Long years of incarceration in solitary confinement in a Soviet prison did not succeed in depriving Natan Sharansky of his well-developed sense of humor. Sharansky likes to inject a light note into the most serious of occasions, and he did so this week prior to delivering the Distinguished Rennert Lecture at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, where the former prisoner of Zion received the Guardian of Zion award from well-known philanthropist Ingeborg Rennert, who with her husband, Ira, has contributed much to not only enhancing the beauty of Jerusalem but also to discovering the city’s hidden treasures from beneath layers of the dust of history.
Sharansky, tieless as usual despite the formality of the occasion, commiserated with the many friends and faculty of Bar-Ilan University, which is home to the Ingeborg Rennert Center for Jerusalem Studies, who he surmised would much rather focus on their dinner than have to listen to a 45-minute speech before being served.
In addition to the usual stalwarts at the annual Guardian of Zion award ceremony, there was a special table of former prisoners of Zion. There was also another famous former prisoner of Zion at the main table – Sharansky’s good friend and former political ally, Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein. Hillel Butman, another former prisoner of Zion who had been scheduled to attend, and was looking forward to the event, died two weeks earlier.
Sharansky dedicated his lecture to Butman’s memory, telling those present that Butman had founded the first Zionist youth movement in Leningrad in 1966 before Soviet Jews became aware of their heritage following Israel’s victory in the Six Day War and were moved by the photograph of soldiers weeping with joy after reaching the Western Wall. Butman also served long years in prison, but eventually came to Israel where he saw the birth of his daughter Geula and his grandchildren, and could go to his final resting place, knowing that he had contributed to Jewish continuity.
Jerusalem, to Sharansky, is the heartbeat of the Jewish people both in Israel and in the Diaspora.
Other than his family, it has been his chief joy for more than half his life. It must be remembered that he was born and raised in the anti-religious environment of the Soviet Union. He said he personally had not been religious but neither was he anti-religious because he did not identify with Soviet policies. He actually didn’t know what religion was.
In Moscow, on July 14, 1978, when permitted to say a few words in court prior to being sentenced, Sharansky realized that what he had to say should be brief and memorable. Because it might have been his last public utterance for many years and maybe forever, he chose not to resort to slogans such as “Let my people go” or “Never again.” Instead he said: “For more than 2,000 years, the Jewish people, my people, have been dispersed. But wherever they are, wherever Jews are found, every year they have repeated, ‘Next year in Jerusalem.’ Now, when I am further than ever from my people, facing many arduous years of imprisonment, I say, turning to my people, ‘Next year in Jerusalem.’”
Unlike most Jews who say this, Sharansky, on his release, made his home in Jerusalem, where his daughters were born and where he has grandchildren.
But it is important to him that every Jew should feel at home in Jerusalem, even those who are considered to be anti-Zionist. Unlike the Zionist establishment, Sharansky does not look at organizations such as J Street with a jaundiced eye – perhaps because he knows how to distinguish between being against the policies of the government of Israel and against the legitimate right of Israel to exist. J Street is not opposed to Israel. It is opposed to Israel’s government. Sharansky believes that every effort should be made to unite all Jews to recognize the importance of Jerusalem and Israel, regardless of how they feel about the government. In his book, Jerusalem should not be a divisive factor among the Jewish people, but a unifying factor.
Sharansky also praised the generosity and commitment of the Rennerts with whom he worked on several projects during his term as chairman of the Jewish Agency.
Prof. Joshua Schwartz, who has been director of the Rennert Center since its inception 24 years ago, said Ingeborg and Ira Rennert could never officially receive a Guardian of Zion award, “but that does not mean that they are not Guardians of Zion.”
■ AT THE same time that Friends of BIU were congratulating Sharansky in Jerusalem, Neil Imperial, ambassador of the Philippines, was hosting a reception at the Sheraton Hotel in Tel Aviv in honor of his country’s 121st anniversary of independence. A succession of Philippine ambassadors have chosen to hold their Independence Day receptions in kosher hotels so that all their guests can enjoy the buffet.
And it’s not just a run-of-the mill celebration. Most of the Filipinos are dressed in beautifully embroidered cream or white shirts, and the Filipinas in their country’s gorgeous and colorful traditional costumes. It helps to make the occasion much more festive.
Representing the government of Israel was Religious Affairs Minister Yitzhak Vaknin. Also present were MK Osnat Hila Mark; the Foreign Ministry’s deputy director general for Asia and the Pacific, Gilad Cohen; the Foreign Ministry’s chief of protocol Meron Reuben; the deputy director-general for international cooperation and head of MASHAV, Gil Haskell; and former foreign minister Silvan Shalom. Vaknin spoke warmly of president Manuel L. Quezon, who opened the gates of his country to Jews fleeing the Nazis, when so many other countries refused to accept them. Vaknin also noted that in 1947, the Philippines was the only Asian country to vote in favor of UN Resolution 181, which led to the establishment of the State of Israel. Relations between Israel and the Philippines were always good, he said, but improved dramatically with the historic visit to Israel last September by President Rodrigo Duterte.
A number of important cooperation agreements were signed during the visit, including one related to the employment of Filipinos in the caregiving and tourism industries.
Vaknin mentioned a proposed joint economic committee to deal with a wide variety of bilateral issues.
What may not be commonly known is that every year, 600 agriculture students from 29 Philippine universities come to Israel to acquire knowledge that will assist in the development and promotion of agriculture in the Philippines.
Vaknin thanked all the Philippine caregivers, who are doing so much to improve the quality of life for aged Israelis, many of whom are Holocaust survivors.
Imperial, who is marking his fifth year as ambassador here, said one of the benefits of a long posting is that one gets to see not only the start of long-term projects and initiatives, but also their completion. But the highlight of his tenure in Israel, he said, was Duterte’s visit, the first ever by a sitting Philippine president.
Aside from bilateral agreements signed during the visit, said Imperial, there were 21 private sector agreements. The caregiver agreement is envisaged as a template for similar agreements between Israel and other countries and is expected to save hundreds of millions of dollars of debts that would otherwise have been incurred by the growing number of Philippine caregivers over the next decade freeing them from the shackles of debt bondage imposed by unscrupulous recruitment agencies, said Imperial.
Turning the economic potential in the bilateral partnership, Imperial said it was vast and varied. Two-way tourism is also gaining in strength. Last year, 20,000 Israeli tourists visited the Philippines to bask on the beaches, while close to 30,000 Filipinos came to Israel to visit the holy sites.
■ IN A Shavuot-related event at the HaTov VeHametiv fields near Rehovot, Leket Israel’s founder and chairman Joseph Gitler hosted several MKs and media personalities, who joined in harvesting produce to be donated to the needy in tribute to the Book of Ruth, which is traditionally read on Shavuot.
Among the harvesters were Social Equality Minister Gila Gamliel with her children, MKs Miki Haimovich, Mickey Levy with his entire family, Omer Yankelevich, Ram Shefa, Idit Silman, Orit Farkash-Hacohen, Yorai Lahav Hertzanu and May Golan, along with reality TV star Dominique Sherman, singers Chen Aharoni and Imri Ziv, model Dorit Revelis, chefs Massimiliano di Matteo and Tzachi Bukshester, and journalist Gidi Shaprut.
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