Relations between Australia and Israel – which date back to pre-state times when Australian soldiers were in the forefront of the victory in the 1917 Battle of Beersheba, paving the way for British troops to enter Jerusalem – are constantly being enhanced. This is evidenced by the increasing number of trade missions to Israel organized by the Australia Israel Chamber of Commerce and its counterpart, the Israel Australia Chamber of Commerce, headed in Tel Aviv by Australian-born Paul Israel, who happens to have Land of Israel forebears.
Two such high-profile missions in 2016 will be led by New South Wales Premier Mike Baird and Lucy Turnbull, wife of Australia’s Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. A former lord mayor of Sydney, Lucy Turnbull – with a background in commercial law, investment, biotechnology and philanthropy – represents the higher echelons of Australian public service society. Her father, Tom Hughes, who last week celebrated his 92nd birthday, was an air force ace during the Second World War and later served as attorney-general of Australia; and her great grandfather Sir Thomas Hughes was the first lord mayor of Sydney.
■ MEANWHILE ON a more esoteric Israel- Australia link, businessman Chemi Peres – the younger son of Israel’s ninth president, Shimon Peres – in his capacity as chairman of the Peres Center for Peace and Innovation, was in Australia for the first Israel Australia Investment Summit, which was headlined “The Bridge,” and met with relatives of the Australian Padre Rex Daker, who saved the life of his grandfather Yitzhak Persky during the Second World War. The story was duly reported by both The Age, a Melbourne daily, and The Australian Jewish News.
Persky had enlisted with the British Army and was captured by the Nazis on more than one occasion, escaping from them no less than four times. The Nazis, who did not realize that he was Jewish, because his dog tags, which someone had given him, were actually those of a dead New Zealand soldier.
Persky’s last attempt to flee the Nazis was when escaped yet again from a prisoner of war camp through a tunnel that he and a comrade had dug. The two had stolen civilian clothes and tried to pose as village people.
However, the Nazis soon caught up with them and decided to execute them.
Daker, an Australian Methodist army chaplain, intervened, telling the Nazi officer that, as soldiers, the two could not be executed without trial, because to kill POWs without trial constituted a war crime. He warned the Nazis that if they killed the two men, they would have to kill him as well. Daker’s courageous stand saved the lives of Persky and his friend.
Before he died some years later, Persky told the tale to Yad Vashem, and of course the story was also handed down in the Peres family, but all efforts to trace Rex Daker or members of his family failed, until a special effort was made in line with Chemi Peres’s visit to Australia. Numerous phone calls were made to every Daker in the telephone directory, until the padre’s family was located, and on Sunday of this week they met with Peres in a hotel in Melbourne.
The Daker family voiced surprise to hear the story, because it seems that Rex had never spoken about his wartime experiences, and it made his descendants proud to know that he was a modest and understated hero. Chemi Peres, who had been researching the story for years, was extremely moved to finally make contact with the family of the man who had saved his grandfather’s life. On the same day, Shimon Peres wrote on his Facebook page that the meeting between his son and Daker’s children and grandchildren was the closing of a circle and referred surfers to the link with The Age.
■ SUNDAY , NOVEMBER 29 was a great day for Shimon Peres not only because of the news he received from his son, but also because he was the recipient of the Diplomacy Award for 2015 in a ceremony at the Foreign Ministry.
He was accompanied by Yona Bartal, who has been his right-hand aide for more than 20 years and who has accompanied him on secret meetings in Israel and abroad – some of which have never been publicized but all of which have been photographed by her.
An avid photographer and a woman with an extraordinarily long and impressive list of contacts around the world, Bartal is frequently asked when she intends to write a book about her experiences in working with Peres, but she just laughs and evades a reply.
Prior to the actual ceremony on Sunday, Peres unveiled a magnificent photo exhibition of the history of Israeli diplomacy, which in more ways than one is the story of soldiers without uniforms who risk their lives while promoting Israel’s interests abroad, and whose work goes way beyond the classic concept of diplomacy.
Israeli diplomats are or have been engaged in preparations for immigrant absorption, breaking through the Iron Curtain, aliya from Ethiopia, dealing with the effects at home and abroad of the Six Day War and the Yom Kippur War, providing aid to victims of terrorism or natural disasters, training for people from undeveloped countries, and of course paving the path for peace.
Diplomats also have to learn to take nothing for granted, never be surprised, and to be aware that someone who appears to be an enemy can turn out to be a very good friend, and that a very good friend cannot always be relied on to help.
Instancing the latter, Peres spoke of America which had been so instrumental in promoting Israel’s legitimate right to statehood, yet when Israel asked for arms with which to defend itself, it was consistently denied that request until 1960. On the other hand, Bruno Kreisky, the Jewish anti-Zionist chancellor of Austria who was frequently critical of Israel and who supported PLO leader Yasser Arafat, provided Russian emigrants en route to Israel with a way station, and was also indirectly involved in the early stages of the peace process with Egypt and was also helpful in matters leading up to the Oslo Accords.
Kreisky, Peres and Germany’s Willy Brandt were close colleagues in the Socialist International, though Israel’s decision-makers at the time were not happy with the relationship between Peres and Kreisky, so much so that when Peres as opposition leader went to Vienna, the Israel Embassy refused to supply him with a car. He was welcomed by the usual military honor guard, and when the officer in charge wanted to escort him to his car afterward, Peres told him he didn’t have one and would to take a taxi. The officer almost fainted in disbelief. He called Kreisky’s office and the chancellor said that he would send his own car to fetch Peres and would put the car at his disposal for the duration of the visit.
Among the considerations of the committee that decided to give Peres the award was his readiness to meet at any time and at any place with visiting dignitaries and celebrities, and the fact that visitors to Israel are always keen to meet him.
In fact, this was borne out this week with the arrival in Israel of Hollywood actor and philanthropist Sean Penn, who went to the Peres Center to meet with Peres and to discuss the rehabilitation of Haiti. Peres told him that he had seen Mystic River and Milk, the films for which Penn had won Academy Awards, but said that the real Oscar that he deserved was for what he was doing in Haiti.
A somewhat embarrassed but highly flattered Penn said that it was enormously encouraging to have someone of the caliber of Shimon Peres support his work.
Last Friday morning the indefatigable 92-year-old Peres was in the Hula Valley to give the starting signal and good wishes to some 2,000 runners from all over Israel as they ran for Birds without Borders in the fifth crane run alongside the bulrushes of the valley.
This year the run was in protest against the construction of an overhead power line across the Hula Valley, something that is likely to cause the death of hundreds of birds, including endangered species. Among the runners were six IDF generals and 26 runners from Jordan. The run was at the initiative of the Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund.
■ THE SPAC IOUS entrance lobby of the Tel Aviv Museum was crowded on Monday night but not necessarily with art lovers.
Moreover, posters advertising a play in Ariel were neither in Hebrew nor English but in Romanian. The occasion was the Romanian National Day reception hosted by Ambassador Andreea Pastârnac, who confounded Zionist Union MK Prof. Yossi Yonah with her proficiency in Hebrew.
A fluent, high-level Hebrew speaker, Pastârnac delivered the whole of her address in Hebrew, as an incredulous Yonah, who chairs both the Israel-Romania Parliamentary Friendship Group and the Israel-Thailand Parliamentary Friendship Group looked over her shoulder at the text.
Yona later declared that Pastârnac serves as a symbol and example for the diplomatic community of the importance of learning the language of the country in which one serves.
Even though she spoke in Hebrew, Pastârnac made sure that all of her guests understood what she was saying, as a large video screen above and behind her on stage featured Romanian and English translations of her speech.
Like representatives of most countries these days, she condemned terrorism, sent a message of condolence to those who had lost loved ones to terrorism and other tragedies, and asked for a moment of silence to honor all victims everywhere.
She also paid tribute to the Israeli doctors who had been part of the medical team of burn experts who had rushed to Romania to treat survivors of a fire that broke out at the end of October in the Colectiv nightclub in Bucharest, claiming the lives of more than 60 young people and leaving many more injured. Three of the injured were transferred to hospitals in Israel.
With regard to the medical aid, Pastârnac also thanked the Hadassah, Tel Hashomer and Soroka medical centers. The medical aid was coordinated by Romanian honorary consul Dr. Zvi Berkowitz, who happens to be the personal physician of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and was facilitated by members of Israel’s 400,000-strong Romanian community.
On a brighter note, Pastârnac, said that the first Romanian Jews came to the Land of Israel well over a century ago and helped to found Rosh Pina and Zichron Ya’acov, where there are now seventh- and eighth-generation descendants of the pioneers, who still have strong ties with Romania. She also mentioned wine-makers Zvika Fanti and Moti Sulciner of Moshav Gan Yoshiya, whose wines are based on the recipes of their Romanian forebears.
Yonah said that when he had been asked which parliamentary friendship group he wanted to chair, his instant reply had been Iraq, because that was where his parents were born and raised. When told that there was no Iraqi friendship group in the Knesset, his immediate second choice was Romania. The reason, he said, was that he was born in an immigrant transit camp in which many of his neighbors were Romanian, and his earliest childhood memories are of stories that he heard about Romania. It surprised him, he said, when he learned that the first Yiddish theater in Europe had originated in Jassy, Romania.
Environmental Protection Minister Avi Gabbay was initially scheduled to represent the government at the event, but he was in Paris attending the United Nations Conference on Climate Change, so Health Minister Ya’acov Litzman stepped in to fill the breach.
In referring to the strong relations between Israel and Romania, he noted the high-level visits on both sides and the close cooperation in the political, strategic, economic and cultural fields, with great potential for expansion in areas such as homeland security and cyber. Two-way trade last year reached $410 million. Litzman commended Romania for promoting Holocaust-related subjects and for fighting anti-Semitism and congratulated Romania on assuming the 2016 chairmanship of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.
Both Litzman and Yona emphasized that Romania was the only Eastern Bloc country that did not sever ties with Israel after the 1967 Six Day War but maintained a continuous diplomatic relationship.
■ FINLAND’S AMBASSADOR Leena-Kaisa Mikkola, who will soon be winding up her term in Israel, is still busy with diplomatic and social affairs. Last weekend she hosted a Sibelius recital at her home, where the guest pianist, specially imported from Finland, was Laura Mikkola, who invited a young Arab Christian violinist from Nazareth to join her.
The many guests, who included industrialist Stef Wertheimer, Yoram Sebba, the Finnish honorary consul in Haifa and several members of the diplomatic corps demonstrated great appreciation for the performance.
Laura Mikkola studied at the Sibelius Academy of Helsinki, the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, and the University School of Music in Bloomington, Indiana. She has been a soloist with the Helsinki Philharmonic, the Radio Symphony Orchestra of Helsinki, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Marinsky Theater Orchestra of Saint Petersburg and the Residentie Orkest Stuttgart.
■ GERMAN PRESIDENT Joachim Gauck will pay an official visit to Israel this week within the framework of the multifaceted jubilee celebrations of diplomatic ties between Israel and Germany. The significance of the Israel- Germany relationship has been marked in both countries with film festivals, art exhibitions, concerts, conferences on numerous subjects and high-level exchange visits.
On Saturday night Gauck and his wife, Daniela Schadt, will join President Reuven Rivlin and his wife, Nechama, at a festive concert at the Tel Aviv Opera House, where the renowned Thomanerchor boys choir and the Gewandhaus Orchestra from Leipzig will perform. The two presidents will each deliver a brief address.
In May of this year, Gauck met with Rivlin during the latter’s visit to Berlin as part of the jubilee celebrations of diplomatic ties between Israel and Germany.
Gauck was previously in Israel in May 2012, when he met with then-president Peres, Netanyahu and then-foreign minister Avigdor Liberman. In the course of that visit he also met with Palestinian Authority leaders Mahmoud Abbas and Salam Fayyad.
■ ALTHOU GH THEY have yet to host a formal farewell party, Japanese Ambassador Shigeo Matsutomi and his wife, Kaori, caused some consternation when the ambassador announced at the reception in honor of Emperor Akihito’s birthday that they were leaving on December 25. There was an audible sigh of dismay from among the hundreds of guests congregated in a tent on the back lawn of the Japanese residence. The constantly smiling couple have won many hearts during their all-too-short stay in Israel, although Kaori Matsutomi did shed a few tears during the announcement and following the embraces she received after the formal part of the ceremony.
An unfortunate feature that characterizes most diplomatic receptions is the noise factor.
Even though he was using a microphone, Michio Harada, counselor at the Japanese Embassy, who was master of ceremonies, had great difficulty in making himself heard above the babble of the crowd. In the final analysis, he removed a bell from his pocket and rang it, thereby achieving the desired silence and attention – at least temporarily.
After the formalities, he went around persuading people to drink some kosher sake, and it really was very good. The silence that had lasted for the address by the ambassador evaporated immediately afterward, with the noise rising to a crescendo during the remarks of Gabbay.
Not too many diplomats appreciated his attempt at humor. Commenting that this was approximately the sixth event of its kind that he had been to and that the crowd was six times larger than any he had previously experienced at a national day reception, Gabbay said that he didn’t know whether people had come for the sushi or to make sure that the Matsutomis were leaving. It certainly wasn’t the latter, judging by the reaction of the crowd.
Matsutomi reiterated Japan’s support for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, adding that the absence of a “yes” over a consistently long period of time means “no.” He also spoke of the great progress in bilateral relations between Israel and Japan that was accelerated by mutual visits to each other’s countries by Netanyahu and Shinzo Abe, who met again in Paris this week. A huge photograph of the two graced one of the walls of the residence. Matsutomi was also pleased that a Japanese airline began flying to Israel in October.
He said that he and his wife had enjoyed their stay in Israel and are sad to leave their many friends. “I will always do my best in my lifetime as a friend of Israel,” he pledged, “and I more than believe that my wife will do the same.” He then lifted his glass for a toast, voicing the traditional Japanese “Kanpai.”
His wife said “Lehaim.” Matsutomi will be succeeded by Koji Tomita, who is due to arrive in Israel in the last week of December.
He was previously head of the North American desk at Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
At receptions for the emperor’s birthday, the Japanese Embassy goes to great lengths to set up a separate room for kosher food.
The trouble is that most of the non-Jewish guests and quite a few of the Jewish guests have no concept of what kosher means, and even though there are printed signs asking for dishes not to be removed from the room, no one pays any attention.
A young member of the embassy staff tries to prevent people who have taken food from the non-kosher buffets from entering the kosher area, but there was no one to stop the people who had taken kosher food first from going with their plates to the non-kosher area and adding non-kosher items to the kosher food.
Several embassies avoid this problem by holding their receptions in hotels, thereby creating a culinary environment in which all their guests, including vegans and vegetarians, can eat without worrying about ingredients, because hotels usually have separate fish, meat, salad and dessert buffets. Thai Ambassador Angsana Sihapitak has opted for a hotel reception for the king’s birthday this week, and Kazakhstan Ambassador Doulat Kuanyshev has done the same for the reception that he will be hosting for his country’s national day next week.
■ WHEN THEY lived in California, Dorraine and Barry Weiss were constantly hosting parties and lectures, and after moving to Jerusalem continued to do the same, quickly building up a large social network. In addition, Dorraine became a marriage broker, and so far has 10 weddings to her credit, and all 10 couples are still together.
Last Saturday night, she celebrated her 70th birthday, and her good friends Toby Shuster, Monique Schwarz, and Benzion Tidhar insisted on giving her a party at Shuster’s home in Rehavia. This made her feel slightly uncomfortable because she’s so used to being a hostess and not a guest.
Her 94-year-old father, Phil Gilbert, was also there, as were her son and daughter-inlaw and some of her seven grandchildren, who were the main reason for the move from California to Jerusalem.
The surprise of the evening was a female a cappella group who sing with Barberina, the all-female a cappella choir. Dorraine and Barry, who initially met up at a dance and have been dancing ever since, got up to dance to the music, and were told by the singers that this was the first time that anyone had done that when they performed.