Grapevine: From Russia with love

Both Edelstein and Sharansky have a keen sense of humor, which must have stood them in good stead when each was in a Soviet prison.

Yuli Edelstein 370 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Yuli Edelstein 370
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
When Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein and Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky decide to retire, they might consider going out into the world as stand-up comedians.
The two – whose backgrounds are similar in many ways, and who are friends, colleagues and former Prisoners of Zion at the forefront of the battle for Soviet Jewry, both inside and outside the Soviet Union – shared the stage this week at Mishkenot Sha’ananim, at a joint plenary of the Jewish Media Summit and the Jewish Agency board of governors.
Both Edelstein and Sharansky have a keen sense of humor, which must have stood them in good stead when each was in a Soviet prison.
Some of their one-liners were absolutely hilarious, especially when they bounced them off each other, but what came through most positively – aside from their unshakable commitment to Israel and the Jewish people – was their warm affection for each other, and their great respect for their wives.
Edelstein’s wife Tatiana died this past January.
When he was in a Soviet prison, she would travel 5,000 miles by train to see him, even at the risk of being told on arrival that the visit was canceled. She moved heaven and earth to secure his freedom, and eventually succeeded.
While Tatiana Edelstein worked inside the Soviet Union, Avital (formerly Natasha) Sharansky met world leaders whose influence she sought to bring about her husband’s release. In fact this July 4th, at the end of next week, the Sharanskys will celebrate their 40th wedding anniversary. On the day after the wedding, Avital left the Soviet Union and spent the next 13 years campaigning on behalf of her husband.
What Sharansky did not say and perhaps is not even aware of is that in an interview with journalist Helen Davis some 30 years ago, Avital despaired of ever having children – because she seemed to be making little progress in her campaign to get her husband out of prison, and out of Russia. Happily, the Sharanskys are not only parents but also proud grandparents.
It was on Avital’s advice that Sharansky and Edelstein in 1996 formed Yisrael B’Aliya, an independent party created to give a voice in the Knesset to immigrants from the former Soviet Union, and to help facilitate their integration into Israeli mainstream society. The two had remained active in the struggle for Soviet Jewry after arriving in Israel, Sharansky in 1986 and Edelstein in 1987, and with the fall of the Iron Curtain had warned Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Shamir of their anticipation of a huge influx of immigrants from the former Soviet Union – but nothing had been done in preparation for that eventuality.
“We had a different kind of party. We went to prison first,” quipped Sharansky.
Both became ministers before Sharansky quit politics and Edelstein became speaker.
“Sharansky is dying to be the speaker of the Knesset – he just doesn’t know how to put on a tie,” said Edelstein, to a chorus of chuckles from the audience and a broad grin from the ever tie-less Sharansky.
Both have found their lives in Israel rewarding, and neither feels he made a sacrifice. Sharansky momentarily contemplated how different their lives would have been had they remained loyal citizens of the Soviet Union, to which Edelstein suggested, “We might have become oligarchs.”
“You could be an oligarch,” retorted Sharansky.
“I only know how to lose money.”
■ AGAINST THE backdrop of national concern for the three kidnapped yeshiva students, former IDF spokesman Ron Kitri was asked by Israel Radio’s Haim Ador exactly what news the IDF Spokesman’s Office should disseminate.
Kitri prefaced his reply by noting the vast difference between the carefully censored information conveyed on radio by Chaim Herzog during the Six Day War, in which he trod the fine line between informing the Israeli public and knowing the enemy was listening, and the talking heads of today, who are filling the airwaves with misinformation, personal opinion and a lot of twaddle – some of which could negatively impact on the chances to bring home the three abducted teens.
As for the IDF spokesman, Kitri said his job was to convey only what is known – nothing more and sometimes less, if it endangers security.
Once upon a time, not so many years ago, the editors-in-chief of Israel’s media had a self-censorship pact, whereby they were very careful to keep sensitive security-related material out of the papers and off the air. In this new era of social media, every Tom, Dick and Harry becomes an expert and has to give expression to that “expertise,” not considering who may be harmed in the process – the philosophy being that if you’re not out there being heard, you may just as well be dead.
■ YAD VASHEM’s 60th anniversary is taking place without fanfare – perhaps because it would be inappropriate to have the kind of gala associated with round-figure anniversaries, in a museum and educational center dedicated to preserving the memories of 6 million murdered Jews. However, there was an eightday anniversary mission with three generations of Yad Vashem partners and supporters from around the world.
Their itinerary began in Poland, where they visited the camps and other significant sites, and at Birkenau participated with an IDF delegation of Witnesses in Uniform. The ceremony concluded with Holocaust survivor and Yad Vashem benefactor Ed Mosberg donating a Torah scroll to the IDF.
In Israel, mission members participated in a range of remembrance activities, some of them firsthand testimonies, and held meetings with the chairman of the Yad Vashem Council, Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, who was a child survivor; Knesset Speaker Edelstein; Supreme Court Justice Elyakim Rubinstein; and other Israeli notables. Mission members who addressed fellow participants included Ed Sonshine and Joe Gottdenker of Canada; Paul Baan of the Netherlands; and Yossie Hollander of Israel; as well as Canadian Minister of State for Multiculturalism Tim Uppal.
At the mission’s closing event in the Valley of the Communities, Finance Minister Yair Lapid outlined how the Holocaust-era experiences of his late father, Joseph “Tommy” Lapid, had influenced and inspired him as both a Jew and a leader. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu sent a recorded video message, noting Yad Vashem’s “seminal role in the history of our people during the last six decades.”
Benefactor and executive committee member of the board of the American Society for Yad Vashem Mark Moskowitz summed up the mission: “The bits and pieces of information I gleaned growing up truly came to light, in its horrific truth, in Yad Vashem’s Holocaust History Museum; like so many individual links coming together, connecting the past with the present… Collectively, we must safeguard the memories and be the sentinels for these crucial vaults of history, so that they are never forgotten and never repeated; and that others’ denials are recognized for what they are, abject dangerous falsehoods.”
■ OTHER THAN those who are intimately involved, very few people realize the extent of cooperation that goes into bilateral and multilateral organizations. The name of an organization, no matter how long, down-to-earth or esoteric, seldom conveys the scope of its activities and the many strands that make up the weave of its cooperative endeavors and achievements.
This was obvious at the 30th-anniversary celebrations of the Israel-Asia Chamber of Commerce at Tel Aviv’s Rabin Center, where no one was left out of the greetings and the awards. It was one of those rare instances of absolute grace in the Israeli system of doing things, where organizers wanted to ensure that everyone who deserved credit received it.
The chamber was founded in 1984, with the aim of promoting business between Israel and Asia. Its five founding member bodies were: the Foreign Ministry; the Industry, Trade and Labor Ministry (now the Economy Ministry); the Israel Export and International Cooperation Institute; the Federation of Israeli Chambers of Commerce; and the Kibbutz Industries Association.
There are bilateral sub-chambers with India and Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, China and Hong Kong, Singapore, Philippines, Taiwan, Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos, and Indonesia and Malaysia. It should be noted that Israel does not have diplomatic relations with all of these countries, but does have economic relations, and nearly all of these countries have sister chambers of their own with Israeli businesspeople.
Diplomats from Asian countries, including ambassadors, turned out in force for the festivities, which included Israeli and Asian entertainment – most notably, a charming Nepalese dancer – and catering that took into account not only the carnivorously inclined, but also vegans and vegetarians. (Many Asians follow a vegan diet for religious reasons.) Among the diplomats present were Chinese Ambassador Gao Yanping; India’s Deputy Chief of Mission and commercial section head Vani Rao; Philippines Ambassador Generoso Calonge; Myanmar Ambassador Myo Aye; Sri Lankan Ambassador Sarath Devesena Wijesinghe; Nepalese Ambassador Prahlad Kumar Prasai; Thai Ambassador Jurk Boon-Long; and Vietnamese Ambassador Ta Duy Chinh. Also present were representatives of Asian enterprises operating in Israel. Video clips of greetings from sister chambers in Asia were screened, and of course everyone in these chambers knows how to say “shalom” and “toda.”
IACC president Ran Cohen, a former industry, trade and labor minister, noted that Israel has only recently begun to realize the economic importance of Asia, but the founders of the chamber had realized much earlier, even though trade with Asia was insignificant when the chamber was established. Asia now accounts for 20 percent of Israel’s international trade, he said, and predicted that China, India and Japan would soon be the world’s leading economic countries. Cohen advocated Free Trade Zone agreements with Asia, and greater scientific cooperation.
Science, Technology and Space Minister Yaakov Peri, in his introductory remarks, asked everyone to join him in a prayer for the safe return of the three kidnapped yeshiva students. As far as trade goes, he underscored that Israel is not only a regional but international hub, “a dream we could never expect to become a reality in such a short period of time, and with such force.”
Amir Hayek, director-general of the Manufacturer’s Association of Israel, was particularly proud of the fact that Chinese companies are coming to Israel to learn about its industries and benefit from its know-how. On the other hand, he said, Israel can learn from Asia about how to deal with bureaucracy.
MEGA-PHILANTHROP ISTS Dr. Miriam and Sheldon Adelson have donated $5 million to Ariel University’s School of Medical and Health Sciences – the largest donation the university has received to date. Of some 14,000 students at Ariel University, 1,200 are enrolled in the School of Medical and Health Sciences.
The Adelsons have pledged a further $20 million for programs at Ariel that are still awaiting approval. In recent years the couple, through the Adelson Family Foundation, have given in excess of $300 million to Israel-related causes, most notably Yad Vashem, Taglit-Birthright, Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya and drug rehabilitation clinics.
■ BOARD MEMBERS of the Hadassah Medical Organization, including Hadassah Zionist Women’s Organization of America national president Marcie Natan, interim board chair Avi Balashnikov and newly appointed interim HMO director-general Prof. Tamar Peretz met with President Peres to thank him for his long support of Hadassah. “You don’t have to thank me, I should thank you,” said Peres. “You are a very special organization, and Hadassah University Medical Center goes beyond healing to important research.”
The board is currently conducting its quarterly meeting, much of which is devoted to the implementation of the recently agreed-upon recovery plan with the Israel government and staff representatives.
■ MANY OF the members of the Israel Council on Foreign Relations are retired diplomats who served as ambassadors in different countries, and who now live in Tel Aviv and places further north. Because visiting heads of state and high-ranking government ministers who visit Israel are generally strapped for time, the ICFR often hosts breakfast meetings with them at Jerusalem’s King David Hotel, where most of them stay during their period in Israel.
This week, when the ICFR together with the World Jewish Congress hosted Albanian Foreign Minister Ditmir Bushati, several people around the table had made a special effort to come from Tel Aviv and beyond for the 8:30 a.m. meeting.
ICFR executive director Laurence Weinbaum apologized for putting them through the difficulty of being in Jerusalem at such an early hour on a Sunday, at which point Bushati interrupted and said: “8:30 a.m. on a Sunday for Albanians is much more difficult.”
■ A CHANEL 2 Meet the Press interview in which Rina Matzliach interviewed Haneen Zoabi – the controversial and provocative MK who has raised many hackles with her frequent ill-timed comments, with her most recent remarks about the kidnappings leading her to be under threat of expulsion from the Knesset – was a perfect illustration of the deaf talking to the deaf without sign language.
Matzliach heard only what she wanted to hear, which most of the time was actually not what Zoabi said, and Zoabi for the most part wanted to use her time on television to make her point, regardless of the questions Matzliach hurled at her.
“Hurled” is definitely the operative word.
Matzliach lost all semblance of being an objective journalist and screamed accusations at Zoabi, taking over where Likud MK Miri Regev had left off in the Knesset. Regev and Zoabi have had several screaming matches, and some of the accusations Regev has made against Zoabi were repeated by Matzliach.
It was obvious at the start of the interview that Zoabi had agreed to appear on the program conditionally, but Matzliach broke the rules. Zoabi said quite clearly, as she had previously said on an Israel Radio broadcast, that she was not in favor of the kidnapping of the three yeshiva students, but tried to explain that Palestinians were so frustrated with the occupation and lack of progress towards statehood, that they used this particular means to help free Palestinian prisoners. Zoabi also tried to say, but was constantly over-shouted by Matzliach, that the release of the boys versus the release of the Palestinian prisoners could be negotiated.
Matzliach kept screaming at her that she didn’t care about the kidnapped boys, to which Zoabi responded that in a news bulletin moments earlier there had been no mention of Palestinian boys who had been killed by Israeli soldiers. Surely boys from both sides were entitled to equal news time, she argued.
When Matzliach tried to suggest that none of the other Arab legislators had taken the same attitude as Zoabi to the kidnapping, Zoabi replied that this was not true; it was simply that their style of expression was different.
This was in fact borne out in a Channel 10 broadcast in which Raviv Drucker interviewed MK Jamal Zahalka, who said much the same as Zoabi, but not in quite the same way.
When Zoabi said she did not agree with the policy espoused by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, Matzliach shot back: “So you think Abu Mazen [Abbas] is a traitor?” Zoabi told her not to put words in her mouth. She had not said anything of the sort about Abbas, merely that they did not concur politically.
The exchange illustrated how difficult any form of negotiation is between Israelis and Palestinians. It’s not just a matter of language, it’s a matter of mentality and ideology.
■ MOST OF us are educated not to spit into the well from which we drink, but some television and radio journalists have opted to either ignore or forget the lesson. When Channel 10 was in danger of closure – and actually still is – journalists at the Israel Broadcasting Authority put aside their differences and rivalries and stood up for their colleagues. They’ve done the same for Channel 2 journalists who get into trouble, and admittedly, Channel 2’s Ilana Dayan has spoken out and stood in protest against the IBA closure.
It’s perfectly legitimate for anyone including all radio and television journalists to be critical of the IBA, but it is something else altogether to stick a knife in the back of their colleagues – as did Drucker, Avi Nesher, Guri Alfi, Guy Pines, Guy Zohar, Gal Ohovsky, Muli Segev, Miki Haimovich, Moshe Ivgy, Ram Levy and others, who took out a quarter- page advertisement in Haaretz to proclaim their support for the new Israel Public Broadcasting Law, in the belief that this new legislation provides an alternative that will enable quality broadcasting in Israel.
Some of the signatories broadcast early in their careers via the IBA; others were featured in various programs over the years. But even those who have never worked for the IBA should surely have given a thought to the large number of journalists, technicians, administrative and other staff who will find themselves out of work by March 2015, if Communications Minister Gilad Erdan has his way.
In an interview with Erdan, Drucker showed a video clip that had been taken from the Channel 1 screen of a protest announcement during the broadcast of the World Cup football matches from Brazil. He asked the communications minister if he thought it was legitimate for the IBA people to use this format at the expense of the taxpayer, implying to anyone who hadn’t been watching the games that they had all been blacked out by the on-screen protests featuring IBA employees, holding placards giving their names, family status and years of employment.
Erdan was actually quite fair, saying it was legitimate for people who believed their future to be in jeopardy to use the means at their disposal to protest, be it on-air, in demonstrations outside his house or elsewhere. Drucker was left with egg on his face, and brought that segment of the program to a swift conclusion.
■ OVER THE past week, the writer of this column has been castigated by readers for saying favorable things about former prime minister Ehud Olmert and former chief rabbi Yona Metzger, on the grounds that one has been convicted of corruption and the other has been arrested on suspicion of corruption, with a police recommendation for indictment. The writer has also been criticized for her so-called vitriolic comments about Sara Netanyahu.
The Jerusalem Post and this writer are all for balanced opinions and reporting. Few people are so bad that there’s no good side to their character, and in a country in which there seems to be so much delight in dragging the reputations of people in power through the mud, it doesn’t hurt to be reminded of the good things that they’ve done.
One reader, who apparently monitors the good deeds of Sara Netanyahu, sent in a long list – part of which, in the interests of fairness and balance, is published here. The reader claims that the Israeli media, and one publication in particular, is so negatively disposed to the prime minister’s wife that it can never find anything positive to write about her.
So here are some of the positives: She visited the families of the kidnapped yeshiva students on the Sunday following the abduction, and in her capacity as a trained psychologist, counseled them and held their hands. She gave them the feeling she was with them all the way, telling them the prime minister doesn’t sleep at night while worrying about the boys’ return. In the past, she has actively tried to prevent the deportation of children of migrant workers. Both she and the prime minister have tremendous empathy for sick children, especially those with life-threatening illnesses, and visit them in hospitals and in their homes; they also comfort parents whose children have died. She has also hosted events to raise funds for scholarships to enable talented youngsters to study at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance, and more recently raised funds to help two victims of the Carmel Forest fire disaster who needed expensive transplant surgery.
This, by the way, is just a short list, but for those who love taking jabs at Sara Netanyahu, there is another side to her – just as there is to everyone else.
■ PREGNANCY BEFORE marriage seems to be par for the course on Tel Aviv’s celebrity circuit, with quite a number of well-known singers and actresses in various stages of expectation.
Singer Ninet Tayeb is pregnant with the baby of her current beau, Yossi Mizrahi, whom she plans to marry soon. Ironically, one of published reasons that she and longtime significant other Yehuda Levi split up was because he wanted to start a family, and she wanted to advance her career. Then, a few months later, she announced she was a mamain- waiting.
At the rate that the stork has been visiting celebrities over the past year or two, it would not be surprising if a couple of Tel Aviv theaters set up crèches or kindergartens on their premises. Meanwhile, Discreet, a local fashion company that has been following the trend, is now advertising that it has created a range of bridal gowns for pregnant brides.
And yes, they are white. Even if Mom has already lost her innocence, the baby she’s carrying under the canopy has not.