Grapevine: A British diplomat in Mea She’arim

Bastille day at the French Residence, the launch of the Israel Innovation Center and more.

JOHANNA ARBIB-PERUGIA with Eliezer Sandberg, world chairman of United Israel Appeal. (photo credit: Courtesy)
JOHANNA ARBIB-PERUGIA with Eliezer Sandberg, world chairman of United Israel Appeal.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Some of the people who accepted an invitation to the screening at the Government Press Office on Thursday of the fascinating documentary The Interpreter of God’s Word in our Time were probably very surprised to see among the people who had come to consult with the great Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv at his home in Mea She’arim none other than Britain’s former ambassador to Israel Sir Tom Phillips (from 2006 to 2010, after which he was posted to Saudi Arabia). Phillips was not the only non- Jew who found his way to Mea She’arim in order to meet the man who was a legend in his very long lifetime. With a large black kippa on his head and armed with an interpreter who translated Yiddish to English and back, Phillips wanted to know if there was any room for compromise in the Israeli- Palestinian conflict. Elyashiv replied that it was a political rather than a religious question, adding that first Israelis had to feel that they could sleep safely in their beds.
Elsewhere in the film, produced by Israel Goldvich and Ami Drozd, there is a scene of Shimon Peres engaged in earnest conversation with Elyashiv. This time, no interpreter was needed. The two spoke to each other in Hebrew. When Goldvich subsequently asked about their discussion, Peres, who enjoyed talking to Israel’s leading spiritual scholars, stated how impressed he had been by Elyashiv’s profound thinking, adding that he was not surprised that Elyashiv had such a vast following.
More than 400,000 people attended Elyashiv’s funeral when he died four years ago. One of the rabbi’s students, attorney Dov Halberthal, said that whenever he listened to Elyashiv, he felt as if he was at Mount Sinai.
For those who were not invited to yesterday’s screening, there’s another opportunity to see the film this coming Saturday night, July 16, at 10.30 p.m. on Channel 1.
■ THERE WERE fewer guests than usual mingling on the lawn at the French Residence in Jaffa on Wednesday evening, possibly because many of the invitees had anticipated that the celebration of Bastille Day would be on the actual date, which was Thursday, when in fact it was celebrated again outside the French Embassy in Tel Aviv.
It was also a sadder celebration than in the past because it was the last to be hosted in Israel by French Ambassador Patrick Maisonnave, who will soon be succeeded by Hélène le Gal, who worked as a counselor at the French Embassy in the 1990s and is well known to Gisele Abazon, one of Israel’s most theatrical interpreters, who is adored by the Foreign Ministry and by the French Embassy as well as by high-ranking officials from English-, French-, German- and Spanish-speaking countries. Yuval Steinitz, energy and water minister, was so charmed by Abazon’s use of language, her panache and her gift for drama that he decided to speak in Hebrew rather than in English, just so that he could hear how Abazon translated what he said.
It is almost impossible to have a diplomatic event these days without mentioning terrorism. Considering that this a common concern of France and Israel, it was a given that in his farewell address Maisonnave would speak of the victims of terrorism in France, Israel, Brussels, Orlando, Africa and throughout the Middle East. He also spoke of the solid political relationship between France and Israel, despite occasional disagreements, and of the cultural events that were initiated and sponsored by the French Embassy and the French Institute. He voiced appreciation to Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai for encouraging all those initiatives.
Maisonnave is pleased that 150,000 of his compatriots living in Israel still have strong connections to France and is also happy that a series of Francophone events had enabled recent French immigrants to feel at home in Israel. His wish before leaving is for Israel and the Palestinians to overcome their differences and find a way to coexist.
“I believe that peace is possible because both peoples have suffered too much,” he said. At the conclusion of his remarks, he switched to Hebrew, saying that he would always remember Israel and the Israelis and would carry them in his heart. “Israel gave me so much in the three years that I was here, and I was happy to represent France in Israel.”
Bastille Day serves as a symbol for all democracies, said Steinitz, noting that while a lot of blood was spilled in the struggle against tyranny, the battle was for the cause of democracy, freedom and justice, whereas the spilling of blood by terrorists is in order to destroy democracy, not only for Jews but also for Christians and moderate Muslims.
Maisonnave, who is transferring to Paris, will have a few more ambassadorial duties to complete before he leaves, not the least of which will be to escort Gerard Larcher, the president of the French Senate, who will be in Israel next week for meetings with his counterpart Yuli Edelstein, President Reuven Rivlin and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who will be interested in hearing about the meeting that Larcher had last month with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.
■ NOT TOO many American congressmen excite the attention of the Israeli media – even in an election year. But Rep. Jason Chaffetz, who is leading a congressional delegation to Israel next week, is bound to be one of the exceptions to the rule, and not because of his Jewish background, though he’s been a Mormon since his last year in college, but because he chairs the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. As such, he co-signed a letter this week that was sent to the US attorney for the District of Columbia requesting an investigation into whether former secretary of state Hillary Clinton committed perjury and made false statements when testifying under oath before Congress.
Chaffetz, whose surname is unmistakably Hebrew, is the son of a Christian Science mother and a Jewish father. Prior to his conversion, he regarded himself as Jewish.
His paternal grandfather, Max Chaffetz, was an FBI special agent, who early in his career was involved in apprehending legendary gangster Baby Face Nelson and in gunning down John Dillinger.
■ AT A festive dinner at the David Citadel Hotel this week, the Israel Goldstein Prize for Distinguished Leadership was awarded to Johanna Arbib-Perugia of Rome. The award, which is United Israel Appeal’s highest accolade, is named for dynamic American Zionist leader Rabbi Dr. Israel Goldstein, who served as world chairman of UIA from 1961 to 1971. He and his wife, Bert, a lawyer by profession and a feisty Zionist activist in her own right, made their home in Jerusalem’s Talbiyeh neighborhood. Goldstein died in 1986 at the age of 87, leaving a legacy of passionate care, determined action and volunteerism.
Arbib-Perugia, who is a past chairwoman of the UIA’s World Board of Trustees, was presented with the award by current UIA world chairman Eliezer (Moodi) Sandberg, who, recalling that she had traveled throughout the world in response to crisis situations and to Jewish communities where she was most needed, told her: “You took solidarity to a new level. There is no better example of dynamic Jewish leadership than you.” Sandberg’s predecessor Avi Pazner, who also worked closely with Arbib-Perugia, told her: “This is the most well-deserved Goldstein Prize that anyone ever got.” Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, the rabbi of the Western Wall, praised Arbib-Perugia as someone who not only acts but knows how to galvanize others.
In response, Arbib-Perugia said that the gathering of people in Jerusalem “encapsulated the faith and hope of the Jewish people, who for 2,000 years endured persecution and suffering. The idea that we could be free was a fantasy for our ancestors. The story of the rebirth of the Jewish people has no parallel in human history. Dreams can come true only if you have total faith in the justness of your cause.”
■ THE LAUNCH of the Israel Innovation Center, which will be housed at the Peres Center for Peace, was originally scheduled to take place on Thursday, June 9, with the participation of Peres, Rivlin and Netanyahu.
However, due to a terrorist attack on Tel Aviv’s Sarona Market the previous evening, it was decided to defer the launch to a later date. The launch will now take place toward the end of next week, and will include a large and impressive display of innovative Israeli technologies that contributed to change in the world and to Israel’s ongoing image as “Start-up Nation.”
In view of the number of countries that have signed, or are interested in signing, cooperative science and technology agreements with Israel, it is anticipated that the center will attract heads of state, business delegations and scientists and technologists from around the world who are keen to learn how Israel came to the forefront of the cutting edge of global innovation.
The center will also attract soldiers and students who are planning careers in science and technology.