Politics permeate almost everything in Israel, and even the president – an apolitical figure – finds it difficult to remain aloof from politics, because there are those who seek to embroil him.
A case in point is the upcoming Democracy Conference, to be held in Tel Aviv on Tuesday. President Reuven Rivlin – a staunch democrat who constantly speaks of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, and advocates equal rights for all citizens regardless of race, religion or political affiliation – is scheduled to be interviewed at the opening of the conference by Haaretz Editor-in-Chief Aluf Benn. Rivlin’s participation does not sit well with right-wing NGO Im Tirtzu, which has urged him to cancel his appearance because the conference is sponsored by Haaretz and the New Israel Fund.
In making the request, Im Tirtzu noted that Bayit Yehudi chairman Naftali Bennett and Shas leader Arye Deri have canceled their appearances. It also quotes what Rivlin said in Hebron last week, when he stated inter alia that “organizations on the Left asked me to boycott the Jewish settlement in Hebron. From the Right, they ask me now to boycott the Haaretz
conference on democracy. I did not cancel my trip to Hebron, and I will not cancel my participation in the Haaretz
Im Tirtzu CEO Matan Peleg called on Rivlin to completely separate the legitimate debate between the Right and Left from the struggle for the identity and future of Israel. “We have a moral obligation to condemn outright the president’s participation at a conference supported by the NIF, a supporter of organizations that seek to erase the Jewish and democratic identity of Israel,” he said. Other sponsors of the conference are the Israel Democracy Institute and ANU, a movement for change.
In its mission statement, Im Tirtzu defines itself as “an extra-parliamentary movement that works to strengthen and advance the values of Zionism in Israel. It was established in 2006, after the Second Lebanon War, by Israeli intellectuals, students and IDF reservists.
“Im Tirtzu’s main objectives focus on working towards a renewal of the Zionist discourse, Zionist thinking and Zionist ideology, to ensure the future of the Jewish nation and the State of Israel, and to advance Israeli society in coping with the challenges it faces. A major portion of Im Titzu’s efforts is devoted to combating the campaign of delegitimization against the State of Israel, and to providing responses to post-Zionist and anti-Zionist phenomena.”
Needless to say, Rivlin – a former government minister and former MK – remains resolute in his determination to attend the conference. Other past and present ministers and MKs among the participants include Zionist Union leaders Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni; Meretz chief Zehava Gal- On; Avraham Burg, who like Rivlin is a former Knesset speaker; Yossi Beilin; Dan Meridor; Yossi Sarid; and Daniel Friedmann.
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Four of the above are former justice ministers; in fact, the whole conference is topheavy with lawyers, academic experts on law and politicians engaged in legislation.
Arab lawyers and political figures are also included in the conference, among them Ayman Odeh, the recently elected chairman of Hadash; and lawyer Hassan Jabareen, founder and CEO of Adalah – The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel. Talia Sasson, who chairs the international council of the New Israel Fund, is also a lawyer and was a special legal adviser to the government during Ariel Sharon’s administration.
■ On the subject of politics, Rachel Azaria, a deputy mayor of Jerusalem and No. 5 on the Koolanu list, participated in a pre-election panel organized by the Moreshet Yisrael masorati congregation. She noted that the difference between American and Israeli politics is that American politics are politics of hope, whereas Israeli politics are politics of hate – with political leaders declaring who they would and would not sit with in a coalition government.
Other panel members included Yesh Atid MK Rabbi Dov Lipman, arguably one of the busiest speakers in this campaign period though he doesn’t have a realistic spot on his party’s list; Daniel Tauber, executive director of Likud Anglos; Rabbi Gilad Kariv of the Zionist Union; Ashley Perry, running on the Yisrael Beytenu list; and Rabbi Ehud Bandel, who is in an unrealistic position on the Meretz list.
In response to questions on religion and state posed by moderator Rabbi Adam Frank, the panelists – despite representing different political parties and streams of Judaism – were in accord on almost everything, and that they should engage in dialogue and work together. In fact, Kariv said he’d never been on such a pleasant panel.
But Lipman, speaking with the voice of experience, said that once all the issues on which they had concurred came to the Knesset, such agreement would evaporate – because factional interests would take precedence.
To the first question posed by Frank, as to whether Israel should be defined as a Jewish state, Lipman’s reply was “Absolutely.”
Israel must be a state of Jewish content, he said, but qualified his response: “We want Judaism to permeate the state, but that does not mean non-Jews should not be included,” and no one group can take power over what Jewish means. Moreover, anyone who thought the Jewish Nation-State bill had fallen by the wayside was informed by Tauber that the Likud will push for it after elections.
While there was consensus with certain reservations on most issues, the one major bone of contention was over the Knesset vote with regard to freebie tabloid Israel Hayom, which is owned by American mega-philanthropist Sheldon Adelson.
While Tauber took Lipman to task for having voted for what Tauber insisted was the closure of a newspaper, Lipman kept correcting him, saying nobody voted for its closure. What they voted for was a minimum price to be charged by all major newspapers. Tauber persisted with his argument in much the same way as Israel Hayom itself continues to do, while Lipman invited him to read the text.
■ Those who argue that we live in a post-Zionist era should have been at the President’s Residence this week at the conclusion of the opening of the Na’amat International Solidarity Conference – which brought together women from Israel, the US, Canada, Brazil, Argentina, Mexico, Peru, Uruguay, Belgium and Australia. The excitement of the women permeated the room; they had been aware that President Rivlin would address them, but it came as a pleasant surprise that his wife, Nechama, also spoke to them from the podium.
The Na’amat women had come to express solidarity with Israel and with each other, and when they rose to sing “Hatikva,” it was almost deafening. It is quite common for the national anthem to be played or sung at the President’s Residence to signify the end of any given event, but rarely is it sung with such enthusiasm and commitment.
Rivlin commended Na’amat’s ongoing support for Israel, while his wife referred to having visited a shelter for battered women earlier in the week. “Our human nature makes us forget harsh memories and traumatic experiences in order to be able to move on. But there are things that we just cannot forget,” she said. “In the very same way that these women simply cannot forget their awful experiences, I cannot forget the stories I heard from them.
“I also cannot forget how great a change we have witnessed in our society. Today, women are leading our society as judges, professors, politicians. We are the change that we want to see in the world, and we are not alone in this journey. Many partners have helped us create a better future for our children – for the young, for the old, whether Muslim, Christian or Jewish.
Many members of our community are looking for ways to improve our world, knowing that it is our shared responsibility, with the understanding that our own welfare depends on that of our neighbor.”
She thanked the Na’amat activists and volunteers for “never allowing us to forget our obligation to ‘repair the world’ and to give a hand to those who need it. It is our obligation as women, and I am grateful for the sense of commitment we, Jewish women from all over the world, share.”
Nechama Rivlin also said she remembered her days as a youth on the moshav, when Na’amat was still known as Moetzet HaPoalot, or Pioneer Women; the group is now celebrating its 90th anniversary. Pioneer Women was founded in 1925 by Rachel Yanait Ben-Zvi, the wife of Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, who later became Israel’s second president.
Liz Raider, president of Na’amat USA, said: “Our countries may be separated by oceans, but our goals, our work and hearts, are as one, in providing continued support for the expansion of the programs and services of Na’amat in Israel. Together, we all strive to ensure that the promise of a brighter future for all Israeli citizens is a reality.”
Some of the verve of the evening was inspired by Masha Lubelsky, a longtime leading personality within Na’amat Israel and on a global level. Lubelsky – who previously served as the organization’s secretary- general as well as a member of the Histadrut labor federation’s central committee, an MK and deputy industry and trade minister – currently represents Na’amat at the World Zionist Organization.
Speaking with passion about scholarships, schools, daycare centers, legal and family counseling centers, and a center for battered women funded by Na’amat, she pledged on behalf of all present to continue Na’amat’s Zionist work, “because we know that Am Yisrael Chai – the People of Israel live!”
■ Known to be a fervent soccer fan, President Rivlin introduces the topic to the conversation whenever the opportunity arises. It wasn’t something he would discuss with Na’amat, but when Mexican Ambassador Federico Salas Lotfe, dean of the ambassadors of Latin American and Caribbean countries, initiated a meeting between the president and the envoys this week, Rivlin answered a question about the role of the president in the peace process posed by Argentine Ambassador Carlos Faustino Garcia, whom he had met previously. He then went on to talk about star Argentinean soccer player Lionel Messi, who plays for FC Barcelona and also captains the Argentinean National Team. “I wish Messi could play for Beitar,” said Rivlin, who used to manage the Jerusalem soccer team, “but it would be easier to reach an agreement with the Palestinians.”
■ Though they are not garnering support from their own communities, haredi women who want to have a role in the decision-making process and are running for the Knesset are getting quite a bit of moral support from secular circles – which see no reason for their exclusion.
U’Bezchutan (By Their Own Merit): Haredi Women Influencing Change is the first political party specifically geared to ultra-Orthodox women. U’Bezchutan founder Ruth Colian, a courageous social activist, describes the party – under whose banner she is running – as representing all women who are struggling against Israel’s religious establishment, not just those in the haredi community.
Next Monday, journalists who are interested in what constitutes yet another revolutionary move in Israeli society can hear Colian’s presentation of what lead to the formation of the party, its goals and platform, and women’s place in Israeli haredi society in general. One of the campaign’s major obstacles is that haredi publications refuse to accept U’Bezchutan’s advertisements, which makes it difficult to get to haredi women voters who are not under anyone’s thumb once they get into the polling booth.
What will be very interesting is if U’Bezchutan does succeed in getting a Knesset seat or two, how the haredi parties relate to it when it comes to seeking support for votes on religious issues. It will probably be the same as when they’re asking for money; very few haredi men who solicit funds for one cause or another refuse to take money from a woman’s hand – though they would relegate women to the back of the bus, a separate room at a wedding and even a separate side of the street in some neighborhoods.
■ One of the stars of the outgoing Knesset was social justice activist, Labor MK and youngest legislator in Knesset history Stav Shaffir, now running on the Zionist Union ticket. An extremely committed MK, dedicated to exposing the unlawful transfer of funds from the public purse, Shaffir still managed to find time for romance – and has been involved in a relationship with Tal Ungert, who she met in high school and with whom she’s been living in Tel Aviv, for the past year.
After he persuaded her to take a break from the campaign trail and to spend part of last weekend in the Galilee, Shaffir posted on her Facebook page: “Thank you, darling Tal, for forcing me to take a few hours’ break from the crazy election race, and taking me to the Kinneret.”
Shaffir will celebrate her 30th birthday on May 17, after which people will start nudging her to get married. But the fiery redhead does things her own way, and she’ll get married in her own good time.
■ Apropos Knesset, Lahav Harkov, The Jerusalem Post
’s Knesset reporter, will this coming Sunday moderate a panel discussion on “Election Campaign Strategies in Social Media,” at the opening session of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations at Jerusalem’s Inbal Hotel. Panelists will include Tal Schneider, a political blogger; Amit Segal, chief political correspondent at Channel 2 News; and Tal Shalev, diplomatic correspondent at i24 News. Harkov is quite a whiz at social media herself.
■ Also on Sunday, a lot of the people showing up at Jerusalem’s Cinema City will not necessarily be there to watch a movie or sample the menu at one of the complex’s many dining spots. They will be there to listen to Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid, who has chosen this somewhat interesting venue as a backdrop for his campaign. However, it may be disconcerting to have an audience that’s munching on popcorn.
■ The Jerusalem International Book Fair was somewhat smaller this year than in the past. Space-wise, it was much more compact than it had been at the Jerusalem International Convention Center, where just walking past the exhibits without stopping to browse took the best part of an hour; this time, it could be done in 10 minutes.
Among those who had hoped to participate but had their wings clipped was Shelley Goldman, the founder of Ang.Lit Press.
Goldman had for several years been publishing books of short stories written in English by mainly immigrant writers, and had already approved stories to be included in the next anthology under the title “More Tel Aviv Short Stories” – which would have been displayed at the Steimatzky stand. Steimatzky had been Ang. Lit’s sole distributor in Israel, both wholesale and retail, and had sold copies of previous anthologies of short stories set in Israel.
However, in the interim, Steimatzky changed ownership and the new management refused to honor the former management’s commitments. Towards the end of last year, Goldman sorrowfully informed writers that the projected new anthology would not be published, because there was no point in publishing a book that would not be available in Israeli bookstores.
The real pity of it is that a lot of talented writers, some of whom were given a head start by Goldman, will now be deprived of a readership. It’s always a shame when talent goes to waste, especially when it’s an indirect form of public diplomacy. None of the stories in the anthologies are selling Israel or any Israeli policy; what they are doing is creating an awareness of the Jewish state. Moreover, because all the stories are different, anyone reading the anthologies will absorb various bits and pieces of information about Israel, which may stir greater curiosity.
Although this is not the best of times for the publishing industry, someone looking to the future would do well to contact Goldman to see what can be salvaged.
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