Grapevine: The Russian roundabout

Liberman noted that today the speaker of the Knesset, the chairman of the Jewish Agency and the foreign minister are all native Russian speakers and that two of those people are former Prisoners of Zion.

Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman at the 2014 Jerusalem Post Annual Conference. (photo credit: screenshot)
Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman at the 2014 Jerusalem Post Annual Conference.
(photo credit: screenshot)
■ After Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman dropped his Brooklyn bombshell to the effect that the day will come when Israel will have a Russian-speaking president, prime minister and defense minister reiterated on Tuesday morning to Israel Radio’s Arye Golan that what he meant when addressing immigrants from the former Soviet Union while in New York for the Jerusalem Post conference, was that Israel is a land of opportunity for immigrants from the former Soviet Union. Liberman noted that today the speaker of the Knesset, the chairman of the Jewish Agency and the foreign minister are all native Russian speakers and that two of those people are former Prisoners of Zion.
It’s just another proof of what goes around comes around. Four of Israel’s presidents, Chaim Weizmann, Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, Zalman Shazar and Ephraim Katzir were Russian speakers. Prime ministers David Ben- Gurion, Moshe Sharett and Levi Eshkol were also Russian speakers as was prime minister Ariel Sharon, even though he was born in Israel.
Ben-Gurion, Eshkol and Sharon also served as defense ministers, and among the chiefs of general staff Russian speakers included Yaakov Dori and Haim Laskov. For the record, there are always native Russian speakers among the 120 outstanding soldiers who are singled out for university scholarships on Independence Day.
■ ORDINARILY, HAD he been in Israel, President Shimon Peres would today be attending the memorial service on Mount Herzl marking the 17th anniversary of the passing of Israel’s sixth president Chaim Herzog. But Peres happens to be on a state visit to China, where Herzog visited secretly during his three weeks tour of the South Pacific in 1986. It was the longest official trip abroad ever taken by a president of Israel and included Hong Kong, Singapore, New Zealand, Fiji, Tonga, Australia and Kenya. In New Zealand he visited both the north and south islands, and in Australia he traveled across the continent starting in Perth and continuing to Canberra, Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane. When in Hong Kong, he suddenly disappeared and the journalists traveling with him had no idea what had happened to him. It later transpired that he had traveled to the Chinese mainland for secret talks with the Chinese leadership. Diplomatic relations between Israel and China were not established till January 1992.
■ CONGRATULATIONS ARE in order in honor of Herzog’s immediate predecessor, Israel’s fifth president, Yitzhak Navon, who so far is the only president who returned to politics after completing his term. Navon, who today, April 9, celebrates his 93rd birthday, is the only president, who after completing his term, returned to politics and became education minister. At the time that he was president the option still existed for a president of the state to serve two five-year terms.
Navon, after serving one term, decided not to take advantage of the option and to return to the political arena where he felt he could wield more influence. Navon, who was born in Jerusalem in 1921, is the descendant on his father’s side of a multi-generational Jerusalem family that was exiled from Spain, went to Turkey, and from there proceeded to Jerusalem, arriving in 1670. On his mother’s side he is descended from the famous Moroccan Ben Attar family, which has been living in Jerusalem since 1884.
■ THE AUSTRALIANS are chasing each others tails en route to Israel. Last Saturday, an Australian parliamentary delegation representing the Labor Party left Israel after a five-day visit, and before the month is out another Australian parliamentary delegation representing the Liberal Party is due to arrive. Meanwhile, currently in Israel, are former Australian prime minister Julia Gillard who arrived on Sunday for some R&R and some political meetings, and current Assistant Minister for Defense Stuart Robert.
■ FORMER NATIONAL Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror was the guest of honor at a Shabbat dinner at the King David Jerusalem Hotel, hosted by the Israel Australia Chamber of Commerce in Honor of a trade delegation headed by Robert. Australian Ambassador Dave Sharma and his wife Rachel were slightly late in driving in from Herzliya Pituah.
They explained that they had to put their three small daughters to bed. Robert said that as a father of three boys, he completely understood.
Sharma subsequently hosted a reception at his residence for Robert and the delegation, half way through their visit.
On Friday night, Sharma was full of praise for the work of the Chamber and the dedicated efforts of its executive director, Paul Israel, and of Leon Kempler, the national chairman of the Australia Israel Chamber of Commerce.
The Chamber is promoting bilateral relations in a way that the government cannot do, said Sharma. Kempler accompanies most of the trade missions from Australia to Israel, and in Australia makes a point of visiting the Chamber’s offices in the various states.
Amidror said that his father, who served in the British Army during the Second World War, had been a prisoner of war together with Australian and New Zealand soldiers and had formed strong friendships with them, so much so that after their release they tried to persuade him to settle in either Australia or New Zealand, but his father had preferred to return to what was then Palestine. The Chamber almost always includes a traditional Friday night dinner in Jerusalem for visiting trade missions, even when the majority of participants are not Jewish. They are hosted at Friday night services at the Jerusalem Great Synagogue by the synagogue’s vice president, Zalli Jaffe, who is an international lawyer, whose firm services Australian clients as well as those in other parts of the globe. Jaffe, who has also been a frequent sponsor of the Chamber’s Friday night dinners, usually makes Kiddush and explains Jewish traditions to the visitors. This time, he left it to the religiously observant Amidror, saying that Israel owes more to Amidror than will ever be made public.
Amidror said that the sixday working week (that was in force prior to the five-day working week) is as old as Jewish tradition, in that Jews have the Biblical commandment to work for six days and rest on the seventh. This is a gift that the Jewish People gave to the world, he said. Robert raised a laugh when he revealed that what was shown in the hilarious British comedy series Yes Minister was “absolutely true” – certainly insofar as he and Amidror were concerned.
Both are former paratroopers who got tired of jumping out of planes, went into business and then received a phone call from the prime minister calling them back to serve their countries. Robert had been called into politics and Amidror into national security.
Robert paid tribute to Israel as the most important start-up nation in the world, and praised its entrepreneurship and innovation, which were way ahead of Australia, he said, and emphasized how important it is for Australia to learn what it is that makes the Israelis so good at entrepreneurship and innovation.
Robert, who is known to be a great supporter of Israel, said in his parliamentary maiden speech: “I look for inspiration to that great nation of Israel, which has an absolute right to exist and to strongly defend its borders from all aggressors. Its growth and prosperity is an inspiration to all free nations.”
Australia, whose defense expenditure is the 13th largest in the world, and is in the range of US$25 billion per annum, is a large purchaser and user of Israeli defense technology and equipment.
The objective of the trade mission is to strengthen the relationship between the Australian and Israeli defense establishments, increase related trade and commerce and initiate joint research projects.
■ AT A reception hosted for Gillard by Keren Malki chairman Arnold Roth, Australian accents dominated the conversations, although here and there one could hear an American, Indian, South African or British accent. Gillard, who had arrived in Israel with a small group of friends only a few hours earlier did not seem the least bit tired and chatted amiably with many of the guests.
Later, before the start of the third Keren Malki Rainbow of Music concert that was held within the framework of the Jerusalem Performing Arts Festival, she addressed the audience, but not before Roth illustrated her friendship for Israel by quoting a statement Gillard had made as prime minister to the effect that Israel has the right to defend herself against rocket attacks from Gaza.
Roth is the father of Australian-born teenager Malki Roth who lost her life in the terrorist attack on the Sbarro Pizza Parlor in Jerusalem in 2001. Malki had been devoted to her severely disabled sister Haya and to every disabled child she met. This inspired her parents to set up a fund in her memory dedicated to helping families with children with disabilities.
Gillard referred to this, saying that she was delighted to be in Israel for the third time and that she particularly wanted to attend this event because of the people behind it. When the Roth family sustained the tragic loss, she said, instead of bitterness, they channeled their energies into giving hope. It is a story one encounters so often in Israel, she said – “people who suffer the hardest of blows go on to do good.” In the case of Keren Malki it not only supports the families of people with disabilities, but also makes it possible for people with disabilities to be part of the community instead of shutting them away as used to be the case. This attitude has become policy in Australia too, she said, adding that Keren Malki is the best tribute to a young girl who loved her disabled sister.
In November last year, Gillard was awarded the 2013 Jerusalem Prize, in recognition of her outstanding contribution to strengthening Australia’s connection with Israel. The Jerusalem Prize is awarded annually by the Zionist Council of Victoria (ZCV), the Zionist Federation of Australia and the World Zionist Federation, to an outstanding individual who supports Israel and the Zionist movement.
As a member of the Australian Parliament, and Australia’s first female prime minister, Gillard was chosen as someone who had demonstrated unwavering commitment to democratic values, as well as ongoing support of the aspirations of Israel’s people for peace and security.
Her identification and empathy with the Jewish people and its connection to the land of Israel had been a hallmark of her entire political career.
At the awards ceremony, Gillard once again proved her comprehension of Israel’s aspirations.
“Everyone talks about a ‘two-state solution.’ There is – there can be – no other course. Everyone understands a state for Palestine. But not everyone says there should be a State of Israel,” she said. “I am convinced that the key to peace for Israelis and Palestinians is a simple declarative statement by Palestinian leaders – that they accept Israel as a Jewish state.” In June 2012, she was the first Australian politician to sign a petition to demand a minute’s silence at the opening ceremony of the London Olympics to commemorate the 11 Israeli athletes murdered at the 1972 Munich Games.
Gillard, who famously ousted her own party’s prime minister Kevin Rudd in 2010, was subsequently ousted by him in a return match in 2013. But Rudd could not retain the premiership and lost it to present incumbent Tony Abbott, who heads the rival Liberal Party.
■ THERE WAS also an Australian element in the sponsorship of the concert in aid of Keren Malki. In addition to Bank Tefahot, the concert was sponsored by the Australian-headquartered Pratt Foundation, which works in many areas throughout the country and on many levels to improve the quality of life in Israel and to enhance Australia-Israel relations.
The concert featured opera singer Guy Mannheim, cantor Tzvi Weiss, child prodigy Ilay Avidani, whose stage presence and incredible voice wowed the audience, the Ramatayim Men’s Choir, keyboard instrumentalists David Ichelewitz and Aviva Stanislawski and conductor Richard Shavei Tzion. Master of ceremonies Rafi Barnett took advantage of the opportunity to publicly congratulate his mother Bella Barnett, who was celebrating her 90th birthday, and to welcome relatives from three countries who have come to Israel to join in her celebration.
■ ANYONE WHO leafed through the weekend editions of the Israeli press could not help but reach the conclusion that Olmert bashing is the current fad of the media, whose judgment of former prime minister Ehud Olmert is little short of vicious and far in excess of what was stated by Judge David Rosen. Few things are completely black or white, and there is another side to Olmert that is conveniently overlooked by those who seek to paint him as the crown prince of corruption. Singer, actor, television host and radio commentator Yehoram Gaon served under Olmert on the Jerusalem City Council.
On his weekly current affairs program on Reshet Bet last Friday, Gaon said that he knew another side of Olmert completely unlike the character he was reading about in the newspapers.
He spoke of a brilliant, charismatic personality, a convincing speaker, and above all a friend in need. Gaon cited as examples the family of the late deputy mayor Shmuel Meir, who was killed in a car accident.
Meir left a wife and several children, to whom Olmert brought food every Friday, mentored the children until they went into the army, and continued to maintain contact with them afterwards. There was also the Friedlander family where the parents had been murdered by a relative. Olmert cared for the four Friedlander orphans. Gaon also mentioned Olmert’s adopted daughter who has received as much love and care, and attention from Aliza and Ehud Olmert as they have given to their biological children. There are other examples as well.
Gaon did not mention Ornan Yekutieli, who headed the secular Jerusalem Now faction on the Jerusalem City Council, and was vehemently opposed to any form of religious coercion. Yekutieli who had numerous heated exchanges with Olmert at council meetings had a serious heart defect and was in need of a transplant. Olmert was among those who in 2001 arranged for him to go New York. Unfortunately Yekutieli died there at age 45, and Olmert was involved in bringing the body back to Israel for burial. At the funeral he eulogized Yekutieli with such feeling that a casual bystander would never have known the extent to which Olmert and Yekutieli were at loggerheads.
Describing Olmert as “a good soul” Gaon said that he knew for a fact that anyone who turned to Olmert for help always received it. At the same time Gaon lamented over decent people who when they reach the peak of their careers can no longer distinguish between good and bad. While not excusing the bad, Gaon emphasized the importance of remembering the good. “It’s something we should not forget – especially at such a traumatic period of his life,” said Gaon.
■ OLMERT SHOULD have seen the red alert on loyalty when his bureau chief Shula Zaken turned in state evidence and testified against her brother Yoram Karshi in a bribery and tax corruption scandal in 2010.
According to reports, recordings of her conversations with Olmert that Zaken supplied to police date back four years. If they do indeed incriminate him as she and her son Nadav assert, it would indicate that the experience with her brother had taught her a lesson and that the recordings were a form of insurance against the day when she and Olmert would have a parting of the ways, regardless of how close they had been in the past.
■ CURRENT JERUSALEM Mayor Nir Barkat, who was in the United States to drum up tourism to Jerusalem, to interest American film makers in using Israel’s historical capital as a location, and to participate in the Post’s annual conference also found time last week when in New York City, to attend a breakfast event hosted by Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America, to which invitees were primarily major donors whose help is being sought in attempts to get the Hadassah Medical Center (HMC) is Jerusalem out of its financial morass. Barkat, who has been advocating with government authorities on behalf of HMC, said in the course of his address, that Hadassah research is at the core of Jerusalem’s growing life science industry. He also noted that “real peace” exists at Hadassah hospitals, where all religions and races come together.
“When you analyze these elements, you understand how deep and how important Hadassah is for our future,” Barkat stated. “It’s not just a name. It’s hundreds of thousands of roots all over the world, in the Jewish world, that are connected to the city of Jerusalem” of which HMC is an integral part. Donors and friends of Hadassah who came to listen to Barkat included his aunt Maureen Bierkman, Jarrod Bernstein, former White House director of Jewish outreach, Rebecca Eisenberg, an American technology writer, lawyer, entrepreneur and columnist, Nancy Zaro of the famous Zaro’s Bakery chain in New York, Jeffrey Wiesenfeld of asset management firm AllianceBernstein, Mark Levenfus, managing partner at Marks Paneth & Shron, Hadassah national president Marcie Natan and Hadassah executive director and CEO Janice Weinman.
■ WHAT’S NEW in anti-Semitism? Nothing much if one looks at Polish statistics. The majority of the most virulent of Polish anti-Semites have never met a Jew according to Dr. Michal Bilewicz, the director of the Center for Research on Prejudice and assistant professor of psychology at the University of Warsaw. Bilewicz this week gave presentations on the subject at Tel Aviv University and the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. People in big cities tend to take a more positive attitude to Jews than those in small towns and villages, he said, noting that in Warsaw anti-Semitism is minimal.
While presenting comparative statistics resulting from surveys taken in 2009 and 2013, Bilewicz was quite candid in saying that the numbers are deceptive, because it all depends on how the question is asked. He cited as an example the fact that two identical surveys on anti-Semitic prejudice were conducted simultaneously.
The same questions were asked in both survey but the wording of each question was slightly different with the result that the findings were not identical or even close. In one survey, respondents were asked whether they thought that Jews should be given back their homes. In the other survey, they were asked whether Jewish homes should be returned to their owners. The answers to the second question were much more positive than to the first.
Bilewicz said that surveys showed a strong linkage between economic crises and increases in anti-Semitism.
On the other hand, there was reduced anti-Semitism when Poles had contact with Jews. “Prejudice is reduced by direct contact,” said Bilewicz, who noted that there was an improvement in attitudes on both sides in encounter programs between Polish and Jewish high school students from Israel and Diaspora communities. Although they had no trouble in discussing current issues, said Bilewcz, they were at loss when it came to discussing history.
The Poles do not understand why Jews blame them for Auschwitz and why Jews anticipate that Poles should feel guilty for the Holocaust.
But a solution for relating to history has been found. Before the two groups begin discussions with each other, a person who has been honored by Yad Vashem as being Righteous among the Nations, addresses the combined group and talks about what he or she did to rescue Jews from Nazi atrocities. This makes the Jews realize that not all Poles are anti-Semitic and that there were Poles who were willing to risk all to save Jews. It gives the Poles a sense of pride and a desire to be like the rescuer.
During question time an interesting point arose. The Poles have always been resentful of the fact that Jews don’t come to Poland but to Auschwitz or the Warsaw Ghetto or wherever their roots take them. By the same token, Poles don’t come to Israel. Even the educated and intelligent Poles don’t come to Israel, they come to the Holy Land.
■ WITH PASSOVER looming ever closer and Holocaust Remembrance Day not far behind, there will be the inevitable stories in the media about how Jewish prisoners in the camps succeeded in creating Haggadot from memory or gave up their meager bread rations during the whole of Passover. For many Holocaust survivors every Jewish holiday is a nightmare because that’s when they have the most vivid memories of close family who used to gather for these holidays before the war and were no longer present after the war because they had been murdered by the Nazis. Second-generation Holocaust survivor, peace activist and internationally celebrated author Lizzie Doron, both of whose parents were Holocaust survivors, was an only child who grew up without a father. He died of tuberculosis when she was eight, but had been removed from their home in Tel Aviv’s downtrodden Bitzaron neighborhood to ensure that he did not pass on the disease to his daughter.
Doron tells the story that on Seder night, she and her mother sat alone because no one had invited them, and afterwards she used to make up tales about what a wonderful Seder they had to tell to her friends at school. When learning about the Passover festival at school, she had been taught that on Seder night Elijah the Prophet visits every Jewish home. She kept waiting for him in vain and begging her mother to open the door to let him in. “He won’t come here,” said her mother, who left the door closed. “He didn’t come to Auschwitz, so he won’t come here either.”
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