A day at Shefayim - ESRA celebrates 30 years

Despite the feeling by some of being left out of the Israeli narrative, Anglos gather in the rain to celebrate the country and volunteering in its service.

Ethipian children 88 248 (photo credit: David E. Kaplan)
Ethipian children 88 248
(photo credit: David E. Kaplan)
The final days prior to the ESRA 30th anniversary had a D-Day countdown panic about them. There was justifiable concern about the weather. The forecasts were for heavy rain and wind. "Would the people come?" plagued the minds of event organizer Jane Krivine and her team of 100 volunteers. They needn't have worried! While it did rain hard, the English-speaking community braved the "miserable weather," and ESRA Chairwoman Debbie Lieberman typified her organization's philosophy of responding to a negative with a positive when she animatedly bellowed at the closing ceremony at Kibbutz Shefayim: "Israel should be indebted to ESRA - we brought the much-needed rain." For over 30 years, ESRA has brought much else. The event was not only a celebration of a journey of communal service but an opportunity to showcase to the Israeli public "who we are and what we do," Lieberman told Metro. Apart from the general press, the event was covered on Israel TV news. Former Australian and Spokesman for Prime Minister Ehud Olmert Mark Regev told a packed auditorium, "I am proud of my Anglo-Saxon roots. You can travel the length and breadth of Israel and you will see a ward in a hospital, a department at a university or an ambulance or fire station with the plaque recognizing a contribution from some faraway philanthropic Anglo Saxon from LA, London or Sydney." What has been neglected, stressed Regev, has been the absence of the narrative "of you - 'the Anglos' - who came on aliya and settled this land, fought in its wars and contributed to its economy, its sciences, its academia and its politics." ESRA's 30-year anniversary was in many respects a response to Regev's observation. The day was educative and informative. Visiting the writers' corner, one could meet among the many English-speaking authors Rebecca Yeheskel, who had written a book about her childhood in India. Born in Poona, and educated in an English school, she immigrated to Israel in 1970 with her husband, a pilot in the Indian Air Force. Gathering an audience, she related the origin of the Jewish community in India, much of it covered in her book. She related how her "Jewish forefathers arrived before the destruction of the Second Temple, shipwrecked off the coast near where Bombay is today. There were seven men and seven women who survived and as time passed, they forgot their Hebrew, but certain traditions were retained." People were enjoying no less the lecture in the adjacent hall by former South African Leah Zinder, IBA News diplomatic correspondent. Like many Israelis, English speakers are generally news junkies. But unlike native-born Israelis, Anglos tend to be obsessed with how Israel is so negatively portrayed in the world media. Not surprisingly, Zinder's and Regev's lectures attracted the largest audiences of the event. Zinder spoke of the "new television," and what she refers to as "the tyranny of the visual image." The line between news and entertainment "has been completely blurred," she said. News has evolved out of a milieu of moviemaking, she said, citing the Second Lebanon War as a particularly low point in TV news coverage. "Reports were part fabricated - pictures and TV footage doctored or manufactured. Remember the pictures of buildings alleged to have just been bombed and later discovered to have been hit weeks before or the wailing Lebanese woman, standing despairingly before her destroyed home, on three separate occasions in three different towns?" Zinder asked. What the TV audiences watch the world over "is what Hizbullah or Hamas want them to see. Who guides them in these areas? Who translates from the Arabic into English? This is controlled news and the foreign media plays along with it," the reporter asserted. Regev, on the other hand, has no problem with the rough coverage Israel receives in the world media, saying "the job of the media is to be critical." He refutes the popular local belief of "an international media conspiracy" against Israel. "While I am not naïve [enough] to believe there is no bias or anti-Semitism in the media," he said, he generally sees the foreign media not as hostile but "aggressive" - "because that's what they're paid to be. We wouldn't want it otherwise. Who would want to read sycophantic Pravda-type papers? Not any of you! We are all from Anglo-Saxon societies nurtured on press freedom. My job is to defend Israel's actions and policies, and if I have any criticism of the foreign media it's that they're not equally aggressive when covering our adversaries," Regev declared. There was good reason why former American Ahron Klieman, Emeritus Professor of Diplomacy at Tel Aviv University, also attracted a large audience - his subject: "The US Elections and Israel." Who would not be curious how each of the presidential candidates would impact the Middle East, particularly on the Iran question? "We cannot bomb Iran," Klieman explained. "Since our attack on Iraq's nuclear reactor in 1982, the Iranians have taken precautions, widely dispersing their facilities underground. So all we may achieve is to stall the program. Worse, we would likely cause a disruption in the free flow of oil through the Persian Gulf." Not exactly a result that would improve Israel's shaky popularity in Europe and elsewhere. Irrespective of who would win the White House, "Neither a joint or solo military operation is likely," says Klieman, "The momentum now is to pursue a diplomatic path." Aside from politics, ESRA's reunion boasted subjects of interest for everyone - religion, literature, medicine, photojournalism and history. The morning began with British photographer, curator and co-author Ruth Cormon joining famed Israel Prize recipient David Rubinger for "Israel Through My Lens" - a presentation of slides and readings from Rubinger's book, which has topped Israel's bestseller list for months. His photographs, covering 60 years, are a pictorial documentary of Israel's turbulent history. One impressive photo shows a line of IDF soldiers, a typical image of the Israeli army of the 1950s, young, brash and "undisciplined." In the photographer's own words: "There isn't one soldier in this line who is standing in the same position as another. Everything uniform about an army is missing. That was typical of the period. No saluting. No Prussian drill. But it wasn't a bad army, by any means." The depiction of fortitude and grit that began the day at Shefayim also concluded the long day as it passed into night. Nineteen volunteers were presented with certificates of recognition for years of dedicated community service. ESRA Life President Merle Guttmann, who gave the keynote address, reflected back over 30 years to the meeting in Herzliya when the idea of establishing an organization to assist English-speaking immigrants in their integration was first conceived. Since its inception, ESRA has raised over NIS 50 million to support some 160 community projects throughout Israel. It rained hard that day at Shefayim. But it didn't dampen the spirits of an English-speaking army of volunteers determined to continue making their mark on Israeli society.