Grapevine: Chinese connections

Event at embassy culminated with an extraordinary virtuoso concert of traditional music by the Forbidden City Chamber Orchestra.

Chinese flag 521 (photo credit: Reuters)
Chinese flag 521
(photo credit: Reuters)
Last week, the question was posed in this column as to whether it was coincidence or reconciliation behind the fact that the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of China were holding their national day receptions on the same date in adjacent hotels in Tel Aviv.
It was definitely not reconciliation, as this columnist discovered at the PRC reception after informing a senior member the embassy that she would have to slip out from the David Intercontinental Hotel to go next door to the Dan Panorama after the speeches to report on the other event. He looked displeased and demanded that the two reports should not appear on the same page. The columnist reminded him that he was in Israel, not in China, and could therefore not issue such orders. The eventual compromise was that PRC would appear on the page ahead of ROC.
Aside from that, embassy staff was most cordial and cooperative and it was a wonderful event that culminated with an extraordinary virtuoso concert of traditional Chinese music by the Forbidden City Chamber Orchestra, which proved how superbly it could also play Handel and, as an encore, performed a Chinese interpretation of “Halicha L’caesarea,” (a walk to Caesarea), better known as “Eli, Eli,” the lyrics for which were written by WWII heroine Hannah Senesh.
Prior to the addresses by Ambassador Gao Yanping and President Shimon Peres, who is a frequent guest of honor at major Chinese events, there was a continuous video showing meetings between Chinese dignitaries and well-known Israeli personalities in both China and Israel over the past 20 years.
This year is the 20th since the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and Israel, and the video was illustrative of cooperation and exchanges in politics, science, hi-tech, culture, education, business, military and sport, as well as of the transformation of China since it opened up and introduced reforms. The video also showed a sample of the huge variety of activities in which ambassador Gao has been involved since arriving in Israel just over a year ago. What she has done to enhance the relationship between China and Israel has not gone unnoticed.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu called her earlier in the day to congratulate her on China’s 63rd anniversary of independence and told her, “The relationship with China is in the national interest of the State of Israel.”
Peres, who has met her many times, as she accompanied Chinese dignitaries to meetings with him, hailed her as “a great ambassador,” adding that “Israel loves you.” He told Gao that she is doing a wonderful job in representing China and promoting and enhancing the relationship between the two countries, especially in economics and culture. In the culture context he mentioned brilliant Chinese pianist Yuja Wang, who was a guest soloist this month with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. Peres said that he had heard via the IPO that she is “one of the greatest pianists of our times.” Peres observed that 63 years ago, when China was poor, divided, under occupation and hopeless, no-one would have dreamed that it would become one of the most powerful and progressive countries in the world.
“The Chinese people have enriched the land of China,” he declared, and have brought about “a tremendous, profound change”. Peres suggested that the Middle East could become great by following the Chinese example of looking inwards to find its own potential. He lauded the transformation of China as “an unbelievable human achievement.” Gao introduced Peres after concluding her own address, describing him as “a very good and much-respected friend of the Chinese people, who has made a great contribution to relations between China and Israel.”
Seated on the stage next to Peres was Haifa Mayor Yona Yahav, who was there because of the twin city agreement Haifa signed with Shenzhen earlier this year.
In her own wide-ranging address, Gao spoke of the friendship that exists between Israel and China and quoted Israel’s founding prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, who predicted that it would not be long before China would become one of the greatest nations in the world.
China has made enormous progress in political, economic, social and other fields, and is now the world’s secondlargest economy, said Gao. China’s foreign currency reserves now exceed US $3 trillion. Of the world’s top 500 enterprises, she noted with pride, 79 are Chinese.
In 1949, when China declared its independence, she revealed, the average life span was 41 years. Now it’s almost 75. In that 63-year period, China has also entered the space age, and China’s astronauts manually docked two space ships in outer space for the first time this year.
Though she might have some trouble convincing human rights activists that China is a firm contributor to world peace and security, advocating the building of a harmonious world of durable peace and common prosperity, Gao had no problem convincing Peres, who waxed even more lyrical about China on this particular issue than did Gao herself. Yet for all China’s great achievements, Gao acknowledged, it remains a developing country with a per-capita GDP of around US $5,400, which is roughly one-sixth of Israel’s, ranking China 100th in the world.
■ MANY ISRAELI tourists are discovering China, as are Israeli businesspeople and entertainers. Singer David D’Or was a big hit in China and, while touring, fell in love with the country and the people.
Now it’s Miri Mesika’s turn. Mesika has been invited to China in February to participate in the Chinese New Year celebrations and to sing in Hebrew on one of the most popular television programs. She’s told friends that she can hardly wait.
■ THE ROC is much more favorably disposed towards PRC than the other way around. When this columnist informed the No. 2 official at the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in Tel Aviv that she would have to first attend the PRC reception, he told her that she would be welcome whenever she arrives. In many respects, the address by Liang Jen Chang, the ROC representative who heads TECO, was similar to Gao’s, the difference being that mainland China is much bigger and has diplomatic relations with more than 180 countries whereas Taiwan, as the ROC is frequently called, has diplomatic relations with only 23 countries, and Israel isn’t one of them. This is why Knesset members are seen at ROC functions but officials from the prime minister’s and foreign minister’s offices are usually not.
Two people from the Prime Minister’s Office who were seen entering the ROC reception were asked whether they were permitted to be there. They sheepishly replied in the negative, but explained that they had an appointment with one of the guests.
The fact that there were more than 300 guests says a lot for the headway that Chang has made in Israel among MKs, diplomats, businesspeople and people in various cultural spheres as well as with recent university graduates who studied in Taiwan. Chang listed some of the challenges that Taiwan is facing, citing a new blueprint mapped out by President Ying- Jeou Ma, who was re-elected to office this past January. Lessening tensions across the Taiwan Straits comes fifth after the top priority, which is promoting sustainable economic growth and pursuing an efficiency-oriented economy to an innovation- driven one. Next comes improving the establishment of a just society through safeguarding human rights and equal gender status, plus narrowing the gap between the rich and the economically disadvantaged. Although GDP is important said Chang, GNH – “Gross National Happiness” – is more important. Third in the list of priorities is the upholding of a clean and efficient government as the core value of the administration; and fourth is protection of the environment.
“We have only one earth, and we are living in a global society,” said Chang, who pledged that his country will live up to the standards set by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). At the commencement of his address, Chang said that over the past century, the Republic of China has been transformed from a backward country into an economically vibrant and politically free country. While still striving to broaden the scope of its diplomatic ties, it will continue to practice viable diplomacy to establish more substantial relations with countries with which it does not have diplomatic relations. For example, starting from November 1, Taiwanese citizens visiting the United States will no longer require a visa, even though Taiwan does not enjoy diplomatic relations with the US.
Israel is another case-in-point. A visa waiver agreement between Israel and Taiwan was signed more than a year ago. Taiwan greatly cherishes its relations with Israel, said Chang, and respects and admires both Israel and the Jewish people.
He was also pleased to report that in 2011, trade between Taiwan and Israel reached NIS 5.3 billion.
Kadima MK Nachman Shai, who served as chairman of the Israel Taiwan Friendship League in the Knesset, said he was proud of the progress that had been made in intensifying the relationship since Chang’s assumption of office.
“There is a growing appreciation and understanding of the importance of the Republic of China,” he said. Many Israelis, including MKs, travel there and come back as unofficial ambassadors for ROC.
Not knowing at this stage what his political future will be, Shai could not say whether he or someone else will head the Friendship League in the next Knesset.
“But whatever happens in the elections, whoever serves in my position will do their utmost to bring our two countries together,” he said. The evening concluded with a jazz recital.
■ EVERY YEAR, via the Government Press Office, the prime minister of Israel hosts a reception for foreign journalists, press attaches of various embassies and people whose organizations are in frequent contact with foreign media. These receptions are general held sometime in January.
But this year, Netanyahu is jumping the gun and is having the New Year toast on December 4. To anyone who may think that this infers a fear that he may not be re-elected – it doesn’t. On the contrary, it gives him a wonderful opportunity prior to the cut-off date for election publicity to make a campaign speech which he is reasonably sure will go out to media around the world. To what extent this will affect the vote is anyone’s guess, as the only Israelis permitted to vote abroad are those who are there in service to the state.
■IT’S CUSTOMARY at state dinners for an entertainer to sing one song in Hebrew and another in the language of the guest of honor. Whenever possible the singer chosen, has a link of some kind with the country of the visiting dignitary. Thus, when President Shimon Peres hosted a state dinner in honor of Bulgarian President Rosen Plevneliev, the singer chosen was Mira Awad, whose mother is Bulgarian.
Sitting at a table close to the stage was Bulgarian-born stage and screen actor Alex Ansky, who appeared with Awad in My Fair Lady and who delighted in her performance, calling for an encore as she left the stage. But he was not the only one who wanted her to sing another song. At the request of the president of Bulgaria, she sang one more Bulgarian song without musical accompaniment and the Bulgarians in the room, including those living in Israel, were ecstatic in their applause.
“She’s a wonderful multi-talent,” exclaimed Ansky as he and his wife, Hamutal, rose to embrace Awad after the encore. Bulgarian music has always been part of Awad’s life. Her Christian Arab father left his village on the Lebanese border to study medicine in Bulgaria, which is where he met her mother.
■ ALSO AT the dinner were producer/director Nissim Levy, who is involved in a cinematic co-production with Bulgaria, and David Varod, an Israeli who has been living in Bulgaria for 14 years and is the CEO and chairman of Nu Boyana Film Studios, where many Hollywood films are now being shot. According to Levy, Nu Boyana has just about everything on hand that a film maker would want, and this is one of the reasons for its popularity because it saves so much hassle and enables reduced production expenses.
There’s another Israeli connection as well. Nu Boyana is owned by Haifa-born, Los Angeles-based Avi Lerner, the founder of Nu Image and Millenium Films production companies. Lerner produced Rambo, starring Sylvester Stallone; Righteous Kill, starring Robert de Niro and Al Pacino and The Expendables, directed by Stallone.
It was announced earlier this week that The Expendables 2 had grossed more than $300 million worldwide. Most of Lerner’s films are made in Bulgaria, because in his view it is the least expensive location.
According to Varod, 170 feature films have been produced at Nu Boyana over the past 14 years. In March, Bulgaria and Israel signed an intergovernmental treaty on joint film projects under which producers will be able to receive some state funding for co-productions. If all goes well, Levy and Varod believe that the shooting of Levy’s feature film, which has been given an interim title of Concert for Survivors, will begin in March. The cast will be mainly Bulgarian, but there will be a few Israeli actors as well and, with the exception of one scene that will be shot in Israel, most of the film will be shot at Nu Boyana studios and in various locations in Bulgaria. The main focus of the film is the friendship between a Jew and a non-Jew in wartime Bulgaria during the Holocaust era and what happened afterwards. Varod specially came to Israel at Plevneliev’s invitation. The president is highly appreciative of what Nu Boyana has done to promote Bulgaria as one of the film capitals of Europe, Varod said.
■ IN HIS address at the dinner, Peres spoke of how Bulgarian immigrants had turned Jaffa into a mini Bulgaria with Bulgarian music, Bulgarian restaurants and the Maccabi Jaffa football team, which for many years had a number of Bulgarian players and was avidly supported by the Bulgarian community. Peres noted that Bulgarian immigrants had contributed to every walk of life in Israel. “Some were even Members of Knesset,” he said.
Both Peres and Plevneliev referred to Bulgaria’s saving its Jews during the Holocaust, and Plevneliev said that he hoped to see among participants at the 70th anniversary commemoration of the rescue next March both those who had been rescued and those who had been among the rescuers.
■ NIGERIAN RECEPTIONS and those hosted by other African countries are always wonderfully colorful affairs, as representatives of African states in Israel temporarily abandon their regular Western attire and don their traditional national costumes, which are a resplendent feast for the eyes.
The exquisite fabrics, the gorgeous embroideries and the marvelous colors as well as the amazing headdresses unfailingly contribute to the festive atmosphere.
This year, the Nigerians combined their 52nd Independence Day celebrations with those marking the 20th anniversary of the restoration of diplomatic relations between Nigeria and Israel. As always, a huge number of guests mingled on the sprawling lawns of the ambassador’s residence in Kfar Shmaryahu, and this year in addition to the musical folklore items that were part of the entertainment, there was also an exciting fashion show of traditional costumes from different parts of Nigeria.
Ambassador David Oladipo Obasa spoke of his country’s transformation, its moral and social regeneration and its commitment to eliminate terrorism and violence. Among all the positive things he had to say about bilateral relations with Israel, there was one jarring note that was indicative of both his courage and his pain, in view of the fact that “Israel has always stood by Nigeria.”
While ambassadors do not usually voice public criticism of situations in their host countries, Obasa, as a proud African, could not do otherwise but to condemn the bigotry to which some of his fellow countrymen as well as other Africans have been subjected in Israel. It was most unfortunate he said, that in certain Israeli quarters there are people who are conducting a hate campaign against people of African extraction.
Master of ceremonies Olukayode O.Fayomi, a political affairs minister at the embassy, proved that he had done his homework when introducing Minister for the Improvement of Government Services Michael Eitan, who is famous for having delivered the longest ever filibuster speech in the Knesset – and possibly in any parliament – when on December 29, 1992 he spoke for 10 straight hours in order to delay a vote on the budget. Fayomi promised that Eitan would not speak as long on this occasion,.
Eitan, who was representing the government, confined himself to the address prepared for him by the Foreign Ministry and did not respond to remarks about the hate campaign. He congratulated Nigeria on strengthening its democracy, advancing the economy, and development goals that have propelled it into a leading country on the African continent. He also referred to common interests and challenges, stating that “In recent years, Nigeria has had to confront the threat of extremist Islamic terrorism which strikes at the fabric of life in that country, has cost the lives of hundreds of Nigerians and threatens the stability of the region as a whole.”
■ ISRAEL IS so preoccupied with its own problems that there is a tendency for the public to forget or ignore what confronts other countries. At the 52nd Independence Day reception that he hosted at his residence in Herzliya Pituah, Cyprus Ambassador Dimitris Hatziargyrou remained angry over the 1974 Turkish invasion and conquest of the northern part of his island state and said that Cyprus is still trying to heal the wounds of the invasion and the subsequent military occupation of one-third of the island. Cyprus shared a common experience with Israel in that it had been under British rule and, after a four-year liberation struggle against colonial power, took control of its own destiny in 1960. One of the great triumphs of the Republic of Cyprus was that it attained membership in the European Union while Turkey is still waiting in the wings.
Cyprus currently presides over the Council of the European Union.
Cyprus has a long history with Israel, since before the creation of the state, when British Mandate forces intercepted so-called illegal Jewish immigrants – most of them Holocaust survivors – and placed them in detention camps in Cyprus. Some 53,000 Jews spent the period between 1946 and 1949 in Cyprus, during which time approximately 2,000 Jewish babies were born on the island. Cypriots not only helped the Jews who had been forced to reside there, but also cooperated with the Hagana in efforts to thwart the British.
National Infrastructure Minister Uzi Landau, who was representing the government, recalled how as a young man he had eagerly followed the Cypriot struggle and the activities of Archbishop Makarios III, who led the island’s Greek community and became president following British withdrawal. Israelis were happy and excited that Cyprus had joined the family of the world’s democratic nations, said Landau. Although relations between Israel and Cyprus had been somewhat strained in the interim, they are now extremely cordial with mutual understanding, open dialogue and frequent high-level visits between the two countries, said Landau, who saw Cyprus as “a bridge between the Middle East and Europe.”
■ THERE ARE many ways to promote a country, and art is one of them.
Israeli and Ecuadorian artists have been working together in art workshops, which prompted the embassy of Ecuador to organize an art exhibition under the title “Ecuador-Israel Colors and Friendship.” The exhibition held at the Cervantes Institute in Tel Aviv was part of Ecuadorian Culture Month, in which there were cultural events in Haifa, Netanya and Tel Aviv. At the opening of the exhibition, Ecuadorian Ambassador Guillermo Bassante said that each of the artists wanted to greet Ecuador through their personal artistic creations.
The exhibition was of value not only for its aesthetic content but for the spirit of friendship reflected between the Israeli and Ecuadorian artists, he said. One of the artists is his wife, Lourdes Gavilanes.
The others include Rivka Margolin, Ada Yekutiel, and Sali Ariel from Israel and Ligia Matani and Monica Sarmiento from Ecuador. Ariel is already busy preparing for two more exhibitions during Hanukka.