Grapevine: Diplomacy with a kick

There were so many different national flags at the edge of the playing field that a stranger might have thought the UN had moved from New York to Herzliya.

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May 14, 2015 20:41
Helen Mirren and Ryan Reynolds "woman in Gold"

Helen Mirren and Ryan Reynolds "woman in Gold". (photo credit: Courtesy)

 
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As a former foreign minister, and as the person who in his immediate past capacity received the credentials of newly appointed ambassadors, it was only natural for Shimon Peres to take on the role of coach – in the peace match between diplomats and potential soccer stars that took place Wednesday at Herzliya Municipal Stadium.

There were so many different national flags at the edge of the playing field that a stranger might have thought the UN had moved from New York to Herzliya; Mayor Moshe Fadlon was also on-hand. Herzliya Pituah is home to most of the diplomatic community, and collectively it represents a significant factor in the city’s demography.

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Peres went into the locker room to give the guys a pep talk before the match, then started the game himself by kicking the ball to US Ambassador Dan Shapiro, who proved to be a very energetic player.

Although there were more deputy chiefs of mission and diplomats of lower rank on the Peace Team than actual envoys, Shapiro was not alone. He was joined by Chinese Ambassador Zhan Yongxin and Australian Ambassador Dave Sharma, an extremely enthusiastic athlete who is ready to participate in almost any sports event.

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Although Shapiro put his heart and soul into the game, the two goals which gave the Peace Team its 2-1 victory were actually scored by an Israeli – Alon Gold, who works as a special adviser on economic and trade policy at the Embassy of Finland.

Shapiro said afterwards that he couldn’t promise the US would do as well in a soccer match, but was much more confident that his country would score high points in basketball.

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The Peace Team might have scored at least one more goal, had South Sudan Ambassador Ruben Marial Benjamin been playing.

Before entering the Foreign Service, Benjamin was a professional footballer.

Strangely enough, the junior team – composed of Jewish, Israeli-Arab and Palestinian youngsters – beat Israel’s leading all-star soccer players 3-2. It would have been even more interesting if after their defeat, the soccer pros had played the Peace Team.

The Peres Center for Peace has for some years now brought Israeli Arabs and Jews as well as Palestinian youth together to play soccer and engage in other sports, thereby breaking down barriers of mistrust and suspicion as they join forces against rival teams. Such events help to promote peace, tolerance and mutual understanding, and often lead to friendships between Israeli and Palestinian youth. The mini-Mondial is an annual event.

Peres asked the diplomats to use whatever influence they had to persuade FIFA not to accede to the Palestinian Soccer Association’s request to expel Israel from its ranks.

He also called on FIFA to join in promoting peace rather than deepening the rift.

Ofer Eini, chairman of the Israel Football Association, called on PSA president Jibril Rajoub to join with his organization in bringing their respective peoples together: “Let’s talk. Let’s play football,” he declared.

■ PEOPLE UNAWARE of the relationship between World Jewish Congress president Ronald Lauder and the film Woman in Gold may wonder why the WJC is presenting award-winning actress Helen Mirren with its first-ever WJC Recognition Award for her role in the film. The WJC is, after all, not part of the entertainment industry, but it is in the business of negotiating with governments for the recovery of Jewish property plundered and confiscated by the Nazis.

Lauder believes that Mirren’s portrayal of Maria Altmann – the Austrian-American woman who made international headlines in 2006, when she won a decade-long battle with the Austrian government for the recovery of a series of Gustav Klimt paintings looted by the Nazis – has helped educate the public about looted art that was stolen from Jews during World War II.

But of course, there’s more to it than that.

After Altmann won her case, which centered primarily on a portrait of her aunt, Lauder purchased the painting – at a price of $135 million.

“The history of the Woman in Gold painting exemplifies the immense suffering, painful loss and, for a prolonged period, the injustice that many Jews were subjected to during the 20th century,” asserted Lauder.

“With the opening of this new movie, audiences can learn about the second half of the Nazi-looted art story: The postwar art grab by governments and museums that willfully continued the Nazi theft, both by hiding the art from the rightful owners or their heirs and by fighting the victims in court to keep the artworks.

“Thanks to Helen Mirren’s stunning performance, the international public will learn about this legacy of World War II, which still hasn’t been addressed properly by many governments and museums.

“Being a part of this film and preserving Maria Altmann’s legacy has been a truly exceptional experience from the start,” said Mirren, adding that she was “utterly moved to be receiving an award from the WJC, an organization that does such important work all over the globe in advocating for Jewish rights.” A date for the ceremony in which Lauder will present Mirren with the award has not yet been set, but it is planned for some time this year.

This was not Mirren’s first role as a Jewish woman. When she starred in The Debt and was cast as a retired Mossad agent in the Holocaust-related film, she read up enormous amounts of Holocaust literature and came to Israel in 2009 to shoot some of the scenes.

■ THOUGH TOO young to have experienced any of the horrors of the Second World War, British Ambassador Matthew Gould, during the five years he has spent in Israel, has made it a point to contribute to the quality of life of Holocaust survivors.

He has hosted and supported them as well as Kindertransport veterans, who came to England as children and in many cases, had no home or family to which to return after the war was over.

Notwithstanding the fact that Gould and his wife, Celia, are busy with a round of farewell events, they have found time during their final weeks in Israel to once again host Holocaust survivors and Kindertransport veterans at separate receptions at the residence, because they feel such a kinship with them.

During visits to England, Gould raised money from the Jewish community to set up Café Britannia social clubs for Holocaust survivors, to ensure that those who live alone get out of the house and socialize with others, but more importantly gain access to a host of community services of which many were previously unaware.

Gould raised more than £1.5m. from British Jewry to set up Café Britannia, which now has 21 branches throughout Israel and has become an essential regular meeting place for the more than 1,600 survivors who frequent the facilities each week.

The Goulds invited 160 Holocaust survivors to their Ramat Gan residence; in addition to locals, survivors came from Jerusalem, Kiryat Haim, Modi’in and Bnei Brak. Some told their personal stories, some spoke of how happy they were to have a Club Britannia where they could find friends with similar backgrounds. There was laughter, a few tears, singing and dancing, and a Brain-Gym session of special exercises that help to increase brain function for seniors. Although the Goulds don’t need those exercises yet, they joined in with enthusiasm.

Gould told the crowd assembled in his garden: “Of all the important guests we have hosted in this house in the past five years, you are the most important.” One man told Gould he had been liberated from Dachau by the British, and had felt a strong connection to the UK ever since.

■ IT CANNOT be denied however, that there are some Israelis who feel certain ambivalence towards the British. While appreciative of the current relationship with Britain and the numerous areas of cooperation between Israel and the UK, they cannot forget or forgive the fact that the British Mandate authorities did not allow Holocaust survivors to land on Israel’s shores, and deported many of them to Cyprus.

On the other hand, Britain opened its gates to some ten thousand Jewish children from different parts of Europe, but mostly Germany, who came on the Kindertransport to England with nothing more than the contents of a small suitcase. Now well into their 80s, nearly all the Kindertransport children were educated in Britain, found employment and got married there, and in some cases spread out to other parts of the world including Israel. Though mindful of where they were born, they see themselves as Brits and nearly all speak English with some kind of British accent, depending on which part of the UK they spent their formative years.

“If not for Britain we wouldn’t be alive today, and there wouldn’t be four generations of my family in Israel,” said Aliza Tennenbaum, who heads the Kindertransport Committee in Israel. She and most of the other guests, other than spouses who were also present, were beneficiaries of the extraordinary rescue mission of children aged three-17 that took place during 1938- 1939 just before the outbreak of WWII; the youngsters were placed in foster homes, hostels and boarding schools.

Some 70 members of the Kindertransport Association in Israel were treated to breakfast in the grounds of the residence.

Moreover, the embassy provided transportation for those who couldn’t get there under their own steam. The Goulds moved from table to table chatting with all their guests, listening to stories of what they had endured as children leaving home for a strange country, not knowing anyone and uncertain if they would ever see parents and siblings again.

Some of them had been able to leave Europe through the good offices of Sir Nicholas Winston, who arranged for 669 mostly Jewish children to leave Czechoslovakia, and who for years protested that he had not done anything out of the ordinary.

One of those fondly referred to as “Nicky’s children” recalled how it was only 50 years after the event that he discovered the identity of his rescuer – who incidentally will turn 106 next week; he remains in close contact with him to this day.

Among those present was Marian Lebor, editor of the recently published book by Michelle Gold, Memories That Won’t Go Away – A Tribute to the Children of the Kindertransport.

Several of those present were featured in the book, including well-known Jerusalemite Werner Loval, who has distinguished himself in many fields and at one stage of his life, was also an Israeli diplomat.

Gould said it was an honor for him and his wife to host people who as children had found refuge in Britain, and had later built their lives in Israel. Some of the older children in the Kindertransport joined the British Army so they could fight the Nazis; one of them, Zvi Radley, who was at the breakfast reception, brought along his British Army discharge document.

■ THE IDF continues to be a unifying factor among Israelis and Diaspora Jewry. The annual Adopt-a-Soldier gala was held this week at the Kirya military headquarters in Tel Aviv, with a somewhat more splashy but similar event held by Belev Echad in collaboration with Friends of the IDF in New York.

The Tel Aviv event, marking the 10th anniversary of the Adopt-a-Soldier program, was organized by the Association for the WellBeing of Israel’s Soldiers in cooperation with the Fellowship Foundation.

The most poignant moment of the evening occurred when 20 lone soldiers serving in different units were reunited with their parents on-stage, in the presence of IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Gadi Eizenkot.

It is not uncommon at this annual event or at Independence Day ceremonies for one or two soldiers to be reunited with close family members. Sometimes, especially in the case of American lone soldiers, the reunion is not a surprise – but with soldiers from other countries it is almost always a surprise, and a highly emotional event. This time, it was even more so because there were 20 such reunions one after another, with parents brought from several countries to Israel by the Fellowship Foundation; parents came from the US, Canada, Argentina, Mexico, India, Belarus, Russia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan and Turkey to embrace their soldier sons and daughters.

Adopt-a-Soldier has wide-ranging sponsorship, with the adoption of 184 IDF units and 56 Border Police units by leading commercial companies, associations and individual donors, including the Friends of the IDF.

■ IN THE US, millions of dollars for the well-being of IDF soldiers are raised annually, reflecting the pride of Diasporas Jews and non-Jewish friends of Israel in the fact that this tiny country has an army which defends itself and does not call on the armies of other nations to help fight its battles. It has been stated countless times in thousands of forums in many countries that if Israel had been established as a sovereign state 10 or 20 years earlier, the calamity which befell the Jews of Europe might not have happened at all; or even if it had, the number of casualties would have been nowhere near 6 million.

The New York gala, which was held at the Bohemian National Hall, always features non-Jewish luminaries among the guest speakers – including political commentator, radio talk show personality, author and journalist Monica Crowley, a longtime friend who has previously been either moderator, speaker or both at such events.

Other household names included Chloe Valdary, whose writings have appeared in American and Israeli publications including The Jerusalem Post, and is a fellow of the Lawfare Project and a consultant for the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA); award-winning investigative journalist Richard Behar; and Jewish comedian Joel Chasnoff, the author of The 188th Crybaby Brigade, which tells the story of his service as an IDF combat soldier.

Inasmuch as these personalities were draws, the real stars of the event were 10 IDF soldiers injured during Operation Protective Edge. The soldiers were honored for what event organizers said were their sacrifices to defend democracy and US interests in fighting terrorism and tyranny in the Middle East and around the globe.

It was an opportunity for Americans to express their gratitude, the organizers emphasized.

One of the soldiers, Ohad Ben-Ishay, 21, who was critically injured during the battle in Gaza, was pleasantly surprised to meet up with his commanding officer, Capt. Ran Azulay, whom he had not seen since last July.

The New York City-based Belev Echad (With One Heart) is a nonprofit founded by Chabad Rabbi Uriel Vigler and his wife, Shevy, in 2009 as a global initiative to honor IDF soldiers who have risked their lives and limbs to protect the Jewish people and ensure Israel’s security. Belev Echad’s flagship program brings injured IDF veterans to New York City for a 10-day tour as a token of appreciation and support from the American and Jewish communities. This year, the tour also included a surprise one-day trip to Washington, after a generous supporter donated a private plane for the day.

greerfc@gmail.com

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