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(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
ADDRESSING AN audience of Latvian expatriates at the opening of the exhibition "Children of Latvia Draw Old Synagogues" at Hechal Shlomo, Jerusalem, President Moshe Katsav referred to several of the dignitaries present by name. When he came to the Ashkenazi chief rabbi, he stopped momentarily, his face lighting up in a huge grin, and looking straight at him, called him "Rabbi Katsav."
No, it was not a temporary aberration or a slip of the tongue. "Metzger" is German for "Katsav," which in English means "butcher."
Rabbi Yona Metzger took the Hebraism of his name in good grace.
WHILE MOST of the speeches at the opening of the exhibition were in English, Katsav chose to speak in Hebrew, with moderator Benny Hendel, who used to be one of Israel's leading broadcasters, paraphrasing the president's remarks in English. However, after Hendel, without losing the spirit of what Katsav was saying, abridged the beginning of the speech to a single sentence, Katsav switched to English so that not a single word of what he had to say would be lost.
Though Katsav's English is passable, it cannot compare to Hendel's, whose command of the language is superb, and on a level of that of Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga, whose brilliant oratory aroused admiration during her official visit to Israel last week.
The message that Katsav had to deliver, however, was loud and clear: "Jews could be victims of a future Holocaust; I am not sure that the Holocaust will not happen again," he declared, adding that no one has the right to state unequivocally that it will not happen again. "I am not sure of what will happen in the non-democratic world," he said.
IN HER meetings with the Israeli leadership and the Israeli media, Vike-Freiberga discussed global and regional issues as well as the enhancement of bilateral relations in different fields of cooperation, and although she personally impressed everyone with whom she came into contact, her visit was clouded by the shadow of the Holocaust.
From day one and throughout her stay, she apologized for the fact that there were some Latvians who were guilty of atrocities against humanity, but also noted that there were others who risked their lives to save Jews and whose heroism is commemorated at Yad Vashem.
Nonetheless, almost everywhere she went, the subject of Latvian collaboration with the Nazis was raised.
Even former foreign minister Moshe Arens - who had spent much of his childhood in Latvia and chaired a meeting of the Israel Council on Foreign Relations at which Vike-Freiberga was guest speaker - couldn't resist reminding her of the evils of some of her fellow countrymen.
Recalling his first visit back to Riga, which he had left at age 13, he said it was the same city he remembered, "but there were no Jews."
He went to places where Jews had been massacred en masse by Latvian commando units, and noted that during research he was conducting on the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising he learned that a Latvian commando unit had deported 270,000 Jews from Warsaw to the infamous Treblinka death camp.
"It can't be forgotten," he said, adding that it should find its proper place in the developing relations between Israel and Latvia.
Vike-Freiberga acknowledged this black chapter in her country's history, and reminded her audience that prior to the Nazi invasion of her country, a Latvian government accepted a boatload of Jewish refugees who had been denied entry by other countries. Jewish life had flourished in Latvia prior to World War II, she said, and Jews were well represented in all fields, even to the extent that Jewish parliamentarians were permitted to address the Latvian Parliament in Yiddish.
LIKE MOST visiting dignitaries, the Latvian president planted a tree in a Jewish National Fund Forest - an experience she said was very meaningful to her. At a gala JNF Unity Mission dinner not related to her visit, JNF World Chairman Yechiel Leket spoke of many people who had planted trees in JNF forests across the country, and declared that there was nothing more meaningful, because planting a tree is the greatest sign of solidarity with Israel's existence. Tree planters leave something alive behind them, a part of themselves, said Leket.
Leket, who will step down in July after serving for eight years as World Chairman, noted that the JNF is involved in more phases of national development than most people realize. Over the past eight years, he said, the JNF has completed 3,500 projects all over the country, and is now engaged in an additional 500 that are feasible only because of the strong partnership between the JNF, world Jewry and the JNF's many non-Jewish friends.
In fact, there was quite a large representation of non-Jews on the mission. Many of them displayed almost childlike eagerness in collecting JNF souvenirs to take home. These included a keychain with a mini "blue box" attached, a small tree-shaped wooden sculpture, JNF caps and T-shirts, and various other paraphernalia.
IT WAS sadly ironic at the beginning of this week that while Likud Knesset member Nomi Blumenthal was in court and bravely waving goodbye to her political career (the price she will pay for obstructing justice and spending a relatively paltry sum to accommodate some out-of-town Likudniks), Israel Radio kept broadcasting commercials for the eye clinic operated by her husband, Prof. Michael Blumenthal.
COMPOSER, KEYBOARD musician and singer Ariel Zylber composed a song about extreme nationalist and former Kahane aide Baruch Marzel that is so catchy that even left-wingers are singing it. Because Zylber's teddy-bear personality is so endearing, few of his left-wing friends are openly critical of his political activities. Zylber, who went to live in Gaza's Elei Sinai prior to the disengagement, identifies not only with right-wing nationalism, but these days sports a black kippa as part of his regular attire.
ISRAEL PRIZE winners are often interviewed by electronic media news anchors, who ask where they were when they were informed of the honor that is to be bestowed on them. Acting head of the Interdisciplinary Center, Herzliya Prof. Amnon Rubinstein - who, together with Prof. Ruth Lapidot of The Hebrew University will be awarded the prize for their contributions to the study of law - was in Europe skiing. He was literally on the slope when his cell phone rang and the person on the other end congratulated him.
For Rubinstein, this is all part of a new life. In 1999, during an all-night session at the Knesset, then-speaker Avraham Burg announced in the course of a difficult voting process that Rubinstein had died. Rubinstein had indeed suffered a mild stroke a few days earlier, but was recovering nicely at Hadassah Hospital. The victim of a hoax, Burg took the matter so seriously that he even recited a prayer for the dead, only to be informed soon afterwardd by the Knesset doctor that Rubinstein was alive. Burg apologized profusely, and Rubinstein took the whole episode in stride, admitting that he actually got a kick out of it.
He also got a new lease on life. He left the political arena and returned to academia and writing books. Rubinstein, 74, has taken over from IDC President Uriel Reichman, who is on Kadima's Knesset list and who is tipped to become Education Minister - a position once held by Rubinstein - if Kadima wins the elections.
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