It’s been a busy Balfour week for Lord Jacob Rothschild, who, after participating in Balfour Declaration centenary events in London, came to Jerusalem for the Balfour Day Conference at the Knesset, the signing of the agreement between the Russian State Library in Moscow and the National Library of Israel for the digitization of the Gunzburg collection, one of the world’s most comprehensive and valuable collections of Jewish manuscripts, and for the Balfour centenary dinner hosted by the Israel, Britain and the Commonwealth Association, which coincidentally was on the eve of Kristallnacht, which with hindsight can be seen as the first step in what was later conceived to be the Final Solution to the Jewish Question. It was also the eve, according to the Gregorian calendar, of the 65th anniversary of the death of Israel’s first president, Chaim Weizmann, who played such a vital role in securing the Balfour Declaration.
■ AT THE Knesset, at the National Library and at the IBCA dinner at the Tel Aviv Hilton, it was mentioned that this year marks the centenary of two revolutions – the Russian Revolution and the Balfour Declaration, each of which impacted on the history of the Jewish people.
At the National Library, whose new building is being funded to a large extent by Rothschild, it was also noted that he was influential in enabling the digitized version of the Gunzburg collection to come to Jerusalem. It was also noted that he and other members of his family have been pivotal forces in many other projects in Israel. Although it was not specifically stated, substantial sums of Rothschild money enabled the construction of the permanent home of the Knesset, the construction of the Supreme Court and significant repairs in the President’s Residence. It should also be remembered that Israel’s wine industry is greatly indebted to the Rothschilds.
There were several speeches in English, Hebrew and Russian before the signing ceremony, but none quite as moving as that of Jerusalem Affairs Minister Ze’ev Elkin. He said that as a doctoral student and lecturer at the Hebrew University before entering politics, he frequently came across references to the Gunzburg collection while doing his research in Jewish and medieval studies, and often wondered if the collection would ever reach Jerusalem. Later, when he was sent to Moscow by the Hebrew University to set up the Chase Center for the Study of Jewish Sciences in Russian, he visited the Russian State Library in Moscow on several occasions and was able to actually see parts of the Gunzburg collection.
Later, as a politician, he was on a frequent commute between Israel and Russia and raised the issue of the Gunzburg collection with every official with whom he spoke, including President Vladimir Putin. He also credited Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with broaching the subject at every meeting that he had with Putin, and likewise credited Putin for being sympathetic to Israel’s aspirations in this direction and using his influence to bring about some form of progress.
Elkin was delighted that at least the digitized version was coming to Jerusalem and hopeful that one day the actual collection would find its place in the capital of the Jewish people. Netanyahu had been scheduled to attend the event, but other commitments precluded his participation. Instead, he sent a very warm message of congratulations. However, Sara Netanyahu was there, looking remarkably radiant, given the troubles currently visiting the Netanyahu family. She wore a flattering, classic, long-sleeved black dress and, seated at Rothschild’s table, entered into animated conversation. Russian billionaire Ziyavudin Magomedov, without whose generosity, through his Peri Foundation, the digitization agreement would not have come to fruition, when introduced to Sara Netanyahu, kissed her hand, in the custom of the European gentleman. In Israel, because he hadn’t asked her first whether he could do so, the gesture would be characterized as sexual harassment.
■ AT THE record-breaking attendance at the IBCA dinner, in addition to keynote speakers Rothschild and Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, attendees included Rothschild’s daughter, Hannah, and three of his grandchildren; Jonathan Kestenbaum; opposition leader Isaac Herzog and his wife, Michal; Dame Shirley Porter; Sir Ronald Cohen; Sir Ian and Lady Carmel Gainsford; British Ambassador David Quarrey; Australian Ambassador Chris Cannan; Nigerian Ambassador Enoch Pear Duchi; Cyprus Ambassador Thessalia- Salina Shambos; former ambassador to the UK Daniel Taub, who is currently director of strategy and planning at the Rothschild Foundation in Jerusalem; and former Mossad chief Efraim Halevy and his wife, Hadassah.
Anyone who thinks that Balfour events are now over is making a big mistake. Alan Webber, a past chairman of IBCA, who heads the Balfour Centenary Committee, which includes representatives of the Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel, B’nai B’rith World Center, English Speaking Residents Association, IBCA, Israel Forever, the Israel branch of the Jewish Historical Society of England, Hitachdut Olei Britannia, Telfed South African Zionist Federation in Israel and the Zionist Council in Israel, has events lined up till November 2, 2018. They will be taking place in Karmiel, Haifa, Ra’anana, Rehovot, Ramat Aviv, Herzliya Pituah and Ramat Gan, Additional locations have yet to be determined.
But to get back to the IBCA dinner, Lord Rothschild commended various members of his family for Israel projects with which they have been associated. Persuaded by a cousin, he came to Israel for the first time in 1962, and has been visiting Israel at least once every year ever since. His family has been supporting Israeli aspirations for the past 150 years, he said, and hopes to remain involved for at least another 150 years.
The changes that he has witnessed in terms of technology and extraordinary cultural and literary achievements “have been nothing less than breathtaking” and are “remarkable by any standards,” he said. He commended Israel’s vibrant democracy and legal system, finding it almost miraculous that “those who grew up without justice could establish a justice system.”
The Balfour Declaration, said Rothschild, “is not only a historical document but is also aspirational. Referring to Weizmann, who had long lobbied for what resulted in the Balfour Declaration, Rothschild said that Weizmann had called it “the Magna Carta of Jewish liberation.”
He noted that his cousins Dorothy and James de Rothschild had opened the doors of the British establishment to Weizmann. He characterized the Balfour Declaration as a “historical event that shaped more historical events” and quoted philosopher Isaiah Berlin as writing that the actions of human beings can change the course of history. Lord Rothschild, who considers Weizmann to have been a genius, placed him in that category.
IBCA chairman Alex Deutsch, when introducing Lord Rothschild and listing some of his biographical details, underscored that the peer’s personal collection of 15,000 bottles of Rothschild wines dates back to 1870.
■ EDELSTEIN RELATED at the IBCA dinner that in 1977, during the 60th anniversary celebration of the Balfour Declaration, he had been a high school student in the Soviet Union and had been enmeshed in an argument with his teacher as to whether Stalin could be considered a hero. Afterward, he went home and told his parents that he’d had enough and no longer wanted to stay in the country. He applied for a visa to emigrate and, instead of leaving, a few years later found himself in prison. He was released in 1987 together with many Soviet dissidents. “They had nowhere to go. I had a country waiting for me,” he said.
He arrived in Israel that same year, and within less than a decade became a founding member of the Yisrael b’Aliya Party, which was conceived by Natan Sharansky.
In 1997, he became immigration and absorption minister. While not exactly negating anything that had been said by Rothschild, Edelstein, who grew up in a somewhat different milieu, said that “the Balfour Declaration is not about history.
It’s about each one of us.”
■ A SEVEN-MEMBER panel of High Court judges convened this week to once again examine the Public Broadcasting Law, specifically with regard to an amendment introduced by the prime minister to split the Israeli Broadcasting Corporation, remove from it all responsibility for news and current affairs, and establish a separate news corporation.
The court did not look on this with favor, and Hanan Melcer, deputy president of the Supreme Court, stated that this was not a model that exists in Western democratic countries.
Netanyahu’s move to create a separate news corporation has been widely interpreted as yet another attempt by the government to control the media, but it’s possible that after having met with representatives of the staff of the now defunct Israel Broadcasting Authority before its closure, Netanyahu was genuinely moved by the plight of those who would find themselves jobless, and thought that a separate news corporation would help to save more IBA people from being unemployed.
While a large number have been taken on by Kan, the broadcasting arm of the IBC, some 100 former IBA employees have no income at all, according to a report that appeared in last week’s Yediot Yerushalayim. The people concerned have not been formally dismissed from the IBA, and therefore cannot claim unemployment benefits. Over the past six months, they have eaten into their savings or have had to depend on the generosity of relatives, but such a situation should not be allowed to go on indefinitely.
■ WHEN PRESIDENT Reuven Rivlin and wife, Nechama, arrived in Spain and were greeted by King Felipe and Queen Letizia, the king kissed Nechama Rivlin’s hand. Later, at the state dinner hosted by the royals, and at a reciprocal reception hosted by the Rivlins, Letizia held Nechama Rivlin’s hand, as Melania Trump had done during the visit to Israel earlier this year by the US president and his entourage.
Nechama Rivlin suffers from a respiratory disease that necessitates her taking an oxygen tank with her wherever she goes. Sometimes she has great difficulty in breathing, but other women in high places are sensitive to her problem and lend an arm or a helping hand.