If London Mayor Boris Johnson were to move to Israel and stand for election for any office, he would probably win hands down.
Witty, exuberant, effervescent and even outrageous, not to mention hilariously entertaining even when making serious statements, Johnson came to the Holy Land with a large business and media entourage to boost hi-tech cooperation between London and Israel; to speak at the annual Balfour Dinner hosted by the Israel, Britain and the Commonwealth Association; to join President Reuven Rivlin in kicking off a friendly soccer game between youngsters from Ein Rafa and Jerusalem’s Geulim School; to address the Jerusalem Foundation’s inaugural Winston Churchill lecture, which was undoubtedly the highlight of its 50th anniversary celebrations; and to visit the Western Wall.
Johnson, who is of Jewish extraction on his mother’s side, also has Muslim and Christian antecedents, and is distantly related to most of the royal families of Europe and to British Prime Minister David Cameron.
Johnson made no bones about his and Churchill’s admiration for Zion and the Jewish people. After all, he’d been to Israel as a young man to volunteer on a kibbutz. His pro-Israel remarks didn’t go over too well with Palestinian social media, and most of his meetings in the Palestinian Authority were canceled – both for security reasons and because of an unofficial call for a protest against him. He did get to meet with PA Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah, but his meetings with Palestinian youth and female business leaders were canceled.
In England, his anti-boycott remarks were widely reported, especially those relating to anti-Israel university faculty, whom he called “a bunch of corduroy-jacketed lefty academics.”
Approximately a third of the audience who crowded into the Konrad Adenauer Center in Mishkenot Sha’ananim in Jerusalem on Tuesday night had heard him at the IBCA event at the Tel Aviv Hilton the previous evening and wondered if he was going to give the same speech. They needn’t have worried. Yes, there were a few repeated remarks, especially with regard to his enthusiasm for Israeli innovation and for the progressive manner in which London has developed during his tenure, but more than half of what he had to say was completely different.
As had been the case at the IBCA event, the overwhelming majority of those present were either British expats or Brits who had come to Israel for the Johnson visit. Among the latter were Sir Stuart Polak, the former head of Conservative Friends of Israel, and Anthony Rosenfelder, a trustee of the Jerusalem Foundation, who had conceived the idea of bringing a bronze bust from a cast by Churchill’s official sculptor Oscar Nemon to Jerusalem.
Rosenfelder had been inspired by Sir Martin Gilbert’s detailed biography of Churchill, and had not previously realized the great debt that Israel owed to Churchill. The dedication ceremony three years ago coincided with the 95th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, and Johnson’s visit with the 98th anniversary. It was also Rosenfelder who proposed the annual Churchill lecture.
In the front row of the audience was Rob Dixon, the deputy chief of mission at the British Embassy, who spent much of the evening shaking with mirth.
Johnson was introduced by Daniel Taub, a British expat, who also happens to be his good friend and an immediate former Israel ambassador to the United Kingdom.
The event was advertised to start at 7 p.m. sharp, but in fact did not begin till some 45 minutes later, while the packed auditorium with people lining the walls waited patiently and expectantly.
“We are used to waiting,” said Taub. “We’ve been waiting 3,000 years for the Messiah, close to that for peace and three years for the mayor of London. The difference is that you have actually come.”
Taub added that Israel had not paid sufficient tribute to Churchill or recognized his extraordinary contribution. There were lots of good books about Churchill, he said, but the best was The Churchill Factor – How One Man Made History, by Boris Johnson.
Johnson’s opening gambit was indicative of how the rest of the evening would progress.
“It’s the inaugural and I hope not the final Winston Churchill lecture,” he said. Actually, it wasn’t quite the inaugural, because Churchill’s great-grandson Randolph delivered the real inaugural three years ago at the dedication of the bust, but no one quibbled the point.
Churchill’s proclivity for alcoholic beverages was not exactly a secret, as Johnson was quick to remark.
“One of the most amazing things about Winston Churchill was his ability to drink – I mean to drink enough alcohol to fell an ox and to continue to function,” he said. Apparently, according to Johnson, Churchill could more or less drink his way around the clock and remain sober, starting the day “with a weak whiskey and water – which he used as a kind of mouthwash.” He then went through champagne, white wine, red wine and liqueurs, with what Johnson described as “remarkable control.”
In a more serious vein, Johnson credited Churchill with being one of the fathers of the modern Middle East and said that he was absolutely indispensable to the modern State of Israel, when he came to the land in 1922 as Britain’s colonial secretary.
At that time, Churchill listened to the arguments of both the Jews and the Palestinian Arabs, because, said Johnson, “it was his job to give effect to that masterpiece of Foreign Office Janus-faced doublespeak and equivocation, the Balfour Declaration. If Balfour had been responsible for His Majesty’s government’s policy on cake, he would have been pro-having it and pro-eating it,” Johnson continued to chortles from the audience.
Churchill inherited his great sympathy for Jewish aspirations from his father, Randolph, and all his life, said Johnson, Churchill “followed his father in being pro-Jewish; and if he was not Zionist.... he was ‘wedded to Zionism.’’’ Johnson compared Israel’s characteristics to those of Churchill, observing that audacity, bravery and the willingness to take risks with feats of outrageous derring-do can be attributed to both. In the latter context, he noted the Entebbe rescue operation and the bombing of the Iraqi reactor. Another comparison was “the indomitability not to give in to anything. “Never, never, never give in.”
In Johnson’s view Churchill would have found his place in an era of innovation. Johnson mentioned several of Churchill’s innovative ideas, not the least of which was the tank, which Johnson said he was personally responsible for developing. Describing Churchill as being “fundamentally an idealist and an optimist,” Johnson also called him the “apostolic successor of Disraeli,” saying that Churchill’s father had venerated Disraeli.
In a Q&A session after the lecture, Johnson said that there is no question that London faces a serious security threat, adding: “We have to be very vigilant,” particularly because it is not exclusively disenfranchised and alienated young people who are being seduced by corrupt ideology. “You can never be complacent,” he said.
Asked about the labeling by the European Union of products from the West Bank, Johnson replied: “Why does the EU have to get involved with products from settlements? It’s a policy that should be left to national governments, not the EU. Anything that is discriminatory is wrong.”
■ ZIONIST UNION MK Tzipi Livni telephoned EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini before the resolution on the labeling of West Bank products was passed and asked if there was any way to stop it. She was told that there was no way to stop the resolution from being passed, but it was not mandatory on the part of every member state of the EU to abide by it. Each member state was free to decide whether its imports of West Bank products would be labeled accordingly.
■ THE PLAN for the construction of a new residence for the prime minister was finally approved this week by the Jerusalem District Planning Committee, but construction of the NIS 650 million project in an area near the Supreme Court building cannot begin for several months, not only because tenders have to be published but also because sufficient time has to be allocated for any opposition to the project to be lodged and examined.
The complex, designed by leading architect Ada Carmi-Melamed and her late brother Ram Carmi, will include both the Prime Minister’s Office and the Prime Minister’s Residence and will also incorporate a large reception area.
The move from the seam of Talbiyeh-Rehavia to Givat Ram was conceived, and preliminary work begun, during the administration of Ariel Sharon. His successor Ehud Olmert took it much further, and the original plan for the complex was somewhat more grandiose than the modified plan that was approved this week.
The original plan was actually approved by the government and the Knesset on Olmert’s watch in 2009, but was moved to the back burner when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu came into office. The original target date for completion was 2020. Now, despite improved technologies and building techniques, it is unlikely to be completed before 2025, if then. In addition to an office and a residence, the original plan called for a synagogue, reception hall, auditorium, recreation rooms, catering facilities, fitness center, guest rooms and much more.
Olmert and the architects had a sense of vision as well as hindsight, and could see that state edifices that had been constructed half a century ago and more were already too small for existing needs. Some had been expanded either vertically or horizontally or both, but expansion was not always possible – certainly not in the existing premises occupied by the prime minister. Realizing that needs would grow, Olmert and the Carmis aimed for more rather than less.
Within the next few days, the premises that were occupied by Israel’s fifth president, Yitzhak Navon, who died a week ago, will be vacated and returned to the state. What use the state will make of this apartment and eventually of the current residence of the prime minister has yet to be decided.
Another state-owned property, the house that Golda Meir lived in as prime minister, fell into neglect, then was used for a long time by invasive vagrants, drug addicts and alcoholics, until they were evicted, and the property was turned over to Miriam Eshkol, who had hoped to make it a museum cum cultural center in memory of her husband, prime minister Levi Eshkol. Raising funds for the project proved to be far more difficult than she had imagined.
The first prime minister to live in the house that has served a succession of prime ministers was Yitzhak Rabin, who came there during his first term and again during his second.
Netanyahu has also spent more than one term there, and he has admitted to not liking it. The building is old. The plumbing is outdated. There are no proper banquet facilities, nor is there much garden space.
Moreover, there are infringements on the privacy of the prime minister and his family, because a new building across the street on Balfour Road is considerably higher than the Prime Minister’s Residence.
Last year, Netanyahu put in a request for a new, larger and more suitably planned home, and the bureaucratic process has taken a year.
Still, Netanyahu can take some comfort in the fact that an official plane for use by the president and the prime minister was also approved. It will be purchased next year and will become operational in 2017.
■ AT THE initiative of veteran, award-winning Jerusalem Post reporter Judy Siegel, the paper’s former editor-in-chief Ari Rath, whose name is always linked with that of the Post even though 26 years have passed since he left, decided to accept the invitation of current Editor-in-Chief Steve Linde to come pay an official visit and to share some of his experiences.
Vienna-born Rath now divides his time between Jerusalem and Vienna, and although he missed fellow Jerusalemite of Viennese origin David Rubinger when the latter was recently in Vienna, the two caught up with each other in the offices of the Post.
Rath is two months short of his 91st birthday, and Rubinger celebrated his 91st birthday this past June. They were joined by a slightly older nonagenarian who has the longest personal history with the Post, Alexander Zvielli, 94, who has been working at the paper for 70 years and is still going strong.
Rath and Rubinger both walk with the aid of a cane these days, while Zvielli remains independent. Zvielli and Rubinger share reminiscences from time to time, but more than quarter of a century has passed since all three men were together. All three are entirely compos mentis, with wonderful long memories and anecdotal abilities.
While Rubinger spoke to some of the Post writers several months ago, and Zvielli through his regular archival column reminds readers of yesteryear, it was Rath’s turn on this occasion to be the star storyteller.
Actually, his multifaceted and fascinating story has been published in German in a book titled Ari heisst Lowe (Ari Means Lion), which was featured at the last Jerusalem International Book Fair. It has received a lot of publicity in Austria, and Rath is now looking for an English-language publisher.
Rath worked at the Post from 1958 to 1989 and personally removed his name from the masthead because the typesetter refused to do so. But even on his last day, when he no longer had any obligations to the paper, Rath phoned in a scoop about a Palestinian taxicab being set on fire by a group of Jewish demonstrators.
He spied the two people who had been in the car, cowering on a rooftop, and after making it clear that he had no intention of harming them, persuaded them to come down and drove them home to their village.
He had called the news editor several times to report what was happening, and was told that there was a reporter on the way, but if there was, Rath never saw him.
He did not choose journalism as a career; rather, it chose him. He initially came to prestate Israel on a Kindertransport when he was 13 years old. He was one of the founders of Kibbutz Hamadiya, where he lived for 16 years. He received leave from the kibbutz to study at the Hebrew University but needed to find work to support himself. His friend Yosef Goell, who was already working at the Post, suggested that he would make a good political reporter. The editor-in-chief, Ted Lurie, generously interviewed him and gave him a trial run. He came back with a mini scoop that was initially pooh-poohed, but then found to be accurate, and he was on the way to both making and witnessing history.
The highlight of his career was the game-changing meeting between David Ben-Gurion and Konrad Adenauer at the Waldorf Astoria New York in March 1960. Both men were visiting in the same month, and the beginning of one visit came at the tail end of the other. Rath, who has an infallible nose for news, suspected there would be a meeting and telephoned the press officer at the German Embassy, not to ask if there was a meeting but to request a pre-meeting briefing.
That was Israeli hutzpa at its best, and he immediately knew from the reaction that his hunch was correct.
A scoop of somewhat smaller proportions was when he determined the wedding date of Levi and Miriam Eshkol by publishing ahead of the Hebrew papers that they were about to tie the knot. When Eshkol read the story, he decided to get married immediately so as to avoid any further speculation.
With a captive and captivated audience, Rath could have gone on all day, and the journalists who came to hear him would have willingly stayed but for the fact that they had work to do.
When Rath was asked about the advice he would give to young journalists starting out, he counseled not to follow the rules, to cultivate good relations, to be trustworthy and to follow one’s own truth. In the days when there used to be an editors committee, he recalled, it met regularly, and Ben-Gurion knew that anything he said at such meetings would not leave the room. Today, that could not firstname.lastname@example.org