Coincidence and contrast are part and parcel of our lives. In the span of less than a week, former president Shimon Peres participated in two contrasting events. The first was one of great sorrow; the second of great joy.
The first was a memorial ceremony for the victims of the terrorist attack on Charlie Hebdo, at the Jaffa residence of French Ambassador Patrick Maisonnave; the second was the 30th anniversary celebration at Herzliya’s Air Force Center for Operation Moses, the daring airlift of Ethiopian Jews by the Shaldag (Kingfisher) unit of Israel Air Force commandos.
Peres was prime minister at the time of Operation Moses, and this was one of the reasons he joined in the celebration – which was also a reunion of sorts between the rescuers and the rescued. Among those who had been commanding officers in both Operation Moses and Operation Solomon were outgoing IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Benny Gantz, and Tnuva CEO Arik Shor.
Coincidentally, on the day of the 30th anniversary celebration, Moshe Kahlon announced that Tsega Melaku – previously the manager of the Israel Broadcasting Authority’s Reshet Alef radio station – was No. 3 on his Koolanu Party’s list. In other words, if Koolanu lives up to the forecasts of political pundits and joins the coalition of the incoming government, Melaku could well become the first Ethiopian in Israel to hold a ministerial portfolio, – although she will certainly not be the first person in her community to occupy a Knesset seat.
In Paris, almost exactly to the date on which a century ago, Emile Zola published his famous open letter to the French president under the heading “J’accuse,” France’s Jewish community was reeling from the terrorist attack on a kosher supermarket in which four Jews were killed.
While Eli Yishai, the former Shas leader and current leader of the Yachad Ha’am Itanu Party, was in Paris together with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman, Economy Minister Naftali Bennett and Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky, the original and current chairman of Shas, Arye Deri – who 13 days earlier had resigned from the Knesset and politics – returned to once more lead the party. This was in response to a letter from Shas spiritual mentor Rabbi Shalom Cohen, who ordered him to return and do his duty by the poor.
The letter, written in the most elegant Hebrew, happened to coincide with the 157th anniversary of the birth of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, the father of the revival of Hebrew as a spoken language, in whose memory a Hebrew-language conference-cum-festival is presently in progress in Rishon Lezion.
The day on which Netanyahu addressed French Jewry, assuring them they had a home in Israel, was the 83rd anniversary of a letter from US president Herbert Hoover to Emanuel Neumann of the Zionist Organization, in which he wrote: “I am interested to learn that a group of distinguished men and women is to be formed, to spread knowledge and appreciation of the rehabilitation which is going forward in Palestine under Jewish auspices, and to add my expression to the sentiment among our people in favor of the realization of the age-old aspirations of the Jewish people for the restoration of their national homeland. I shall appreciate it if you will present my cordial greetings to those attending the dinner in Washington on January 17 to advance this enterprise.”
The beginning of this week, in which election campaigns and exposure of corruption among public figures continued to be in national news headlines, coincided with the 811th anniversary of the death of Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, more commonly known as Maimonides. Maimonides was a great believer in social justice and morality, and strongly advocated that true philanthropy was not in giving a handout to the poor, but a hand up – by furnishing them with employment, so they could earn their livelihoods in dignity.
■ LAST ON this list is the photograph of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, all but weeping on the shoulder of French President François Hollande over the calamity overtaking Europe. The scene, just over two weeks before the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, would have been unimaginable during the period of World War II and its immediate aftermath.
The photograph itself is a study in contrasts, in that it reflects both hope and despair. If former enemies such as France and Germany can put their differences behind them, perhaps there is hope for relations between Israel and the Arab states – simply because they are now confronting the common enemy of terrorism.
On the negative side, the expression on Merkel’s face would indicate her fears that terrorism will ravage Europe and the world at large.
■ APROPOS THE 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, and Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, chairman of Yad Vashem and chief rabbi of Tel Aviv, will on January 18 launch the landmark project 70 Days for 70 Years at Jerusalem’s Menachem Begin Heritage Center. The launch will be broadcast live to communities in England, and the project will involve Jewish communities around the world in learning about the Holocaust, as the last living survivors begin to fade away.
One of the deep concerns of survivors, and of institutions dedicated to preserving the memory of the Holocaust in hopes it will never happen again, is how to make the message relevant when people who were there are no longer around to tell the story from the perspective of their own experiences.
■ AS HAS been mentioned previously in this column, President Reuven Rivlin will address the UN in New York on International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Many people thought Rivlin rather than Netanyahu should have represented Israel at the mega-rally against terrorism in Paris.
Be that as it may, Rivlin was not entirely out of the picture and on the day of the attack on Charlie Hebdo, sent a message to Hollande expressing his shock and sadness, stating, “All of us throughout the free world face the threat of terrorism, and must stand united in the face of those who seek to stifle free thought and continue to destroy the lives of so many. Sadly, I am no stranger to the horror and grief that follows such murderous attacks.
We stand with France in determination to safeguard freedom of speech and freedom of the press, which are central pillars of democracy.”
Peres, a lifelong Francophile, also sent a letter of condolence to the people of France, in which he wrote: “The hearts of our citizens are with the French people today. France, as a country which established freedom at the very core of its values, was attacked today. We share the grief of the families of the many victims of this atrocity...”
Both letters were exceptionally long. The usual practice is to send a letter of one or two paragraphs, but in this instance, the atrocity was perhaps a little too close to home – symbolizing the horrendous reality of the warnings which Israel has for some years now been voicing to the world.
Many world leaders thought Israel was exaggerating and that this was yet another example of the fabled Jewish persecution complex. Rather, it was more an example of the old adage that just because you think you’re being persecuted, doesn’t mean you’re not.
Then of course, in the same week, there was the attack on the kosher supermarket – once again proving that Israel had not exaggerated the dangers of radical Islam. Rivlin immediately got in touch with the French Jewish leadership to convey his condolences and express his concern for the country’s Jewish community, also raising the issue at a Bible study class he conducted at the President’s Residence together with Rabbi Benny Lau, who heads the 929 Bible study initiative.
Noting the strengthening in recent years of vital connections between the Jewish community of France and the State of Israel, Rivlin said mutual feelings had been reinforced inter alia by the attack on the Jewish school in Toulouse, the French Jewish community’s solidarity with Israel and the influx of French immigrants.
Following that preamble, Rivlin got a little tougher and demanded that governments around the world, especially France, protect the security and well-being of their Jewish citizens.
“There is an obligation to ensure that Jews can live in dignity and pride without threats and intimidation,” he said, adding that Israel will warmly welcome every Jew who wants to come and live here. He said something along the same lines but with greater emotion at the Jerusalem funerals of the victims on Tuesday.
Similar sentiments were expressed by Netanyahu, and elsewhere by Liberman and Sharansky.
Immigrant Absorption Minister Sofa Landver, in a meeting with heads of French immigrant organizations in Israel, said all obstacles to immigration from France would be cast aside, and that more projects to prepare French Jews for emigration from France would be implemented as quickly as possible – including a significant increase in Israeli emissaries to France, for the purpose of encouraging French Jews to make aliya.
However, Avi Pazner, a former world chairman of Keren Hayesod and before that an Israeli ambassador to France, said on TV that making plans for mass immigration from France was pointless unless immigrants could be guaranteed housing and jobs.
■ NOTWITHSTANDING ITS regular reporters from France, Gideon Kutz and Rina Basis, the financially strapped IBA – which is in the process of liquidation – nonetheless sent backup in the person of Amir Bar-Shalom, the military commentator for Channel 1. By coincidence, Michal Rabinovich, a Channel 1 current affairs presenter who was vacationing in France, joined the IBA broadcasting team – which was further augmented by Chico Menashe, who traveled to Paris with Netanyahu.
Kutz, who was frequently sought for updates by both Reshet Bet and Channel 1, was so exhausted and emotionally spent from working around the clock that he stuttered, stammered and was occasionally at a loss for words, which were supplemented by colleagues in Israel. A veteran, highly experienced journalist with carte blanche to the Elysees Palace and a history of reporting assignments in many parts of Europe, Kutz also worked as a print media journalist in Israel. Someone at the IBA should have realized his predicament and distributed the coverage more evenly. He was back to his usual professional self after the intensity of news events had subsided.
Throughout the ordeal of the people held hostage in the kosher supermarket, there were numerous contradictions in reports on all Israeli television and radio stations. This was to some extent understandable, given the circumstances, but what was unforgivable was the insensitivity on the part of Israeli rabbis and laypersons who co-host a religious program from just after midnight to the predawn hours every Saturday night on Reshet Bet. They actually had the audacity to telephone Chief Rabbi of Tunis Betto Hattab, whose son Yoav was among the dead, and ask him – more in a tone of curiosity than sadness – if he was going to bury his son in Israel.
Furthermore, in their conversations with Chabad emissaries in France, they kept asking whether the latest anti-Jewish incidents would prompt mass aliya and if the emissaries would be among the immigrants or Israelis returning home. No matter to what degree it was emphasized that French Jews are very loyal to France, and most would remain there; and that Chabad rabbis are committed to providing services to Jewish communities, no matter how large or how small, the rabbis in Jerusalem just couldn’t or wouldn’t comprehend this. One of the French rabbis they spoke to commented that Israel was no safer than France, and recalled that in the recent attack on a synagogue in Jerusalem’s Har Nof neighborhood, four people had been murdered – just as four people had been murdered in France.
In any case, Hollande offered Hattab residence in France – to which the response was that the chief rabbi felt safer in Tunis.
■ THE DEVIL is in the details, and journalists and scholars know this as well as anyone.
Last Friday, an item appeared in Grapevine with reference to an alleged conversation between Sharansky and Jerusalem resident Dorraine Gilbert Weiss about a Book of Psalms that he has been carrying around with him since his days in a Soviet prison.
After it appeared Zvi Ziegler, the father-inlaw of Yael Ziegler of Gush Etzion, wrote to The Jerusalem Post saying that it was a verbatim copy of an email he had received several months earlier from his daughter-in-law, who was the teacher mentioned in the item – and it was she who had spoken to Sharansky.
It turned out that Gilbert Weiss had published the story on Facebook, and none of her friends who read it and almost instantly responded with awe and enthusiasm noticed the quotation marks at the beginning and end.
Gilbert Weiss sent out an email this week apologizing, saying she had put the story in quotes but didn’t have the name of the author at the time. She has since discovered it was Yael Ziegler’s story.
It could just as easily have been the story of several other people familiar with the tale of Sharansky and his Book of Psalms.
He must have been asked about it hundreds of times in his various travels, and presumably always gave the same or a very similar response. While plagiarism may be one of the highest forms of flattery, in this case it was totally unintentional. Nonetheless apologies are due to Ziegler, who is entitled to full credit for the charming and inspiring story.
The lesson from this mistake is one of the Ten Commandments of journalism, which is to double-check one’s sources, because so much of what is written or told to us is not exactly what it appears to be. As for people who send material that they find inspiring, be sure to add a line saying that it isn’t your story, but one you came across on the Internet.
■ FEW PEOPLE would deny that anti-Semitism is on the rise in Europe, but that doesn’t mean Israel lacks Christian friends in European countries. One outstanding example of such friendship can be found in the Dutch organization Christenen voor Israel headed by Roger van Oordt and Dick Schutte, who were in Israel this week to accept an award from the Jaffa Institute at its annual gala dinner at The Avenue in Airport City – where representatives of various philanthropic endeavors in collaboration with the Jaffa Institute were given public recognition.
Many of the 750-plus guests were not given recognition on this occasion, but were also representatives of charitable trusts and philanthropic foundations. Among them was Yigal Levine, who is possibly better- known for his activities with the British Olim Society and the Israel, Britain and the Commonwealth Association than as the representative of the Kadoorie Charitable Foundation.
Another was Edward Cohen, who is engaged in various philanthropic projects, not the least of which is his chairmanship of the Free Loan Association.
Those who were recognized included, in addition to Christenen voor Israel, Joseph Gitler, the founder of Leket, the organization that literally rescues surplus food for distribution to the poor; social entrepreneur Ran Presburg, the Israeli representative of the German company Bulthaup, which creates unique kitchens and living spaces; and Haim Hurvitz of the Eli and Dalia Hurvitz Foundation, which makes funds available for the advancement of art, education and medicine, and recently turned its attention to the well-being of senior citizens – who are growing in number, but receive inadequate consideration from the government.
Event chairman was advocate Nachum Feinberg, who in conversation with MC Oded Menashe, explained the reward in giving. Relating an example from his own life, Feinberg said he had been sitting in court one day behind a young man from the Ethiopian community, who was not being represented because he couldn’t afford a lawyer. Feinberg spontaneously took the young man by the scruff of the neck and led him outside, and without really knowing anything about him, decided to act as his pro bono lawyer. They returned to the courtroom and Feinberg told the judge he was taking the case.
He subsequently discovered that his new client was supporting a family of nine and was heavily in debt. Feinberg won the case and his client was awarded NIS 68,000, which enabled him to pay off all his debts.
He is currently a second-year student in computer science at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology,.
Van Oordt and Schutte said their organization, which has more than 200,000 members, has very proudly been working with the Jaffa Institute for 30 years; they regularly send out a newsletter to members listing various Israel activities as well as news items about the Jewish state. Contrary to those who want to try Israeli soldiers for war crimes, the two Dutchmen said that if it were up to them, they would award the IDF a Nobel Peace Prize.
The two also said that regardless of which party wins the upcoming Knesset elections, their organization would continue to support Israel.
A raffle conducted during the dinner was completely different than standard raffles. It provided opportunities for people to do good deeds such as helping distribute food to senior citizens, organizing an end-of-year function for a club of Holocaust survivors, taking seniors on a neighborhood walk as a means of getting them out of the house, leading various informal education courses, helping someone find a job, planning school vacation activities for children from low socioeconomic backgrounds, delivering a lecture on any and every subject, and organizing a special Passover event. One of the first “winners” was actress and former television star Sharon Ayalon, who sits on the Jaffa Institute’s board of directors.
Founded by Dr. David Portowicz, the Jaffa Institute offers educational, recreational and social enrichment programs aimed at enhancing the self-esteem and academic performance of children and adults in the greater south Tel Aviv area, to help them break out of the intergenerational cycle of poverty.
■ THE LABOR Party’s election campaign, though on the whole very polite – like Labor leader Isaac Herzog – was nonetheless very aggressive, with candidates calling and sending texts and emails, sometimes repeatedly. What was particularly interesting was the number of men campaigning for female candidates – a rather pleasant change in a society that not so long ago was extremely chauvinistic, not to mention light years away from the struggles of the suffragette movement.
We’ve yet to emulate the Scandinavians in terms of the number of women serving as government ministers, including defense minister, but we have had one woman prime minister, two women as foreign ministers, one woman as justice minister, one woman as Knesset speaker and this week, for the second time, we’re getting a woman as president of the Supreme Court. Who knows, the day may yet come when parties such as Shas and United Torah Judaism field women candidates for the Knesset.
■ ASHKENAZI CHIEF RABBI David Lau is a stickler for kashrut, so much so that he’s not above inspecting restaurants and food production plants himself. He did so when during a tour of Nahariya, he was invited to visit the well-known Zoglobek food plant, where he was received by Ami and Eli Zoglobek and CEO Pini Kameri. Lau was not only feted in the company’s offices but provided with white overalls, so he could visit the hygiene-conscious processing plant where so many of the products found in nation’s supermarket freezers are created.
Lau was accompanied by Nahariya Chief Rabbi Yeshayahu Meitlis; Nahariya Religious Council director Mordechai Vaknin; and other local dignitaries.