, Arab and Druse communities, as well as of multi-generation Israelis and those who came as immigrants.

greerfc@gmail.com

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