EVERYTHING IS politics or politics is everything, which may explain why President Shimon Peres was half an hour late to the opening ceremony of the Jerusalem International Book Fair at which he and Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat presented prolific yet enigmatic Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami with the Jerusalem Prize.
The President's delay was due to a meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who was half an hour behind schedule in arriving at Beit Hanassi. As a result, hundreds of people cooled their heels waiting for Peres, whose discussions with Lavrov focused on stoppage of the smuggling of weapons into Gaza, the reconstruction of Gaza, putting the peace process back on track, the role of Egypt and other regional partners in this effort, the part played by the media in the Arab-Israel conflict, and the Iranian nuclear threat.
Some of these issues actually impacted on Murakami's decision to come to Jerusalem despite efforts by pro-Palestinian movements in Japan to dissuade him. Notwithstanding threats to boycott his books and an open letter posted on the Internet by the Palestine Forum in Japan asking him to withdraw from the Book Fair and receipt of the prize, Murakami by his own confession has a rebellious nature, along with the writer's curiosity to see facts on the ground. Nonetheless there was a certain personal dilemma that he had to deal with. He did not want any misunderstandings that might lead people to think that he was taking sides, and he made it very clear that he wasn't, although he hinted that he tended to be more sympathetic to the fragile and the weak, using as a metaphor an egg thrown against a wall.
He wasn't surprised that Israelis like his stories. "If the story is deep, we learn to understand each other," he said. Referring to those who had tried to dissuade him from coming to Israel, Murakami said that as a novelist he tends to do the exact opposite of what people tell him. "When they say 'don't go there, don't do that,' I tend to go there and do that. It's in my nature as a writer."
Japanese Ambassador Haruhisa Takeuchi, who was naturally present to witness the ceremony, received almost as many congratulatory comments and handshakes as Murakimi.
n SURPRISINGLY, THE documentary inspired by Alan Dershowitz's book 'The Case for Israel,' which is getting excellent attendances and reviews at film festivals across America and around the world, did not have a full house at its Jerusalem Premiere at the Jerusalem Cinematheque last week, despite the fact that several of the people interviewed in the film, including Jerusalem Post columnist Caroline Glick, participated afterwards in a panel discussion. There have been occasions when films at the Cinematheque excited so much interest that overflow audiences sat on the stairs and every seat in the house was occupied. Not this time, and the reason may be that while most Israelis appreciate the need to make the case for Israel, the focus of spokespeople for Israel is by and large in the wrong direction. The point was made by Natan Sharansky, who noted that Israel and the Jewish people are under attack by anti-Semites, and instead of discussing how to cope with that issue, members of both the panel and the audience were arguing among themselves as to whether or not there should be a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. While reaction to what Sharansky said was largely positive, it failed to have the desired result. The questions and the arguments continued to center on a two-state solution rather than on the existential threat to the Jewish people.
n WHEN TAKEN by Gurion Meltzer, chairman of the Israel-Australia Chamber of Commerce, to visit Shoulder to Shoulder, a society rehabilitation organization that mentors and supports families across Israel until those who are being helped are in a position to help others, Australian Ambassador James Larsen was so impressed with what he saw that he immediately offered his home for an event to make more people aware of what Shoulder to Shoulder is doing. Although the organization has been in operation for less than four years, it has already helped hundreds of families across the country to become motivated and get back on their feet. Managing director Rabbi Gedalia Peterseil explained that Shoulder to Shoulder helps only those people who really want to be helped. It's not in the business of merely distributing handouts to the poor and the hungry. People who, through loss of jobs and inability to manage on whatever they get from the government, sink into some kind of morass, don't have to be stuck there for life. What often happens, he explained, is that they become so dejected that they lose all desire to do anything. They stop cleaning their houses, they don't teach their children hygiene, and they don't provide any kind of enrichment for their children, even when it doesn't cost them any money to do so. When Shoulder to Shoulder goes into such homes to assess whether the people can be helped, they use the most professional means to determine potential and then match the family with another family who become like kinfolk. There are no overnight miracles. It takes months for people to be retrained, to find work and to change their attitudes - but the success rate is amazing, which is one of the reasons that Larsen expressed his pride and pleasure at being associated with what Shoulder to Shoulder is doing. One of the beneficiaries of Shoulder to Shoulder attended the dinner to explain how dark her destiny used to be - and now she has a life. She's working, her kids are happy and every day is filled with promise.
n VALENTINE'S DAY was a lot more than hearts and flowers for members of Israel's international community who decided to turn the event into a benefit night for Table to Table, which "rescues" excess, unserved food that would otherwise be destroyed, from catered events, bakeries, army bases, perishable food manufacturers, farmers and packinghouses. The food is transported to non-profit organizations throughout Israel to pass on to people in need. A large number of ambassadors and other diplomats attended the festivities which were enhanced by sleight of hand expert Lior Suchard. Among the quasi-diplomats was Gad Propper, Honorary Consul for New Zealand, who came with his wife Etti. Non-diplomats present included Stef Wertheimer, David and Stephanie Azrieli, and of course Toyota dealers George and Eysar Horesh, who donated the Lexus showroom in Herzliya Pituah for the event, moving all the luxury cars out to make room for the luxury people. Dancing was to the Angels Band and celebrity chef Eyal Finkelstein was responsible for the gastronomic delights. Guests were asked to wear black and red combinations. Most complied, but there were a few exceptions to the rule, with some people thinking that rust could pass for red.
n IT ISN'T exactly a conflict of interests, but it's noteworthy that both Likud and Kadima are currently making use of the services of former Justice Minister Prof. Yaakov Ne'eman. Likud leader Binyamin Netanyahu appointed Ne'eman to find a modus vivendi in the religion versus state disputes between Israel Beiteinu and Shas, and last Sunday, the cabinet, at its first post-election meeting, took note of the fact that Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit has appointed Ne'eman to chair a committee that will recommend changes in the State of Israel's immigration policies.
n THE CABINET, which gave the green light on Sunday to Vice Premier Haim Ramon to take responsibility on behalf of the government for the visit of Pope Benedict XVI, who is due to arrive on May 11. Ra'anan Dinur, Director-General of the Prime Minister's Office, will chair an inter-ministerial team that will coordinate preparations for the visit. Ramon is expected to present the cabinet with a plan detailing the visit by March 1.
A protocol delegation from the Vatican is due to arrive in Israel on February 24 to work out the pontiff's every move with the Protocol Department of the Foreign Ministry. Israel's Chief of Protocol Yitzhak Eldan is looking for ways in which to involve members of the diplomatic corps in the visit and was delighted to learn from British Ambassador Tom Phillips, who is a Catholic, that he would be honored to be able to attend mass with the Pope. There are quite a lot of Catholics among the heads of missions, and Eldan feels that since the visit is largely of a religious character, the memory of having attended mass with the Pope will remain with each ambassador forever, and will be even more meaningful for having taken place in the Holy Land.
n ISRAEL'S AMBASSADOR-designate to Poland Zvi Ravner had thought to take up his new position some time in the summer, but now it appears that he has to leave Israel at the end of March or beginning of April. The reason: Outgoing Ambassador David Peleg, who has been appointed Director General of the World Jewish Restitution Organization, is leaving the Foreign Ministry in March, and it is imperative that his successor be in place for the March of the Living, the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, Holocaust Memorial Day and Israel Independence Day.
n BY CURIOUS coincidence, Korsova, which last year broke away from Serbia , celebrates its Independence Day on February 17, which is only two days after the February 15 Independence Day celebrations of Serbia. Albanian Ambassador Tonin Gjuraj, who staunchly defends Korsova's right to independence and has written about this extensively, including in the Post, was among the guests at the Serbian National Day and Armed Forces Day celebrations at the Carlton Hotel in Tel Aviv where Serbian Ambassador Miodrag Isakov made a passionate argument against the secession of Kosova from Serbia. Israel is not among close to 70 countries that already have or are in the process of officially recognizing Kosova as an independent republic, a factor that gladdened Isakov's heart. There were certain similarities as well as problems in the territorial sovereignties of Israel and Serbia, he remarked.
This is the last Serbian Independence Day that he and his wife Jelena are hosting. They will wind up their tour of duty in the spring. Despite their differences, Isakov and Gjurja are good friends.
n ON THE day following the Serbian festivities, Lithuanian Ambassador Asta Skaisgiryte Liauskiene combined her country's national day with her own farewell. Skaisgiryte Liauskiene is leaving on a high note, having worked extremely hard to strengthen ties at all levels between Lithuania and Israel, especially in the field of culture, because Lithuania was for so long a seat of Jewish culture. She is greatly admired within Israel's Foreign Ministry and by her colleagues in the diplomatic corps. In fact, Pinchas Avivi, the Foreign Ministry's Director-General for Euro-Asia, remarked that when he hosted a farewell luncheon for her the previous day at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, everyone present asked to say a few words about her because she had made such a positive impression. Skaisgiryte Liauskiene had stayed on in Jerusalem for the rest of the day to attend the opening of the Jerusalem International Book Fair in which Lithuania is playing such a significant role, and during this week and next there are a number of Lithuanian cultural events taking place in different parts of the country.
At her farewell event at the Sharon Hotel in Herzliya, Skaisgiryte Liauskiene emphasized the similarities between Lithuania and Israel in that they are both ancient countries, yet new countries. Lithuania is celebrating its millennium, the 92nd anniversary of its restoration and the end of its more recent occupation, while Israel, with its roots in the Bible, is concluding its 60th anniversary. While diplomatic relations between Lithuania and Israel go back only a few years, connections between Lithuania and the Jewish People are centuries old.
The values of contemporary Lithuania and Israel are the same, she noted: freedom, peace, democracy and human rights. She regretted that sometimes to have freedom one has to fight, and to have peace it is sometimes necessary to make war. Her wish for Israel was that it should be successful in enduring its statehood; it should remain hopeful and it should remain strong for peace. Like many other departing ambassadors, Skaisgiryte Liauskiene declared that she was not saying goodbye, but merely L'hitraot. In her case, it happens to be true. Her next position will be that of Undersecretary of State, responsible for the Middle East, which means that she'll be back in Israel several times a year.
n MANY AMBASSADORS said that they would miss her, especially her good friend and admirer, Moldova's ambassador Larisa Miculet, who commented that she had arrived in Israel before either Skaisgiryte Liauskiene or Isakov, so perhaps she was next in line to say adieu. On the other hand, the Lithuanian party was attended by newly arrived South African Ambassador Ismail Coovadia, who is due to present his credentials towards the end of next month.
n TWO YEARS ago, Prof. Yigal Ronen of Ben Gurion University's Department of Nuclear Engineering, received an honorary doctorate from St. Petersburg Polytechnic in Russia. Now he's about to receive another honorary doctorate in Russia, this time from the Russian Academy of Science, in recognition of his outstanding scientific achievements. An honorary doctorate from the Academy is considered the highest honor awarded in Russia to foreign scientists. Ronen is currently the only recipient for the year 2009. He will travel to Russia in May to participate in the doctoral ceremony. His worth has been recognized elsewhere in the world. In 1988, he was elected a Fellow of the American Nuclear Society.
n FORMER ISRAEL Ambassador to the United Nations Dan Gillerman, in an interview with Australian journalist Jason Koutsoukis prior to his departure for a speaking engagement in Australia, has urged Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd to withdraw Australian participation from the upcoming United Nations Durban II forum on racism, on the grounds that it will be used as a platform from which to bash Israel. Gillerman will probably have a meeting with Rudd at which he will elaborate on what he said in the interview. Coincidentally, Gillerman's office in Tel Aviv is one floor below that of the Australian Embassy.
n THERE ARE many and varied forms of solidarity displayed by Diaspora Jewry towards Israel. One of the more unusual is that of the Shabbaton Choir, which is currently on its sixth "Solidarity through Song" mission of peace and harmony. The choir is part of a 52-member delegation of the United Synagogues of Great Britain and has been accompanied to Israel by British Chief Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks and Lady Sacks as well as Dr. Simon Hochhauser, President of the United Synagogues of Great Britain. The choir will today, Wednesday, visit the Nitzan Village and the Barnea Jewish Agency Absorption Center in Ashkelon. It will also give a concert in Ashkelon with cantors Rabbi Lionel Rozsenfield, Shimon Craimer and Jonny Turgel, under the baton of Musical Director Stephen Levey. Hochhauser is also a choir member.
n ON ANOTHER musical note, Yehudah Katz, founder and lead singer of the Reva L'Sheva band and disciple of the late Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, whose teachings he shares with people around the world, was the star attraction - actually the sole attraction - at a melave malka hosted by art collectors Shlomo and Ashirah Dror. The word spread rapidly and the Drors found themselves hosting many more people than they had anticipated, to the extent that they ran out of chairs and sofas, and some of their fragile objets d'art were in danger of being damaged. Their collection includes a number of native musical instruments from countries in Asia and Africa, which they removed from their display areas and handed to guests to play. The harmony was admirable.
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