It happened very quickly in late November 1977: an announcement was made that Egyptian President Anwar Sadat was coming to Jerusalem. For the first time in 30 years, the head of an Arab country would visit Israel and talk face to face on our soil. Within 48 hours, the entire city of Jerusalem was transformed physically and emotionally. Stores placed welcome signs in Arabic in their windows, and Jerusalem’s flag maker worked full speed to provide Egyptian flags to hang side by side on streets and public buildings. Nearly 2,000 members of the media, from every corner of the world, poured into the capital to find an exceptionally well-organized communications center at the Jerusalem Theatre.
On November 19, Israelis waited in near-freezing temperatures at the entrance to Jerusalem and along the route to clap, wave flags and shout welcome. Throughout the visit, Jerusalem traffic was practically at a standstill, yet Jerusalemites took it in stride if it could mean peace. People walked with transistor radios at their ears. Children wrote essays in school. Israel’s Arabic radio broadcasts went out clear for the first time in 25 years, not jammed by Egypt.
Decorating the Communications Center was an exhibit by prominent artists on the subject of peace, organized by the head of WIZO from Tel Aviv.
Only the top journalists in their fields were permitted entry to places where Sadat would visit, so the rest of us wandered around the Communications Center looking for story ideas. Suddenly, I had an angle. I would find an Egyptian journalist to interview. He was wearing a red-colored tag, distinguished-looking, in his 50s or 60s, and he represented Egypt’s major newspaper. He graciously consented to an interview.
A couple of months later, Milton Firestone, the Kansas City Jewish Chronicle editor, wrote that he had been to Morocco and Egypt, attending the Christmas-day summit at Ismailia. “While at Ismailia, an amazing thing happened. I sat two seats away from the Egyptian correspondent whom you interviewed and photographed in Jerusalem. He was unmistakable from his ‘naturally curly hair.’ I started to tell him that we ran a story and picture of him, but it got too hectic and I never got to speak to him. However, I would have given a lot at that point to have had with me a copy of Mike’s picture of him in Jerusalem. He would probably have dropped over.”
The behind-the-scenes story of the Sadat visit was part of a speech given by Zev Hefetz, American director of the Israel Government Press Office, before the Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel. It covered the hectic time between November 12 when President Sadat said he was prepared to accept the invitation of Prime Minister Begin, through the visit of November 19-20.
“Reactions of Canadians in Israel to Sadat’s Visit” was my story of the Toronto-born, Canadian Broadcasting Company man in Israel, Jim Lederman. He was the first person to broadcast outside Israel the news that Sadat was coming on Saturday night. Prior to, during and after the visit, Jim coordinated 10 CBC radio and television people from Canada and London. Compared with American TV network CBS, which had 160 people in Israel for the event, what emerged was one of the longest radio specials Canada had produced. It lasted five hours, plus another three-and-a-half hours of broadcasts across Canada. It was an amazing event for all journalists to experience, me included.
Sybil Kaplan is a journalist, lecturer, book reviewer, food writer, and author of Witness to History: Ten Years as a Woman Journalist in Israel, from which the above is excerpted, and nine cookbooks, including What’s Cooking at Hadassah College. She lived in Israel from 1970-1980, and came to live in Jerusalem in 2008 with her late husband, Barry.