IN THE early 1970s, the US table tennis team, while in Japan for the 31st World Table Tennis Championship, received an invitation to visit China. Sports had always played an important role in Chinese diplomacy, and this first American sports delegation to set foot in China since 1949 paved the way for the visit to China in 1972 by president Richard Nixon.
The table tennis contest to be conducted at the Foreign Ministry in the last week of February will not have the same sense of drama or conciliation, but it will definitely be Ping-pong diplomacy. A team made up of players who are members of various diplomatic missions here will play the Foreign Ministry team that will be headed by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman.
The match is a joint initiative of Korean Ambassador Ma Young-Sam, an excellent table tennis player who also served as a judge in the table tennis contests at the last Maccabiah Games, and Yitzhak Eldan, the ministry's chief of protocol.
LIEBERMAN CAUSED quite a stir on Sunday, when he showed up at the Dan Panorama Hotel in Tel Aviv for the celebration of the 46th anniversary of the independence of the Republic of Kenya.
For one thing, Lieberman attends few such events. For another, in the absence of an ambassador, the celebrations were hosted by Charge d'Affaires Stephen Lorete, whose rank would not usually attract a guest of the status of foreign minister. And thirdly, Construction and Housing Minister Ariel Atias was already on the podium as the representative of the government.
Lieberman, soon after taking office, reached the conclusion that despite the excellent work being done with African students by Mashav, the Foreign Ministry's Center for International Cooperation, the African states had been sorely neglected by a succession of governments. To amend that situation, he went on an extensive tour of Africa in September and signed several cooperation agreements.
ON THE following evening, Lieberman put in an appearance at the Khazakhstan's National Day festivities marking 18 years of independence. However, this time he came late and was not acknowledged from the podium, though people surrounded him almost immediately. The celebration was somewhat different from other national day events in that it featured Kazakh traditions, cuisine and fashion, plus a video of the recent state visit to Kazakhstan by President Shimon Peres, who took a top level entourage with him.
One of the highlights of the event, held at the Dan Panorama, was a colorful Kazakhstan fashion show that was dominated by ethnic overtones, magnificent embroideries and collages. The styles, with their high necklines and long sleeves, would have been snapped up by women in the haredi community.
Toward the end of the evening, Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger, who has paid four visits to Kazakhstan, came to light the Hanukka candles. Ambassador Galim Orazbakov donned a black velvet kippa, which Metzger told him suited him, lit a taper and handed it to the rabbi, who proceeded to kindle the candles, but strangely enough, after having lit the required number, also lit the shamash with the taper. Is this a new custom?
By the time Metzger arrived, Immigrant Absorption Minister Sofa Landver, who had represented the government, had already left. Landver, who is scheduled to visit Kazakhstan next year, was previously there in her capacity chairwoman of the Knesset's Israel-Kazakhstan Friendship League. She noted in her address that Kazakhstan provided a haven for Jews during the Holocaust. Orazbakov emphasized the ever improving warm relationship between Kazakhstan and Israel - highlighted by top level bilateral visits and the signing of important agreements, including one for peaceful space exploration.
SIXTEEN YEARS ago, Sarah Aynor established the Hanan Aynor Foundation in memory of her late husband, a career diplomat who, prior to spending four decades with the Foreign Ministry, had served in the British Army behind enemy lines, joined Aliya Bet at the end of the war and helped Holocaust survivors to reach Palestine. He was also an official translator on board the Exodus during the months in which it was detained in the port of Marseilles. He was twice head of the ministry's Africa desk, served as ambassador to Mexico, Senegal and Ethiopia, and headed the Israel-Africa Friendship League until his death. Aynor was particularly attached to Ethiopia and dreamed of bringing its Jews here.
When his wife established the foundation, it was intended to be his legacy. The idea was to provide highly motivated Ethiopian-born students living here with scholarships that would enable them to continue their higher education. The scholarships are by and large awarded to MA and doctoral students. In the first year, only five scholarships were awarded. This week 150 were awarded at a moving ceremony at Yad Izhak Ben-Zvi. Up until the most recent awards, 2,218 students had been helped by the foundation.
The founding chairman of the Hanan Aynor Foundation was retired diplomat Benad Avital, who has remained on the Board of Directors along with retired diplomats Itzhak Shalef and Gad Natan. Until recently, the foundation was chaired by retired diplomats, but it is currently chaired by Tsega Melaku, who was once a beneficiary of the foundation and is now the director of Israel Radio's Reshet Aleph, having previously served in senior executive positions in Reka, which broadcasts to the Ethiopian and Russian communities.
Over the years, Melaku, who holds an MBA, won scholarships from Congregation Tifereth Israel in the US and the American-based Scholarship Fund for Ethiopian Jews. Many of the students who have been recipients of Hanan Aynor scholarships have gone on to take leadership positions in the Ethiopian and wider communities.
NOBEL PRIZE laureate Ada Yonath received a congratulatory phone call from Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, and was too excited to remember the formalities involved in talking to someone of his status. In expressing appreciation for his good wishes, she said: "Thank you Bibi."
Israel Radio's Itai Nevo, reporting on the prize ceremony and dinner, was chatting to anchorman Menahem Freedman, who noted the honor accorded to Yonath in that she had been selected to be seated next to Sweden's most distinguished personality - the king. To which Nevo spontaneously responded: "It's also an honor for the king."
In reporting to the cabinet on Sunday, Netanyahu mentioned his telephone conversation with Yonath, noting that she is the first Israeli woman to win a Nobel Prize, and that five Israeli scientists have won Nobel Prizes in the last seven years. "I do not think that this is coincidental," said Netanyahu. "The State of Israel, in relation to its population, has won more Nobel Prizes than any other country. There is also a disproportionate relationship given the number of Jews in the world. Jews win Nobel Prizes, and I think that this is a great blessing and honor for the Jewish people and the State of Israel. Of course, this is not automatic and depends on the tradition of study and research and also on the resources we devote. It seems to me that we must consider not only the education and higher education systems but the question of basic research. It is basic research that produces the Nobel and other prizes in the sciences."
In light of this realization, Netanyahu has decided to consult with Yonath and other Nobel laureates. He has invited Prof. Avram Hershko, Prof. Emanuel Trachtenberg and his economics adviser, Prof. Eugene Kandel, to meet and discuss the focus on basic research.
PRESIDENT PERES has no qualms about referring to his age. Indeed, while he has many meetings with young people whom he encourages to express themselves, he says that although there are great advantages to being young, there are also advantages to being old. That's certainly true in the case of Peres whose long-term memory is almost encyclopedic. Whenever he receives the credentials of new ambassadors or meets heads of state or high ranking ministers of foreign governments, he has marvelous personal anecdotes about leaders of those countries who were in office 30 years ago and more.
The much-travelled president, who leaves today for Copenhagen to attend the conference on climatic change, has had close relations with many heads of state, several of whom have left their imprints not only on their own countries but on the world. Thus when Peres last week received the credentials of Ghana's Ambassador Henry Johnson-Hall, he was able to tell him a wonderful story about former president Kwame Nkrumah, who, during the long period that he spent as a student in the US before returning to Ghana, had his teeth fixed.
Nkrumah, according to the story, had a wide gap between his front teeth. A student activist in America, his oratory was marred by the gap because it caused him to make a whistling sound when he spoke through a microphone. When he eventually came home from the US, he arrived without warning in the middle of the night at his mother's house. His appearance had changed a lot and she didn't recognize him. It was difficult for him to persuade her that he was indeed her son, especially when he opened his mouth and there was no gap between his teeth. Eventually, she recognized his hands and became convinced.
n APROPOS THE president's travels, he's scheduled to go to Germany to participate in International Holocaust Remembrance Day on January 27, the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. Peres will be the fourth president to address the German Bundestag. The first was Chaim Herzog in April 1987, followed by Ezer Weizman in January 1996 and Moshe Katsav in June 2005. In Herzog's case it was particularly poignant, because as a young British officer he had been with the British Army troops who had liberated Bergen Belsen and other Nazi death camps in April 1945.
WITH REGARD to Herzog, his name was mentioned both by Japanese Ambassador Harushisa Takeuchi and the late president's son, Welfare and Social Services Minister Isaac Herzog, at a reception at the Japanese residence to mark the 20th anniversary of the accession to the throne by Emperor Akihito, the emperor's 76th birthday, which will be on December 23, and the 50th anniversary earlier this year of the marriage of the emperor to Empress Michiko, who was the first commoner to marry into the Japanese royal family. President Herzog had attended the coronation of Emperor Akihito and had also represented the State of Israel at the funeral of Emperor Hirohito.
Takeuchi spoke earnestly of the high regard and affection that the Japanese people have for the emperor and empress, and insofar as Japan's relations with Israel are concerned noted some of the various cultural exchanges between the two. While many Japanese tourists visit Israel, the Japanese would like to see a lot more Israelis visiting Japan. The ambassador extolled some of the virtues of his country that might tempt the Israeli traveler and received endorsement from Herzog, who had visited Japan in the company of Peres in 1997.
When Takeuchi concluded his address, he asked guests to honor Herzog by desisting from chatter or the clatter of knives, forks or chopsticks. In honoring Herzog, he said, the guests would also honor Japan. Although the request was made politely, it was made in a sufficiently authoritative tone to guarantee total silence. Herzog was momentarily awestruck, and commended Takeuchi for his ability to educate Israelis.
In illustrating the close relations that Israel enjoys with Japan, Herzog emphasized the great influence of Japan in its support of Israel's accession to the OECD. Takeuchi appears to be very fond of hosting receptions and will host another in his home this week in honor of Haifa's Tikotin Museum of Japanese Art. Tikotin, which will celebrate its jubilee next year, will receive a certificate of commendation from the Japanese Foreign Ministry in recognition of its long-standing contribution to the promotion of Japanese art.
AUSTRALIAN AMBASSADOR James Larsen was among the large number of diplomats who attended the Japanese reception, but confessed that he was exhausted having returned at 1 a.m. that morning from Australia. There, together with an Israeli delegation of parliamentarians, academics and journalists, he had attended the Australia Israel Leadership Forum in Sydney. Despite minor Palestinian protests in both Sydney and Melbourne, Larsen described the visit and the forum sessions as "terrific," noting that the Israelis had received red carpet treatment in Australia and had met with Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, Foreign Minister Stephen Smith and Treasurer Wayne Swan.
Delegation leader Vice Premier
Silvan Shalom lauded the Australian government for boycotting the UN's anti-racism conference in Geneva last April and for its outspoken opposition to the "bias" of the Goldstone report. The delegation is believed to be the largest ever sent to Australia by Israel. There is bipartisan support for Israel in Australia's Federal Parliament. Opposition Liberal leader Tony Abbott, who earlier in the week had taken over from Malcolm Turnbull, a long time friend of Israel's, said while Israel may have stronger allies militarily, "I would like to think that nowhere in the world do you have a stauncher friend than us."
Among the Israelis were MKs Ronit Tirosh, Nachman Shai, Ronnie Bar-On and Danny Danon, counterterror expert Boaz Ganor and journalists Yaron Dekel of the Israel Broadcasting Authority, Amir Oren of Haaretz, Nahum Barnea of Yediot Aharonot and Chemi Shalev of Yisrael Hayom. For Shalev it was an opportunity to catch up with old friends. He worked as a journalist in Australia while his wife Nili served as Israel trade commissioner in Sydney.
If they'd remained in Australia for another week, the Israeli delegation would have been able to participate in the New South Wales Parliament's first Hanukka celebration since its inception in 1856. It was organized by Chabad, which has a knack for introducing Jewish festivals to state institutions in various parts of the world. Richard Torbay, speaker of the New South Wales Legislative Assembly, accepted a silver menora from Rabbi Pinchus Feldman, the long time head of Sydney's Chabad community. Feldman observed that the menora was an appropriate gift, since parliament's Latin motto translates to "recently risen, how brightly you shine."
n ISRAEL IS full of plaques denoting the contributions to the country by philanthropists from abroad. Among the generous donors was Jan Mitchell, who died last week in New York at 96. The Latvian born Mitchell fled Nazi persecution and arrived in America in the late 1930s with little more than a suitcase. Although his English was negligible, he landed a job as a waiter, worked his way up and eventually became the proprietor of restaurants and hospitality establishments along the Eastern seaboard. In the 1960s, he became interested in Israel and began contributing to the enrichment of the country's cultural institutions. He was a founding member of the Israel Museum and in 1974 gave it its first major collection of over 150 items, which included important antiquities, and works by Gauguin, Degas, Miro, Chagall and Picasso. Working closely with his friend mayor Teddy Kollek and the Jerusalem Foundation, Mitchell took pride and pleasure in helping to beautify Jerusalem in the aftermath of its reunification.
His name is linked with several parks, the best known of which is the Mitchell Park located at the Sultan Pool. In his later years, Mitchell focused his philanthropic efforts on education and established the Eric Mitchell Student Center (named for his late son) at Tel Aviv University. He was also involved with Migdal Ohr and with the Hillel Foundation's work at the Hebrew University and at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.
ANYONE INTERESTED in historical aircraft, should make their way today to the Israel Air Force Museum in Hatzerim which is honoring Zvi Avidror for his persistent efforts in locating and acquiring historical aircraft which are not yet in the museum's inventory. The first of these is the Catalina. Given his background, the Transylvanian-born Avidror should be more interested in ships than aircraft. During World War II he served as a volunteer with the Royal Navy.
ISRAEL BEITEINU MK Anastasia Michaeli was among the many celebrities and dignitaries who flocked to the Rosh Pina Festival. A former star on Channel 9, the Russian-language television channel, Michaeli, who is also a former fashion model, participated in a panel discussion on whether ratings could be boosted by catering to specific sectors of the public. Born and raised in Russia, Michaeli was used to skating in winter, and since Rosh Pina is not far from Metulla whose Canada Center boasts two ice rinks, she decided to stay in the North with five of her eight children for just a little longer. An expert skater, Michaeli, partnered by Shmuel Lanir, glided across the ice with the panache of a professional.
n THE YOUNGER side of Jerusalem was enjoyed by a group of international journalists during a night tour of the capital organized by MediaCentral together with the Hitorerut (Wake Up) party and the mayor's New Spirit movement.
Correspondents from Russia, China, England and the US visited the Beit Avichai cultural center, met with architecture students at Bezalel Acade my and attended the opening of the new art space Urbanica 88. Mayor Nir Barkat told the correspondents that Jerusalem is investing many resources in infrastructure that will keep young people, including artists of all kinds, in the capital. The tour ended at the Taklit Pub in the center of town, where the city's youngest councilman, Ofer Berkowitz, and pub owner Avi Goldberger spoke with journalists about the challenges of keeping Jerusalem young and fun.
MediaCentral director Aryeh Green said that the tour was motivated by the recent efforts to combat the exodus of young people from the city, and to show foreign journalists a different perspective of the capital.