Grapevine: Diplomatic doldrums

Movers and shakers in Israeli society.

GILA ALMAGOR of Habima Theater in ‘Black on White’ by Ephraim Kishon in 1957.  (photo credit: GPO)
GILA ALMAGOR of Habima Theater in ‘Black on White’ by Ephraim Kishon in 1957.
(photo credit: GPO)
Not so long ago, Israel was considered one of the best postings in the world for a foreign diplomat. But it is currently fraught with frustrations and disappointments, with the cancellation or postponement of national day receptions, conferences, cultural events and high-level meetings.
Lithuanian Ambassador Lina Antanaviciene had sent out “save the date” notices, with follow-up invitations for a jazz concert in celebration of her country’s Independence Day next week, but on Monday of this week, an apology was sent to invitees who were informed that in light of the current situation, the event has been canceled.
Likewise, Irish Ambassador Kyle O’Sullivan had sent out invitations for the annual Saint Patrick’s Day reception, which was also scheduled for next week, but on Monday another notice expressing the embassy’s regret informed invitees that the reception had been postponed because the ambassador considered it irresponsible to proceed at this time.
Another diplomatic event that was due to be held on Thursday of this week by the Ambassadors’ Club of Israel in honor of International Women’s Day has also been postponed. Australian Ambassador Chris Canaan has also postponed the film night he was to host for International Women’s Day.
On Monday afternoon, there was an email with a reminder to attend the opening gala of Tel Aviv Fashion Week focusing on designer Efrat Klig’s Homage to the Tuxedo. Considering that the venue was Hangar 11 at Tel Aviv Port, with the organizers anticipating that members of the diplomatic community would be in the audience with some of the who’s who of the nation, it seemed appropriate to double-check whether this major fashion happening was still happening. The query was sent at around 4:30 p.m. A reply at 6:20 p.m. stated: “For now it takes place as planned. We have not received any other guidance.” A further email arrived at 10 p.m. “You were right. It was decided to postpone.” No new date has been set, because no one knows for how long the emergency situation will continue.
■ THE PRESENTATION of the final results of the Knesset elections to President Reuven Rivlin is usually a media event, but this week it was off-limits to the media, as will be the president’s consultations this coming Sunday with representatives of the various parties elected to the Knesset.
Due to the crisis, the whole process has changed, and instead of what took place last April and September, with members of each delegation sitting around a table with Rivlin, voicing niceties in advance of making their recommendations, this time it is one representative from each of the elected parties.
Strangely, though, children were not off-limits to the president last Sunday, when he hosted a group of fourth graders who came to the President’s Residence attired in their Purim costumes. If it was all right to have the children, why was it not all right to have the media?
Rivlin has been shy of the media ever since his return from Australia. Hopefully, he will relax this stricture on March 23, when new ambassadors are due to present their credentials, unless that ceremony, like so many others, will also be postponed.
Although most synagogues were far from empty on Purim, there were fewer congregants than in previous years. Toned-down Purim festivities were bad news for thousands of children who had so eagerly looked forward to dressing up and attending parties, especially in Jerusalem, where Purim is a day later than elsewhere in the country. On Tuesday morning Mayor Moshe Lion announced that he had decided, in consultation with the Health Ministry, to cancel municipal Purim events in the capital.
It still remains to be seen whether the Jerusalem Arts Festival by way of a tribute to the late poet Yehuda Amihai will go ahead as scheduled. The weeklong event at locations throughout the city March 23-30 will feature 53 performances, and will include artists such as Mira Awad and Shlomi Shaban.
Soccer and basketball games have not been canceled, but are played without spectators, causing some players to say that without the fans on hand, they don’t want to play.
The coronavirus crisis has also prompted the postponement of the official gala opening of the recently refurbished Beit Lessin Theater in Tel Aviv, which in future will be known as the Baruch Ivcher Beit Lessin Theater, in recognition of the NIS 25 million gift by the Israeli business tycoon who lives in Peru. Ivcher, who celebrated his 80th birthday last month, had intended to have a double whammy toward the end of this month, but decided that there was no point in coming if he had to be quarantined for two weeks. He’s going to wait till the summer, by which time the crisis will hopefully be over.
Although Ivcher has been generous in other spheres in Israel, his gift to Beit Lessin can be attributed to his close friendship with the Rahav family. In fact, when Ran Rahav was starting out on his own in public relations, Ivcher bankrolled him, which with hindsight was a wise move, as Rahav is one of the top PR people in the business. Rahav’s wife, Hila, who is also his business partner, happens to be the chairwoman of the Friends of Beit Lessin, and it was she who persuaded Ivcher to give his money and his name to the theater.
Speaking engagements by husband and wife team Gideon Remez and Isabella Ginor have been postponed, and as has been widely announced in the media, there will be no March of the Living at the regular time this year, though organizers are looking into the possibility of holding it in November on the anniversary of Kristallnacht. Likewise, Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremonies will be reduced in terms of the number of participants.
The economy, which was suffering even before for lack of a budget during the period of an interim government, is now disintegrating, as losses on the stock exchange pile up and tourism is drastically reduced.
■ MANY PEOPLE who generally travel abroad for Passover – even though it is one of the pilgrimage festivals, in which Jews flocked to Jerusalem in Temple times, and still continue to do so – are staying home this year. This may help to boost Israeli hotel occupancies. Hotels have suffered badly due to travel restrictions by foreign airlines, which have suspended flights to Israel due to coronavirus fears.
However, there are still people going abroad, and if there is no plane to their destination, they may be able to get there by boat, certainly to destinations such as Cyprus and Greece.
In fact, two KAN 11 broadcasters, Yaron Enosh and historian Dr. Yitzhak Noy, will be scholars-in-residence together with psychoanalyst and brain researcher Prof. Yoram Yuval at the Elounda Beach hotel in Crete. Enosh is one of Israel’s leading Grecophiles.
■ LONG BEFORE it was privatized, the Israel Postal Authority was not exactly the most efficient in the world, and express mail intended for same-day delivery sometimes took a week to arrive, despite the extra payment for stamps. But the time that it took to deliver a letter of condolence sent by then-defense minister Moshe Dayan to the family of Shmuel Botanero, who had fallen in battle in 1974, took 46 years. The letter arrived this week, but not by courtesy of the postal authorities but indirectly, via the Foreign Ministry.
Yosef Gil, who works in the ministry’s consular division, likes to collect historical documents and signatures of famous people, which he often finds in the Jaffa flea market. On a recent trip, he came across an envelope with a Defense Ministry stamp and purchased it for NIS 20. When he opened it, he found the letter, and decided to try to trace the family who never received it. He discovered that the 26-year-old reserves officer had left a wife, Tova, and a baby daughter, Ruth. A little further investigation confirmed that Ruth Bashat of Hod Hasharon was the daughter. Gil made telephone contact with her, and then personally delivered the letter plus another that was related to it, which he had also purchased in the Jaffa flea market.
Bashat was amazed because she knew that her paternal grandparents, who died 20 years ago, never understood why they had never received a letter from Dayan, when it was standard practice for such letters to be sent to families of fallen soldiers. This was an outstanding case of better late than never.
■ ON THE subject of communications, Alexander Graham Bell is indirectly responsible for the fact that people in quarantine, but not really sick, can run their businesses and their jobs from home by phone and computer. Without Bell’s invention of the telephone, we would not have the sophisticated mobile phones that so many of us have today, nor so many of the other communications devices in our possession.
Two broadcasters, Vered Pelman of KAN 11, and Guri Alfi of Radio 102 FM, are currently quarantined, but are able to work from home thanks to their mobile phones and their laptops and, of course, the technology that enables them to sound as though they were in the studio. Businesspeople who have been abroad or in contact with someone who has coronavirus are also quarantined, and are using similar devices with which to run their enterprises from home while waiting for the quarantine period to end.
■ IN LEGAL matters, as with everything else, you win some, you lose some. Attorney Eliad Shraga, who is the founder and chairman of the Movement for Quality Government, has been staging protest demonstrations outside the President’s Residence, since the days when Chaim Herzog was president. Shraga sees himself as the champion for the preservation of democratic values and, in addition to staging protest demonstrations, petitions the courts with regard to what he considers to be a violation of democracy.
A recent petition to the High Court to prevent Rivlin from yet again tasking Benjamin Netanyahu to form a government was rejected. Undeterred, the Movement for Quality Government, with the same purpose in mind, has been demonstrating opposite the President’s Residence. This annoyed Jerusalem City Council member Aryeh King, who called on city inspectors to remove the demonstrators and filed a complaint against them, alleging that they were demonstrating without a permit. The demonstrators claimed that they did have a permit. The final ruling was that they can demonstrate, but in a respectful manner and not from the platform of a caravan.
■ AS HAS been mentioned before in this column, Tel Aviv has a far greater respect for history than Jerusalem, and instead of partially destroying old buildings which are then converted into boutique hotels, art galleries and mini museums, it spruces them up and restores them to their original beauty and grandeur.
In Jerusalem, old buildings are either torn down, or a vestige of the entrance is left, unless the developer has a sense of history, and preserves as much of the building as possible, as happened with the Mount Zion Hotel, which was previously a hospital. Now, another former hospital, the original Shaare Zedek building on Jaffa Road, which was constructed in 1902, is about to undergo a transformation.
The building was purchased by the now defunct Israel Broadcasting Authority in 1995, and served as the IBA’s administrative headquarters till July 2014, when a Knesset resolution put an end to the IBA’s existence, and its assets had to be sold off in an effort to reduce its huge deficit.
At some stage in the 1990s, Yair Aloni, who was the IBA’s deputy director-general for planning and development, envisaged a television city extending from near the Jerusalem Central Bus Station to the old Shaare Zedek building. Within that area were the headquarters of Jerusalem Capital Studios and the Jerusalem bureaus of several foreign television channels, which received their satellite feeds from JCS. The building now belongs to The Jerusalem Post Group, but continues to house other media outlets. The building also used to house Channel 10 before it was disbanded. Channel 10 began broadcasting in January 2002 and ceased transmission in January 2019.
At the time that Aloni envisaged television city, the now defunct Channel 2, which was Israel’s first commercial channel, had been functioning for a couple of years , and was operated by Keshet, Reshet and Telad. The latter dropped out, and Keshet and Reshet operated Channel 2 for several years until November 2017, with the closure of Channel 2 and the launch of two replacement channels, with Keshet operating Channel 12 and Reshet Channel 13. What used to be the IBA’s Channel 1 is now KAN 11.
HOT, Yes, and i24 were not yet established, but Aloni knew that once there was a commercial television channel, others would follow, and his dream was to have them all within easy walking distance of one another, possibly with underground or overhead corridors leading to each other. This was long before it became fashionable for radio and television journalists to interview the competition on air.
The dream never materialized or even came close to realization. So now the old Shaare Zedek building is destined to become a boutique hotel. After years of planning and replanning, the Jerusalem Development Authority last week called for tenders. The boutique hotel will have 50 guest rooms and will be surrounded by several 24-story towers, as well as public and educational institutions. The original building, which is two stories high, will be completely dwarfed by the tall towers enveloping it. Given the paucity of construction workers due to coronavirus, it is doubtful that any property developer will immediately rush to buy.
■ WITH DUE respect to the Israeli Broadcasting Corporation (IBC), which is the umbrella for KAN radio and television stations, it tends to take credit for some of the projects of the IBA.
On Sunday night of this week, Oren Aharoni introduced a new program taking viewers who were old enough to remember on a nostalgia trip through some of yesteryear’s television footage which has been digitized and archived alphabetically, chronologically and according to subject matter.
In November 2016, Eldad Koblentz, the head of what was then the yet-to-be-launched IBC, which succeeded the IBA, announced that it had acquired the Channel 1 archives and was having them digitized.
This gave the IBC somewhat more credit than it deserved.
The digitization of the archives was what Koblentz termed “the flagship project, of KAN,” which is the IBC call sign.
“We see the archives as a national asset,” Koblentz said at the time. “Preserving the archives means preserving the history of Israel, and we are proud to advance this national project, which represents the heritage of public broadcasting.
“It is our duty to invest all the resources at our disposal in this project, which in the final analysis will enable the public to have access to high-quality content of the best broadcast quality.”
What he failed to mention was that the IBA had, in August 2008, signed a digitization contract with Harvard University, and that a lot of the material had already been digitized by the time that IBC took over.
What was extremely fortunate was that Billie Segal, the IBA archivist, who is amazingly knowledgeable about every piece of film and every video that was shot by IBA camera crews, stayed on with IBC.
A lot of valuable material was unfortunately destroyed by water leaks and carelessness. Nonetheless, according to Segal, what is left tells the history of the State of Israel.
In the first episode, which was screened on Sunday with quick glimpses of political, entertainment, cultural and sporting personalities, viewers saw and heard deceased people who were once household names, such as broadcaster Daniel Pe’er, politician Yigal Horowitz, entertainer Yossi Banai and journalist and politician Tommy Lapid, who was also a former director-general of the IBA; and other personalities still living, such as Rami Kleinstein when he still had hair, Haim Yavin, who was known as Mr. Television or Israel’s Walter Cronkite, Bar Refaeli as a child model, Meir Shalev when he was a TV comedian, before he became a serious writer, soccer star Eli Ohana in his heyday, and Rivka Michaeli at different stages of her life.
Segal said that if the archives hadn’t been saved in the last minute, they would have been lost forever.
Sunday’s episode was the first in a series. Looking at yesteryear seems to be gaining in popularity. Maariv, the sister paper of The Jerusalem Post, has long been running nostalgia stories by Natan Zahavi and Avi Koren, but clips from old newspapers have for the past year been published in the weekend editions of Yediot Aharonot and Israel Hayom.
Reruns of yesteryear may be inspirational for tomorrow’s television producers and directors. The second night of the Haya Po Same’ah series was one of communications of yesteryear devoted to the evolution of communications equipment, from turntable records to CDs to digitization of music. What was really fun was showing the old-fashioned telephone to an elementary school class, and seeing how bewildered the youngsters were by the dial, which they kept pressing rather than turning. They were also introduced to the telephone token, called an asimon in Hebrew, which used to facilitate connection on a public phone. A lot of them were needed for a long conversation. The youngsters could not figure out what to do with an asimon, because public phones are a rarity these days. Even kindergarten children have their own mobile phones, and can purchase one in any shopping mall or in one of the numerous mobile phone and accessory stores in commercial areas. In the days of the dial phone, would-be telephone subscribers in Israel had to wait for up to two years to receive one. To own one was a real status symbol. As for public phones, many millennials have never seen one.
The Hebrew expression “nafal li ha’asimon” – which more or less means “I suddenly realized” – has real meaning for those people who can remember that until the asimon fell into the connection groove in the public phone, there was no communication. In other words, once it fell, you realized you could talk.
■ WITH THE possible exception of supermarkets from which fruit and groceries can be ordered online or by phone, almost every area of business has been negatively impacted by the coronavirus. Jerusalem’s Mahaneh Yehuda market, in which it is almost impossible to move on Thursdays and Fridays, had far fewer shoppers than usual last Thursday and Friday, and it was quite easy to get to the various stalls. Bars, coffee shops and restaurants in the market were not empty, but neither were they full.
Arguably, the hardest hit by the coronavirus were entertainers who had to cancel or postpone numerous gigs, with the possible inclusion of those scheduled for Independence Day, which for many singers and musicians is the most profitable time of the year, but which will be much lower key than in the past. Singer guitarist Pedro Rosenberg, who was vacationing with his family in Spain and was supposed to return in time to appear last Friday at Zappa Herzliya, was told that the show had been postponed till after Passover. So rather than go into quarantine, he decided to stay in Spain, where the fears and impositions that have been placed on large-scale events in Israel are nonexistent.
■ VETERAN THEATER director Yaakov Agmon and his wife, prizewinning actress Gila Almagor, will celebrate his 91st birthday and the launch of their joint biography this coming Friday at Tzavta in Tel Aviv, where most of the guests will be either writers or actors or people associated in one way or another with the literary world or the world of entertainment. Among those who have indicated their attendance (providing, of course, that the event will not be postponed) are A.B. Yehoshua, Lia Koenig, Shimon Alkabetz, Yuval Banai, Harel Skaat and Dan Almagor.
■ SCI-FI FANS know that anything dreamed up by a science fiction writer will eventually become a reality when taken seriously by a scientist. Yediot Aharonot this week reported on a prescient novel by Hamutal Shabtai, the daughter of noted Israeli writer Yaakov Shabtai, which was written in 1997 and titled 2020. The plot is about an epidemic that overtakes the world with the intent of making humanity extinct. Physicians and nurses treating patients are dressed from head to foot in protective gear. The whole situation is eerily like that of 2020 here and now.