Grapevine: Diplomatically speaking

Movers and shakers in Israeli society.

ISRAELI AND German youth with a declaration to combat racism and antisemitism.  (photo credit: YITZHAK ELDAN)
ISRAELI AND German youth with a declaration to combat racism and antisemitism.
(photo credit: YITZHAK ELDAN)
Many of the foreign diplomats stationed in Israel make a point of attending the annual Diplomatic Conference organized by The Jerusalem Post. However, there are at least five ambassadors who will be absent from this year’s conference at the Jerusalem Waldorf Astoria on Thursday, November 21, because on that date they will be presenting their credentials to President Reuven Rivlin. The new ambassadors are: Igor Mauks of Slovakia; Marco Vargas of Costa Rica; Saddha Waruna Wilpatha of Sri Lanka; Suh Dong Gu of South Korea; and Sanjeev Kumar Singla of India.
Whoever stays for the whole conference will have a special treat, because there will be more speakers from abroad, which will give the conference wider perspective. Several political figures who have spoken at previous Post conferences both in Jerusalem and New York are included among the Israeli speakers, and arguably the most interesting for the moment is Avigdor Liberman, who is currently the political puppeteer who has been controlling the strings of Israel’s political future. The conference takes place a day after the expiration of the deadline of the mandate given to Benny Gantz to try to form a government.
■ HISTORICALLY, THE fall of the Berlin Wall 30 years ago may have been more dramatic than Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution, but in both cases, so close to each other chronologically, it meant coming out of the darkness of Communist oppression into the light of democracy at more or less the same time.
At 5.15 p.m. on November 27, Tel Aviv University in conjunction with the Czech Center in Tel Aviv will celebrate the Velvet Revolution on its 30th anniversary with a series of discussions and reminiscences in Hall 01 of the Rosenberg Building on the TAU campus. Martin Stropnicky, the ambassador of the Czech Republic, will obviously be among the speakers, but so will former Czech ambassador Michael Zantovsky, who during the Velvet Revolution was one of the founding members of the Civic Forum, an umbrella organization that coordinated the overthrow of the Communist regime. In January 1990, he became the press secretary, spokesman and adviser to president Vaclav Havel, who was the last president of Czechoslovakia prior to its dissolution, and subsequently the first president of the Czech Republic. Stropnicky, a former foreign minister of the Czech Republic, before entering politics was a songwriter, actor, author and director, who had also been active in the Velvet Revolution.
Others who will share their memories of the period are Simon Pánek and Gideon Remez.
Pánek was a Czech student activist during the Velvet Revolution and today is the executive director of the humanitarian organization People in Need, which he co-founded in 1992. It became the largest nongovernmental organization in Central and Eastern Europe and works worldwide to mitigate the suffering of people in times of crisis.
Remez is an Israeli journalist and an analyst on post-Soviet affairs, who was a journalist with the Voice of Israel, working in a number of varied capacities, including that of foreign news editor. In that position, he broadcast extensively on events leading up to, and including, the Velvet Revolution, and interviewed various activists. He is currently an associate fellow at the Harry S. Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace at the Hebrew University, Jerusalem.
In addition to the discussions, there will be a 15-minute documentary film on the Velvet Revolution.
■ PRIOR TO the annual dinner hosted by the Israel, Britain and the Commonwealth Association last week, word went out that one of the speakers, MK Gideon Sa’ar, was going to make a special announcement. IBCA chairman Alex Deutsch had even been asked to break with protocol and allow Sa’ar to speak prior to Lord Eric Pickles, who had specially come from England for the occasion, bringing with him warm greetings from Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who had been the guest speaker in 2015 when he was mayor of London. Sa’ar wanted to speak first, so that his special announcement would be broadcast on the television central news service.
Naturally, there was a lot of speculation as to the content of what Sa’ar was going to say. People wondered whether he was going to ask Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to step down; whether he was going to announce his resignation from the Likud and throw in his cap with Blue and White; whether he was going to proclaim that he was bowing out of politics. But in the final analysis, he arrived late, after the news was over, and there was nothing by way of a special announcement in his address, despite the fact that journalists had been primed to expect something that would make headlines.
Sa’ar, who is a member of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, though speaking quite eloquently, said nothing new. He advocated a speedy end to the political crisis and the formation of a broad national-unity government. He spoke extensively about the situation in Gaza, commenting that Israel’s response should have been more severe. He also emphasized that one of the central tasks of the next government is to address the threat from Gaza. To ignore it, he cautioned, would perpetuate the status quo and would cause a deterioration in the security of Israel’s citizens.
The peerage was quite well represented at the dinner. In addition to Pickles, there were Lord Stuart Polak, who over the years has come from London several times to attend the dinner; Lord James O’Shaughnessy, who was visiting Israel for the first time; and of course Israel’s resident nobility represented by Dame Shirley Porter, who is a longtime staunch supporter of IBCA.
There were also several diplomats present. It was a given that British Ambassador Neil Wigan would be there. Another regular is Australian Ambassador Chris Cannan. Also present were Thessalia-Salina Shambos, the ambassador of Cyprus; Enoch Pear Duchi, the ambassador of Nigeria; Martin Larose, the Canadian charge d’affaires; and Daniel Taub, the immediate past ambassador to the UK.
In addition, there was a group of volunteer soldiers from the UK, United States, Spain, Holland, Denmark and Argentina, who are all residents of Habayit Shel Benji, a Ra’anana-based home away from home for lone combat soldiers, named in memory of London-born Maj. Benji Hillman, who on July 20, 2006, less than a month after his wedding, was killed in action in Lebanon, soon after the beginning of the Second Lebanon War.
Some of the members of IBCA and ESRA, the English-Speaking Residents Association, who were parents of lone soldiers before coming to live in Israel, are volunteers at Habayit Shel Benji, acting as surrogate parents to every new group of lone soldiers.
If Sa’ar needed any endorsement, he received it from Taub, who, in proposing the toast to the queen of England, said that during the time that he was Israel’s ambassador to the UK, Sa’ar had always been willing to come to talk to the Jewish community and to non-Jewish audiences, and had never refused a request to do so. Taub also mentioned what a difficult time it had been for him and his wife while he was ambassador, because two of their sons were in the army and serving in Gaza.
Pickles, who was in Israel for the second time in less than a month, is the UK’s second envoy for post-Holocaust issues, having succeeded former UK ambassador Sir Andrew Burns, who was the first in that position. Burns was in Israel this week to attend a colloquium on aging.
Pickles read out a long, heartwarming letter from Johnson, in which the prime minister described himself as a long-standing friend of the people of Israel and affirmed the UK’s resolute commitment to security and justice for both Israel and the Palestinians, and for what he regards as the completion of the aims of the Balfour Declaration – namely, a two-state solution, for which the UK would give its wholehearted support.
Speaking for himself, Pickles said that he had been a regular visitor to Israel for nearly 40 years. Recalling his first visit, he stated: “I fell in love with Israel, with this wonderful country, its people and its destiny sitting in the world’s most troubled and turbulent region.
Of the Balfour Declaration, he said that it was “short and to the point and beautiful in intent.” He revealed that there had been a quarter-century delay in the issuing of a British statement such as the Balfour Declaration, and also mentioned the apology made by then-British foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt in an address to the Conservative Friends of Israel in January of this year, regarding the limits that the British Mandate authorities in 1939 placed on Jewish immigration to what was then Palestine. Hunt has called it “a black moment in history.”
Pickles had come to Israel this time during the barrage of rockets from Gaza, and said that he had spent time the previous day in the hotel bomb shelter, which he quipped was the best way to get to know other hotel guests.
Arguing against the present hostilities, he said that revolution comes from shared perspectives and not from the barrel of a gun. Turning to the subject of antisemitism, Pickles raised a laugh when he said that he is grateful to Jeremy Corbyn, “who has helped to codify the IHRA [International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance] definition of antisemitism. Pickles noted that the UK was the first country to adopt the IHRA definition. He also related to reports about the large percentage of British Jews who have said that if Corbyn becomes prime minister, they will leave for Israel.
“The Jewish community of the UK is an integral part of British identity,” said Pickles, adding that he wants to encourage British Jews to come to Israel, to spend money here, to enjoy the sights, “but then I want them to come home. I am their neighbor, and I don’t want anyone to feel as if they don’t belong because of their religion or race.”
■ ASIA HOLDS increasing fascination for Israelis, who are flocking in tens of thousands to Asian countries, which, realizing the potential of Israeli tourism, are organizing tourist-related festivals, seminars and cultural events in Israel to attract more Israelis to their shores. Among the most recent of such promotions was an event hosted at the Crown Plaza hotel in Tel Aviv by Vietnamese
Ambassador Do Minh Hung and Alex Hoang, the deputy director of Vietravel. Invitees were mainly senior executives from Israel’s travel trade community.
The event was organized to showcase Vietnamese culture and promote tourism from Israel to Vietnam. The ambassador announced that Hanoi will be hosting the famous Formula One Grand Prix in April 2020 and invited the Israelis to visit Hanoi to enjoy the popular event. Some 50,000 Israelis have visited Vietnam during the past year, and many more are expected in 2020. Most Israelis who travel to Vietnam do so via Maman Aviation, which is the general sales agent for Vietnam Airlines. Maman CEO Ofer Reinhardt was invited by the ambassador to join him in toasting past and anticipated successes in bringing Israelis to Vietnam and in enhancing trade partnerships between Vietnamese and Israeli travel industry partners,
■ ROCKETS RAINING down across Israel’s southern border did not deter many high-profile visitors from abroad from going ahead with their plans to visit Israel. Among those who came from many countries for business meetings, conferences, family reunions or simply refused to cancel their vacations was a delegation of Chinese officials who were representing the Communist Party, and who came to the annual Sino-Israel Global Network and Academic Leadership conference, where they engaged in policy talks with Israeli and US counterparts. SIGNAL works in close cooperation with the World Jewish Congress and the Israel Council on Foreign Relations.
The talks at the Israel Air Force Institute in Herzliya were conducted at a critical time for Israel-China relations. This is a period in which relations between China and the US have become increasingly adversarial, leaving Israel caught in the crosshairs between its two largest trading partners. Discussions covered a broad range of topics, including how Israel and other countries are understanding US-China competition, and how Israel and others can navigate this uncertain reality and engage both great powers to their benefit.
Founded in 2011, SIGNAL is believed to be the first organization in the world to establish Israel studies programs in China, now partnering with 24 Chinese universities throughout the country.
Among the Chinese participants were Chinese Ambassador Zhan Yongxin; Dr. Xu Jian, president of China Foreign Affairs University, the Communist Party of China university for future diplomats, ministers and ministerial advisers, and chancellor of the China Diplomatic Academy; Prof. Jaewoo Choo, vice president of One Belt One Road Institute in Korea and a professor of Chinese foreign policy in the department of Chinese studies at Kyung Hee University: Prof. Qian Zhen, a professor at the Institute for International Strategic Studies; Prof. Sun Jie, senior deputy president of the academic committee of the Institute of World Economics and Politics, Great Wall Scholar at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences; and Prof. Cui Shoujun, associate professor at the School of International Studies, deputy dean of the School of Global Governance, executive director of the Center for Middle East and African Studies, Renmin University of China and a fellow to the US State Department.
■ THE CENTER for Young Leaders co-sponsored a multicultural delegation of 35 young leaders – all of them adolescents – including high school students from the Druze village of Usfiya and Jewish students from Ganei Tikva – on a diplomatic mission to Germany. The other party to the trip was the Israel Embassy in Berlin, which helped to organize and coordinate the program. There was also assistance from the German Embassy in Tel Aviv.
The young Israelis, who arrived within the framework of the Young Ambassadors program headed by Yitzhak Eldan, a retired ambassador and former chief of protocol at the Foreign Ministry, visited schools in Berlin and the Jewish community in Halle and met with Federal Foreign Minister Heiko Maas.
Given the condemnation by world leaders and the shock waves that went through Israel and the Jewish world following the attempted attack on Yom Kippur on the synagogue in Halle, in which two innocent non-Jews were killed, some people might have expected more in-person identification with the trauma suffered by the Jewish community of Halle, but it appears that the Young Ambassadors were the first Israeli youth group to come to the synagogue to meet their Halle peers, with whom they signed a joint declaration of cooperation in the struggle against racism and antisemitism. The visiting Israelis also heard about what happened from the rabbi of the synagogue, and stood for a minute’s silence in memory of the victims.
Eldan has taken several such groups on Young Ambassador trips to countries in Europe, sometimes enabling participants to experience the celebrations or commemorations of anniversaries of historic events of those countries. In Germany they had both. They celebrated the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, and they commemorated the 81st anniversary of Kristallnacht at Gleis (Track) 17 at Grunewald Station in Berlin, where there are 186 plaques, each representing a date on which German Jews were deported to ghettos, labor camps and death camps.
■ IN SUNDAY’S Post, there was a JTA article by Ben Harris relating to the revival of Jewish culture in Warsaw and the fact that the Singer Festival, named for Isaac Bashevis Singer, was this week performing in New York. The article mentioned that the Singer Festival was founded by actress Golda Tencer and is co-directed by her son David Szurmiej. What it neglected to mention was that Tencer was married to Szymon Szurmiej, who in 1950 was among the founders of the Yiddish State Theater named for Ester Rachel Kaminska, who was one of the great actresses of the Yiddish stage, and whose daughter Ida Kaminska was also a great actress who acted in the Yiddish State Theater and directed plays there. Szymon Szurmiej was the director and general manager of the theater, which was located close to the Nozyk Synagogue.
Tencer was born after the war to Holocaust survivor parents, and made it her life’s mission to preserve Jewish culture and traditions. Notwithstanding the antisemitic atmosphere that pervaded Poland in 1968, she decided to stay, and went to Warsaw, where she joined the state-sponsored Yiddish theater and eventually married Szymon Szurmiej, with whom she had two children. She founded the Jewish Culture Festival in 2004, the 100th anniversary year of the birth of Singer.
It should be noted that the annual Jewish Culture Festival of Krakow, which attracts thousands of people, preceded that of Warsaw and was founded in 1988. Wroclaw also has a Jewish culture festival. All three festivals attract Jewish and non-Jewish performers and audiences from around the world, including Israel.
■ AT THE beginning of last week, Jerusalem Affairs Minister Ze’ev Elkin welcomed a 25-member delegation of the Jewish Confederation of Ukraine (JCU), led by its president, Boris Lozhkin. They met at the City of David in the historic heart of the capital.
Elkin walked the participants through the central street of the ancient city and showed them the tunnel below. This area is still being excavated and is not yet open to the public. During this private tour, he mentioned that the excavation works, which are scheduled to be completed within the next two years and are already half way there, are conducted by using a unique technology technique of horizontal excavation, which is in operation 24/6. The delegation presented Elkin, who was born in Ukraine and who spent much time and effort on developing relations between the two countries, with a special medal of honor.
The delegation also visited the Knesset, where it was greeted by Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, who likewise is a native son of Ukraine. Lozhkin told him that the JCU supports Israel’s initiatives on a wide range of issues and hopes to continue to strengthen cooperation and relations between Israel and the Jewish communities of Ukraine, as well as enhancing JCU cooperation with Jewish communities from other countries.
Lozhkin spoke of the success of the First Kiev Jewish Forum, held earlier this year, which attracted more than 500 participants from around the world. He invited Edelstein to be a keynote speaker at the forum’s next meeting. Lozhkin also briefed Edelstein on JCU’s work in combating antisemitism in Ukraine, and in providing assistance to the nation’s Jewish communities. In addition to running a variety of educational programs and social projects, JCU has been working with a number of local governments on renaming streets in Ukrainian cities in honor of the Righteous Among the Nations who saved Jews during the Holocaust.
Relating to positive developments in relations between Israel and Ukraine, Edelstein said that Israel expects the Ukrainian government to systematically investigate all reported incidents of antisemitism and react to them accordingly. Edelstein, too, received a medal from the delegation.
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