Grapevine: 35 years after Entebbe

A survivor visits Peres, Australians remember Frank Stein, and the Ofers redirect their presents.

Shimon Peres 311 (photo credit: Mark Neiman/GPO)
Shimon Peres 311
(photo credit: Mark Neiman/GPO)
Hardly a day passes without some news-related reference to the plight of kidnapped IDF soldier Gilad Schalit, who receives empathy from people who have been in similar situations. One such person is Shai Gross, who on the Fourth of July arrived at Beit Hanassi with two of his four children.
The visit coincided with the 35th anniversary of the audacious Entebbe rescue operation. Gross was six years old at the time, yet 35 years later, the events of his harrowing days as a hostage are still etched in his mind, and not a day goes by in which he does not think about what Schalit has been experiencing for five long years.
Yet it was for a different reason that Gross came to see President Shimon Peres: He wanted to thank him, on this symbolic date, for the gift of life. Gross, together with other members of his family, had been one of 248 passengers on the plane hijacked by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and a German group of terrorists.
The plane was diverted to Entebbe Airport in Uganda. The non-Jewish passengers were released, and the 105 Jewish passengers, several of them Israelis, were held captive. Peres had been defense minister, and together with prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, a handful of other ministers, and representatives of the Mossad and Military Intelligence, he had decided on what turned out to be a brilliantly creative rescue operation.
Unfortunately a small number of passengers were killed, as was Lt.-Col. Yonatan Netanyahu, the commander of the operation and the brother of the current prime minister.
Five of the commandos were wounded, most seriously Sorin Herscu, who was left permanently paralyzed.
Gross presented Peres with some framed original photos of the rescue, accompanied by the citation: “To Shimon Peres, president of the State of Israel, thank you for the life I received as a gift.” Gross also brought an Entebbe scrap book with him, and he and Peres shared memories as they leafed through the pages. Gross told Peres that he had named one of his children Yoni in memory of Netanyahu.
Peres told Gross that he had met Netanyahu on the eve of the operation and been tremendously impressed by his charisma and his leadership qualities. He also spoke of the tensions that had prevailed while the operation was under way. One of the lingering memories that Gross has of his traumatic experience is of being slapped across the face by one of the German terrorists, who was disturbed that he was playing with other children.
The meeting between Peres and Gross was charged with emotion and a sense of freedom, nostalgia and hope. Gross, as a child, had been in what looked like a hopeless situation.
Now, his own children represented hope for the future.
Peres embraced them all.
Peres was one of the speakers at the memorial ceremony held for Netanyahu at the Mount Herzl military cemetery on Thursday.
For many years, Frank Stein regarded Kiryat Moriah, the Jerusalem-based training center for Zionist youth leaders, as his home away from home. Truth be told, he may have spent more time at Kiryat Moriah than in his own apartment. Stein, who died of kidney failure at age 51, following a brief but brave battle with cancer, was the Israel representative of the Zionist Federation of Australia, in which capacity he dealt not only with Zionist leaders and potential leaders from Down Under, but with all immigrants from there, often liaising on their behalf with the Israel authorities and/or the Australian Embassy.
Though unmarried and without children of his own at the time of his death in March 2009, Stein was a surrogate father to countless Australian youngsters and a friend on whom everyone could rely, especially Australians bewildered by the Israeli system.
He was never too busy to deny them a sympathetic ear and a helping hand. As of last month, Stein’s name will be associated in perpetuity with Kiryat Moriah thanks to the initiative of his good friend and former boss Dr.
Ron Weiser, the immediate past president of the ZFA.
Weiser conceived the idea of a Frank Stein Memorial Garden and Recreation Area at Kiryat Moriah, and the project was overseen by Stein’s successor Yigal Sela. Family, friends and former colleagues, including some who came in especially from Australia, attended the inauguration of the project.
The consensus was that there was no more fitting way to honor his memory.
“Literally thousands of Australians passed through his care on the annual AUJS and Youth Movement programs, and all who came in contact with him remember him and were touched by him,” said Weiser. Current ZFA President Philip Chester, who was also in attendance, committed the seed money for the project on behalf of the ZFA, and additional contributions were raised in Australia and in Israel.
Originally from Brisbane, Stein became involved with the Betar Zionist youth movement at a young age and later continued his community work with Hineni in Sydney. After making aliya in 1985, he settled in Jerusalem, where he worked for several organizations dealing with Diaspora youth and assisting English-speaking immigrants in Israel. He went on to become director of the Zionist Federation of Australia’s Israel office, a position he left in 2008 to serve as an Israeli emissary in South Africa, where he spent three months.
He would likely have enjoyed the inauguration ceremony, not because it was in his honor, but because it brought together so many people with whom he had been close and whose lives he had impacted. Among those attending were his brother Benny Stein; Sue and Mervyn Doobov, who knew him from his youth in Brisbane; Simon Starr, a Netzer graduate; Dara Podjarski, a former ZFA colleague; and Roda Shochet, a former colleague at the Jewish Agency.
The memorial plaque, in addition to listing the names of individuals and organizations that contributed to the project, contains a thumbnail biography of Stein’s life with the truthful epitaph: “Frank was a person who carried the weight of all other people’s problems on his shoulders but did not want to trouble a single soul with his own day to day issues if and when they arose.”
When you belong to one of the world’s wealthiest families, it can be a big deal to forfeit your wedding presents. That’s what Daniel and Lena Ofer did when they got married on board a ship in Portofino toward the end of last month: They asked the 500 relatives and friends from Israel, London and elsewhere to contribute to Education Opportunity in lieu of gifts.
Education Opportunity, founded by Daniel Ofer and run by him and his siblings, provides educational opportunities for students whose socioeconomic status is often a barrier to continuing education.
Though three months behind schedule, the refurbished Beit Hanassi will host its first banquet in its seemingly larger premises next week, a state dinner in honor of Greek President Karolos Papoulias and his wife, Maria Panou. The columns that acted as room dividers in the main banquet hall have been removed, and although the floor space remains as it was, the room now looks infinitely bigger.
A little more light has been shed on history through a series of letters between eminent British philosopher, historian of ideas and political theorist Sir Isaiah Berlin and Israel’s founding prime minister, David Ben-Gurion. The copies of this correspondence – which relates to the question of “Who is a Jew?” – have been donated to Ben-Gurion University of the Negev by Berlin’s stepson Peter Halban, who heads the London-based company that published Suzy Eban’s memoir A Sense of Purpose. Eban, who is herself walking history, celebrated her 90th birthday late last month.
Ben-Gurion had written to Berlin in 1958 and 1959, asking him to consider the question of how Israel should define what a Jew is. Though “greatly honored” to be consulted on the matter, Berlin did not offer an opinion, explaining that he did not think anyone outside the borders of Israel should comment on this internal matter.
“I do not believe much good can be done by consulting anyone outside the frontiers of the State of Israel on a matter which is not only ultimately, but immediately, the administrative responsibility of the Israel government itself, and can be settled only by it and the Knesset,” he wrote in a letter dated January 23, 1959.
The correspondence and some photos of the two men together were recently added to the Isaiah Berlin Room in BGU’s Zalman Aranne Central Library, which now houses some 90 percent of Berlin’s books.