Grapevine: We were all migrants and/or refugees

Movers and shakers in Israeli society.

By
September 20, 2019 12:49
Grapevine: We were all migrants and/or refugees

CANADIAN AMBASSADOR Deborah Lyons with former US ambassador Dan Shapiro at Kuchinate. . (photo credit: PANGEA PRODUCTIONS)

It’s difficult to imagine that an organization dedicated to the empowerment, welfare and dignity of refugees would have any reason to offer thanks to US President Donald Trump. Admittedly the thank-you to Trump by Diddy Mymin Kahn was somewhat tongue in cheek. She thanked him for enabling Julie Fisher to be on hand full-time. For readers who may not be aware, Fisher is married to former US ambassador Dan Shapiro, who might have been asked to stay on if Hillary Clinton had won the presidential race. Fisher was a weekly volunteer at Kuchinate, an African refugee women’s collective, while her husband was in office, but since the change of US administration and with it the change of ambassadors, she has been released from the duties of the ambassador’s wife, and can give daily attention to African asylum-seekers in Israel, primarily refugees from Eritrea and South Sudan.

Mymin Kahn, together with Sister Aziza Kidane, an Eritrean nun living in Israel, founded Kuchinate in south Tel Aviv in 2011. “Kuchinate” means “crochet” in the Eritrean language of Tigrinya, and for many of the African asylum-seeking women who have been victims of physical and psychological violence, persecution, torture and human trafficking, Kuchinate helps to restore human dignity and provides these women with a means of earning a livelihood through crocheting beautiful baskets in many different shapes, sizes and colors, embroidering purses and making rag dolls. In addition, they host groups of Israelis and visitors from abroad at coffee ceremonies, meals and crochet workshops. This enables an ever-growing public to engage with them and hear their stories, which helps to empower them both psychologically and economically.

One of the passionate Kuchinate supporters is Canadian Ambassador Deborah Lyons, who has a long record of working for human rights, women’s rights, access to education and support for refugees worldwide. She not only speaks out on these issues but mobilizes resources, lobbies government officials on behalf of refugees and other vulnerable groups within society, and is instrumental in influencing more compassionate attitudes that often result in change.

When Kuchinate wanted to honor someone in tandem with its pre-Rosh Hashanah reception, Lyons was the natural choice. She arrived late because she had been busy hosting other ambassadors at her residence, where she explained the importance of accepting refugees and asylum-seekers.

When a dignitary is honored, the usual gift is a medal and/or an impressive paperweight or religious object. But Lyons received something that she will treasure much more – a white crocheted basket featuring a large red Canadian maple leaf on one side. She said that she hoped the Canadian prime minister would not see it, because he would want to take it from her.

More than 150 Israelis, Canadians, Americans, Brits, South Africans, Australians and of course Eritreans last Friday morning crowded into the Kuchinate premises for the occasion. The first thing that caught the eye was a display of tote bags with the slogan “We were all once refugees.”

In introducing Lyons, Fisher described her as one of the diplomats who go beyond regular duties to advance democracy and human rights, and hailed her as a champion of minorities and vulnerable populations.

Several of the African women brought their adorable infants, some of whom made noise, which didn’t bother Lyons one bit. Coming from a family of nine, she said, a baby making noise in the background is just like music. She was happy to see so many children present.

The 21st century will be challenged by economic migration, she said, with 250 million people so far moving and looking for a place to call home.

What is being done by Kuchinate “is a huge lesson for all of us in humanity,” she continued. “Women can always be vulnerable, but more so when moving through the treacherous migration route.”

Women’s rights and those of migrants in general are a top priority at the Canadian Embassy, said Lyons. “We are all immigrants at some place in our history, and how we welcome and treat the stranger defines who we are.” There are 32,000 asylum-seekers in Israel, she said, as she pledged to continuing advocating with officialdom on their behalf.

Because there were so many like-minded people in attendance who did not all necessarily know each other, they were asked to wear name tags on which they wrote their names by hand. Shapiro wrote on his name tag “Julie’s husband (Dan).”

Others present included many women who had previously worked with Fisher in the Diplomatic Spouses Club and the International Women’s Club, among them Doris Small and Daniella Oren. Also present was former director of the Israel Museum James Snyder, who is currently executive chairman of the Jerusalem Foundation, who spoke of migrant art, saying that “visual culture helps us to understand what it’s all about.” He was accompanied by Noam Gal, the photography curator at the Israel Museum, and Ron Amir, who is socially engaged in documentary photography, and who was responsible for the Israel Museum’s project on photographing day-to-day life in the Holot open detention center. Amir said that in Holot he learned a lot about the asylum-seekers, about himself and about the system and society of Israel. Others present included philanthropist and businesswoman Dana Azrieli, with her husband, martial arts champion Danny Hakim; Elana Ben Haim; Carole Nuriel; Judy Goldman; Jon Elkins; Elisa Moed and Lynn Holstein.

■ SOME OF the people invited to the pre-Rosh Hashanah toast hosted by US Ambassador David Friedman and his wife, Tammy, were disappointed when they saw that the venue was the American residence in Herzliya Pituah, and not the embassy in Jerusalem. On the other hand, there were some, like Hillel Schenker, the coeditor of the Palestine-Israel Journal, who might have declined the invitation had the reception taken place in Jerusalem.

Schenker was not the sole representative of the Left at the crowded affair, although the balance of power was most definitely on the Right, with some of the guests including cabinet ministers Israel Katz, Amir Ohana, and Yariv Levin, plus MK Nir Barkat and other prominent figures such as Yoram Ettinger, Michael Oren and Eli Groner, the former director-general of the Prime Minister’s Office representing the Right of the political spectrum. There were also several people who veered from left of Center to extreme Left, such as Jewish Agency Chairman and former Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog, Rabbi Michael Melchior and Peace Now leader Yariv Oppenheimer.

While many guests interrupted Friedman in mid-conversation to ask him to pose for a selfie with them, Schenker decided that even though he was a guest in the American residence, he was not going to compromise his principles. Therefore, with a glass of sangria on ice in hand, he told Friedman that he wanted to congratulate President Trump for firing John Bolton, to which the ambassador responded with a strained grimace. Schenker followed that up with conveying his best wishes for a successful meeting between Trump and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. This was met with another grimace on the part of the ambassador. Nonetheless, they parted wishing each other a Shana Tova.

The Friedmans were happy to welcome all their guests, but most of all their granddaughter Olivia, whom they had accompanied as she started first grade in Israel. “She speaks Hebrew like an Israeli,” said the ambassador, who self-deprecatingly commented that he speaks Hebrew like a New Yorker.

■ MEXICAN AMBASSADOR Pablo Macedo, together with the Tel Aviv Municipality, hosted hundreds of people at Tel Aviv City Hall in honor of Mexico’s 209th anniversary of independence.

Mexico’s national colors of red, white and green were seen everywhere, Mexican music vibrated throughout the building, with the musical quartet dressed in Mexican national costume, including giant white sombreros and silver studs on the length of their pants and at the wrists of their bolero jackets.

Aided by Mexican army and navy personnel, the ambassador enacted what has become a ritual Independence Day ceremony since Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, a Catholic priest, in the small town of Dolores in 1810, rang a bell and called on the people to fight for their independence. This resulted in Mexico freeing itself from Spanish rule and the establishment of a flourishing democracy.

On September 15, each year, all over Mexico and in Mexican communities abroad, there is a ceremony involving the national flag and a cry by the president of Mexico, mayors in Mexican cities and Mexican ambassadors abroad, repeating “¡Viva Hidalgo! ¡Viva Morelos! ¡Viva Josefa Ortiz de Domínguez! ¡Viva Mexico!” The crowd shouts “Viva” after each of the individual cries.
In Tel Aviv, the ceremony took place on September 16, and the crowd rehearsed the “Viva” before the ambassador began his speech, and repeated it with gusto during the official proceedings.

Macedo thanked Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai for cohosting the event and enabling Mexico to be brought to the heart of Tel Aviv, a city that he said is a great example of the Start-Up Nation.

He also expressed appreciation to the Mexican Jewish community and to the Mexican-Israeli community for their strength and generosity in helping to advance relations between Mexico and Israel, and invited his guests to sample traditional Mexican food and beverages.

The guacamole was outstanding and had a real kick to it. But before the refreshments came the national anthems of both countries. Usually the singing of “Hatikvah” by the crowd is louder and more enthusiastic than the singing of the anthem of another country. But apparently there are more Mexican expatriates in Israel than is generally realized. They sang the anthem with loud enthusiasm and with great feeling.

Possibly because it was the night before the elections, there was no representative from the government, but there were quite a few people from the Foreign Ministry mingling with the other guests.

■ ISRAEL MAY no longer have a king, but certainly has a prince in its corner. In Monaco last week, Tel Aviv University launched the Frenkel Initiative to Combat Pollution. The project is the continuation of an agreement signed between TAU and investor and philanthropist Aaron G. Frenkel, who funds the initiative. The initial agreement was signed under the patronage of Prince Albert II of Monaco, during his visit to TAU in June 2018.

The initiative will harness Israel’s technological ingenuity in an effort to counter the harmful effects of pollution across the Mediterranean and worldwide, with special attention to the damaging outcomes of air and marine pollution in Monaco.

The launch ceremony, at the Hermitage Hotel in Monaco, was attended by Albert, TAU president Prof. Ariel Porat, Frenkel and other dignitaries in the fields of energy and the environment, who joined in signing the Principality’s National Energy Transition Pact, marking their support for the actions of the Principality of Monaco in the field of energy efficiency and the promotion of renewable energies.

The ceremony was preceded by a symposium on air and ocean pollution, with Prof. Colin Price of the Porter School of the Environment and Earth Studies at TAU, and Dr. Lucile Courtial, an expert in marine biology and coordinator of Monaco’s Beyond Plastic Med initiative.

Fruitful collaboration between Monaco and TAU began several years ago. In December 2017 a TAU delegation, headed by former president Prof. Joseph Klafter, participated in a gala event on environmental issues, smart city development and ecology, in cooperation with Albert, who in June 2018 visited TAU and received an honorary doctorate in recognition of his deep commitment to protecting the environment for future generations and promoting cooperation in solving problems of climate, water and ecological diversity.

■ COINCIDENCE IS an interesting phenomenon. Just as political pundits, prior to Tuesday’s election, were pondering over the possibility of a national unity government and remembering that such an arrangement had existed between Yitzhak Shamir and Shimon Peres, President Reuven Rivlin on Friday attended the screening at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque of Yigal Lerner and Erez Friedman’s film Shamir Bedarko (Shamir in his way), which sheds light on some of the lesser-known aspects of the life of Israel’s seventh prime minister.

Rivlin recalled Shamir as an idealogue who believed with all his heart in the vision of a greater Israel and saw as his mission the defense of the Land of Israel and the State of Israel to the utmost of his ability. Shamir said on more than one occasion that Israel does not owe its establishment and its existence to the international community. Apropos Peres, Rivlin will attend a memorial service for him on Thursday.

■ ONE DAY, if she ever gets around to writing a book, Yona Bartal, who for many years accompanied Shimon Peres on his many trips abroad, including to clandestine meetings that were never reported in the media and in many cases were not officially recorded, will have a best-seller on her hands. Meanwhile, the diminutive, elegant, effervescent and ageless Bartal, who is the executive director of the Peres Circle, continues to be invited to many of the places where Peres was an honored guest.

Last week, she was in Kiev to attend the 16th Yalta European Strategy annual conference, which was titled:“Happiness Now. New Approaches for a World in Crisis. The mega event was attended by more than 400 leading politicians, diplomats, businessmen, civil activists and experts from 26 countries.

Among those present were Colombian President Iván Duque Márquez, Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky, Finland President Sauli Ninisto and Estonia President Kersti Kaljulaid, along with former prime minister of the UK Tony Blair and philosopher Bernard Henry Levy, along with some of the top people in technology and artificial intelligence.

The highlight of the event for Bartal was a hologram of Peres delivering a lecture on innovation. It was so realistic that Bartal had to stop herself from leaping on stage and taking him back to Israel. At the conclusion of the lecture, Bartal was actually invited on stage, where she presented Duque with a copy of Peres’s autobiography No Room for Small Dreams.

Conference speakers addressed issues that queried whether existing political and economic systems are sufficiently strong to face the challenges of protest parties, politicians beyond the mainstream, international alliances, institutions under stress, technological security and the changing ecology.

■ WHEN NEW ambassadors present their credentials to Rivlin, they are also greeted by a reception committee made up of three to five members of the president’s senior staff and a representative of the Foreign Ministry – usually a deputy director-general in charge of the division dealing with the part of the world from which the new ambassador comes.

Of late, the majority of new ambassadors have come from countries in Europe, so the Foreign Ministry representative was Rodica Radian Gordon, the deputy director-general for Europe. She was there to greet not one ambassador but four of the five new ambassadors: Lina Antanaviciene of Lithuania, Hans Docter of the Netherlands, Eric Danon of France and Andreja Purkart Martinez of Slovenia. This was her swan song in this role. Her upcoming position is that of Israel’s ambassador to Spain.

■ RIVLIN’S MEETING with each of the ambassadors was a small but important component in the enhancement of bilateral relations, particularly in the case of Antanaviciene, who expects to see him in Lithuania next year for the celebrations marking the 300th anniversary of the birth of the Gaon of Vilna, who instructed Rivlin’s ancestors to settle in Jerusalem.

When Lithuanian Prime Minister Saulius Skvernelis was in Israel early this year, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly asked whether the Vilna Gaon’s remains could be transferred to Israel. The Lithuanians have rejected any request of this nature, explaining that the Vilna Gaon is an inseparable part of the history of the Jewish community that once thrived in Vilna, which was known as the Jerusalem of the North. Today he is an inseparable part of the tourist attractions in and around what used to be the Vilna Ghetto. Thousands of his descendants are scattered around the world, including in Israel. As far as is known, Netanyahu is a DNA match with the Vilna Gaon.

Before leaving their home countries, ambassadors usually meet with their heads of state, who give them a mission to fulfill in the host country. Antanaviciene was so excited about coming to Israel that she told her president that she wasn’t coming home until she fulfills her mission.

■ ONE OF the nicer customs in the diplomatic community is the vin d’honneur, a reception held after the presentation of credentials in which new diplomats are introduced to their colleagues from other countries. Some already know each other from having previously served at the same time in another country, and some know each other because the diplomat usually does a series of introductory rounds to other embassies. Diplomats are also making increasing use of social media to introduce themselves to a wider public. Polish Ambassador Marek Magierowski and Australian Ambassador Chris Cannan are both Twitter addicts.

Magierowski also likes appearing in videos on his embassy’s website, and so apparently does Docter, who introduces himself on video on the website of the Embassy of the Netherlands, and even throws in a few words in Hebrew. It is quite heartening to see how many ambassadors and other diplomats are making the effort to learn the language of the Bible.

■ ALTHOUGH WOMEN are still talking about breaking through the glass ceiling and achieving rights equal to those of men, there has been an amazing advancement of women in almost every field previously dominated by men.

The WMN Community for female tech entrepreneurs is but one example. It was founded in 2015 by Merav Oren and Carmit Oron as a nonprofit initiative to give women greater access to the hi-tech world and to overcome the barriers and stigmas that still, to some extent, prevent women from progressing in their careers.

WMN has now gone a step further with the launch this week of the Link Hub at the Link Hotel in Tel Aviv, a joint venture of the Link Hotel, WMN and the Tel Aviv Municipality. In aiming for equal opportunity, WMN does not exclude men, and has quite a few among its members.

In welcoming members to the Hub, Link Hotel general manager Galit Dohan said that the coming together was a natural progression, given that the hotel has many facilities that can be beneficial to entrepreneurs in their work.

Oren underscored the importance of a workplace to any female executive or for that matter to anyone who is employed.
Deputy Tel Aviv Mayor Tzipi Brand said that the municipality is interested in supporting initiatives that highlight diversity and equality.
EL AL, the national air carrier, is kissing goodbye to its long-serving 747 jumbo jets and is replacing them with sophisticated Boeing Dreamliners, several of which have already been added to the fleet. On Thursday of this week, El Al will launch yet another Dreamliner, in the presence of Jerusalem Mayor Moshe Lion. The reason for his presence at the launch ceremony in Hangar 2 at Ben-Gurion Airport is that the plane will be named Jerusalem of Gold, and is expected to do a low fly-past across the capital at 8:30 a.m. on the day of the launch.

It would be nice if there were also a Jerusalem of Gold Airport, but there is so much mainly residential construction going on in the capital that there is simply no available land on which to build an international airport. Still, on a good day, travel by car from Jerusalem to Ben-Gurion Airport takes between 30 and 40 minutes and slightly less in the train, which is due to increase its frequency in coming months.

With regard to construction, rumor has it that there’s a major holdup in the restructuring of the entrance to the capital. What was touted as a three-year project is already affecting the moods of motorists. If there’s a significant delay, they’ll simply go mad.

greerfc@gmail.com


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