Grapevine: Diplomats flock to Jerusalem

Ambassadors from the Dominican Republic, Fiji, Burkina Faso, South Africa and Georgia present their credentials to President Shimon Peres.

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March 24, 2009 21:19

 
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ALTHOUGH THERE are no longer any diplomatic embassies in Jerusalem, ambassadors from many countries flocked to the capital on Monday for two different reasons. In the evening, they joined the Baha'i International Community in celebrating Naw-Ruz, the Baha'i new year, and during the day they joined five new ambassadors who had just presented their credentials to President Shimon Peres in the traditional Vin d'Honneur, a cocktail reception in which the newcomers meet the veterans in the field. Even the two non-resident ambassadors among the quintet were integrated into the networking routine and were made to feel at home. French speakers congregated around Moussa B. Nebie, the ambassador of Burkina Faso, who is stationed in Cairo, while sports fans sought out Fiji's ambassador, Pio Bosco Tikoisuva, a former international rugby champion, who is stationed in London. South African Ambassador Ismail Coovadia, also had a sports interest in that South Africa, for the first time ever, will be hosting the FIFA World Cup Championship Games in 2010. Coovadia had in fact invited Peres to pay a state visit to South Africa to watch the championship finals. For two of the five new ambassadors standing around in the main reception hall of the King David Hotel, there was very little need for introductions. Both Alexander de la Rosa, Ambassador of the Dominican Republic and Georgian Ambassador Vahtang Jaoshvili, had served in Israel before in other diplomatic capacities and were delighted to be reunited with old friends from the diplomatic community. While Israel continues to be vilified abroad, many diplomats who have served here develop so great an affection for the country and its people that they apply to be sent back. Others who are already serving ask for extensions on their tour of duty, while others still, who may not have been posted back in an official capacity, return as tourists. BAHA'I, WHICH has quasi-diplomatic status in Israel in that its representatives are on the guest lists of major state institutions and local government bodies, as well as those of the diplomatic community and the ecumenical religious community, makes a point of celebrating Naw-Ruz in Jerusalem, even though only two of its members actually live in the capital. The huge, annual reception at the David Citadel hotel which somehow seemed bigger this year, possibly because it was also in celebration of the inscription of the Shrines of the Bab and Baha'u'llah in Haifa and Acre as UNESCO World Heritage sites, brought even more diplomats to Jerusalem than the Vin d'Honneur earlier in the day. In addition, there were clergy and lay people from at least a dozen denominations, politicians, members of the judiciary, cultural figures and lots of media people from many parts of the country. The Baha'i receptions are usually enhanced by a plethora of floral arrangements, but this time, the flowers were relatively low key giving way to massive and creative displays of all of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Israel. Baha'i Secretary General Albert Lincoln revealed that the occasion also marked the 100th anniversary of the transfer of the Bab's remains from what is now Iran, to the shrine on Mount Carmel. The burial was the first act of establishing a Baha'i presence in the Holy Land, although members of Baha'i had visited as early as 1868. Last year alone, said Lincoln, there had been 640,000 visits to the shrine. In expressing appreciation that UNESCO had chosen to have the Baha'i shrines join the list of Israeli heritage sites, Lincoln noted that collectively and individually they represent the modern and the ancient, the different civilizations and the different parts of the country along with its cultural diversity. The approach to universality is through the appreciation of diversity, he said. Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit, in congratulating the BIC, said that its shrines reflect peace, beauty and tolerance. He also made the point that the shrines had been financed by Baha'i communities around the world "and not a penny from the government" because it goes against Baha'i principles to accept government funding for their shrines. "I wish all NGOs would accept the Baha'i principles" he said, adding that the listing of the two shrines among the UNESCO heritage sites was an honor not only for Baha'i but for Israel. Congratulatory letters from President Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert were read out. Peres was to have travelled north on Tuesday for a ceremony of celebration with the Baha'i to which some 400 people had been invited, but due to inclement weather, decided very early in the morning to defer to another date yet to be determined. Meanwhile, in Haifa, Baha'i volunteers were frantically phoning, faxing and SMSing invitees to inform them of the cancellation of the ceremony. They succeeded in reaching most people, but not everyone, and a few invitees actually did show up despite the wind, the rain and the hail. INVARIABLY, SOMEONE'S name is omitted when there are many people who should be thanked or mentioned in relation to a special event, but the oversight at the Bible Lands Museum opening of an exhibition marking 30 years since the Israel-Egypt Peace Agreement, was really over the top. Nitza Ben Elissar, the widow of Israel's first ambassador to Egypt, Eliahu Ben Elissar, had lent items from her personal collection for the exhibit, and though unwell, had made the effort to attend the opening, but received no acknowledgement of her presence or her contribution. Poor show! IN NOVEMBER, 2007, a photo exhibition on Muslim Righteous Among the Nations from Albania opened at Yad Vashem in the presence of some of the people rescued by Albanian Muslims during the Holocaust, as well as relatives of the rescuers who specially came from Albania for the occasion. Titled BESA: A Code of Honor, the exhibition featuring portraits of the rescuers or members of their families, was the result of research by photographer Norman Gershman. The exhibition has since travelled to many places including the United Nations, and last week was newly unveiled in Ramle, a mixed city of Jews and Arabs who do not always live in harmony. Albanian Ambassador Tonin Gjuraj and his wife Edlira along with embassy staff, were on hand for this most recent opening at the Ramle Museum where it will remain till the end of April before it moves on to Acre, Haifa and other parts of Israel. Ramle Mayor Yoel Lavi, along with members of the City Council and museum staff, were obviously aware of the importance of the event and Yehudit Shendar - deputy director senior art curator of Yad Vashem's Museum Division, who has been involved with the BESA exhibition since its initial showing, was present in an advisory capacity. Precisely because of the city's mixed population, the Ramle Municipality had shown particular interest in displaying the BESA exhibition. A large number of school children - Jewish, Christian and Muslim - attended the opening and admitted that not only were they unaware of the fact that Albanian Muslims had saved Jews during the Holocaust, but they hadn't heard of Albania either. Gjuraj enlightened them to some extent and attributed their ignorance of Albania to the fact that under Communist rule Albania had been isolated from the world, and therefore largely unknown, unexplored, and unapproachable. Yet for all that, Jewish contacts with the Illyrian lands are believed to date back to 70 CE, he said, adding that this estimate is based on archaeological excavations which have also uncovered the remains of a 4th century synagogue in Saranda, a city south of Albania. Moving fast forward to the period of the Second World War, Gjuraj was justifiably proud of the fact that almost all the Jews of Albania, together with those who fled to Albania from other countries, were saved by the Albanian people. "Albania, a European country with a Muslim majority, succeeded where other European nations failed," he said. "The Albanian people, in an extraordinary act, refused to comply with the German occupier's orders to turn over Jews residing within the country's borders. The Albanians not only protected their Jewish citizens, but also provided sanctuary to Jewish refugees who had arrived in Albania from the former Yugoslavia, Germany, Austria, Greece, etc." To better understand the significance of this united Albanian front Gjuraj explained, one has to refer to BESA, a central concept in Albanian custom and tradition. BESA is a code of honor, a code of ethical behavior, characterizing Albanians of all faiths. It obligates Albanians to take responsibility for the lives of their guests. In this code of honor, Gjuraj continued, there is no concept of the foreigner or stranger, but only the guest who must be protected by every possible means. This is a matter of family and clan honor that extends to national honor said Gjuraj. Albania takes pride in the fact that 63 of her citizens have been recognized by Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations. Gjuraj was optimistic that this number would grow. UNLIKE HIS colleagues in the diplomatic corps, Irish Ambassador Michael Forbes, does not go in for formality, eschews speeches, and does not therefore urge the Foreign Ministry to find a suitable government minister to address his guests at his annual St. Patrick's Day reception. However, last week there was one government minister present, albeit not in that capacity, but rather as the son of a father born in Ireland and the grandson of a former Chief Rabbi of Ireland. No matter how busy he is, Isaac Herzog always makes a point of dropping in on a St. Patrick's Day reception, and this time, despite the ruckus in the Labor party, he stayed longer than usual. The genial Forbes, sporting a green tie for the occasion, stood in the center of his living room against the backdrop of a brilliant red wall, which made the whole room come alive. Forbes switched residences a little over a year ago, and the owner of the house allowed him to work with an architect in redesigning it to suit his needs and his taste. The result is spectacular, and also allows him to hold bigger and better parties than he did in his former residence. There were well-stocked bars both indoors and outdoors, with the bar that served Guiness on tap standing in solitary splendor. There was a bottle of Irish Cream Liqueur on all the other bars. The St. Patrick's Day fare does not consist of much variety other than the cheeses, but it is distinguished by literally mountains of excellent smoked Irish salmon which was so good that people just couldn't resist and kept on coming back for more again and again and again. Among the guests were former Chief Rabbi of Ireland, Rabbi David Rosen and his wife Sharon, who is the senior advisor to the Search for Common Ground's Middle East office, Irish expats Malcolm Gafson and Carole Golding, former Israel Ambassador to Ireland Zvi Gabay, Chief of Protocol at Israel's Ministry for Foreign Affairs Yitzhak Eldan, Vice-charge of Notre Dame Jerusalem Father Eamon Kelly, Ruth Dayan and literally dozens of others who were in no hurry to go home, though a large segment of the diplomatic community left more or less en masse, presumably for another event. ON OCCASIONS that she spoke about the Holocaust, Golda Meir would emphasize that it was a fallacy to say that six million Jews were murdered. No figure could be applied she insisted, because the figure went way beyond six million. It was they and their children and their children's children ad infinitum. She would then go on to ponder aloud what contributions those who were killed and those who never had a chance to be born would have made to humanity, to the Jewish people and to the State of Israel. A similar question, though to a lesser extreme, could be asked with regard to prejudice. How much has the world lost as a result of color and gender prejudice? If colored people had not been put into slavery but had been encouraged to develop and realize their potential, what sort of a world would we have today? If women had not been denied equal rights, how different would the world be? The questions came to mind last week at the launch of 'The Diamanteer,' the biography of Moshe Schnitzer, one of the founders of Israel's diamond exchange who died in August 2007 at age 86. A colorful figure, Schnitzer had served as chairman and later honorary president of the Israel Diamond Institute and of the World Federation of Diamond Bourses, having previously served in these positions without the adjective preceding the noun. He also served as president of the Israel Diamond Exchange and was one of the principal founders of the Diamond Museum, all of which collectively contributed to his becoming an Israel Prize laureate. Among the people attending the event at Beit Uriel in Tel Aviv was Bank Leumi CEO Galia Maor, who disclosed that Schnitzer had opposed the proposal to have her join the bank's Board of Directors of which he was a member, even though he was familiar with her record. It was nothing personal - it was just the fact that she was a woman. As it happened Schnitzer was overruled, and Maor went on not only to rise to the bank's top position, but to be included for several consecutive years in Fortune Magazine's list of the world's most powerful women, ranking as high on one occasion as 32. Last year Lady Globes named her as Woman of the Year. Diamond Institute director general Eli Avidar noted that things had changed a lot since Maor had joined the Leumi board. He had three women deputies, he said. Curiously, Schnitzer's daughter Hanna Gertler made a big name for herself in more than one business outside of the diamond industry in which her brother, her husband and her son are leading figures. WHILE MKs and visitors to the Knesset have welcomed the fact that the ban on jeans imposed by Dalia Itzik when she was Speaker of the Knesset will be lifted by Reuven Rivlin when he takes over the role, Beit Hanassi, which in general turned a blind eye to inappropriate dress, has now decided that people who come to the official residence of the president must dress respectfully. In the latest weekly schedule of the president's activities, there is an edict in large type at the bottom of the page stating: "Please pay attention. We are repeating our request that those who come to cover the various events at Beit Hanassi be appropriately attired." In the past, such requests were made informally but the powers-that-be at Beit Hanassi may possibly have been influenced by the attire of media personnel accompanying various visiting heads of state and other dignitaries. In most cases both men and women have worn suits, and not the cut-off jeans, shorts, tee-shirts and open-necked shirts sans jackets and ties worn by their Israeli colleagues. However, appropriate attire is a two-way street. There are still people working at Beit Hanassi who wear skimpy tops that reveal their midriffs, skirts that are so tight that the almost sculpted outline of their underwear is visible; necklines that are far too low; and diaphanous blouses without camisoles or petticoats. Propriety, like charity begins at home. YOU DON'T have to be a boy scout or a girl guide to do a good deed. Today, Wednesday is Good Deeds Day in Israel - a project initiated by Shari Arison through Ruach Tova, which is a non-profit organization supported by the Ted Arison Family Fund and chaired by former MK Rafi Elul. Realizing that many people who could once make financial contributions to charitable causes no longer have the means, Arison wants to encourage volunteerism on an individual or group basis. Everyone has something to give - even if it's only a smile, she says. Arison introduced the Good Deeds Day Concept in 2007. It has since become an annual fixture in the calendar, enabling people to take time out - even if it's only a few seconds - to do something for others, and to thereby feel good about themselves. Those who have the time can do more than just smile at someone and give them a greeting. There are people with vision impairment who would welcome someone reading to them. There are children who need to be tutored, elderly people who need to be helped to cross the road or climb the stairs, people who live alone, who would dearly love for someone to come by and just talk to them, new immigrants in need of advice, people who are poor and hungry and would be extremely appreciative of even a sandwich. While Arison herself gives away millions of shekels to a variety of good causes, she understands that even people without financial means can do something to help someone else. Anyone who wants to do a good deed and wants information about something they can do in the area where they live should access http://www.ruachtova. THERE COULD be no more suitable place than the Red Lounge Gallery in the Willy Brandt Center in mixed Jewish-Arab neighborhood, the capital's Abu Tor, to display the exhibition 'Palestinian Houses in West Jerusalem' that in stories and photographs conveys the human interest facet of Palestinians who once owned homes in West Jerusalem, and who had to come to terms with the fact that they are refugees with little likelihood of regaining the properties of which they were dispossessed or receiving compensation for their worth. The homes and some of the people who owned them up until 1948 were photographed by Tzachi Ostrovsky and written about by journalist Haim Hanegbi, who has multi-generational ties to this country on both sides of his family - Ashkenazi Neturei Karta on his mother's side and Sephardi on his father's side. Hanegbi owns a large chunk of property in Hebron, which has been sequestered by the State of Israel even though Hanegbi has a title deed proving that the land was registered in the name of one of his forebears more than two centuries ago. Although he has no intention of relinquishing the property, he refuses to claim it until Palestinian claims on properties in West Jerusalem are recognized by the Israeli authorities, and he wants the Jewish settlers who have seized his property in Hebron to be forced out. Hanegbi and Ostrovsky worked for more than a decade documenting the Palestinian properties in West Jerusalem, initially getting a lot of help from Faisal Husseini, the charismatic spokesman for the Palestinians and the Palestinian Authority's Minister for Jerusalem Affairs. After Husseini died in mid-2001, the project stagnated for several years until the opportunity came to exhibit part of it, in order to give people a deeper understanding of what individual Palestinians lost. Hanegbi and Ostrovsky tracked their subjects to Ramallah, to Palestinian villages and refugee camps, and brought them to Jerusalem where they introduced them to the people currently living in the homes that were once theirs. JOURNALISM IS a dangerous profession in Russia. They kill journalists who publish information that could get people in high places into trouble. That may explain why Dimitri Prokofiev, who caused a sensation several years ago when he began writing for Yediot Aharonot and broadcasting for Israel Radio, decided to switch to tourism. Though not Jewish, Prokofiev chose to study Hebrew and became so proficient that he was snapped up by local print and broadcasting media to serve as their Russian correspondent. He seemed to have amazing connections and reported on every imaginable subject embracing both the Jewish and the general community. A couple of years back he signed up with Ophir Tours to act as a guide in Russia for Israeli tour groups. In Israel last week for an Ophir Tours convention at which a citation was given to the company's 50,000th visitor to Russia, Prokofiev disclosed that in recent years, Russian oligarchs have expanded their business interests to tourism and have invested heavily in travel agencies and in other sectors of the tourist industry. He also said that Russia was barely affected by the global economic crisis because most Russians did not play the stock market, and are not in the habit of taking out large mortgages. LAMENTING THE absence of an Israeli Al Jazeera, retired diplomat Yehuda Avner, speaking at the Jerusalem Great Synagogue last Saturday night, declared that Israel's information campaign must stop being the Cinderella of the government, and expressed the hope that Prime Minister Designate Binyamin Netanyahu, who is an expert in the information field, would give the matter the urgent attention it requires. Avner, who was on the personal staff of five prime ministers before his elevation to the rank of ambassador, was recently in England on a series of speaking engagements, and was profoundly disturbed by the virulent anti-Semitism and anti-Israel sentiment that he detected in the country of his birth. From what he encountered there, he drew the conclusion that in coming months there would be increasing incidence of academic institutions divesting from Israel.

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