FORMER PRIME Minister Ehud Olmert called to Tel Aviv from New York to express appreciation for everything the person on the other end of the line had done for Israel over the years. Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and his predecessor John Howard each sent videotaped greetings, and among those who personally came to offer praise and thanks were Australian Ambassador James Larsen, Israel's Ambassador to Australia Yuval Rotem, government ministers Dan Meridor and Isaac Herzog, Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai, Israel's former ambassador to the United Nations Dan Gillerman and a host of other dignitaries.
The recipient of the flurry of compliments was leading Australian lawyer and aboriginal rights and Jewish community activist Mark Leibler for completing a four-year term as chairman of the World Board of Trustees of Keren Hayesod United Israel Appeal. He is the first Australian to have held the office. The videos were screened at a gala tribute dinner at Mariniero on the Tel Aviv waterfront where a series of dignitaries commended Leibler's integrity, commitment and dedication to causes in Australia and Israel. World Chairman of Keren Hayesod Avi Pazner, a personal friend of Leibler's who has worked closely with him over the past four years, observed that in a partnership, friendship sometimes suffers but stated that "In our case, it increased."
Meridor and Herzog each recalled the incredible hospitality provided by Leibler when they had visited Australia.
"From that time, I have a friend in Australia," said Meridor.
Leibler welcomed his successor Johanna (Yockie) Arbib, who at 40, is the youngest person to hold the position of chair of the World Board of Trustees. A highly successful businesswoman and the wife of orthopedic surgeon Dario Perugia and the mother of three daughters under the age of 10, Arbib founded the Keren Hayesod Young Leadership Group in Rome twenty years ago and kept rising in the ranks of Keren Hayesod and the Jewish Agency until elected to her current position. There were several Italians present to give her moral support, but numerically they were outweighed by the numerous Australians from both Sydney and Melbourne who came to demonstrate their appreciation for Leibler's leadership and the inspiring example that he has set.
n MANY of those mentioned above also attended the opening of the Australian Film Festival in Jerusalem on Sunday, and on Monday night, together with other Australians and Australian expats living in Israel as well as a good sprinkling of Israelis who were guests of Albert Dadon, chairman of the Australia Israel Cultural Exchange and his wife Debbie at a gala dinner at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem.
The dinner marks the official opening of G'Day, Shalom, Salaam, the Australian Cultural Festival, and the launch of the Australia-Israel Leadership Forum in which 40 Australians and 40 Israelis will participate. It is aimed at upgrading bilateral relations on all levels. Keynote speakers at the dinner were Australia's highest ranking female politician and first-ever female Deputy Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, who also holds ministerial portfolios for Education, Employment and Workplace Relations and for Social Inclusion and former Federal Treasurer Peter Costello, who holds the record for Australia's longest serving treasurer, having remained in the position from 1996 to 2007. Reviewing Australia-Israel relations, Gillard recalled UN Resolution 171 in which Australia had been the first to vote for Israel's right for a free and independent nation within defined borders. She said that Australia was also proud to have the highest proportion of Holocaust survivors of any country other than Israel. She also listed common concerns such as Iran, and suggested that the world would be a better place if there was more conversation on a people-to-people basis in every possible framework. Costello, 51, who has been coming to Israel since he was 20 years old, the first time as a student leader in response to an anti-Israel movement on Australian university campuses, took the review of the relationship back to the First World War when Australian and New Zealand forces had conquered the Turks in Beersheba, and also noted that Australian forces had been instrumental in holding back Rommel during the Second World War.
n The meal, and pavlova, the Australian national dessert was prepared by Sydney Opera House chef Guillaume Brahimi. Musical treats were provided by award-winning Australian pianists Paul Grabowsky and Joe Chindamo. Much of the organization was handled by Paul Israel, the director of the Israel-Australia Chamber of Commerce, whose organizational talents and calm disposition are legendary. Minister Isaac Herzog, who was also at the dinner in his capacity as head of the parliamentary Israel-Australia Friendship League, recalled that he had once been asked to host a little known Australian parliamentarian by the name of Kevin Rudd.
n ON THE night before departing for Russia during his first trip abroad in his capacity as Minister for Tourism, Stas Misezhnikov represented the government at the Russian national day reception hosted by Ambassador Pyotr Stegny and his wife Margarita. Misezhnikov, who addressed the 1500 guests in Russian, recalled that he had spent the first twelve years of his life in Moscow and said that Russia would always have a place in his heart. It was very symbolic for him to attend the event in his capacity as a government minister, he said. It was like the closing of a circle.
Although relations between Israel and Russia / the former Soviet Union have had their ups and downs, Israel would never forget the role of the Soviet Union in the defeat of the Nazi regime, he said, and noted that today, the Russian Federation is a partner in the enterprise to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through advancing the peace process. As far as bilateral relations were concerned, Stegny noted that the political dialogue has intensified, special consultation agreements have been signed and economic co-operation is growing.
In the Russia Day celebrations, guests were serenaded by a chamber music string octet made up of members of the Ashdod Symphony Orchestra. Later, Ahinoam Nini and Mira Awad repeated their Eurovision performance, and then Musica Eterna, a mixed choir of superb Russian immigrant singers, captivated the crowd with a long string of Russian folk songs, with some of the singers performing incredible vocal aerobatics. They were so good that people stopped talking and moved forward to listen.
n WHILE MEMBERS of the Jewish Agency were wrangling last week over whether or not to approve Natan Sharansky as their next chairman, Sharansky was otherwise occupied with another noteworthy institution - The Jerusalem College of Technology.
"When I was studying at the best technological institution in the former USSR, we had to be the best to escape our Jewishness," said Sharansky. "But our attempt to escape failed. When you are escaping from your roots, you are powerless. You have to go back to your roots, to the shtetl, to tradition." JCT enables students to study Jewish religious texts side by side with secular subjects so as to gain knowledge and wisdom from both. During the inaugural meeting of the Board of Governors, the College unveiled its new MBA program.
n WHEN HE was researching material for his address at the unveiling of the Open Doors Monument at the Holocaust Memorial Park in Rishon Lezion to commemorate the Open Doors policy enacted in 1939 by the Philippine Commonwealth Government, so as to provide a haven for Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi tyranny in Europe, Michael Eitan, the Minister for the Improvement of Government Services automatically turned to Yad Vashem, which could do little more than refer him to a book 'Escape to Manila,' which had been written by the late Frank Ephraim, one of the fortunate refugees who owed their lives to former Philippine President Manuel L. Quezon. Antonio Modena, a former Philippine Ambassador to Israel, read the book and was inspired in 2005 to launch a campaign to create some permanent kind of remembrance for this great humanitarian effort. First he went to Yad Vashem to meet with the powers that be and subsequently met with the former mayor of Rishon Lezion, Meir Nitzan who supported his idea. The Rishon Lezion Municipal Council not only approved the plan but adopted it, meaning that it carried out the work involved and contributed to the funding. Rishon Lezion built an enormous Holocaust Memorial Park with undulating manicured lawns, beautifully kept trees and shrubbery and a well-equipped children's playground.
The park has numerous monuments put up by different groups and organizations, and a large expanse of room for more. Designed by Filipino artist Jun Yee, the monument set on a marble floor depicts three frames with open doors that form a triangle, which is intrinsic to the national flags of both Israel and the Philippines. In front of each door are etched footprints belonging to George Lowenstein, who was among the 1,200 Jews who took refuge in the Philippines, Max Weissler, who lives in Hod Hasharon, and who after a strenuous and nerve-wracking journey through Europe and Asia arrived in Manila as an 11-year old boy in 1942 and Doryliz Goffer, a Filipino Israeli child born in the Philippines, who is the daughter of a Filipino mother and the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors.
Representing the Philippine Government at the unveiling of the monument was Secretary for Tourism Joseph Durano. He found Ephraim's book inspiring, but he was not the least bit surprised by the attitude of the Filipino population who he said are a compassionate people. Eitan noted that most of the 30,000 Filipinos currently in Israel are caring for people who are of the generation of the Holocaust, and many for people who are actually Holocaust survivors. He regretted that the Filipinos who do so much to enrich the lives of the people they care for are not better treated in Israel and suggested that every Israeli take it upon themselves, by a small gesture such as a smile or a pat on the shoulder, to be nicer to Filipinos. This elicited a sustained ovation from the huge number of Filipinos who had come in national dress from many parts of the country to participate in the event. Also present were several of the people who had found a haven in Manila. All of them had contributed to the monument and they brought members of their families as a sign of their continued ties with the Philippines regardless of where they lived in the world.
n THE RED carpet was in place, but there was no honor guard, no military band or any of the other trappings that accompany a presidential visit when Vladimir Voronin, the President of Moldova called on President Shimon Peres on Sunday. The reason: It wasn't a state visit, but merely a working meeting. Voronin paid a lightning visit to Israel, landing at 10.30 p.m. on Saturday night and departing at 2 p.m. Sunday. The purpose was to be honored with the cross of the Holy Sepulcher from the Greek Orthodox Patriarch in Jerusalem in recognition of his contribution to the physical and spiritual renewal of the church in Moldova. Voronin also sought to use the short time at his disposal for a meeting with Peres whom he greatly admires, and whom he frequently quotes. Voronin observed that whereas his country once had a large Jewish population, most of Moldova's Jews are now living in Israel and contributing to Israel's development. "Including the Foreign Minister," Peres interjected. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman was born in Kishiniev.
The two presidents discussed current events in Iran with Peres declaring: "We see in Iran that democracy can be stronger than enriched uranium. A country is not measured by its kilometers but by its freedom and independence." Whenever he comes to Israel, Voronin likes to visit the Western Wall, where he places a note in a crevice. He was very cordially received by Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, the rabbi of the wall, as well as by Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger, who personally took him on a tour of some of the holy sites in the immediate vicinity.
n SEPTEMBER 1, 2009 is almost upon us. The date signifies the 70th anniversary of the outbreak of the Second World War that led to the Holocaust and the murder of six million Jews, hundreds of thousands of gypsies, homosexuals, Freemasons, Jehova's Witness, political activists, physically disabled and mentally ill people, as well as ethnic Poles and Slavs. The overall total came to something in the range of 11 million people.
The 70th anniversary of the beginning of these atrocities has prompted many lectures, conferences and books which examines different aspects of the Holocaust, especially whether it could have been prevented or at least reduced in magnitude. The World Jewish Congress Research Institute in conjunction with the Begin Heritage Center last week hosted eminent Holocaust researcher Dr. Rafael Medoff, Director of the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, who delved into American abandonment and rescue of European Jews. Medoff has written extensively on the subject in numerous publications including The Jerusalem Post.
The introductory address was made by Warsaw-born WJC Israel co-chairman Matityahu Droblas, who for three years during the war wandered across Poland with his two pre adolescent siblings - one two years older and one two years younger. Their survival in all weathers and under an ever present cloud of danger was nothing short of miraculous.
Before they left Warsaw, escaping the ghetto via the sewers, Droblas practiced his exit from the ghetto as one of the children immortalized in Joseph Zieman's book 'The Cigarette Sellers of Three Crosses Square,' the story of a band of Jewish children who sold cigarettes on the Aryan side.
n ANOTHER HOLOCAUST survivor and Israel Prize laureate Dov Judkowski, the doyen of Israeli editors, and a former editor-in-chief of Yediot Aharonot and later an editor-in-chief of Maariv, was last week given a life achievement award by the B'nai B'rith World Center Award for Journalism in Memory of Wolf and Hilda Matsdorf. Ari Rath, a former editor-in-chief of the Post, said that although Judkowski had never written an article, he had written many headlines. Elie Wiesel, who was one of Judkowski's proteges, sent a letter of congratulations in which the writer credited Judkowski with giving him the first name by which he is known around the world. Wiesel's first name is actually Eliezer, but Judkowski called him Elie - and it stuck.
n THE PRESIDENT'S annual award ceremony for volunteerism takes place Wednesday evening at Beit Hanassi where individuals and organizations will be singled out for their outstanding contributions to society. The individual recipients will be Dr Yitzchak Glick - for setting up emergency medical care in the Gush Etzion area; Shula Tnai - for work with children from the Negev and South who have been stricken with cancer; Shlomit Lustig - for work with children growing up in serious 'at-risk' environments; Ze'ev Landau - for integrating ultra-orthodox men and women into the workforce; Ansaf Mahmoud - for health education and building trust between patients and community health providers; Adv.Odelia Spitalni - for establishing 'Push,' an organization working towards equal education for all sectors of society.
Organizations whose work will be recognized include: Alei Sheich - for assisting teenagers with special needs and integrating them into the mainstream community; DVI (Dental Volunteers for Israel) - for providing free dental care to children from disadvantaged families; First Hug for Abandoned Babies - for giving love and warmth to abandoned babies in hospitals; Megama Yeruka (Green Trend) - for the advancement of environmental issues and Tzohar (Bridge) - for bringing together religious and secular Jews. In addition, Wings of Crembo will receive an award designated for youth volunteers for running youth groups for children and youth with special needs .
A special award for an outstanding deed will be given to Avi Toibin, who spontaneously jumped into the polluted waters of the Yarkon River to save the life of kayaking champion Yasmin Feingol, whose canoe had capsized. Toibin reacted to an emergency situation with no thought for his own safety. Other passersby watched but did nothing. The ceremony, recognizing the contributions of individual and group volunteers, enables the public to see a side of Israel that is committed rather than corrupt, caring rather than cynical and dedicated rather than denigrating.