Grapevine: Two people, three opinions

Movers and shakers of Israeli society.

EGYPTIAN AMBASSADOR Khaled Azmi with President Reuven Rivlin (photo credit: MARK NEYMAN/GPO)
EGYPTIAN AMBASSADOR Khaled Azmi with President Reuven Rivlin
(photo credit: MARK NEYMAN/GPO)
Politics is a dirty business, as Israelis have seen over the past year.
Some members of the Druze community say that there is no integrity in politics. It’s all a matter of power.
This kind of thinking ignores people such as Menachem Begin and his son, Bennie Begin, who each put conscience above political ambitions.
Someone else who puts her conscience first is Gadeer Mreeh, who has the distinction of being the first Druze woman to serve in the Knesset. She was also the first non-Jewish woman to anchor a Hebrew-language news program on Israeli television. She was elected to the Knesset in 2019 on a Blue and White ticket, but after the most recent elections, when Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz decided to accept Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s offer to join an emergency national-unity government to fight the coronavirus, she was livid. She had joined Blue and White, she said, in order to get rid of Netanyahu and stamp out corruption. That had been Gantz’s rallying cry throughout the election campaign, during which Gantz had sworn that he would not sit in a government with a prime minister who had been indicted for corruption.
On her Facebook page last Friday, Mree wrote in Hebrew that a leader does not betray his values or the public that voted for him. She had come to politics, she said, in order to replace a racist government that had enacted the Nation-State Law, not to be a partner in that government. She would not sit in such a government for a single day, she declared. In Arabic she quoted Lebanese Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, who advocated that one can live without a political party, but not without a conscience.
Gantz went to see her to try to talk her out of her decision to leave the party, and rumor has it that he even offered her a ministry, but she remained adamant and moved to Yesh Atid before the alliance that had merged into Blue and White was officially disbanded.
In welcoming her, Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid posted on Facebook: “We’re proud and happy to welcome MK Gadeer Kamal Mreeh to Yesh Atid. We’re proud of her, because she did not give up her values for any role in the world. Together with her, we will fight for the benefit of all the citizens of Israel. Gadeer Kamal Mreeh, Welcome.”
Not everyone in her community was happy with her decision. Some supported her, some tried to talk her out of it, and some thought that as a woman she should not have gone into politics anyway.
Members of the Druze community have served in the Knesset since 1951, but Mree is the first woman from the community to become a legislator, and may have had the possibility of becoming a minister, had she yielded to the pressures put on her by a large segment of the Druze community, which did not want its vote to be wasted, and wants one of its own to battle from an inside power base for the abolition of, or at least an amendment to, the Nation-State Law.
The first Druze to serve in the Knesset was Salah-Hassan Hanifes, who was elected in 1951 and served till 1959. Also elected in 1951 was Sheikh Jabr Muadi, who kept losing his seat and returning, time and again, as a member of a different party. All in all, he represented seven different parties between 1951 and 1981.
Since then, there have been several Druze politicians serving in various parties, as well as two Druze ministers – Salah Tarif, who was the first non-Jewish minister, albeit without portfolio, and Ayoub Kara, who was communications minister.
Most of the Druze legislators came to politics after distinguished military careers. Some also served as local mayors or diplomats before or after entering the Knesset. For instance, Zeidan Atashi was consul-general in New York, and Assad Assad was a member of the Israel delegation to the United Nations.
Few people may remember, but there was also a Druze acting president of the State. Ordinarily, when a president of the state is unable to discharge his duties due to absence or illness, the role of acting president goes to the speaker of the Knesset. When the speaker is also unable to discharge presidential duties, one of the deputy speakers takes over. When president Moshe Katsav suspended himself prior to his trial, Dalia Itzik was speaker of the Knesset and therefore became acting president. During that time, she went abroad, and Majalli Wahabi briefly took over as president.
Members of the Druze community have also won acclaim as academics, authors, advisers to presidents and prime ministers, and broadcasters. Most notable in the latter category is prizewinning Rafik Halabi, who is currently mayor of Daliat al-Carmel and in the forefront of opponents to the Nation-State Law.
Going further back in time, genial, mild-mannered Kamal Mansour spent a little more than 40 years as an adviser on minorities to the presidents of Israel. He was appointed by president Zalman Shazar, and continued to serve under presidents Ephraim Katzir, Yitzhak Navon, Chaim Herzog, Ezer Weizman, Katsav and Shimon Peres. In recognition of the enormous service that he rendered to the State of Israel, he was honored in 2010 with the Israel Prize.
Peres appointed Mansour’s son-in-law Brig.-Gen. Hassan Hassan as his military attache, the first member of the Druze community to hold this position. President Reuven Rivlin’s current military attache, Brig.-Gen. Ala Abu Rukon, is also Druze and is a former commander in the Paratroop Brigade.
■ ALTHOUGH HE has asked the citizenry to observe all the regulations set down by the Health Ministry, Rivlin has not been so scrupulous about doing so himself. Unable to do much in terms of carrying out his role and meeting and greeting various sectors of the population, he has been hosting individuals such as Netanyahu and Gantz, Jewish Agency Chairman Isaac Herzog, Egyptian Ambassador Khaled Azmi, Foreign Minister Israel Katz and Economy Minister Eli Cohen.
At these meetings, not only was there not a 2-meter distance between Rivlin and his guests – there wasn’t even a 1-meter distance, though Katz did sit a little further away from the president than did Azmi. All these meetings lasted longer than 15 minutes. It should be remembered that Rivlin, at 80, is in the high-risk age group.
The role of the president is largely ceremonial, although it cannot be said that Rivlin has remained aloof from politics. But he didn’t have too much left to say on the political front after Netanyahu and Gantz agreed to form an emergency national-unity government. Thus, the president has had to content himself talking to some of his counterparts abroad, especially those who have been infected or are in isolation because they may be carriers; reading stories to children; and hosting various officials. But he really should try to avoid the close encounters captured for posterity by Government Press Office photographer Mark Neyman.
Rivlin may have to postpone the traditional reception hosted by the president of the state for the new government, and the group photo that goes with it. There are just too many people, when the limit for any gathering (other than a funeral) is 10. Even if spouses and deputy ministers were excluded, there would still be more than 20 people too many.
■ IN THE midst of reports of rapidly rising incidents of people testing positive for the virus, the mistreatment of Holocaust survivors who are being ousted from nursing homes, the gradual increase in fatalities, the collapse of the economy and the tightening of restrictions, it’s heartening to get some good news, such as the recovery and release from Baruch Podeh Medical Center, Poriya, of Johnny, the east Jerusalem bus driver who was the first seriously ill coronavirus patient to be sedated and placed on a respirator.
Another piece of good news was published in Yediot Aharonot at the beginning of this week. Ambat Mengistu, a 38-year-old mother of three children from Kiryat Malachi, gave birth against all odds to a healthy set of triplets.
There were certain complications during her pregnancy, and one physician after another told her that there was little chance that the embryos would survive. But Mengistu refused to give in and found her way to Sheba Medical Center, where she came under the care of Prof. Yoav Yinon, who, like Mengistu, was determined that the babies would live, and made their survival his personal project. Mengistu has the highest praise for him as a doctor and a caring human being.
Neither she nor her triplets are ever likely to forget him or her local doctor Eran Barzilai, who treated her in the early stages of her pregnancy. The three baby boys have been named Yoav, Yinon and Eran.
■ IN POLAND as in Israel, there is an unholy relationship between politics and the pandemic. Poland is scheduled to go to presidential elections in May. Unlike Israel, the president of Poland is voted in by the national electorate. In Israel, the president is voted into office by the Knesset. The front-runner in Poland is present incumbent Andrzej Duda, but opposition candidates are divided over whether to delay the elections, for fear of spreading the virus. Some have suspended their campaigns. Meanwhile, Duda seems intent on carrying on with his campaign and holding the elections on time.
■ IN THE course of negotiations for the formation of an emergency national-unity government, several Blue and White MKs have called for the dismissal of Ya’acov Litzman as health minister.
In Australia, which is one of the countries most geographically distant from Israel, Dassi Erlich, who is the spokeswoman for herself and her two sisters Nicole Meyer and Elly Sapper, also wants to see Litzman out of office, but for moral rather than political reasons.
Erlich and her sisters believe that Litzman is part of a cover-up operation to prevent the extradition to Australia of Malka Leifer, a former principal of the Adass Israel School in Melbourne. The three sisters say that Leifer sexually abused them and other students at the haredi school. An Australian court found Leifer guilty of more than 70 charges, and the Australian authorities have for years been asking for her extradition.
When Australian Attorney-General Christian Porter was in Israel last year, he raised the issue Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit, but as yet, she is still in Israel.
Last month, the three sisters returned to the Adass Israel School to place red ribbons on the fence as part of a nationwide rally to protest the sexual exploitation of youth. It was the first time they had been there in more than a dozen years. They were supported by politicians and a large representation of the Jewish community. Not all survivors of sexual abuse in Jewish schools have come forward, but the sisters, in placing the ribbons on the fence, wanted to tell all victims that they are not alone, and that there are people in the community who care.
■ THE ECONOMIC effects of COVID-19 have been felt in many parts of the world, including in the Diaspora.
Aware that some of his regular customers, having lost their jobs, could no longer afford to make their weekly purchases for Shabbat, Jesse Meguideche, who operates a kosher bakery in the Sydney suburb of Rose Bay, decided that he wanted to help them.
He consulted with Ramona Freedman of the Kashrut Authority, and she posted a notice on Facebook inviting people to place orders at the bakery using the code “COVID-19 order.”
There would be nothing on the bag in which the order was placed to indicate that it was gratis. It would have the customer’s name and the word “Paid” written on it. The order comprises two large challot, two challa rolls, a chocolate cake or a cinnamon babka, plus a square loaf of whole-wheat or white bread.
For elderly and other housebound people, there would be free deliveries.
It’s not just the commercial value of the giveaway multiplied many times over that counts, but the generosity of heart.
■ APROPOS HEART, Hilton hotels worldwide, including in Israel, are lighting up many of their windows at night to form the shape of a heart. The light is not only meant to give hope, but is an expression of gratitude to doctors, nurses, food preparers and deliverers, street cleaners, voluntary organizations – in fact, everyone and anyone who is involved in one way or another in making the world bearable during the current crisis.
■ NEGOTIATIONS FOR rotation agreements, whether in political circles or in other spheres, seldom run smoothly, though some would say that despite the fact that they despised each other, Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Shamir managed to get past most of their differences.
The final text of the agreement was worked out by two lawyers who happened to be members of Knesset. Moshe Shahal was the Labor Party’s lawyer, and Moshe Nissim was the Likud’s lawyer. Both were of Iraqi background, so even though they had different political ideologies, they understood each other well. Shahal, who admires Nissim, and says that he is a man of great integrity, knew that he had to get past Nissim’s habit of carefully considering every word, if he wanted the agreement to be signed. Shahal decided that the only way to avoid Nissim’s pedantic examination of the text was to deliberately make mistakes in the spelling. Nissim was so busy with those corrections that he left the text intact.
■ ONE OF the perks that comes with being a high-ranking diplomat is immunity from many aspects of the law. Neither an ambassador nor a member of an ambassador’s family can be detained by law enforcement officials, nor can they be searched, nor can there be seizure of their property. They cannot be evicted from the homes in which they reside in the host country, and they have parking privileges that are not granted to citizens of that country. There are several other benefits as well.
But US Ambassador David Friedman and his wife, Tammy, decided that an ambassador is not immune from giving to charity. For many years before his appointment, Friedman and his wife gave generously to various causes in Israel, and they have continued to do so unobtrusively. Inspired last week by the NIS 1 million gift given by the Nacht Foundation to Leket, the National Food Bank, the Friedmans followed with a somewhat more moderate donation, but nonetheless an impressive sum of $50,000 to help feed people whose income has been significantly depleted by the coronavirus crisis.
■ FORMER MK Shelly Yacimovich had a milestone birthday on Saturday, when she turned 60. The date happened to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the death of Natan Alterman and was in the 50th anniversary year of the death in February 1970 of Shai Agnon – two of the cultural giants of the young nation. Agnon was already 82, but Alterman’s death was premature, as he was not yet 60. Although Agnon was Israel’s first Nobel Prize laureate, Alterman worked in a wider sphere. He was a novelist, poet, songwriter, playwright and journalist.
Yacimovich returned to her former career as a broadcast journalist after a 13-year stint as a parliamentarian. Even though she is a former head of the Labor Party, she actually had much more influence as a radio anchor than as a politician.
■ ISRAELIS ARE generally touchy-feely, and social distancing, especially from close relatives and friends, is very difficult. Prof. Tamar Herman, who oversees the annual Democracy Index prepared by the Israel Democracy Institute, when asked in a radio program how long she thought social distancing would last after the coronavirus crisis is over, replied “not even 10 minutes.”
 ■ INTERVIEWED ON radio this week about haredi adherence to Health Ministry regulations, Chaim Epstein, who represents the Peleg Yerushalmi (Jerusalem Faction) on the Jerusalem City Council, and has placed himself and his wife into isolation because they are in the high-risk age group, wished everyone in the world who has been infected with coronavirus to have a full and speedy recovery, and those who have not been infected, to stay that way.
■ WHEN YOU’RE a gregarious character with a finger in many pies, and you’re past your 90th birthday but your memory is still sharp, you’re bound to have some fascinating anecdotes. That, in a nutshell, is former New Yorker Murray Greenfield, who with his late wife, Hannah, a Czech Holocaust survivor, established Gefen Publishing, after having been engaged in several other ventures.
One of his previous lines of work, while still a young man, was as director of tourism at ZOA House in Tel Aviv. Always coming up with new ideas to promote whatever enterprise he was working on at any given time, Greenfield dreamed up a project whereby women volunteers would go to the city’s major hotels and tell tourists about the many attractions that Israel had to offer.
One of these women, who had been telling a guest at the Dan hotel that Israel, though a young nation, had an exciting history, subsequently called Greenfield and told him that she had a guest who was interested in stories, and she had delighted the guest by telling him that she knew someone who had been involved in illegal immigration during the final years of the British Mandate. The guest apparently wrote books and was eager to meet characters who could supply him with material for a new book.
Never backward about coming forward, Greenfield, a former member of the US Merchant Marines, who served during World War II, later volunteered to bring Holocaust survivors from Europe to what was then Palestine, quickly agreed.
Greenfield arranged to meet the writer in the evening and said that he would bring with him a sea captain by the name of Ike Aronowicz, who had been in on the illegal immigration operation since its very beginning. He also invited Jerry and Bea Renov who, like Greenfield, also hailed from the US. Renov had been a pilot during the war, and afterward one of the pioneers of the Israel Air Force. Renov was religious and always wore a kippah. His friends called him “the flying yarmulke.” There was also someone else who had served as a volunteer from abroad during the War of Independence.
The Greenfields discovered that the writer liked to drink, so they brought out a bottle of Scotch, which was an extraordinary luxury in those days. Aronowicz also liked to drink, and he and the author almost polished off the bottle between them.
The stories started to flow, and that’s how the best-selling book Exodus was conceived. The writer was, of course, Leon Uris, and Aronowicz was the captain of Exodus 1947, the illegal immigrant ship around which Otto Preminger directed the award-winning box office hit of the same name.
Greenfield and Uris remained friends until the latter’s death in June 2003. Uris visited him in Israel, and Greenfield visited Uris in the US. He was reminded of the book last week, when someone told him that Exodus was being screened on television.
■ AFTER HAVING to leave home for several weeks due to extensive construction work being carried out in the adjacent area, what really annoyed Tel Aviv peace activist Alice Krieger was losing the parking spot alongside her duplex. When she returned home this week to reclaim her parking spot, she discovered that it has temporarily become a place for prayer and coffee, because the construction workers are all Palestinians who take time out to pray and to drink coffee. She did notice, however, that inasmuch as possible, they are keeping their distance from one another.
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