IN THE past most of the travels to the Netherlands by Prof. Hendrik J. Bruins of Ben Gurion University's Blaustein Institutes for Desert Research were for academic purposes. But his most recent visit was to receive the Dutch Royal Award of Officer of the Order of Orange-Nassau, the Dutch equivalent of the Order of the British Empire.
The order was conferred on him by the deputy prime minister and minister of finance in the name of Queen Beatrix in a ceremony that took place within the framework of a gala evening in The Hague sponsored by the Dutch Associates of BGU. The order is awarded to persons who have made exceptional contributions to society.
Bruins, who is a member of Blaustein's Department of Man in the Desert and also lectures in the Department of Geography, has earned international recognition for his innovative policy-oriented studies on drought, hazard assessment and contingency planning in relation to water and food security, as well as for his innovative geoarchaeological and chronological investigations concerning the ancient Near East. He first came to Ben-Gurion University in 1976 as an instructor in the Department of Geography, then worked in the early 1980's for the Israel Antiquities Authority in the framework of the Negev Emergency Archaeological Survey. In 1984, he joined the Jacob Blaustein Institute for Desert Research on the BGU Sde Boker campus. Two years later, he received his Ph.D. from Wageningen University in The Netherlands on research conducted in the Negev and Sinai deserts. Bruins developed novel geoarcheological research techniques and pioneered the conduct of excavations in ancient agricultural terraces in the Negev highlands. He also carried out research at the Ein el-Kudeirat oasis of north-eastern Sinai, associated by some scholars with biblical Kadesh-Barnea. Here, he became aware of the vital need to measure time in both archaeological and environmental studies with the same methodology: radiocarbon dating. This was the beginning of innovative research in cooperation with one of the best radiocarbon labs in the world situated at the University of Groningen in The Netherlands. Time-series analyses of disasters provide unique information about the risk of certain hazards such as drought which constitutes the principal hazard in dry-land regions of the world.
IN OTHER BGU-related news, philanthropist Marc Rich whose foundation has been a most generous supporter of educational, cultural and welfare causes and projects in Israel, especially those related to BGU, the rescue of Ethiopian and Yemenite Jews, the Israel Museum, the Jerusalem Foundation and Shaare Tzedek Medical Center, will be honored next week within the framework of Ben Gurion Day ceremonies. For those who may not remember, Rich left the US to live in Switzerland in 1983 after being indicted for tax evasion and violation of sanctions against trade with Iran, but was pardoned by president Bill Clinton on the latter's last day in office.
Although he has regained respectability, the timing of the honor is interesting in view of the criticisms currently leveled against Russian immigrant billionaire Arcadi Gaydamak, who is wanted in France for tax evasion and arms dealing with Angola as well as being under investigation in Israel for alleged money laundering. Gaydamak has reaped enormous popularity for his wide-ranging philanthropy which in the past week has included the temporary evacuation to Eilat of beleaguered residents of Sderot. It was unfortunate that this latest burst of generosity was accompanied by the boast that if he ran for the Knesset, he could win as many as 40 mandates.
In political circles, this transformed Gaydamak from a benefactor to a threat. He and his motives are endlessly being discussed on talk shows on radio and television. The man who only two years ago had not been heard of by the majority of Israelis, is today a household word. The media is comparing Gaydamak with fellow business tycoon and former MK Shmuel Flatto Sharon, who engaged in widespread philanthropy during his successful 1977 election campaign. Flatto Sharon was wanted in France for alleged embezzlement, but extradition requests were refused by Israel.
Interviewed this week by Gabi Gazit on Israel Radio, Flatto Sharon conceded that somewhere in the back of his mind, he may have thought that the best way to escape the French legal authorities was to win a seat in the Knesset, but the real reason that he entered politics and engaged in philanthropy was because he wanted to do something for Israel, he said. As for Gaydamak, Flatto Sharon cautioned that the Israeli public was fickle, and that while Gaydamak may be the man of the moment, he would discover at the polling booths that Israelis are not into reciprocity.
Avigdor Lieberman, Israel Beiteinu chairman and minister for strategic threats, is considered to be one of the few politicians who is pro-Gaydamak. Another is United Torah Judaism MK Rabbi Avraham Ravitz, who defended Gaydamak on the pages of The Jerusalem Post when he responded to an article in which it was claimed that Gaydamak's giving is all part of a publicity gimmick.
Speaking on Radio Kol Hai, the religious radio station, Ravitz said that he had it from the horse's mouth that Gaydamak is not planning to enter politics. A resident of Sderot who was interviewed on Israel Radio and asked whether she wasn't bothered by the fact that Gaydamak was under police investigation, retorted that half the government is under police investigation.
WHILE PRIME Minister Ehud Olmert has been lambasting Gaydamak, the prime minister himself has been subject to disapproval. Interviewed on Israel Radio last Friday, Sapir Academic College president Zev Zahor commented that up till this year, it was customary for the prime minister to attend the Sderot Conference which in its own way is no less important than the Herzliya Conference and attracts a huge attendance. Defense Minister Amir Peretz and former foreign minister Silvan Shalom, both sons of the Negev, regularly attend the Sderot Conference, but Olmert did not attend the 4th Sderot Conference that opened at SAC on November 8. This might have been due to the findings of a preconference poll conducted by the Maagar Mochot interdisciplinary consulting and research institute that indicated that 42 percent of the 1,111 respondents regarded the prime minister's public behavior as extremely corrupt. Although Olmert can usually blusters his way out of any situation, he might have had reservations on this one.
WHEN JERUSALEM'S Great Synagogue wanted to reach out to the community beyond its regular congregants, it introduced a monthly Saturday night lecture series that attracted dozens of people from all over Jerusalem and beyond. Nothing succeeds like success, so the people at the Great Synagogue joined forces with the Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel with the aim of attracting ever larger audiences and making the lecture series even more successful. The series started three years ago recalled Great Synagogue chairman Asher Schapiro, at which time one of the smaller rooms in the premises was used. Some 200 people showed up, but only 150 could be accommodated. Since then, the series has been held in the synagogue's largest facility, its banquet call, which with theater style seating can accommodate upwards of a thousand people. There were not quite that many who came last Saturday night to listen to retired diplomat and occasional Jerusalem Post columnist Yehuda Avner, whose wit, inimitable style and huge fund of knowledge earned him a standing ovation at the end of the evening. It was Avner, the inaugural speaker in the series recalled Schapiro, who was pleased to see that the audience was at least three times the size it had been the first time around.
FORMALLY INTRODUCED by Great Synagogue vice president Zali Jaffe, Avner expressed appreciation for the fact that Jaffe had got his name right, and proceeded with an anecdote about the time that he had been invited to address the British Council on Foreign Relations. The chairman at the time was Lord Chasly, one of those very plumy Brits, who was already in his dotage, but in his time had helped draft the charter of the United Nations. After introducing Avner and assuring the audience that they were in for a most interesting talk, Lord Chasly sat down and promptly fell asleep. He awoke as Avner concluded his remarks, and declared: "I am deeply grateful to you, Mr. Olmert."
When Avner corrected him and said that he was not Olmert, the retort was: "Who by George are you?"
And when Avner told him his name, he said "Yehuda who?" and walked off in a huff.
Avner also shared an oft-repeated story about another time that Lord Chasly had fallen asleep in public and had dreamt that he was making a speech in parliament. "When he woke up, he found out that he was."
It is an open secret that the Mossad cooperates with MI5. Avner is friendly with Sir Malcolm Fletcher, a retired senior director of MI5, who told him that the UK would love to import some of the Israelis who engage in espionage in Arab countries. He was envious of the fact that Israel has some excellent agents whose features blend into the Arab landscape, who speak Arabic fluently in any number of dialects, and whose first loyalty is to Israel. It's almost impossible to recruit British Muslims into counter terrorism operations, he confided, because their first loyalty is to the Muslim faith and not to the land of their birth.
NOTHING IS more Polish than Chopin's Polonaise, the strains of which were heard as part of a piano recital of Chopin's works that were piped into the ballroom of the Dan Panorama Hotel in Tel Aviv for the combined Polish National Day and Polish Armed Forces Day reception. The two events used to be held separately, explained Polish Ambassador Agnieszka Magdziak-Miszewska, but because Armed Forces Day celebrations were postponed due to the war in Lebanon, it was decided to combine the two events. Unlike her predecessors, Magdziak-Miszewska did not host the festivities in her official residence, but chose the much more spacious hotel premises that comfortably accommodated a much larger than usual crowd than in seasons past. However one carry-over was the traditional Polish bigos, comprising cabbage in brine, meat and potatoes, which was part of the lavish buffet on which guests dined as they waited for the official proceedings. In previous years, the bigos was prepared by members of the Polish UNDOF forces who came down from the North to add to the authentic flavor of the banquet, but this time it could also be enjoyed by those who observe kashrut.
ALTHOUGH IMMIGRANT Absorption Minister Ze'ev Boim was the representative of the government, Shimon Peres, perhaps because of his Polish roots, expressed a strong desire to attend, but was late in arriving because he was fulfilling his duties as acting prime minister. His office called to say that he would be delayed, and the ceremonial part of the evening began just as he entered. Not wanting to upstage Boim, Peres did not immediately approach the stage, but stood at the edge of the crowd, which as always happens, broke ranks to greet him and shake his hand. For a man who never wins an election, Peres is amazingly popular. There will be a lot of lobbyists in Israel's Polish community who will try to have him elected as Israel's ninth president - among them Henryk Lewinski, the president of the Israel-Poland Chamber of Commerce who insists that there is no one of greater international stature in Israel than Peres, and that this makes him the most suitable candidate.
Boim disclosed that even though he was born in Israel, he too has Polish roots. His parents came from Poland in the 1930s, and because they were staunch Zionists, they spoke only Hebrew in the house, which was why he could not bring greetings in Polish he apologized as he worked hard to pronounce the ambassador's name. Boim expressed Israel's appreciation for Polish humanitarian aid extended to residents of the north during this summer's war in Lebanon and spoke of the strong cultural, economic, educational and political ties between Israel and Poland. Repeating the gist of what Polish President Lech Kaczynski had declared in September on arrival in Jerusalem, Boim said: "Poland is one of our closest European allies." He looked forward to welcoming "our friend," the prime minister of Poland, to Israel next year. Noting that in the months ahead, Poland will host a year of Israeli culture and Israel will host a year of Polish culture, Boim referred to the centuries-long "common past" of Poles and Jews, and stressed the importance of remembering not only the tragic aspects but also the positive ones. Delving into Polish history per se, Ambassador Magdziak-Miszewska noted that for 123 years Poland had been in a state of non-existence on the map of Europe, with her territory divided among the Russians, the Austrians and the Prussians. When Poland was reborn, she said, one of the almost insurmountable challenges was to create a unified system out of vastly different systems inherited from occupying powers. The ambassador also referred to the wave of anti-Semitism that spread throughout Europe in the 1930s and which "did not exclude Poland."
If Poles want to be proud of their righteous gentiles she said, they must also remember the pogroms and the disgrace of collaboration in the fate of their Jewish neighbors. Moving forward to the current period, Magdziak-Miszewska noted that one of sovereign independent Poland's first acts (after freeing itself from the Soviet yoke), was to reestablish contact with Israel.
While Boim and Magdziak-Miszewska read their speeches, Peres - as he almost always does - extemporized. Relations between Poland and Israel and Poland and the Jewish People are more than the eye can see, he said. It was hard to envisage Jewish diaspora life without Poland, he stated, adding that while there were unhappy and tragic times for Jews in Poland, it was also not easy for the Poles, with occupiers coming and dividing up their land. Nonetheless, Poland maintained her identity and to this day, the Polish contribution to world culture remains prominent. He also emphasized that throughout the centuries the Poles allowed the Jews in their midst to keep their own culture, religion and identity.
PERES WAS also the guest of honor two days later at the same venue for the 88th anniversary of the proclamation of the Latvian republic hosted by Latvian Ambassador Karlis Eihenbaums and his wife Inara, who was attired in Latvian national costume. This time, he actually represented the government, and since he was no longer acting prime minister, was able to arrive early and to chat to people well in advance of the formalities. Another invitee was Knesset Speaker Dalia Itzik. Over the past three years, the Latvian event has been graced by the children's choir of the American International School who were brought in to sing the national anthems of Latvia and Israel.
Both Peres, and Itzik who was a school teacher before she went into politics, were interested in the children's backgrounds and went to talk to them. They also talked to them again after the formalities. During the singing of the anthems Eihenbaums sang the Latvian one, Peres and Itzik sung Hatikva and Inara Eihenbaums, who sings in the International Community Choir, sang both. As is always the case at national day events, there were a lot of uniformed military attaches from various countries mingling with the civilians. One military attach apologized to a colleague for being out of uniform. "I'm not here as a military attach ," he explained. "I'm here as the father of a singer in the choir." In welcoming the guests, Eihenbaums referred to Peres as "the patriarch of Israeli politics."
Actually that title applies more to Peres's mentor David Ben Gurion, but Peres is certainly the contemporary elder statesman. In comparing the two countries which are both small, Peres remarked that while Israel's population was more than double that of Latvia's, Latvia had many more forests and rivers. He wasn't sure just how many rivers there are in Israel, but the only one of note, the River Jordan he said, "has more public relations than water."
THERE MIGHT be some snob value in living on the same street as an ambassador, but for residents of some of the streets in Herzliya Pituah and Kfar Shmaryahu where the bulk of the diplomatic community reside, it's not always fun when their neighbors host large scale receptions especially when there are two or three of them on the same night in the same street. Hosting events in the area this week were Portuguese Ambassador Pedro Nuno Bartolo who hosted a late night reception in honor of Portuguese Minister of State and Foreign Affairs Dr. Luis Amado; and Greek Ambassador Nicholas Zafiropoulos, who together with Greek Defense attache Col. Ilias Vavaroutsos celebrated Hellenic Armed Forces Day. Also on the calendar this week is a reception combining her country's national day and her own farewell to be hosted by Romanian Ambassador Valeria Mariana Stoica.
ALTHOUGH STOICA attended the Polish reception, she had to excuse herself from the Latvian one because she was otherwise engaged in Jerusalem at the opening at the Israel Museum of an exhibition of the early works of Reuven Rubin. There was no getting away immediately after the speeches because the occasion was celebrated with a festive dinner in the museum's atrium, and Stoica, representing the country of Rubin's birth and honoring the fact that he was Israel's first ambassador to Romania had to stay. Another reason for her remaining in Jerusalem was the presence of Nicholas F. Taubman, who happens to be the US ambassador to Romania. Members of the artist's family were very much in evidence, including his gracious and age-defying widow Esther and their daughter Ariela Genigar, who is often the family spokesperson and who spoke movingly of her memories of her father. The occasion was also used by Israel Museum director James Snyder to announce the promotion of Amitai Mendelsohn to the position of the museum's curator of Israeli art.
WHILE IT'S true that much of the Israeli leadership that was in Los Angeles last week for the General Assembly of the United Jewish Communities, made a beeline for Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to take advantage of photo opportunities, some of the same people as well as various business moguls were just as eager to pose with Bank Leumi CEO Galia Maor. Among them were Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Ambassador to the UN Dan Gillerman, who is a former head of the Federation of Bi-national Chambers of Commerce; and Bank of Israel Governor Stanley Fischer who posed in a group shot with Maor, Idan Ofer, Haim Saban and Eitan Wertheimer. The combined wealth of the group probably exceeds the national budget.
JERUSALEM MAYOR Uri Lupolianski received a lot of flak from his haredi constituents while decisions were being made over whether or not to allow this month's gay pride parade to proceed. If he had a tough time then, he's going to have it infinitely worse in the aftermath of the publication by Yediot Aharonot of hizzoner in an embrace with his Parisian counterpart Bertrand Delanoe, who makes no secret of his sexual orientation. In chic Paris it's no big deal for the mayor to be openly gay. Many of Delanoe's former constituents have made their homes in Jerusalem, which is yet another valid reason for Delanoe, who has visited Israel on numerous occasions, to keep coming with even greater frequency. Lupolianski and Delanoe have known each other for some time and discussed joint projects including the French-built light rail service, which should become operational in Jerusalem within the next year.