Grapevine: A steadfast agreement

July 12, 2019 00:45
President Reuven Rivlin is welcomed by Egyptian Ambassador Khaled Azmi, July 2019

President Reuven Rivlin is welcomed by Egyptian Ambassador Khaled Azmi, July 2019. (photo credit: KOBI GIDEON/GPO)


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Egyptian ambassador Khaled Azmi this week hosted a reception at his residence in Herzliya Pituah in honor of Egypt’s National Day. Although relations between Israel and Egypt have had their ups and downs over the years, with Egyptian ambassadors being recalled as a result of Egypt’s displeasure over Israeli actions and policies, the diplomatic relationship has so far stood the test of time. It is nearly 40 years since the first exchange of ambassadors. In February 1980, Israel’s first ambassador to Egypt, Eliyahu Ben-Elissar, presented his credentials to Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Saad Mortada, Egypt’s first ambassador to Israel presented his credentials to President Yitzhak Navon. Many people on both sides thought that the honeymoon would not last, but in this part of the world there are many miracles, and the current bilateral relationship is arguably as good as it’s ever been. What was strange, however, was that the formal proceedings at Azmi’s reception started while most of the guests were still outside waiting to pass the security check, and that very few guests knew that both President Reuven Rivlin and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would be attending – albeit not at the same time. The invitation was for 8 p.m. – an hour later than the usual time for such receptions, and instead of 30 minutes to one hour’s grace for greeting the host and anyone else in the reception line, the event started just after 8 p.m., with most people missing out on Rivlin’s speech. The compensation was in listening to Netanyahu, who arrived with his wife, Sara, a little more than half an hour following Rivlin’s departure. It was easy to guess that he was coming. For one thing, there was no relaxation of security, and for another, embassy staff had quickly placed three chairs close together against a wall in a cordoned-off area of the living room. Some of the guests thought it was rude on Netanyahu’s part to upstage the president instead of being present when he spoke. Others wondered if mutual animosity made it difficult for the two to be together in the one place at the same time. But facts speak for themselves, and Rivlin and Netanyahu are often together in the same place at the same time, including at the President’s Residence, and they sit next to each other and talk to each other.

Rivlin voiced his personal appreciation to Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi for strengthening relations between the two countries. Quoting from President Anwar Sadat’s address to the Knesset four decades ago, Rivlin said: “Why don’t we stretch out our hands with faith and sincerity? Why don’t we stand together with bravery and boldness? Why don’t we stand together with courage and daring?” Continuing in his own words, Rivlin lamented that the peace between the two countries is not yet a warm one. “We want to know you better so that we can build our economies, share our ancient cultures and create good and safe lives for the peoples of both countries,” he said. “Let us work together to find more ways for Egyptians and Israelis to meet each other, to work together, to improve lives for us all.”

As he was leaving, Rivlin bumped into retired Supreme Court President Aharon Barak, and his wife Elisheva, and all three embraced. The Baraks had missed out on Rivlin’s speech. Some of the other people who in one way or another had been involved in the peace negotiations between Israel and Egypt were also present, among them Elyakim Rubinstein, Yossi Beilin and Zvi Mazel. Also seen among the guests were MK Ahmad Tibi, Ministers Yuval Steinitz and Tzachi Hanegbi, former MK Rabbi Michael Melchior and a very large turn-out of ambassadors. Female embassy staff were very modestly dressed and all wore hijabs.

Netanyahu spoke of his meeting with Sisi, and praised him for standing strong against a tide of extremism, violence and terrorism. He said he was impressed not only by the leadership of the Egyptian president but also by his wisdom and insights in relation to the challenges facing both countries. Referring to the 40-year peace treaty between Egypt and Israel, Netanyahu underscored the need to understand what a historic achievement this is in terms of cooperation and expressed the hope that there would be further comprehensive peace treaties with other countries in the region.

■ ANYONE WHO may have been under the impression that following the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, that there were no Jews other than those who had converted to Christianity living there until after the rapprochement exchange visits to Madrid and Jerusalem by President Chaim Herzog and King Juan Carlos was seriously mistaken. Not only were Jews living in Spain throughout the centuries, but during the Holocaust years, when Spanish diplomats saved thousands of Jews from being deported and murdered by the Nazis.

The diplomats involved, some of whom worked with Raoul Wallenberg in Budapest, did not speak of their courageous humanitarian acts, until just before they died. In some cases, their heroism was not discovered till after they died.

Some of their actions were initially sanctioned by the government of General Francisco Franco with the instruction that they must limit their activities to only Sephardic Jews. This activity was restricted after Franco’s meeting with Hitler in October 1940. Although Spain did not officially join the Axis Powers, large numbers of Spanish volunteers fought with the Nazis.

Not all the Spanish diplomats who risked their lives and those of their loved ones have been recognized as Righteous Among the Nations. Those who have been recognized by Yad Vashem are Angel Sanz Briz, Jose Ruiz Santaella and his wife Carmen Schrader, Eduardo Propper de Callejon and Sebastion de Romero Radigales.

All in all, Spanish diplomats working in Budapest, Berlin, Bucharest, Paris, Saint Etienne, Vichy, Bordeaux, Nice, Sofia, Salonica, Athens and Milan were involved in multiple rescue operations.

Researchers from 40 countries who came to Jerusalem this week for the 20th annual Asociación Internacional de Hispanistas (AIH), conference at the Hebrew University, got to meet Juan Carlos Sanz Briz, the son of Angel San Briz, who was the Spanish Charge d’Affaires in Budapest. During a panel discussion, the son spoke of what his father had done to provide letters of protection, visas, Spanish passports and several safe houses for a total of some 5,000 Jews, including 500 children. He estimated that the total number of descendants of people saved by his father was now in the realm of 50,000 – a figure that covers three generations.

Spanish Ambassador Manuel Gomez-Acebo spoke of what led up to the establishment of diplomatic relations between Spain and Israel in 1986. In previous years, the two countries had been hostile toward each other, largely because Spain had a decidedly pro-Arab foreign policy, so much so that it refused to recognize Israel for some years following the establishment of the state. The year 1982 saw the beginning of a gradual change in attitude which eventually developed into a warm friendship, cemented by the fact that on March 31, 1992, on exactly the 500th anniversary of the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, King Juan Carlos joined Herzog in Madrid’s only synagogue.

During his visit to Jerusalem in November 1993, the king said in an address to the Knesset: “Spain has a unique historical connection to the nation of Israel. We have known Jewish communities in our land from the times of the Roman Caesars, there were communities during the time of the Visigoths, and when the Iberian Peninsula was the most lively center of the Diaspora, the Spanish Jews took upon themselves the important task of reviving the Hebrew language, which had been only used for prayer at that point. There, Hebrew ceased to be a dead language and became a means of expression for scholars, travelers and authors, such as Yehuda Halevi, Moshe ibn Ezra, Maimonides and Benjamin of Tudela. These riches bestowed upon the period the moniker of ‘the golden age’ of Spanish Jewry. Spanish has even made its mark in your language within the expression that relates to pleasant things that are hard to achieve – halom beAspamya (pipe dream).”

Since then, there has been increased interest in Israel and beyond in the Judeo-Spanish heritage.

The Knesset in March 1996 passed a law for the establishment of the National Authority of Ladino, which was chaired by former president Yitzhak Navon until the time of his death in November 2015.

In March 2018, it was announced in Madrid during an international Spanish language conference that a national academy for the Judeo-Spanish language (Ladino – still spoken by some descendants of Jews expelled from Spain 500 years ago) would be established in Israel. Spanish academics specializing in the Spanish language, have recognized Ladino as a unique cultural treasure preserved outside of Spain.

Even before that, Spain announced that it would give Spanish citizenship to anyone who could prove descent from Jews expelled from Spain more than five centuries ago.

As the whole AIH conference was in Spanish, some locals who know him, or at least know who he is, might have been surprised to see Polish Ambassador Marek Magierowski sitting in the front row of the splendid auditorium in the Hebrew University’s Mexico building. It just so happens that Magierowski has a degree in Hispanic Studies from the Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznan, and according to people who are in a position to judge, his command of the Spanish language is more than just good.

Also present among the many participants was Rodica Radian Gordon, the deputy director-general for Western Europe at Israel’s Foreign Affairs Ministry, who will soon be leaving to take up her appointment as Israel’s Ambassador to Spain. She is unlikely to have a language problem. One of her previous postings was as Israel’s Ambassador to Mexico.

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