Over the years, Tzachi Hanegbi, a minister in the Prime Minister’s Office in charge of national security and foreign affairs, has heard literally thousands of stories about his mother’s various exploits. Everyone whose life has somehow dovetailed with hers has a Geula Cohen story – sometimes many Geula Cohen stories. And yet, judging by the rapt and eager expression on his face, he was hearing tales that were either new to him or simply old favorites that he relished hearing again and again. The occasion at the Begin Heritage Center in Jerusalem on Sunday was the belated celebration of Cohen’s 90th birthday.
A common thread during the evening, regardless of who the speaker may have been, was the mention of Cohen’s tendency to take command. It was immaterial whether she spoke to a president, a prime minister, an army general or any other high-ranking individual.
No one could refuse her. She would propose an idea. Her interlocutor would agree, and she would be ahead of him or her, saying she had already contacted this one and that one to speak or sing at the event. It was almost always a done deal before she broached the subject to the person who supposedly was in charge.
Herzl Makov, the executive director of the Begin Center, recalled many such occasions when all that was left for him to do was to acquiesce. Not only had Cohen organized everything in advance, but she also told him what the subject of his remarks would be and what to include in his address. Although there were several nonagenarians in the audience, Makov mentioned the presence of three of them: Reuma Weizman, the widow of Israel’s seventh president, Ezer Weizman, former foreign minister and defense minister Moshe Arens, who is actually two days younger than Cohen, and who was a member of the Irgun, and former education minister Aharon Yadlin, who celebrated his 90th birthday four months ago. “I don’t remember if you were in Lehi or Etzel,” Makov said to Yadlin amid peals of laughter from the audience. Yadlin the kibbutznik had been a freedom fighter but not in any right-wing movement. He is a veteran of the Hagana.
President Reuven Rivlin, responding to Makov’s remarks about Cohen telling him what to do, said that he had also received such instructions from her. Because even the happiest of Jewish events is tinged with sadness, such as the breaking of a glass at a wedding ceremony in memory of the destruction of ancient Jerusalem, an element of sadness also entered into Cohen’s birthday festivities as Rivlin paid tribute to former defense minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, who died only a few hours earlier.
Rivlin eulogized Ben-Eliezer as a man of many accomplishments who had done much for the nation, had devoted many years of his life to its defense and security, and had also been coordinator of government activities in the territories. As a parliamentarian and a minister, Ben-Eliezer applied himself to his work with great dedication, said Rivlin, adding that he would be remembered for his love of the land, his commitment to its security and all that he had done to facilitate its development.
Returning to the purpose of the gathering in the overcrowded auditorium where latecomers were sitting on the stairs, Rivlin referred to Cohen as “the first lady of the Israeli Right, and then went on to use the meaning of her name in a recurring wordplay. “Geula” is the Hebrew for redemption, and Rivlin found a nugget of redemption in every aspect of Cohen’s fight for the freedom of the state and for what she perceived to be the right thing to do politically and culturally.
Yael Ben-Dov, a seventh-generation Jerusalemite – who first met Cohen when, as young women, still in their teens, they had been members of the Lehi underground movement fighting the British – recalled how Cohen, with her passionate broadcasts, had influenced public opinion. Lehi had been generally reviled by a largely left-wing, hostile society.
Cohen had persuaded people to understand that despite their different ideological viewpoints, in the final analysis Left and Right were fighting for the same cause.
Ben-Dov had been given only a few minutes to talk about Cohen, she said, but she could go on for 50 years and still not finish. To the audience’s delight, she then went on and on, ignoring attempts by moderator Sivan Rahav Meir to get her to surrender the microphone to Yair Stern, the son of Avraham Stern, the founder of Lehi. Yair Stern never knew his father, who was shot dead by British police while under arrest. Avraham’s nom de guerre was Yair, which was the name given to the son born after his death.
Stern credited Cohen with being the first to introduce Lehi to a wider public which had hated it. “The animosity between Left and Right today is nothing compared to what it was then,” he said. Noting that Cohen had been enchanted by his father’s poetry, Stern commented: “Geula was recruited into Lehi, and it seems to me that she’s still there.” Yet for all that, it was Cohen, according to Stern, who brought the leaders of all the underground movements together and urged them to focus more on what united them than on what divided them. It was this initiative that paved the way for national unity governments, he said. Stern will probably host a similar event in December 2017 to mark the centenary of his father’s birth.
Though not a speaker at the event, Avi Farhan, the living symbol of political sacrifice, came with his wife, Lora, to present Cohen with a huge 90th-birthday placard. Farhan was among the Israelis evacuated from the town of Yamit in 1982 when Sinai was transferred to Egypt within the framework of the peace agreement between Egypt and Israel.
Undaunted, he became one of the founders of Elei Sinai, where he built a beautiful home, opened a small restaurant and, together with Palestinian partners, operated a small fleet of fishing boats. His idyllic world came crashing down in 2005 when prime minister Ariel Sharon decided on unilateral disengagement from Gaza. Farhan wanted to remain and was prepared to take on Palestinian citizenship, but this was unacceptable to both the Gazan and the Israeli authorities. Cohen was always a strong supporter of Farhan. She had publicly criticized prime minister Menachem Begin over the withdrawal from Yamit and was equally critical of Sharon over the withdrawal from Gaza.
It was mentioned more than once throughout the evening that when Ben-Gurion read her book Story of a Fighter, he sent her a complimentary note saying that he finally understood.
She wrote back that she would never understand why he ordered the IDF to fire on the Altalena.
■ THOUGH COMING from opposite sides of the political divide, Yadlin and Cohen see eye to eye on two issues. One is the importance of broad-based education, and the other is the genius of poet Uri Zvi Greenberg, the Polish-born scion of a distinguished hassidic family, who initially aligned himself with the Left, became disillusioned with the leadership of the Yishuv, moved to the Right and joined the Revisionist movement, gradually becoming increasingly radical in his views. He was a member of the Irgun and later served in the first Knesset.
Regardless of his extreme political views, the quality and depth of his poetry earned him the Israel Prize in 1957. Nonetheless, when Yadlin, together with Cohen, proposed honoring him with a special Knesset session in 1976 to mark his 80th birthday, it caused a great furor. Yet despite the opposition from the Left, the session was held.
■ AUTHOR, PLAYWRIGHT and poet Nava Macmel-Atir, who is a great admirer of Sarah Aaronsohn, the Nili heroine from Zichron Ya’acov who, having witnessed the Armenian genocide, spied for the British against the Turks, persuaded her husband to accompany her to Zichron to visit Aaronsohn’s grave.
They spent hours looking for it and finally came to a brush-covered tombstone that had only one word on it – “Sarah.” Macmel-Atir was so shocked that she wrote an article about it in Makor Rishon.
Cohen read it, called her to thank her for bringing it to public attention, and then called the mayor of Zichron Ya’acov and harassed him into putting up a tombstone befitting of Sarah Aaronsohn. Macmel-Atir and Cohen attended the ceremony for the unveiling of the new tombstone.
■ SO ENAMORED is she with Uri Zvi Greenberg that Cohen – who conducted the Uri Zvi Greenberg Heritage House in her Jerusalem apartment until the Jerusalem Municipality gave her space in an office building in Jaffa Road – insisted on introducing his writings to Yom Kippur War hero Maj-Gen. (res.) Yossi Ben Hanan, who is willing, as he said, to follow her through fire and water. Former IDF chief education officer Brig.-Gen. (res.) Eli Shermeister, who was already familiar with Greenberg, is another ex-army man who will always be willing to do Cohen’s bidding. The same goes for Benny Katsover, the former chairman of the Samaria Regional Council, who can never forget how supportive Cohen was in the establishment of Elon Moreh, of which he was one of the founders. The original group that sought to establish the settlement was prevented from doing so time and time again by the Rabin-led government, but Cohen stood by them unreservedly.
■ UZG HERITAGE House co-chairman Ronen Shoval, who is young enough to be Cohen’s grandson, thanked her for the inspiration she had given him.
Throughout the years, Cohen has arranged poetry reading sessions of Greenberg’s work and has selected prominent figures to read, among them Shimon Peres and, believe it or not, Azmi Bishara, when he was an MK.
She had frequently approached Yehoram Gaon, and he always seemed to have another engagement which prevented him from accepting her invitation. Cohen could never comprehend why he couldn’t cancel the other engagement. However, for her 90th birthday celebration Gaon, decided that the time had come to read an Uri Zvi Greenberg poem to her – and he did, to her great satisfaction.
The evening concluded with the singing of the Lehi anthem, composed by Avraham Stern. The small group of musicians who had played and sung Lehi melodies at various intervals throughout the evening revealed to Cohen that they were all grandsons of Lehi and Irgun fighters. For the singing of the anthem, an elderly man and his wife stood up, then slowly one person after another, till nearly everyone in the auditorium was standing and singing with them. And then it was over, and no one sang “Hatikva.”
■ YAIR STERN, in addition to preserving the Lehi heritage, is also the CEO of the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra, in which capacity he attended the new classical music festival that was held at the Tefen Open Museum established by entrepreneurial businessman Stef Wertheimer. Several JSO musicians contributed to the harmony of the festival, which was organized by Chen Cymbalista, who also provided workshops for talented young Jewish and Arab musicians, proving that music does indeed have charms to soothe a savage breast. The quote, which is often attributed to Shakespeare, was actually taken from a play, The Mourning Bride, written by William Congreve in 1697. There are a number of ventures around the country in which Jews and Arabs play music together. The classical music festival at Tefen also attracted a number of professional musicians from abroad.
■ WHEN HE went to China earlier this year to join the Guangzhou Evergrande Taobao football team, soccer star Eran Zahavi did not quite see himself in the role of peace ambassador.
But as of Sunday, his new title is that of ambassador for peace and sport. The title was conferred on him by Peres at a ceremony at the Jaffa-based Peres Center for Peace and Innovation. The ceremony was conducted in the presence of China’s Ambassador Zhan Yongxin.
Peres presented Zahavi with a shirt inscribed with his name and new title, “ambassador for peace,” in which capacity he will serve as a role model for untold numbers of Chinese, Jewish and Arab children in Israel and in other parts of the world. Peres lauded Zahavi as “an example of tolerance and peace on and off the soccer field,” and voiced his confidence in Zahavi’s ability to do a splendid job in representing the Peres Center for Peace and Innovation in China.
As he did many times when meeting soccer stars during his seven-year stint as president of the state, Peres again emphasized the importance of promoting peace through this universally popular sport.
“Football is an international language. It does not matter if you speak Hebrew, Arabic or Chinese – everyone has a place on the field.
I believe that the children here today who are playing together will lead the advancement of peace.”
Zahavi, visibly moved by the former president’s confidence in him and by the scope of the appointment ceremony, said: “Hello everyone. Ni hao. It is an honor to be here and to be appointed ambassador of peace in sport by the ninth president, Chinese ambassador and the Peres Center for Peace and Innovation.
I see this appointment as a challenge – that I no longer represent only myself but the entire State of Israel, and I promise to represent it with respect and fulfill this role the best that I can,” he said. “We, as footballers, need to set an example for all children and let them know that no matter what their religion or race, they all have a place on the football field. This is a great commitment, and I plan to fulfill it.”
Concurring with Peres, the Chinese ambassador said: “The world of peace and tolerance is not far away from us, and can be achieved through sport. Though we won many medals in the Olympics, our football development has a long way to go, and with Eran, we will make progress. This will increase people-to-people exchanges and mutual understanding between China and Israel.” He wished Zahavi “a fantastic performance in China.”
Prior to the ceremony, Zahavi played soccer for peace with dozens of Israeli and Palestinian youngsters who participate in the Peres Center’s Twinned Peace Sports Schools program, along with children of Chinese Embassy staff in Israel.
Regardless of the fact that the youngsters spoke three different languages – Hebrew, Arabic and Chinese - together they spoke the international language of football and peace, and they were thrilled to be fielding kicks by an international soccer star.
At the conclusion of the ceremony, Zahavi launched this year’s “Shavim” (Equals) project, which is a food collection enterprise to ensure that Israel’s economically disadvantaged families have sufficient food with which to celebrate Rosh Hashana. The project is led by Zahavi in cooperation with Pitchon Lev (Open Heart), an organization involved in numerous social welfare activities.
■ THE ACRIMONY between Social Equality Minister Gila Gamliel and Culture and Sport Minister Miri Regev has been well documented.
Both were invited to the opening of the Teimanada, the annual Yemenite music festival in Eilat. Regev was invited by virtue of the fact that her ministry helps to fund the festival, and Gamliel, who is of Yemenite background, was invited as the highest-ranking Yemenite in the country. The arrangements for their appearance were made long before the bitterness between them erupted. Fearful that sparks might fly and spoil the fun of the festival, organizers asked Gamliel if she could come on the following day, but her schedule was already full and she was unable to change it. Regev was anyway going to be in Eilat for the Red Sea Jazz Festival, which, like the Teimanada, was celebrating its 30th anniversary.
Organizers of the Teimanada were on pins and needles not knowing what would happen if the two ministers had to be on stage at the same time.
However, on Sunday, thanks to singer Margalit Tzan’ani, who was also in Eilat for both festivals and who took on the role of peacemaker at the Teimanada, Regev and Gamliel agreed to bury the hatchet, and came out on stage with arms raised and hands clasped, to the enthusiastic and relieved applause of the audience.
■ NOT EVERYONE enters the profession they really wish to pursue, and no matter how gifted and successful people may be in the professions in which they are working, many hanker to be doing something else on which they set their hearts when they were much younger. The same can be said of Jerusalem Post Editorial Page Editor Mati Wagner, who always wanted to own a restaurant. He’s not alone in that desire. Restaurants as second or perhaps primary sources of income are owned by entertainers, soccer players, hi-tech executives – and even journalists. Sometimes it’s just an investment, where the proprietor comes to eat and takes a cursory look at the kitchen and what’s going on behind the bar – but never cooks or serves.
Wagner announced on his Facebook page a long time ago that he was going to open a restaurant, and it turned out to be a somewhat more difficult prospect than he had envisaged. While there are good restaurants in out-of-the-way locations that manage to attract foodies because of their reputation, restaurants, like any other real estate, depend on location, location, location. The site that Wagner initially chose was somewhat off the beaten track and unlikely to attract a large or permanent clientele. The décor was nothing to write home about either. Nonetheless, Wagner stuck to his dream for a few months, but then realized that he had to find other premises in a better-populated area. Fortunately Holy Bagel, which occupied excellent premises on Jerusalem’s Jaffa Road, decided to move, and Wagner seized the vacancy, and with a little experience under his belt soon had the Ugly Buffalo, which specializes in Mexican fast food, up and running.
Last Friday, Wagner hosted a large contingent of Post editorial staff who came to test the menu, and pronounced the carne assada burritos to be great. Actually, they went through most of the menu, but the burritos got top marks. Wagner, with a red apron around his waist, was busy behind the bar, but waiters and waitresses kept trotting out to the tables on the pavement with more and more offerings. There are also tables inside, but they can’t be pushed together like the tables in the street.
■ OLYMPIC MEDALLISTS Yarden Gerbi and Ori Sasson are still reaping kudos for the glory they brought to Israel. Cal Credit Card CEO Doron Sapir presented Gerbi with 12 tickets for two for gala performances by top entertainers in Israel and abroad, while Sasson was invited to attend a meeting of the executive board of Bank Yahav, which had been the first of his sponsors. Members of the board wanted to congratulate him personally and to thank him for doing them proud, but Sasson turned the tables and thanked them for recognizing his potential and giving him much needed support.
Cal, likewise, had supported Gerbi, who, after winning her bronze medal, put her Olympic name patch up for auction on e-Bay, with proceeds going for equipment for the Children’s Oncology Department at Ichilov Hospital. The auction concluded this week, and Gerbi was able to promise the hospital NIS 196,000. Gerbi has a particular soft spot for children with cancer. In the past, she wrote on her Facebook, she had befriended a delightful young patient by the name of Liran Or, and maintained contact with her. After returning from Rio, the joy of her triumph there diminished somewhat when she learned that while she was away, Liran had died.
■ WHILE MANY family-run companies are disintegrating due to sibling disputes or the unwillingness of sons and daughters to continue in the same field as their parents, Castro, Israel’s leading fashion brand, is growing. Castro co-CEOs Gabriel and Esther “Etti” Rotter announced this week that they had purchased half the shares in the Hoodies Group, which includes Top Ten Accessories and Carolina Lemke Sunglasses. The deal will cost Castro NIS 75 million.
The company, as a retail enterprise, was founded more than 60 years ago by Etti Rotter’s father, Aharon Castro, though strictly speaking one could say that it started earlier, in the Tel Aviv apartment of his mother, Anina, a talented dressmaker and designer who relocated from Thessaloniki in Greece to Tel Aviv. The first Castro store was actually called Nina, a slight abbreviation of Anina’s name.
This week, her great-grandson Ron Rotter was named Castro’s vice president of finances.
The appointment was ratified at a general meeting of the company. The younger Rotter, 31, has a bachelor’s degree in accountancy and economics from Tel Aviv University and a master’s degree in business administration from Harvard. He has a natural, in-depth familiarity with Castro’s operations, having accompanied his parents to work when he was a small boy and remaining involved in one way or another in the years that followed. He also has experience in working as a financial analyst. Considering that he’s married with a child, it’s a fairly safe bet that a fifth generation of the family will eventually enter the business.
■ AGRICULTURE MINISTER Uri Ariel, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman and Gamliel were fellow travelers in a helicopter this week, as they made their way to the Negev in a major step toward resolving the problem of integrating the Beduin community into mainstream Israel.
For years there have been problems with the Beduin setting up tents on state-owned land and then getting into skirmishes with the police and the army. There are also Beduin communities that have remained unrecognized and un-serviced by basic amenities such as electricity, water and schools.
The three ministers are keen to help the Beduin settle legally, and after that to find their places in society. Ariel has been given the responsibility for arranging Beduin settlement, which he is eager to speed up. A month ago, for the first time in 15 years, he said, the government approved the establishment of a Beduin settlement. He is convinced that if the Beduin are given the opportunity to settle legally, their communities will flourish and they will find it much easier to integrate.