Although he found time to host singer Art Garfunkel at his Jerusalem residence this week and discuss some of the artwork gracing the walls, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gave Wednesday’s meeting of the Likud central committee at the Tel Aviv Fairgrounds a miss – thereby annoying many of the members, who complained bitterly.
Embarrassed by the Oren Hazan scandal and plagued by the Likud machers who are intent on removing the power to select Knesset candidates from the party membership as a whole and returning it to the committee, plus the challenge of a heavy work schedule, Netanyahu sorely needed someone who could do more to solve his problems than sing “Bridge over Troubled Water.” But when Garfunkel sang it that night as a grand finale to his nostalgia concert at Bloomfield Stadium in Jaffa the audience lapped it up.
Garfunkel told the crowd that they were the best audience he’d ever had.
■ IN THE year that’s passed since Reuven Rivlin’s election to the presidency, no head of state (president or monarch as distinct from prime minister) has visited Israel – though Rivlin has made a few trips abroad and been received by foreign heads of state. The first foreign head of state to be officially received by Rivlin will be Nicos Anastasiades, the president of Cyprus, who is due to arrive on next Monday. During the visit, Anastasiades will also meet with Netanyahu and Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein.
■ ISRAEL’S INDEFATI GABLE ninth president, Shimon Peres, seems to have more energy than someone half his age. Some of the things he’s been doing in this week alone include speaking at the Herzliya Conference, where together with StandWithUs he launched a campaign against BDS; meeting with French past and would-be future president Nicolas Sarkozy, who came to Israel with his son Jean, who is actively involved in Sarkozy’s campaign to win back the presidency; traveling to Haifa to receive the Rambam Prize and participating there in an interview with television personality Dana Weiss; and meeting with Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt... and that’s just a fraction of his activities.
On Wednesday, Peres is scheduled to host Hollywood actor, producer and peace activist Michael Douglas and Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky at the Peres Center for Peace in Jaffa, where all three will be part of a panel discussion under the heading, “Important Jewish Voices Talk Peace.” Douglas is coming to Israel to accept the 2015 Genesis Prize, which will be presented to him on Thursday evening at the Jerusalem Theater by the prime minister.
Comedian Jay Leno, who was master of ceremonies at the prize’s inaugural presentation last year to former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, will return in the same role – even though this humor was not greatly appreciated last year. Supermodel Bar Refaeli will join as a presenter, and Douglas will be accompanied to Israel by his wife, actress Catherine Zeta-Jones.
Others expected to attend the ceremony are Knesset Speaker Edelstein, Sharansky and Genesis Prize Foundation CEO Stan Polovets, alongside leaders of Jewish organizations and representatives of Israeli and global business, politics and culture.
On the morning prior to the presentation, Douglas will have a one-on-one conversation with filmmaker Benjamin Freidenberg at the Jerusalem Cinematheque.
■ IT’S DOUBTFUL that any departing ambassador has had as many farewells as British Ambassador Matthew Gould, who is due to leave the country at the end of June – though there’s a strong possibility that when US Ambassador Dan Shapiro concludes his term, he may have an even larger round.
Both ambassadors happen to be Jewish, a factor that has increased both their personal and professional agendas; institutions that might interact with them on a minimal scale, if at all, interact with them on a fairly frequent basis due to this. On the other hand, both have made a point of cultivating relationships with people from Israel’s non-Jewish communities with the same degree of interest and enthusiasm.
Gould, who presented his credentials in October 2010, has been in Israel almost a year longer than Shapiro – who presented his credentials in August 2011.
Both have covered an enormous amount of ground and have enjoyed a much more varied and comprehensive experience here than the overwhelming majority of Israelis.
For Gould, all that is now coming to an end. As is customary for departing ambassadors, this past Tuesday he made his way to Jerusalem to take his leave from President Rivlin; he was accompanied by his wife, Celia, and Britain’s Deputy Chief of Mission Dr. Rob Dixon. Earlier in the week, he had paid a similar visit to the Knesset speaker, who described him as a great friend of Israel.
He also found time this week to host a reception at his residence and honor Ben-Gurion University president Rivka Carmi. Acting on behalf of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, Gould conferred on Carmi the appointment of Honorary Commander of the Order of the British Empire, in recognition of her work in deepening scientific and academic Jerusalem-London relations.
Carmi said that she accepted the award not for herself, but for BGU; she also praised Gould for having initiated the UK-Israel Life Sciences Council.
In a marathon of events this week, Gould also hosted leading figures from the haredi community at the residence.
Attended by rabbis, politicians, businessmen, journalists and representatives of social and charity organizations, the event also marked last year’s awarding of an OBE to Rabbi Isaac Schapira – who was one of the speakers, commending the ambassador for his friendship with the haredi community.
It was in fact Schapira, the son of late United Torah Judaism leader Rabbi Abraham Yosef Schapira, who hosted Gould soon after the ambassador’s arrival in Israel – opening the door to the country’s ultra-Orthodox community for him. This was significant for Gould because there are large pockets of haredi Jews in many parts of England, primarily in London, Gateshead and Manchester.
The keynote address was delivered by Lord Jonathan Sacks, former UK chief rabbi, followed by an address by Israel Prize laureate Rabbi Yitzhak Dovid Grossman, a member of the Chief Rabbinate Council.
In addressing his guests, Gould recounted that it was clear to him upon his arrival here that he would serve as ambassador to all of Israel’s communities, including haredim – a sector he regards as an essential part of Israel. Some of the happiest memories he will take back with him are from getting to know this community and its leaders, he said, specifically mentioning Rav Aharon Leib Shteinman and late Shas spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef. He also spoke of how much he enjoyed going to sheva brachot given by the Belz Hassidim, and celebrating Hanukka with the Gur sect.
“The British government is committed to this friendship with the haredi world, which is why a series of British ministers in Israel have visited yeshivot and met with senior rabbis,” stated Gould, who is quite familiar with the major yeshivot in Bnei Brak and Jerusalem.
■ ANOTHER AMBASSADOR due to leave at the end of the month is Russia’s Sergey Yakovlev, whose swan song was delivered this week at the reception marking the Russian Federation’s National Day.
Given the number of diplomatic events now taking place at the Dan Panorama in south Tel Aviv and the Dan Hotel in central Tel Aviv, one can only surmise that the Dan chain is offering the most competitive prices in town. However, the acoustics in both venues leave a lot to be desired and are sorely in need of upgrading. Regardless of where microphones are placed in either hotel, the noise of the crowd always overwhelms the speakers, and only people who are genuinely interested in what the speakers have to say or are sufficiently polite to stop talking and come close to the stage will hear the speeches of the ambassador and the minister representing the Israel government.
Admittedly, the noise factor at Russian receptions is usually louder than at other diplomatic events, but that’s because the Russians tend to invite more people – though there seemed to be somewhat fewer this year.
Several Israelis with diplomatic ties even commented on the paucity of European ambassadors among those attending, although Asia and Africa were well-represented, as was South America.
Yakovlev made several futile attempts to get the crowd to pay attention, and if he had intended to make a long farewell speech, he gave up on the idea. In the end, he merely announced he was leaving “this beautiful country” in a couple of weeks, and thanked all the Israelis with whom he had worked over the past four years for their cooperation and friendship, wishing peace and prosperity to the State of Israel.
Yakovlev spoke in English, but Ze’ev Elkin – recently appointed minister for both immigrant and absorption, and Jerusalem affairs – spoke spontaneously and without notes in Russian and Hebrew. He referred to the ever-developing economic, political and cultural Moscow-Jerusalem relations, but emphasized that the most important development was in the people-to-people relationship, the potential of which has not been sufficiently exploited, he said. He also noted that much of Israeli culture is derived from Russian culture.
Red Army veteran Efraim-Fiodor Papernyi, speaking in Russian, was full of praise for what Russian President Vladimir Putin had done to honor the victory of the Red Army on the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. In fact, in the hotel lobby leading to the banquet hall, there was a marvelous exhibition of WWII posters dedicated to the Red Army.
Amin Safieh, an honorary consul for Russia in Haifa, averred it was a pity that most people were unaware of the tremendous work done by Yakovlev during his period here, and how it is crucial not only for Israel but for the Middle East as a whole.
■ SPEAKING AT the annual B’nai B’rith Journalism Awards ceremony at the Van Leer Institute in Jerusalem this week, eminent law professor Alan Dershowitz said he had been particularly pleased to receive the invitation because his father had been a member of B’nai B’rith. Dershowitz commended the organization, which he said does remarkable work all over the world, adding that he was proud to be identified with B’nai B’rith in any way.
Jerusalem Post journalists have over the years been among the winners of these awards, and this year was no exception – with the paper’s Jewish world reporter Sam Sokol winning the prize for his comprehensive, in-depth series on Ukraine’s Jewish community.
Channel 10’s Nadav Eyal won the award for his courageous documentary Hate, in which he interviewed neo-Nazis, and a special award was given to Izi Mann, presenter of the long-running radio program Searching for Missing Relatives, which was launched 70 years ago and broadcast continuously until 1969. It was then relaunched in a different format by Yaron Enosh in 2000, whereby it wasn’t just a matter of the announcer reading out the names of missing relatives and those searching for them, but interviewing the latter to hear personal stories, tugging on listeners’ heartstrings.
Mann said he was continuing what Enosh had started.
He is the unofficial historian of Israel Radio, an outgrowth of the Palestine Broadcasting Service, which was inaugurated in 1936 during the British Mandate period and modeled to some extent on the BBC.
Speaking of the search for missing relatives, Mann revealed that he often feels as if he’s touching history, even from the perspective of his own family. His grandfather met a brother-in-law from Belgium who was the sole survivor of his family, and there are other Holocaust survivors who believe that none of their relatives made it – and through the program are reunited after 70 years. The radio is a bridge to the Jewish world, asserted Mann.
Eyal gave credit to everyone on his team, and said he wouldn’t have been able to go anywhere “if my wife, Tamar, had not given me permission to go out and meet Nazis.” When he set out to make the program, the purpose was to try to understand anti-Semitism and where it was coming from. After several interviews, he reached the conclusion that it was stemming from ignorance and lies – as do all forms of racism.
As far as Jews are concerned, he contended, “The virus of anti-Semitism prevents us from seeing other phenomena of xenophobia and racism,” which he pointed out also exist in Israel – with Jew against Jew, Jew against Arab and the mainstream against Ethiopian Israelis, calling it “a disease based on lies.”
Sokol maintained that anti-Semitism in Ukraine is different from that in other parts of Europe, and is rather frightening because it has become a propaganda tool. Jewish communities in Ukraine face financial ruin and are overburdened with refugees, he noted, underscoring that “we’re seeing the first refugee camps in Europe since the Holocaust.”
The situation is getting worse, he stressed, but no one appears to acknowledge this – which is why he has placed so much emphasis on Ukraine in his reporting on the Jewish world.
A prize was also given to David D’Or, Israel’s remarkable ambassador of song, who brings pride to Jewish communities around the world and the message of peace, tolerance and understanding to audiences everywhere.
■ AFTER TWO hospitalizations and 10 months in which he made no stage appearances, there was considerable doubt as to whether veteran singer Yigal Bashan would be fit to appear at a memorial tribute to his good friend Uzi Hitman, in a concert marking the 10th anniversary of the latter’s death.
Bashan was most recently hospitalized early this month, and even on the day prior to the concert at Tel Aviv’s Bronfman Auditorium, there was doubt as to whether he would be able to join other friends and colleagues of Hitman on stage. But to everyone’s relief, he not only appeared but received a standing ovation at the end of his performance. Almost in tears, Bashan disclosed, “I never expected this.”
■ RUMOR HAS it that Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, who is known to be a staunch supporter of Israel, may be paying a private visit in the near future.
The annual Australian film festival will open at cinematheques in Israel towards the end of next week, but it is doubtful Abbott will be here in time to attend.
By the way, Abbott was among the first world leaders to congratulate Netanyahu on his election victory earlier this year.