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THE WEEKLY schedule of President Moshe Katsav indicated that he and his wife, Gila, would be hosting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and his wife, Aliza, for lunch on Monday. On Sunday, a message went out from Beit Hanassi to notify journalists and photographers that the luncheon had been postponed. Later in the day, another message went out to say that it was on again.
So what was wrong with that? Nothing, except for the fact that it was not open to any kind of media coverage. The only photographers permitted to capture the four diners for posterity - and of course for dissemination to the media - were the photographers of the Government Press Office. What was the point, then, of spreading and respreading the word one way or the other? It's not as if it was a first-time meeting between the four. Aside from knowing each other for many years, the two couples got together in Beit Hanassi on Israel Independence Day.
ALTHOUGH IT has already been reported in the British-Jewish media that Dayan Chanoch Ehrentrau, the head of the Rabbinical Court of the United Synagogue, will retire at the end of this year just after his 74th birthday and move to Jerusalem, Ehrentrau - who, this week, led a Friends of Shuvu delegation from England to Israel - was in no hurry to confirm or deny. When asked by this columnist whether it was true that he was settling in Jerusalem, the reply was, "I've got a dira (apartment) in Jerusalem."
His wife, Rochel, was more forthcoming. She said that she was looking forward to permanently relocating to their apartment in the capital's Ramat Eshkol neighborhood, but not without some trepidation. She would miss her hospital work, she said, and she was a little wary of starting anew.
"We won't let him go," insisted Harry Schimmel, a Shuvu stalwart.
Frankfurt-born Ehrentrau has presided over the Beth Din for 22 years. In sharp contrast to other delegations and missions which come to Israel with an itinerary that lists meetings with the president, the prime minister, the foreign minister, the defense minister, et al, the Shuvu people - despite some of the extremely well-heeled, high-powered and influential heavyweights in the group, such as Leo Noe and Benjamin Perl - preferred to meet spiritual luminaries, such as the Gerer Rebbe, though they did meet up with Finance Minister Avraham Hirschson.
Established 16 years ago to help youngsters from the former Soviet Union to regain the heritage lost during decades of Communist rule, Shuvu is now a nationwide network, which, in addition to teaching, combats missionary forces.
The purpose of the visit of British Friends of Shuvu was to participate in the dedication by Perl of a new Shuvu School in Upper Nazareth.
Also present were Chaim Michoel Guttermann, the Israel director of Shuvu, and some of the leading Shuvu figures from the United States, where most of the money for Shuvu is raised. Among them were Abraham Biderman, chairman of Shuvu's Board of Directors, who has been part of Shuvu since its inception; and co-chairman Mordechai Knopf. For Biderman, one of the guiding forces in his commitment to Shuvu - which means "return" - is that he is indeed returning the descendants of great Torah sages to their heritage. When Jews were forced to assimilate under the Communist regime, genealogy did not guarantee immunity from the effects of assimilation. For them and for others who strayed from their roots, Shuvu has opened many doors to facilitate their return.
n IT'S NOT easy to blow out 90 candles, but for Bess Glaster, who made aliya from the US only two years ago, it was a piece of cake. Four generations of relatives and friends from Israel, the US and Germany congregated at Beit Protea in Herzliya, where she now lives, to celebrate the fact that Glaster is 90 years young.
Since her arrival, the outgoing, energetic and ever-curious Glaster, who is always ready to try new things, has learned to use a computer so that she can maintain e-mail contact with her very large family. She has also learned to play bridge and bowls. Though she doesn't think she'll ever be a great craftswoman, she also tried her hand at ceramics, and discovered a dormant creative streak.
In addition, she helps run a shop on the premises, because she likes to keep busy.
When she first came to Beit Protea, she used to play tennis, which she has reluctantly given up, not because she can't run across the court, but because she can't find anyone who can keep up with her. However, she still swims every morning and also practises Tai Chi.
"The only thing I haven't learned to do is play the piano," she said.
The birthday party was orchestrated by Glaster's daughter, Libby Bergstein, who had most of the family dress up in white-emblazoned red T-shirts announcing to the world that "Bess is Best."
Bergstein worked for many years for the Jerusalem Municipality, where, among other things, she organized major events inside and outside City Hall. The birthday party was a marvelous excuse for a family reunion. All of Glaster's three children live in different parts of the world. Her son, Jules Mitchel came from the US, and her other son, Mark Markofsky, came from Germany. Her sister, Ida Bobrow, came from Florida and said that although she missed her very much, she could see that Israel is the best place for her. The two sisters are the last survivors of 11 siblings.
Glaster insisted that because she had made so many friends among the other residents at Beit Protea, they be invited to her party, and indeed, they turned up in force.
Glaster, crowned for the occasion as Queen Bess, her hair wreathed in flowers, stood at the door of the large, airy communal dining room and greeted each by name.
The overwhelming majority of the residents of Beit Protea are from South Africa, as is director Lyn Lychoff, who confessed that initially she had some misgivings about whether Glaster would fit in. When Bergstein came to check out the facilities prior to her mother's arrival and talked about the kind of person she is, Lychoff took it with a grain of salt because she was familiar with people describing their mothers and fathers in terms that didn't quite correspond with reality. But in Glaster's case, her daughter had been absolutely right. Selma Rabinowitz, who delivered the good wishes of the Beit Protea residents, noted that not everyone at 90 is as active as Glaster, whom she had observed kicking a football around. Even though she had not played bridge before coming to Israel, commented Rabinowitz, "she is putting the experts to shame. It's as if she dropped out of the sky - one of the stars in the American flag, and settled here. There's no limit to what Bess at 90 is prepared to do."
If anything contributes to the extension of her life, said Glaster, it will be staying at Beit Protea. "I sincerely feel it is my home."
ISRAELI AND Palestinian political leaders may hesitate to sit across the table from each other, but Israeli and Palestinian journalists find it easier to break down barriers and communicate, because they have so much more in common. They are increasingly getting together under the auspices of The Mideast Press Club, a project of The Media Line. Founder and CEO Felice Friedson is dedicated to fostering professional cooperation and collaboration, with a view to attaining greater objectivity and enhancing the quality of coverage of Israel, the Palestinian Authority and the Middle East in general.
Meetings between the two groups of journalists have been held in Jerusalem and Ramallah, and a professional rapport is gradually developing. Sometimes there are as many as 30-40 people at these meetings. Sometimes, there are fewer than a dozen, as was the case this week when they got together over lunch in a Jerusalem restaurant.
The Media Line, a non-profit American news agency operating out of Jerusalem, was represented by Friedson, her husband, TML co-founder and executive editor Michael Friedson and TML Bureau Chief David Harris.
The Israeli media included Israel Radio general manager Yoni Ben Menachem, veteran broadcaster Ya'acov Achimeir, who anchors news and current affairs programs on both Israel Radio and Israel Television, and Danny Rubinstein from Haaretz.
Palestinian journalists included Khalil Assali from the Amin Media Network, Marwan Abu Zalaf, the publisher and editor of Al Quds, and Nazir Mhalli, a Nazareth-based journalist who writes for Hebrew and Arabic newspapers in Israel and the PA, and serves as an analyst of Israeli affairs for various media in the Arab world.
They had all come to benefit from the experience of veteran journalist and professor of journalism at the Annenberg School of Journalism at the University of Southern California Murray Fromson, who, in a career spanning more than a half a century, has reported from many areas of conflict including Korea, Vietnam and the Middle East. He also spent three years in Soviet Russia.
Fromson, who was a long-time correspondent for The Associated Press and CBS News, recalled that when the University of Southern California first approached him to teach, his response had been that journalism can't be taught, it has to come from the gut.
"But I got corrupted," he said, grinning. "I've been there for 26 years."
The Annenberg School, he said, is one of the top five schools of journalism out of 330. There are too many schools of journalism in the US, he opined, because there are not enough jobs. However, it is one of the professions in which women have become more prominent in print, on-line and over the airways.
Fromson has a passion for freedom of expression, freedom of information, journalistic ethics and accuracy - all of which he teaches in his classes. In this context, he was adamant that in an era of globalization, all questions about accuracy, fairness, balance and willingness to confront authority when researching a story must have universal agreement regardless of cultural differences.
"You can't have a code of conduct in one country and not in another," he said, emphasizing that governments should not be allowed to manipulate news or distort the truth.
Among Fromson's students are many from Mexico, some of whom he persuaded to lobby for a Freedom of Information Act in their country. It was introduced only recently, thus giving Mexicans access to the true history of events in their country. In recognition of his contribution to Mexican journalism, Fromson will be honored in Mexico City at a special ceremony scheduled for September 2006.
Fromson has worked as a national and foreign correspondent and marched with Martin Luther King, Jr.
One of the sad realities that he has learned, he said, is that racism is a universal problem faced by every country. As a witness to numerous technological breakthroughs that have dramatically impacted on the profession, Fromson reflected on the lesser tensions of the past.
"The beauty of the old days was that you never had to answer to your bosses for three or four days," he quipped.
ITALY'S AMBASSADOR to Israel, Sandro de Bernardin, was born in Venice and as a proud Venetian, introduced a distinctly Venetian flavor to the celebrations of Italy's National Day on Monday - with an exhibition by 16 artists from six countries depicting the Jewish presence in Venice. The exhibition is due to go on tour around Israel. Despite the grueling heat, one of the largest crowds ever congregated on the spacious lawns of the huge garden in the ambassador's residence, and guests were almost instantly served with ice cream as a balm for the climatic conditions.
The main topic of conversation was, of course, the weather, followed by expressions of outrage at the frequency of electric outages. In fact, there was one during the reception, though it is uncertain whether it should be attributed to the Israel Electric Corporation or to someone tripping over a wire. In any event, it didn't last long.
One of the signs of the strong relationship between Israel and any country with which it has diplomatic ties is whether the foreign minister comes as the representative of the government. In the period when Silvan Shalom was foreign minister and represented the government at the Italian festivities, some people might have thought that it was a matter of geographic convenience because his home is just a few doors down the street. But this was obviously not the reason, as evidenced by the presence of current Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni.
Following the example of several other members of the diplomatic corps, de Bernardin delivered the bulk of his address in Hebrew, which could well become a diplomatic code language, if several diplomats - after completing their missions in Israel - find themselves together once again in another country.
If anyone thought that the love affair between Italy and Israel might peter out following changes of government in both countries, de Bernardin brought assurances that the bonds were as strong as ever, especially when he mentioned that Italy was supportive of Israel's attitude to Hamas. This and other commonalities were mentioned in de Bernardin's address. Livni expressed Israel's appreciation for Italy's bold stance, and reflected enigmatically that maybe there was a little of the Italian in all Israelis.
ANYONE WHO has not yet had the opportunity of hearing US Ambassador Richard Jones, who for some reason does not appear as frequently on radio and television or organizational and institutional affairs as did his predecessors Dan Kurtzer and Martin Indyk, will be able to do so this evening, Wednesday, at Tel Aviv University. Jones will address the International Forum of the Faculty of Social Sciences and the English Speaking Friends of TAU on "US Public Diplomacy for a New Era."
THE EXPRESSION "putting your money where your mouth is" applies most appropriately to Eliezer Ya'ari, the Israel Director of the New Israel Fund that promotes the development of society within Israel, and provides a platform for voices not often heard. Following the death of his mother, Yaffa London-Ya'ari - one of Israel's social work pioneers who initiated family services soon after the establishment of the state - Ya'ari and his family decided that rather than divide the money that she left among themselves, they would use it for scholarships in her name to be awarded to women who were involved in studies or activities for the betterment of society. This is the third year in which they paid tribute to her memory by contributing to the advancement of women.
Among the recipients of scholarships this time were two Arab women: Lyla Abed Rabu, a Beduin women's rights activist, and Somalia Abu Zayla, a second-year student at Ben Gurion University, who is studying polygamy and its effect on Beduin women.
According to Abu Zayla, it is not a religious obligation for a man to take more than one wife. Abed Rabu, who is completing a doctorate at the Hebrew University and also appears as a pleader in the Shari'a court, says that she became a pleader as a result of the huge body of information on Islamic law, to which she gained access through her studies.
Abed Rabu wants to make use of both her knowledge and her degree to represent Arab women in the Islamic courts and to help them advance socially.
Among the Jewish women who received scholarships was Michal Cohen, whose son, Ariel, was born with severe disabilities. From the moment of his birth, she knew that he would be different from other children. She saw other parents coping with disabled children and instead of optimism and hope, what she detected in general was despondency. She wanted to change society so that Ariel and others like him could somehow fit into the mainstream. Towards this aim she has studied special education and has devoted much time towards lobbying for change.
Another recipient was Dr. Zvia Greenfield, who failed to get into the Knesset on a Meretz ticket, but who has been an ardent advocate for women to be given the opportunity to realize their potential.
GENERALLY SPEAKING, few things, other than funerals, start on time in Israel. Thus, the third Australian Film Festival that was due to be launched at 9 p.m. at the Jerusalem Cinematheque on Monday was more than half-an-hour late in getting underway. The bulk of the audience were people of Australian background. In conversations at the reception before the screening and in the auditorium before the commencement of the film, the most pronounced accent was the Australian one. Albert Dadon, the chairman of the Australia Israel Cultural Exchange, who, as it happens, does not have an Australian accent even though he lives there, observed that now that the festival is taking place for the third time, it's fairly certain that it will become a regular feature on the Israeli cultural calendar. Since it was established four years ago, said Australian Ambassador Tim George, "AICE has done an enormous amount to boost cultural links and cement ties between the two countries."
Noting that there have also been Israeli film festivals in Australia, George observed that film festivals are a great way for countries to learn about each other's culture and history. In addition, he said, they provide opportunities for members of the industry in the two countries to interact and network.