ISRAEL'S NEW ambassador to New Zealand, Yuval Rotem, may have had the best intentions when he said he wanted to employ a Maori personal assistant at the Israel embassy in Canberra, but it didn't go down too well in Kiwi land.
Reporting in the Dominion Post on October 5, Hank Schouten wrote that when presenting his credentials at Government House, Rotem said: "I would like to convince an indigenous New Zealander to work with me - a non-Jewish Maori. The job is to remind me on a daily basis New Zealand is also on my agenda."
Rotem, who is also accredited to Australia, is a non-resident ambassador to New Zealand because Israel closed its embassy in Wellington in 2002 and has no immediate plans to reopen it.
According to Schouten, Race Relations Commissioner Joris de Bres said that it was unlawful in New Zealand to hire somebody on the basis of ethnicity and Australian law was probably the same. It was laudable that the ambassador was looking for somebody knowledgeable about indigenous people and culture, said de Bres, "but I would have thought that he would need to look for competency rather than ethnicity."
Rotem succeeded Naftali Tamir, who was recalled after making a racial remark offensive to Asians. Although Rotem did not mean to be insulting, and has in fact rubbed noses with at least one Maori official, any remark about race these days, no matter how complimentary, is almost inevitably and invariably taken the wrong way.
ORDINARILY, HIS bodyguards would be quick to whisk him out of the way if anyone hurled a projectile in the direction of opposition leader Binyamin Netanyahu, but last Saturday they left him to duck without any interference on their part.
The occasion was the bar mitzva of Avner Netanyahu, the younger son of Netanyahu and his wife, Sarah, and the projectiles were in line with the traditional hurling of candy when a bar mitzva boy concludes the reading of his Torah portion.
The Netanyahus, who are notorious for arriving late to events, on this occasion arrived bright and early - and without any fanfare - at the Jerusalem Great Synagogue.
There was no change in the regular security precautions, so that anyone who was unaware of the fact that there was a bar mitzva, or whose it was, was surprised to see Netanyahu sitting in the front row of the synagogue.
It was very much an intimate family affair, with no major Likud or public figure representation among the congregants, some of whom commented that they would have expected to see more people - and certainly more dignitaries.
Among the public figures who did attend were Tel Aviv Chief
Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau and Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs president and former Israel ambassador to the UN Dore Gold.
Lau has a very close relationship with the Netanyahus. He officiated at their marriage at the home of Netanyahu's parents, award-winning historian Prof. Benzion and the late Cela Netanyahu, was present at the circumcision ceremonies of Avner and his older brother, Yair, and attended Yair's bar mitzva.
He also knows Avner's maternal grandfather, Shmuel Ben-Artzi, a well-known educator, and he knew Ben-Artzi's late wife, Hava.
Both grandfathers are nonagenarians, but that did not deter them from coming to the service to take pride in their grandson. Gold has been a close associate as well as a personal friend of Netanyahu for well over a decade.
He was Netanyahu's foreign policy adviser prior to his becoming prime minister; and after Netanyahu took office, Gold was deeply involved in talks with the Palestinians, the Egyptians and the Jordanians.
He was subsequently appointed Israel's ambassador to the UN.
At the bar mitzva ceremony, he was given the honor of opening the ark, carrying a Torah scroll and later closing the ark.
The handsome and personable Avner, who appears to be naturally adept at both politics and public relations, read his portion in a loud, clear voice with perfect enunciation.
He was so good, in fact, that congregants, before congratulating his parents, turned to one another with comments of approval for his fine performance.
He was also commended from the pulpit by Rabbi Zalman Druk and by Lau, who each noted how well he read, and described his reading as "excellent."
Before reciting the initial blessing over the Torah, Avner turned to the ladies gallery to acknowledge his mother who was in the front row center, leaning over the railing - almost as if to reach out to him. Her face radiated love and pride.
For the occasion, Sarah Netanyahu chose a cream and black ensemble with matching shoes, which were a little too big for her, and a black hat.
The offspring of senior public figures enjoy a lot of perks but occasionally there's a flip side like having to endure two sermons on one's bar mitzva.
But it was obvious that both rabbis who spoke of him and to him with affection, were genuine and not merely paying lip service to the son of a political leader.
Although attendance at the service was rather sparse, people came out of the woodwork for the Kiddush.
The Kiddush at the Great Synagogue is always a sumptuous affair, and whether it's announced or not, people outside of the congregation somehow get wind of it and turn up in droves.
Entreaties by synagogue director-general, Rabbi George Finkelstein, to desist from eating until Cantor Naftali Herstik made the appropriate blessing used to fall on deaf ears. The situation has improved slightly, but not sufficiently.
While his parents were being waylaid by well-wishers en route to the synagogue's banquet hall, Avner was one of the first inside, and charmingly curious about all the proceedings.
The Great Synagogue has a very diverse congregation ranging from haredi to secular. Some of the haredim had been extremely impressed by Avner's reading, and when a cluster of haredi women came to congratulate him, he automatically put out his hand to greet them.
"We don't shake hands," they chanted, as they backed off.
But there were plenty of other people who did shake hands with him, especially tourists, who were thrilled to have been able to participate. Avner chatted to them amiably in English.
Unlike his father, he doesn't speak English with an American accent, and his grammar has Hebrew overtones - but that didn't bother anyone.
IT WAS nostalgia time at the residence of British Ambassador Tom Phillips last Wednesday when 170 octogenarians and nonagenarians congregated in the back garden to belatedly receive the UK Armed Forces Veterans badge and the Israel Medal for Combatants Against the Nazis.
Some were accompanied by spouses, children or grandchildren. Many of them - at least those who had taken on Hebrew names - had German surnames.
And even most of those who had not Hebraicized their names had volunteered for the Royal Navy under their original German names which were printed on some name tags.
These were the names under which they had been listed by the authorities in Mandatory Palestine.
Among them was Katriel Fuchs, a former employee at the now defunct Haifa office of The Jerusalem Post, whose name tag read Karl Fuchs, the name under which he was known in the British Navy.
On the other hand, Zvi Avidror, the mover and shaker behind the event, chose to ignore his former name, Hans Freier.
At 82, he was the youngest of the veterans, and certainly one of the most spry among them.
Avidror was interested in establishing a Royal Navy Club to replace the Veterans Association which was active till 1991.
He approached the Embassy's Naval and Air Attache, Wing Commander Mike Rafferty, who was instantly enthusiastic, and who had no trouble persuading Philips to support the project.
Phillips comes from a strong Navy background. His grandfather was an admiral who died while serving with the Navy in the Far East, shortly before the fall of Singapore, and his father was an officer serving in the Navy through the Second World War, at one stage in the Mediterranean guarding the Malta convoys.
From his conversations with the veterans, Phillips thought that some of them might have met up with his father in Alexandria. Some 1100 Jews from Mandatory Palestine served in the Royal Navy.
"They were among 30,000 or so Palestinian Jews who fought with British forces in the Second World War," said Phillips, noting that more than 700 had been killed in action.
Of the 1,100 who joined the Navy, he said, only four were killed during the war.
Trying to track down those who were still living was not easy. A few receive British Navy war pensions, so finding their names and addresses was not a problem. But tracing the others was not simple.
A small advertisement paid for by Jack Rovner, who served as an Electrical Mechanical Engineer, rose to chief petty officer and after the war became a powerful force in the development of the Israel Railways, was placed in Yediot Aharonot last May.
It yielded only a handful of responses. But it was also seen by Ha'aretz reporter Barak Ravid, who thought it would make an interesting story.
Indeed, after he published it, there were scores of replies. Avidror had hoped to bring together 200 veterans, but only 176 made contact.
Of these, six died in the interim, and some who were incapacitated, were represented at the ceremony by their wives.
Avidror warmly greeted each of the arrivals. In the garden, a singer and a pianist went on a musical trip down Memory Lane performing songs of the Forties such as "The White Cliffs of Dover," "As Time Goes By," "I'll Be Seeing You in All the Old Familiar Places," "It's a Long Way to Tipperary," and the all-time Vera Lynn favorite "We'll Meet Again."
Transylvanian-born Avidror, who speaks English with a clipped British accent, describes himself as a chameleon. He can instantly change his accent to sound as if he came from any English-speaking country.
Avidror recalled that in the beginning, efforts by Palestinian Jews to join the British forces were rebuffed.
"The Royal Navy was closed to us till 1942," he said, but then the British asked for volunteers, and 1,100 Jews were accepted.
Very few Arabs applied, and Avidror could not remember seeing a single Arab in the Royal Navy.
Reading material was scarce. "All we could read were The Egyptian Gazette and The Palestine Post," said Avidror, adding that the Jewish service personnel made it a point to leave The Palestine Post (the precursor of The Jerusalem Post) lying around where British officers could lay hands on it and read the other side of the story.
No one knew that he was Jewish until just before Passover. There was a notice that all ratings and NCOs of Jewish denomination should apply to the Master of Arms for two weeks Passover leave.
Avidror was standing behind two other sailors who couldn't understand why the notice was put up, but who agreed among themselves that they would love to be Jewish so as to get two weeks leave.
"But we haven"t got any Jews here," said one of them.
Avidror tapped him on the shoulder. "There's one standing behind you," he said. They didn't believe him.
In his address to the gathering, Phillips did not forget to mention that when Avidror fled from Europe and was on the verge of arriving in Palestine in 1939, he saw from the deck of a tramp steamer a British Hunt Class destroyer "whose job - if I can put it this way - was not designed to encourage Jewish immigration."
However, the occasion at hand was not one to go into some of the complexities of the Mandate period, said Phillips.
"Tonight is the night that despite those complexities, Britain and Jews from Mandatory Palestine stood shoulder to shoulder in the struggle against the dark forces which had been unleashed in Europe and we salute all those who fought together in that struggle," he said.
Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilna'i, a former paratrooper, said that his generation had learned from the generation before it how to fight.
Commenting that (in Israel and the Jewish world) World War II is primarily remembered as the war in which six million Jews were killed, Vilnai underscored that not all died without weapons in their hands, and pointed to the relatively large number of Jews who had served in the Red Army, the US Forces, the British Forces and with others.
For a long time he said, the British stood alone against the Nazis. Without the efforts and courage of the British Navy he insisted, there would not have been a victory.
"You are the representatives of those fighters and I salute you," he told the assembled gathering. Assisted by British military personnel, Vilnai and Phillips walked from row to row distributing medals and hearing personal stories. To those veterans who told him how moved they were by the honor bestowed on them, Vilna'i said: "I am also moved."
n THE GROOM had been convicted and sentenced to community service. The officiating rabbi had done time in prison, as had at least one of the other guests.
One of the guests, though sentenced several months ago to go to jail, is still riding around free on his motorbike, while yet another guest is being investigated by police for a series of alleged crimes, and several of the others have had brushes with the legal authorities. No, the affair was not a gathering of the cosa nostra.
It was the highly publicized wedding at Kibbutz Gaash of Vice Premier Haim Ramon to his long-time significant other, Vered Sharon Rivlin.
The officiating rabbi was Arye Deri, and among the guests were numerous well-known figures such as attorney Dori Klagsbald, former MK Omri Sharon, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who despite his travails, put on his dancing shoes, former Knesset Speaker Avraham Burg and a host of other well-known figures from across the political spectrum, the world of business, the entertainment industry and the media.
Ramon's former wife, Pnina, was also there, smiling for the cameras. It's not often that a wedding between two divorced people who have been living together attracts so much media attention.
But many believed that Ramon had been unfairly treated when convicted of sexual harassment for kissing a female soldier. Perhaps the publicity, which was largely positive, was intended as a form of approval and compensation.
AMONG THE political figures who did not attend the wedding was Labor MK Colette Avital, who preferred to attend the 96th anniversary celebrations of the Republic of China (Taiwan) in Tel Aviv last week.
She was one of a relatively large representation of MKs. The others included Yuval Steinitz, Benny Elon, Avshalom Vilan and Michael Eitan who heads the Israel Taiwan Friendship League.
Avital brought along her 93-year-old agile and attractive mother, whom she subsequently took to the ballet.
Although Israel does not have diplomatic relations with Taiwan, both Eitan and Steinitz in their addresses to the crowd (which was much larger than at previous Taiwanese events) referred to Terry Ting, the representative of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in Israel as Ambassador Terry Ting."
He may even be elevated to that title before his term of duty expires given that Chinese President Hu Jintao, at the opening of the Communist Party's 17th Congress this week, offered to enter into negotiations with Taiwan to reach a peace agreement.
Taiwan's President Chen Shui-ban was in no hurry to reach out for what may have been the twig of an olive branch, but if North and South Korea are on the way to reaching an accommodation, perhaps there is hope for Taiwan and China too.
Taiwan has diplomatic ties with only 24 countries, most of which also have diplomatic relations with Israel. However, the ambassador of only one of them showed up at the reception at the Dan Panorama Hotel. El Salvador's Ambassador Suzana Gun de Hasenson reacted with disbelief when she saw Croatian Ambassador Ivan del Vechio, who was the only other ambassador present.
When de Hasenson asked del Vechio what he was doing there, his reply was that he'd received an invitation, so he had come. He couldn't understand why she was asking him. Another party to the conversation pointed out that many diplomats whose countries have relations with China steer clear of Taiwan.
To which del Vechio responded: "You can be friends with both. Even if you don't have diplomatic relations, you can have economic relations."
Not everyone is that enlightened. Noting that Taiwan has transcended from an agricultural to a highly industrialized nation, Ting quoted rising figures in bilateral trade with Israel.
Whereas the volume of trade in 2004 stood at US$1 billion, last year it rose to US$1.2 billion. Eitan, alluding to the reason that Israel is so friendly with Taiwan, said that as far back as 1920, the Republic of China's founding father, Sun Yat-Sen, had identified with the Zionist Movement and had written to the Chinese Zionist Association to express his support for the Balfour Declaration.
Recognizing the aspirations of the Jewish People, he had praised the Zionist Movement as an example of a popular quest for independence.