Grapevine: Men of the hours

Peres wins praise for the Facing Tomorrow conference, the Polish president honors Israelis with strong ties, and Vaclav Havel says his country has always stood with Israel.

grapes 88 (photo credit: )
grapes 88
(photo credit: )
ISRAELIS HAVE a reputation for not being gracious in the face of someone else's success. In a long and often controversial career of public service, President Shimon Peres has often been the butt of such uncharitable attitudes. But not last week, when every hour seemed to be his finest hour. Israeli and foreign dignitaries who attended the Facing Tomorrow conference in Jerusalem praised his vision and his initiative, and declared that no one but Peres could have pulled off such a prestige event in so short a space of time. Thinking back, his 80th birthday bash which also brought in a host of world leaders may have been the dress rehearsal. Throughout last week, Peres received numerous standing ovations and continuous compliments. Political leaders from across the spectrum lauded his achievement and thanked him for the gift he had given to Israel on her 60th anniversary in bringing so many heads of state and government to the country at the one time. Shas leader Eli Yishai quipped that they would have to pass a special law in the Knesset to enable Peres to continue as president beyond his 120th birthday, and other politicians hinted that the amendment that had been made to the Basic Law: President, after Ezer Weizman was forced to step down after seven years in office for reasons of fiscal impropriety, could be changed again. Previously the law provided for the possibility of two five-year terms. After the Weizman affair, it was changed to one seven-year term. With regard to Peres it may be amended to service for as long as he is mentally and physically capable. The pressures of the past week certainly proved him capable on both counts. He attended meetings and events from early morning till past midnight. He took a series of helicopter trips to get to various places on time. He spent hours on his feet meeting and greeting. In addition to prepared speeches, he made several extemporaneous speeches, and though he occasionally looked a little tired, for most the time he was in his element, radiating joie de vivre. SINS OF omission: At the opening night of the Facing Tomorrow conference, neither President Shimon Peres nor Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, in addressing several of the luminaries present by name or title, mentioned Israel's chief rabbis. It was left to Nobel Prize laureate Elie Wiesel, who at the start of his remarks spoke in Hebrew, to address, among others, "the rabbis and their students." ALL OF us, even the best and the brightest, have an Achilles' heel of some sort. Peres, for instance, has a problem in pronouncing certain non-Israeli names, even one as simple as that of international media baron Rupert Murdoch. Most Anglos, of course, have no problem in pronouncing Murdoch's name, but Peres, who at the closing session of the Facing Tomorrow conference singled him out as a member of the task force that will conduct a feasibility study into the establishment of a school for leadership, mangled his name rather badly, and has done so in the past with the names of other prominent personalities who have visited Israel. Even someone as practiced as veteran broadcaster and emcee Haim Yavin has nightmares about correct pronunciation. Yavin, who emceed the closing session of the conference, was visibly relieved after carefully pronouncing the difficult names of representatives of Albania, Rwanda, the Tongalese Republic and Egypt. Since his period as secretary of state, Henry Kissinger has drawn closer to Israel. "I can never come here without emotion," he said at the Tomorrow conference. "I can never treat Israel as a foreign country." In more humorous vein at the outset of his address, Kissinger said that he had been threatened by Dennis Ross, who chaired the panel in which he was participating, that if he spoke for more than 15 minutes, a trapdoor would open up and swallow him. "And if I do speak for 15 minutes, you can all say that you were present at an historic occasion," he said. THE CONSENSUS is that Jerusalem and Israel benefited greatly from the media focus of the Facing Tomorrow conference, with well over 400 representatives from foreign media covering the sessions and interviewing many of the personalities who attended. The Peres Peace Center was also a great beneficiary in that a breakfast for its donors and members of the Board of Governors such as former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev was hosted by Peres at the David Citadel Hotel. Guests were greeted by the hotel's owner, Alfred Akirov, who is also a donor to the Peres Peace Center. Just before the fund-raising aspect of the breakfast began, Peres, who is not supposed to be associated with fund-raising in his capacity as president, left the room, and returned only after all the pledges had been announced. Average pledges were in the range of $100,000. CLOTHES MAKETH the man is a lesson that has been handed down from Leviticus. Rodney Sanders, the general manager of the Inbal Hotel, Jerusalem - which was home away from home to a large number of past and present world leaders last week - learned just how true this is from personal experience. Sanders is a cycling freak and regardless of the weather, goes out for a morning ride every day. He also cycles when he's abroad. Last week he felt a particular need to exercise his legs to balance the number of times he had used his hands to welcome dignitaries to the hotel and to check them in. It's rare to be a cyclist in a suit, and Sanders who wears a suit in his capacity as general manager, opts for shorts and a T-shirt when he's riding his bike. Big mistake! When he returned to the hotel on Tuesday of last week, the security guards wouldn't let him in because they didn't recognize him. Fortunately there were other people inside who did. GIVEN THE number of VIPs staying at the David Citadel - many of them with all kinds of demands at the strangest hours - the hotel's guest relations and public relations manager, Medina Pearl, was burning the midnight oil, but refused to sleep in the hotel, saying she preferred the comfort of her own bed. In view of her first name (which means state in Hebrew), Pearl was asked by many guests whether she had been born together with the state. As it happens, she wasn't. She was born in tandem with the UN resolution for the partition of Palestine. AS A student in communist Poland in the 1980s at the the tail end of martial law, and at a time when all things Jewish were virtually taboo, Laurence Weinbaum, now a senior officer with the Israel Council on Foreign Relations, could never have imagined that the day would come when he would be sitting across a table from the president of Poland in a Jerusalem hotel, after the latter had just pinned a Polish state decoration to his lapel. The Polish awards ceremony was one of the side issues of the Facing Tomorrow conference, which brought so many heads of state to Israel, including Poland's President Lech Kaczynski. The occasion provided an ideal opportunity for Kaczynski to bestow recognition on Israelis with strong Polish connections. Among them were Holocaust survivors and former citizens of Warsaw Samuel Willenberg, one of the last survivors of Treblinka, Halina Ashkenazy and Dov Kornblum, who received the prestigious Order of Merit. Weinbaum, Rafi Weichert, the well-known Hebrew translator of Polish literature, and Yaron Karol Beker, programs director of the Polish Institute in Tel Aviv, received the Zloty Krzyz Zaslugi (Gold Cross of Merit) - in recognition of their efforts to foster closer relations between Israelis and Poles. The awards ceremony, attended by Peres, took place in the course of an intimate luncheon at Jerusalem's Mount Zion Hotel, which in recent months has become a favorite with Central and East European embassies. Kaczynski, who is a fine orator, spoke of the 65th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. He also noted the fact that there had been a second Jewish underground organization, the ZZW, and that it surprised him to learn that it was unknown to most Israelis, including senior government and military officials. Willenberg, who had been scheduled to accompany Peres to Poland but who had suffered a fall and serious injury some days earlier, was the life of the party, posing for photographs with most of the women present seated on the arms of his wheelchair. The service at the hotel was not as fast as the guests would have liked, so Ambassador Agnieszka Magdziak-Miszewska and Ola McCabe, a member of the embassy staff, switched roles and wound up assisting the waiters. Honorary Consul for Poland Ze'ev Baran presented Kaczyski and his wife with a carton containing a dozen boxes of fresh cherries from Kibbutz Ramat Rahel. Each box was adorned with a special label dedicated to Poland's first couple. IN AN emotionally moving ceremony at the Tel Aviv Fairgrounds, which was the site for an amazing World Stamp Championship exhibit, Holocaust survivor and widely-known stamp dealer Max Stern last Friday presented Australian Ambassador James Larsen and Jewish Agency and World Zionist Organization Chairman Ze'ev Bielski with commemorative sets of stamps honoring Israel's 60th anniversary. These were identical to those that he and Zionist Federation of Australia President Philip Chester presented recently at the Australian Federal Parliament in Canberra to Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and opposition leader Dr. Brendan Nelson on the day that they proposed a bipartisan motion congratulating Israel on its 60th anniversary. Stern, recognized as one of the world's major stamp dealers, has been living in Melbourne for well over half a century. Now 86, and still remarkably spry, Stern became a stamp dealer in 1939 in his native Bratislava when he was only 17 years old, allowing him to provide for his family. Despite the fact that he was Jewish, he managed to continue operating his stamp business throughout most of the war years. In October 1944, he escaped the final deportation of Slovakian Jews and hid with other Jews in the attic of a theater. The hiding place was discovered by the Nazis in the early part of 1945, and its inhabitants were sent to Sachsenhausen concentration camp near Berlin. Stern was assigned to clearing rubble after bombing raids and building barricades against tanks. Toward the end of the war, he and other prisoners were forced to join the death march from Berlin toward Hamburg. Miraculously he survived and returned to Bratislava where he again established his stamp business. When Czechoslovakia came under communist rule, Stern realized that he had no future there, and fled with his wife Eva. They made their way to Australia where he again set up business as a stamp dealer. His contributions to philately both in Australia and around the globe have earned him many honors. When the Zionist Federation of Australia was planning to do something special to mark Israel's 60th anniversary, Stern suggested a stamp set featuring all 12 prime ministers of Israel along with the image of Theodor Herzl, the founder of the Zionist movement. Chester was unable to be in Israel for the second presentation, but was represented by his son, David, who has made aliya, and is about to enter the same elite army unit in which two of Israel's prime ministers served as well as by Yigal Sela, who heads the ZFA's Israel office. Stern, who broke down in the middle of his speech, recalled that on May 16, 1945 he had been recovering from typhoid in a Soviet army hospital. "Today, exactly 63 years later, I am here in a Jewish democratic country," Stern said, adding that he never dreamt 63 years ago that he would live to see such a day. "This event surpasses all philatelic honors I received." He had also been particularly moved by the ceremony in Canberra, where the Royal Australian Army Band had played "Hatikva." Larsen said the stamp set not only honors 12 prime ministers of Israel, but also the long Israel-Australia relationship, backed not only by political support but one-on-one connections. Larsen also mentioned that May 16, 1948 was when the first stamps were issued by the State of Israel, adding to the significance of the date. Bielski, who visited Australia for the first time two years ago, was lavish in his praise: "What a beautiful country, what wonderful people and what a Zionist movement they've got." Then pointing to the image of Herzl on the framed stamp set declared: "This is my predecessor." As it happens, Herzl's middle name was Ze'ev. ALTHOUGH AMERICA was the first country to officially recognize Israel, and has been a good friend for 60 years, it refused to supply Israel with guns with which to defend itself during the War of Independence. The country that did supply Israel with arms and military equipment was Czechoslovakia. Vaclav Havel, who was the 10th president of Czechoslovakia and the first president of the Czech Republic, said that his country had stood with Israel at its birth in 1948, and still stands with Israel 60 years later. When he first met Shimon Peres 18 years ago, he said, he knew right away that he would make the best president that Israel could have, and mentioned this to Israeli officials. He was happy that the Knesset had finally taken his advice. KAZAKHSTAN'S PRESIDENT of the Senate Kasymzhomart Tokayev, a former prime minister and foreign minister, brought greetings from President Nursultan Nazarbayev and said that Kazakhstan supports all international efforts to establish a durable peace in the Middle East. Kazakhstan is against all forms of terrorism, conventional and unconventional, said Tokayev, who brought a large parliamentary delegation to the conference, and he added that Kazakhstan is interested in intensifying its relations with Israel on all levels. ARGUABLY ONE of the best known bylines in Jewish journalism is that of the prolific syndicated writer Tom Tugend, who has worked as the Los Angeles-based West Coast correspondent for The Jerusalem Post. Tugend was recently one of the recipients of a Distinguished Journalist Award by the Greater Los Angeles Professional Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. According to the citation, the award recognizes "members of the profession who demonstrate good news judgment, a strong sense of ethics and a passion for getting the story right." Born in Berlin in 1925, Tugend left Germany in April 1939 without any impending sense of doom, although his father - who had gone to America two years earlier - kept writing letters in which he urged his family to get out while they could. In early 1944, when he was 18, Tugend joined the US Army, fighting in France and Germany. He was transferred to military intelligence when it was discovered that he spoke German. Discharged in May 1946, he went on the GI Bill to UCLA and then on to Berkeley to study journalism. In 1948, he came to Israel and fought with an anti-tank unit in the War of Independence. He later worked in a kibbutz before returning to the US. He was recalled to service for the Korean War, and in 1956 was employed by McDonnell Douglas, where he worked for a year as a technical editor by day and on the copy desk of The Los Angeles Times at night. After that he worked for 30 years at UCLA as a science writer and communications director, retiring in 1989. While at UCLA, he took a year off to work at the Weizmann Institute as head of PR. In 1970, he became a regular correspondent for the London Jewish Chronicle, and soon after began writing for The Jerusalem Post, after which he also began writing for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, and continues to write for all three. Tugend, who began his journalism career as a copyboy at The San Francisco Chronicle, is also a contributing editor to The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles. WOMEN'S ELECTORAL Power chairwoman Michal Yudin predicts that there will be more women mayors than ever before in the aftermath of the upcoming municipal elections. There are 17 women running for mayor this year, and although not all will get in, Yudin is convinced that at least half of them will and that the others will win council seats. There are currently three women mayors in Israel: Netanya's Miriam Feierberg, Herzliya's Yael German and Mitzpe Ramon's Flora Shoshan, who happens to be the sister of former Sderot mayor Amir Peretz, whose wife, Ahlama, is running for mayor of Sderot in the current contest. Incumbent Sderot Mayor Eli Moyal has not yet announced whether he will once more toss his hat in the ring. NOT EVERYONE born on the fifth of Iyar showed up at the party hosted by Peres in honor of 60-year-olds born together with the state. Among the absentees was flamenco dancer Sylvia Doran, who was born in South Africa and came on aliya in 1975. Doran was invited to represent Israel at a three-day cultural event in honor of Israel's 60th anniversary at the Juan Carlos University in Spain. It was an invitation that she simply couldn't refuse. Conscious of the historic significance of her birth date, Doran's parents always celebrated her birthday in accordance with the Hebrew calendar, and she continues to do so.