AN EXTREMELY active head of state whose tenure has been marked by tours around the country and the world, not to mention three recent Knesset elections, President Reuven Rivlin has had no option but to stay home in his official residence over the past couple of weeks. Rivlin, at age 80, is in the category of the most at-risk sector of the public, namely, the members of the third age who are believed to be the most susceptible to coronavirus.
But unlike most other people of his generation, Rivlin has a lot of room in which to move around outside without breaking the rules, an important factor, given that he has asked all citizens of Israel to demonstrate responsibility.
Rivlin has not quite been twiddling his thumbs while being more or less grounded. He has written to or been on the phone to foreign leaders, and he has tried to persuade the leaders of Israel's two largest political parties to forget their animosities and to join forces in a national unity government for the sake of the nation. From his discussions with both, he understands that the differences between them are not all that wide.
As a lawyer by profession and a former legislator, Rivlin has great respect for the Supreme Court. He would never refuse to accept its ruling because he believes that everyone is obligated to accept the decision of the court, even when disagreeing with it. As the immediate predecessor of outgoing Knesset speaker Yuli Edelstein, Rivlin was shocked by Edelstein's defiance in his refusal to comply with the dictate of the court.
At this stage of the game, it doesn't make much difference because Edelstein resigned rather than obey the court.
This was such an unprecedented move in Israeli politics that it was featured in major international publications, which like Israel's media outlets, are suffering from a paucity of news due to lockdowns around the world.
Although Edelstein has resigned from the role of speaker, he has not resigned from the Knesset, however, in reaction to the chaos bordering on anarchy that he generated, he will be in for a hard time, even from some members of his own party.
As for the new regulations regarding freedom of movement, or rather the lack of it, there are many individuals who feel insulted that people age 65-plus are treated as if they were in their dotage. As mentioned above, Rivlin is 80; Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is 70; Health Minister Ya’acov Litzman is 71; MK Moshe Gafni, who until last month headed the Knesset Finance Committee, is 67; and Labor Party chairman Amir Peretz, who as the most veteran MK became interim Knesset speaker to enable the vote for Edelstein's successor, is 68. All of them lead hectic lives, and none of them is doddering.
It is a huge mistake to put people above a certain age into a homogenous group. They're not. When German Chancellor Otto von Bismark first proposed in 1881 that workers receive a government pension, the age he proposed was 70, even though the average life span was far less. His proposal was finally adopted in 1889, but the retirement age was lowered to 65 during the First World War as a generous concession to workers, even though most did not live to that age.
Today, there are many active people in Israel in their 80s and 90s. In fact,some circles advocate that 70 is the new 50, so perhaps the Health Ministry experts should rethink the whole policy of judging people on the basis of age, and instead give them a physical examination to decide whether or not they should be isolated.
This is bad enough, but removing senior citizens from sheltered living facilities to make room for soldiers with coronavirus is deplorable when there are so many empty hotels. In Rishon Lezion, 66 Holocaust survivors are being transferred from a facility that has been their home for years.
This thoughtless measure is yet another example of Israel not living up to its own values as expressed in the High Holy Day prayers: "Forsake me not in my old age."
APROPOS RIVLIN, he may miss out on several state visits abroad that he had planned for his final year in office. Among the many invitations for him to visit was one from Lithuania to join in celebrating the 300th anniversary of the birth of the Vilna Gaon, Elijah ben Solomon Zalman, who was born on April 23, 1720. The anniversary preparations have been underway for the past three years, but now it seems that like so many other major events around the globe, it will either be cancelled or postponed.
When Lithuanian Ambassador Lina Antanavičienė presented her credentials in September last year, she invited Rivlin to come to Lithuania for the opening events of the Vilna Gaon year. Rivlin, who is of Litvak stock himself, and whose family in the old country were followers of the Vilna Gaon, in telling her of this, said, "You are almost my ambassador."
As is the case with many other countries, Lithuania, in response to the coronavirus pandemic, declared a national state of emergency, so there is little likelihood of a global Litvak reunion in Vilnius at any time in the near future.
In addition to the Vilna Gaon, the organizers of the various anniversary events also intended to pay attention to other famous Litvaks, such as David Wolffsohn who was the second president of the World Zionist Organization and who acted as an adviser to Zionist visionary Theodor Herzl. It was Wolffsohn who at the first Zionist Congress proposed a blue and white flag based on the Jewish prayer shawl – the tallit. He also proposed that the WZO membership fee be based on the biblical coin – the shekel, which today is the mainstay of Israeli currency.
Another famous Litvak was French novelist, diplomat, film director and pilot Romain Gary, who was born in Vilnius as Roman Katzev.
Violin virtuoso Jascha Heifetz, widely acknowledged as the greatest violinist of all time, was also born in Vilnius, where he was recognized as a child prodigy when only six years of age.
From an Israeli standpoint, one of the most famous of Litvaks was Lea Goldberg, prolific poet, playwright and translator, who was an expert on Jewish literature, a researcher of contemporary literature, a literary critic and one of the great cultural figures of Israel. Although she was conceived and raised in Kaunas, she was actually born in Konigsberg, which was then part of East Prussia. The medical conditions in Konigsberg were far superior to those of Kaunus, and Goldberg's mother preferred to give birth there. This year marks the 50th anniversary year of Goldberg's death at the relatively young age of 58. A heavy smoker, she had seriously damaged her lungs. A few months after her death, she was posthumously awarded the Israel Prize.
A little over a decade ago, she was one of four great Israeli poets who were selected to have their likenesses appear on Israeli banknotes. Goldberg's image is on the 100-shekel note.
WITH SO many people around the world seeking to get back to their home countries, there is a popular misconception that diplomats are doing likewise. Actually, they're not, because they have work to do in the countries to which they were posted. For some of them, life in a foreign country during a pandemic is no picnic. To help them weather the storm, the Ambassadors' Club of Israel, together with the municipalities of Herzliya and Kfar Shmaryahu, have established a solidarity task force which is at the disposal of all foreign diplomats during this difficult period. Approaches will be made to the mayors of Tel Aviv and Ramat Gan to join this initiative, which is being led by Ambassadors' Club president Yitzhak Eldan and vice president Yoram Naor, together with Herzliya Deputy Mayor Ofra Bell, who has set up a hotline for foreign diplomats at 09-959-1520. Most foreign diplomats live in Herzliya Pituah, Kfar Shmaryahu, Ramat Gan and Tel Aviv.
AMERICANS TRAVELING abroad who are having trouble making contact with their embassies and consulates should take advantage of STEP, the Smart Traveler Enrolment Program, which is a service of the Bureau of Consular Affairs of the US Department of State. This advice comes from Dana Zimmerman of the Press Office of the US Embassy in Israel.
Enrolling in STEP enables American travelers to receive important information from the embassy about safety conditions at their destinations. It also helps US embassies make contact with travelers when there are emergencies, and helps the travelers' families and friends make contact with them. Details are available online at step.state.gov.
ISRAEL HAS known economic depression in the past, but nothing that can compare to the present situation in which tens of thousands of people are out of work and unable to make ends meet. Because money is so tight these days, not only are so many people unable to provide for their families, but charitable organizations are hurting, and finding it difficult to help Holocaust survivors and people who live below the poverty line.
Some people have had the business savvy and good fortune to have boosted their assets to the extent that they are in a position to alleviate some of these needs. In this category are entrepreneurs and social activists Inbar and Marius Nacht, whose family foundation has donated a million shekels to Leket, Israel's National Food Bank, which harvests produce in the field and collects unsold food from hotels and restaurants as well as food left over in pots on army bases.
With the closure of hotels and restaurants, Leket's main source of provisions for the poor has dried up.
Marius Nacht - together with Gil Schwed and Shlomo Kramer - is a co-founder of Checkpoint, the hi-tech cybersecurity company. The Nachts' generous donation will enable Leket to supply thousands of nourishing meals to the needy, especially senior citizens who are living alone.