Grapevine: Remembering Israel’s first chief rabbi

June 20, 2019 21:50
ASHKENAZI CHIEF RABBI Yitzhak Isaac Halevi Herzog and the Rishon Lezion (Rabbi Yitzhak Nissim) visit

ASHKENAZI CHIEF RABBI Yitzhak Isaac Halevi Herzog and the Rishon Lezion (Rabbi Yitzhak Nissim) visit Ashkelon in 1955. Herzog penned a short letter of encouragement for ‘Peninei Avot.’. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Israel’s first chief rabbi, Yitzhak Halevi Herzog, who before the establishment of the state was Ashkenazi chief rabbi under the British Mandate, was a great scholar both in rabbinic and secular terms. He wrote books and essays on halachic issues, but was also well versed in secular subjects having studied at the Sorbonne and the University of London.

At great personal risk, he traveled to the United States during the Second World War to plead with President Franklin Roosevelt to save the Jews of Europe. His eloquence was met with little more than a smile. After the war, Herzog and his younger son, Yaakov, went to Europe to search for Jewish child survivors who had been hidden in monasteries and convents. The Catholic Church was not always willing to give these children up, and it was not easy for Herzog to ensure that their identities and their heritage were given back to them.

This year is the 60th anniversary of Herzog’s death. He died on July 25, 1959.

To familiarize the public with the greatness of the man, the Herzog Academic College will host a conference in his memory on Wednesday, June 26 at its Heichal Shlomo campus, 58 King George Street, Jerusalem. Three of his grandsons, including Jewish Agency chairman Isaac Herzog, who was named after him, President Reuven Rivlin and several rabbis will be among the speakers. Also among the speakers will be Shaul Meizlish, who is the author of Herzog’s biography which has been translated to English.

Heichal Shlomo, which was formerly the seat of the Chief Rabbinate, was completed in 1958, a year before the chief rabbi’s death, and his office there remains intact. Participants in the conference will be able to visit the office.

■ THE FINAL National Day reception hosted this week by Slovenian Ambassador Barbara Susnik at the Peres Center for Peace and Innovation was also the first such event at which newly appointed Justice Minister Amir Ohana represented the government of Israel. Ohana proved to be a very pleasant surprise. Not only does he have an excellent command of English with perfect diction, but he also has a sense of drama and read his speech in a most charming manner, causing many of the Israelis present – including some who would not vote for his party – to nod in approval. More than that, he managed the correct pronunciation of Slovenian surnames. Unlike some of his ministerial colleagues who have never been to the countries whose representatives they have come to congratulate, Ohana has been to Slovenia more than once, found it to be one of the most beautiful countries in the world, and happily extolled its virtues. He also had warm words of praise for Susnik’s commitment to strengthening relations between Israel and Slovenia, as well as what she has done for women’s empowerment in nearly all sectors of Israeli society. Commonalities that he found between Israel and Slovenia included innovation, entrepreneurship and cybersecurity. He voiced regret that Israel does not have an embassy in Slovenia, and attributed this lacuna strictly to budgetary constraints. He hoped that the day for amending this situation was not far off and that Israel would soon open an embassy in Ljubljana.

The fact that there is no Israeli embassy in Slovenia does not mean that there is no ambassador. Eyal Sela, Israel’s ambassador to Slovenia, works out of Jerusalem. Acknowledging his “enormous” contribution to the ongoing success of the bilateral relationship, Susnik said that he works under difficult circumstances. She also had words of praise for her staff without whom, she said, she would be unable to successfully complete her mission. She paid similar tribute to Honorary Consuls Adi Rosenfeld and Eival Gilady as well as to Yossi Sarudi, the president of the H.Y. Group, who, together with Rosenfeld and Giladi, had underwritten the cost of the reception.

Addressing the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, Susnik said that she firmly believed that Israel as the Start-Up Nation, as a society of creative thinking and innovation, including social innovation, could use these skills to resolve the decades-long Israeli-Palestinian issue “that keeps causing so much suffering and so much bitterness and desperation.”

Turning to Holocaust remembrance, and the resurgence of antisemitism in Europe, Susnik underlined that Slovenia, as a member of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, is committed to promoting education, research and remembrance about the Holocaust, and will continue to combat antisemitism. The rising trend of antisemitism in Europe and beyond is extremely worrisome, she said, and emphasized that Slovenia condemns all forms of antisemitism, extremism, racism, discrimination, xenophobia and neo-Nazism.

Slovenia is also committed to Israel’s security, Susnik declared, and condemns attacks against Israel on Israeli territory. Such attacks are unacceptable, endanger civilian population and undermine efforts to reach peace and security for both the Israeli and Palestinian populations, she said, adding that Slovenia supports a two-state solution.

She was also pleased that a business delegation led by Deputy Foreign Minister Dobran Bozic had earlier in the day concluded the first Slovenian-Israel business forum.

Among those present at the reception was Polona Vetrih, the first lady of the Slovenian National Theater, who gave recitals in English and in Slovenian.

■ SUSNIK, WHO completes her term in July, will be returning home to work at her country’s ministry of foreign affairs. She is one of some 20-plus ambassadors who are leaving Israel during the coming weeks and months. Others include Austria’s Martin Weiss, Belarus’s Vladimir Skvortsov, France’s Helene Le Gal, Georgia’s Pasta Kalandra, India’s Pavan Kapoor, Ireland’s Allison Kelly, Lithuania’s Edminas Bagdonas, the Netherlands’ Gilles Beschoor Plug, Slovakia’s Peter Hulenyi and Sri Lanka’s Periyasamy Pillai Selvaraj.

Britain’s David Quarrey left at the end of May and his successor Neil Wigan, who is already installed at the British Embassy, will present his credentials to President Reuven Rivlin on August 7. Also presenting credentials on that date will be the ambassadors of Bosnia Herzegovina, Bulgaria and Equatorial Guinea. Up until now, the ambassadors of Equatorial Guinea have been non-resident. The new ambassador will create history on the ground by opening his country’s embassy in Israel.

■ FORMALITY SOMETIMES intrudes on friendship. President Reuven Rivlin this week had to give a formal address in connection with a farewell conference for outgoing State Comptroller Yosef Haim Shapira. The two were boyhood friends who played football together in the streets of the upscale Jerusalem neighborhood of Rehavia in the days when hardly anyone owned a car. Each went on to study law and maintained their friendship through the years.

■ THE CENTER for Applied Negotiations at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) this week paired with Women Wage Peace to discuss the importance of a diplomatic solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The large auditorium was crowded, but very few men were in attendance, indicating that while Mars may pay lip service to Venus, the glass ceiling for the most part is still cracked, but not broken.

At a conference on “Negotiation Matters” hosted by INSS last December, there was consensus that there is a growing need for women in peace negotiations and conflict resolution, but it was acknowledged that this would be difficult with regard to renewing the stalled peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, because in general Palestinian society is patriarchal, and very few women attain positions of leadership. Nonetheless, more women both in Israel and the Palestinian Authority are pressing for inclusion on decision-making issues, especially peace, because no mother wants her offspring to go to war.

At this week’s conference, INSS Executive Director Amos Yadlin said that it was important to him to thank Women Wage Peace for restoring the word “peace” to public discourse in Israel.

There was a lot of talk at the conference about a possible change of administration following the September elections, and what this could mean in terms of reviving the peace negotiations.

Today on Friday, June 21, Tel Aviv University, which is the home of INSS, begins a series of lectures under the heading of “From Theory to Practice.” The purpose is to encourage more women to become involved in decision-making processes. The blurb announcing the series states that research shows that decisions that are made when women are involved in the process have a better chance of being accepted and lasting over time. The series will in part be a training program for women who want to take up the challenge of inspiring change, especially in areas of national security.

■ NOT ONLY Israelis but Australians were thrilled this week when 24-year-old Yuval Freilich won the European fencing title in the men’s individual epee tournament on the second day of the European championships in Dusseldorf. It was the first time that Israel had ever won a European championship title, so it can truthfully be said that Freilich made history when he beat Italy’s Andrea Santarelli in the final. The best Israel had previously done was a bronze medal, which was won by Noam Mills in the women’s individual epee competition in Leipzig. This was Israel’s first-ever European gold medal, so that too was a historic occasion.

Freilich, who lives in Neve Daniel, is originally from Sydney, and migrated to Israel with his parents, Gabby and Rachel Freilich, while still a youth. He is a former student of Sydney’s Moriah College, as are his parents. He fell in love with fencing when his father took him to watch a fencing tournament during the 2000 Olympics. He was only five years old at the time, and he has been a fencer ever since. A former European junior champion, he is ranked 40 in the world.

■ POSITIVE STORIES about Israel do not receive nearly as much media coverage as negative stories, and there are many people who are still unaware that thousands of people injured in Syria’s civil war have been treated at the Ziv Medical Center in Safed where many lives have been saved. Hospital staff do not take sides. They are concerned only with the well-being of the patient – men, women, children, civilians and soldiers. To create greater awareness of this situation, EMET, the Washington-based Endowment for Middle East Truth led by Sarah Stern, brought the hospital’s General Manager, Dr. Salman Zarka, to the US for a brief speaking tour. While in Washington, Zarka met with Israeli Ambassador to the US Ron Dermer.

It may be remembered, that in recognition of the compassion shown by hospital staff for Syrians injured in the fighting, Zarka was chosen to be one of the torch lighters on Israel’s Independence Day.

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