Grapevine: The greatest of distinctions

Judging by the cheers, one would have thought that group entering the auditorium was a bunch of rock stars.

Peres, Kissinger (photo credit: Chen Galili)
Peres, Kissinger
(photo credit: Chen Galili)
Judging by the cheers, the roar of the crowd and the standing ovation, one would have thought that the group entering the auditorium was a bunch of rock stars. But President Shimon Peres, former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger, former British prime minister Tony Blair and the dignitaries who accompanied them don’t quite fall into that category. Yet they proved beyond the shadow of a doubt that even though the world may belong to the young, it can still be swayed by the not so young.
Ebullient and irrepressible sex therapist Dr. Ruth Westheimer, who just this month celebrated her 84th birthday, continued to draw in the crowd at her workshop, to the extent that she had a full house. In fact, demand for her talk was so great among young attendees of the conference that her session had to be moved to a larger room.
At the opening of the Israeli Presidential Conference at on Tuesday, Kissinger, who is a year older than Peres, said, “It is unusual for an 89-year-old man to say that I wish my parents could be here. They would be more proud of this distinction than any of the other honors that have come my way.”
Kissinger’s parents, who fled from Germany to the United State in 1938, ran a traditional Jewish home and to them, the highest civilian decoration that the State of Israel can bestow would certainly have been meaningful.
The enthusiasm of the crowd was boundless and Peres, Kissinger and Blair were cheered not only as a group, but also individually as each mounted and left the stage. There were also cheers, applause and laughter during the speeches. Peres raised a laugh when in his own speech about Kissinger, prior to presenting him with the award, related an anecdote about Kissinger’s first visit to Saudi Arabia “I receive you not as a Jewish person but as a human being,” said the king, to which Kissinger had replied, “Your Majesty, some of my best friends are human beings.”
Tony Blair, who is an extremely popular figure in Israel and who has appeared at all four Facing Tomorrow conferences, was received with great warmth, and he too raised a laugh when he said that he felt extremely honored to be sandwiched between Peres and Kissinger. “I should be grateful to feel like a young thing again,” quipped the 59-year-old Middle East representative of the Quartet and who, in his many meetings with Peres, has imbibed the latter’s optimism that despite all the obstacles, peace is still possible. “A lasting peace with a secure State of Israel and a viable state of Palestine is a preferred strategic Israeli interest,” he declared.
■ BUT THE following day, in a session entitled “A Strategic Look at Tomorrow,” erudite women’s rights activist Ayaan Hirsi-Ali, a Muslim born in Somalia and now living in the US, dashed cold water on peace prospects when she explained that the so-called Arab Spring will never be a true revolution until Muslims learn to compromise.
In the Arab world, she said, authority is absolute and to compromise is to suffer shame.
If the Palestinians learn to compromise, she said, it will have a tremendous impact on the Israel-Arab world as well as on relations between Jews and Muslims. But without compromise there will be no peace even if Israel gives them Jerusalem. She was thrilled, however, that “for the first time, Arab countries are questioning absolute power.”
Leon Wieseltier, literary editor of The New Republic, pointed out that one of the major obstacles on the path to peace was lack of common comprehension.
“You can’t make peace with someone without understanding their definition of peace,” he said. Dennis Ross veteran Middle East policy advisor to a series of US presidents, declared that if the Palestinians are committed to a two-state solution to their conflict with the Israelis, “It’s time for them to put Israel on the map” and to “stop celebrating those who kill Israelis as martyrs. It’s time for Palestinians to say that not only Israelis have to make hard decisions. Both sides will have to make hard decisions.”
There was consensus among all the panelists, including former IDF chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi, that the days of Syrian President Bashar Assad are numbered and that he will quickly fade into the dust of history.
Noting the presence of Peres in the audience, Ross remarked, “I may not be here in 20 to 30 years. I know that you will be, and you will still be telling people about tomorrow.”
■ IN A Hebrew session on Judaism and Democracy and whether they have complementary or conflicting values, international human rights activist and Canadian legislator Prof.
Irwin Cotler presented his address in English, explaining that it was not out of disregard for Hebrew but because he respects it. However, at question time, he spontaneously responded in fluent Hebrew.
All the panelists agreed that many democratic principles were rooted in Judaism, but Adina Bar Shalom, founder and director of the Haredi College for Women, was concerned as to which would triumph in the rare instance of a conflict between the two.
Though Judaism makes ample provision for human rights, Cotler said he was opposed to labeling all of the African migrants in Israel under the pejorative title of “infiltrators.”
Referring to the haredi-secular divide in Israel, haredi newspaper publisher, communications maven and community activist Dudi Zilbershlag said the problem was that neither side made sufficient effort to understand the other.
■ THIS PROBLEM is far less prevalent in the Diaspora, where Jews make greater efforts to focus on factors that unite rather than those that divide. In a session on “The Challenge of Being Jewish in the Diaspora,” Rabbi Richard Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, related how in his neighborhood, the Orthodox rabbi wanted to put up an eruv (ritual enclosure) that would encompass the Reform temple.
When asked why, considering that Reform Jews do not do not observe the practice of eruv, he said he wanted the temple to be included so that Orthodox and Reform Jews could celebrate Sabbath and holidays together.
As for relations between Israel and the Diaspora, Rachel Korpus, president of the Zionist Federation of New Zealand, pointed to the difference between religious and national identification, which tends to obviate the common denominator.
A lot of Israelis are now coming to New Zealand, she said, and while she sees herself first and foremost as Jewish, they see themselves first and foremost as Israelis.
■ BANK OF Israel Gov. Stanley Fischer chaired a plenary session on “The Economic Tomorrow” in which, with exception of one explanatory sentence in Hebrew, he spoke only English with a brilliant panel whose gift of sharp wit and language proved that economists and bankers are far from stodgy.
Much of the discussion focused on the euro zone and its future, which seems somewhat bleak.
Martin Wolf, associate editor and chief economics commentator of the Financial Times of London, praised Gordon Brown, who, as chancellor of the Exchequer, had made the greatest contribution to Britain by preventing then-prime minister Tony Blair from exercising his passionate desire to join the euro zone.
■ APROPOS BRITAIN, the British Embassy together with the British Council this week marked 70 days to the opening of the Paralympic Games in London with an event honoring the Israeli Paralympic delegation.
Two rowing teams from the embassy and the British Council, led by British Ambassador Matthew Gould and British Council director Dr.
Simon Kay, competed against the Paralympic Athletes’ rowing team in an exciting race at the Daniel Rowing Center on the Yarkon River in Tel Aviv, Gould congratulated the Israeli athletes ahead of the London games, saying that the way a country treats its disabled population says a lot about that country.
“Both Britain and Israel can take real pride in our record of treating our disabled population,” he said. “I know that both Israel and Britain take huge pride in the amazing record of each of our Paralympic teams.
When you go to London we are looking for you to do even better than before and come back with more medals than anyone else – apart from us,” he said.
Danny Ben-Abu, chairman of the Israel Paralympic Committee, expressed appreciation for the warming-up contest and the goodwill of the British Embassy and the British Council.
■ ALTHOUGH MUCH was made of the Presidential Medal of Freedom that Barack Obama presented to Shimon Peres, it was not the first time that America’s highest civilian distinction had been given to an Israeli. Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky had previously received it from George W.
Bush. At a luncheon in Jerusalem this week attended by both men, Sharansky told Peres that the award entitled him to a discount at the stall of a particular produce merchant in Jerusalem’s Mahaneh Yehuda market. Sharansky, like many other well known public figures, shops in Mahaneh Yehuda every Friday. Apparently, Sharansky, who shops at the market every Friday, has taken advantage of the offer and decided to inform Peres how to cut down on his expenses.
■ MEMBERS OF Israel’s Dutch community last week marked the 70th anniversary of the date that Anne Frank started her famous diary. The event was also marked by the Herut Women’s Organization, which invited Ambassador of the Kingdom of the Netherlands Caspar Veldkamp to participate in an evening of commemoration and celebration at the Tel Aviv Museum. The program included a dance performance by the Anne Frank Dance Company.
The event was also attended by Minister of Culture and Sport Limor Livnat. Veldkamp urged the public to not remember Anne Frank only as a victim but also for the potential and the great vitality she represents.
■ AIR BERLIN representative in Israel Moni Bar, who is also CEO of Holiday Travel, this week hosted Air Berlin’s top management, including VP of international sales Mats Jakobson and senior VP of communications Uwe Berlinghoff, to mark the third anniversary of the airline’s activities in Israel. Jakobson announced that as of June 30, Air Berlin will double the number of its flights between Tel Aviv and Berlin from three to six weekly flights. Bar noted that there has been a significant increase in the number of German tourists to Israel.
■ UNDETERRED BY the fact that her recent effort to once again establish a tent city on Tel Aviv’s Rothschild Boulevard was nipped in the bud by authorities, social justice activist Daphni Leef will make another attempt today and will continue to do so, regardless of any opposition she gets from Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai.
It promises to be a very hot summer, especially as the state comptroller’s report on the Mount Carmel forest fire has generated a fresh wave of dissatisfaction with the government.
Fellow activist Stav Shafir who has moved in a different direction, while still embracing the cause, says that what started like an Israeli version of Woodstock is turning into a political movement.
■ DEFENSE MINISTER Ehud Barak and his wife, Nili Priel, purportedly sold their luxury apartment in Tel Aviv’s Akirov Towers because he was too far removed from his electorate. He doesn’t seem to be getting any closer in his new rented apartment where he and his wife will be living until construction of their permanent apartment is completed. According to a report in The Marker, Barak has rented an apartment on the 27th floor of the Hashoftim Tower in Tel Aviv, where his monthly rent will be NIS 25,000. Neighbors in the building include Shari Arison, Eitan Raf, Yehuda and Tammy Raveh, who also have a gorgeous home in Jerusalem, and Muli Litvak, whose many business enterprises include the prestigious Litvak Gallery.
Barak sold his apartment in the Akirov Towers for NIS 25.6 million to billionaire Teddy Sagi, who made his fortune from Internet gambling.
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