Grapevine: Foreign dignitaries flock to Israel

This week, in addition to Chinese Vice Premier Liu Yandong, Greek President Prokopis Pavlopoulos and various American VIPs, including a six-member congressional delegation visited the Jewish state.

Greek President Prokopis Pavlopoulos (L) speaks as he delivers a joint statement with his Israeli counterpart Reuven Rivlin in Jerusalem March 30, 2016 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Greek President Prokopis Pavlopoulos (L) speaks as he delivers a joint statement with his Israeli counterpart Reuven Rivlin in Jerusalem March 30, 2016
(photo credit: REUTERS)
BDS and terrorism will be self-defeating in the final analysis. Legitimate criticism of Israel notwithstanding, dignitaries from around the world whose countries are now experiencing terrorist attacks, an influx of immigrants, including undesirables, and a sense of discomfort provoked by threats and attempts to introduce alien laws and traditions into their countries, are beginning to empathize with Israel. Some are coming simply to benefit from the areas in which Israel has expertise, but others are coming after the penny has finally dropped, and in their own respective predicaments they are beginning to understand what Israel endures, has endured for years, and why Israel sometimes has to act in contradiction to its own values.
This week, in addition to Chinese Vice Premier Liu Yandong, Greek President Prokopis Pavlopoulos and various American VIPs, including a six-member congressional delegation headed by former presidential candidate South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, there were other foreign dignitaries and celebrities from some half-dozen countries.
Hot on their heels is French Minister of Social Affairs and Health Marisol Touraine, who arrived in Israel on Thursday and will return to France on Sunday. In the course of her visit, she will meet with Health Minister Ya’acov Litzman. The main purpose of her visit is to strengthen cooperation between France and Israel in medical research and innovation. She is also interested in an exchange of information on terrorist threats and how to deal with them.
On Thursday, she visited Yad Vashem in Jerusalem in the morning, had lunch at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot and inspected the Nancy and Stephen Grand Israel National Center for Personalized Medicine, then went to the Sourasky Medical Center in Tel Aviv, and in the evening attended a reception at the residence in Jaffa of French Ambassador Patrick Maisonnave, who introduced her to members of the local French community.
She is scheduled to have breakfast at the ambassador’s residence on Friday morning, where other guests around the table will be start-up entrepreneurs working in areas of medical innovation. Touraine will spend Saturday and Sunday visiting the Palestinian Authority and surrounds.
Among the foreign dignitaries arriving in Israel next week are Czech Foreign Minister Lubomir Zaorálek and New South Wales Premier Mike Baird.
■ “HE’S A great guy,” President Reuven Rivlin said of his Greek counterpart, after bidding him farewell following the state dinner that Rivlin had hosted in honor of Pavlopoulos.
To Rivlin, the Greek president was a kindred spirit. Both had studied law and philosophy at university, both had entered parliament a little past their mid-40s, “and both of us don’t get on too well with our governments,” said Rivlin with an impish grin.
There are state dinners and there are state dinners. Rivlin tries very hard to be as formal as protocol dictates, but it’s not in his nature.
He’s a hail fellow well met, touchy-feely type who grasps his interlocutors by the hand or the shoulder, laughs easily and cracks jokes and gets a great kick out of Israeli singers.
Although all the Greek guests at the dinner were delighted with Shlomi Saranga singing old favorites made popular by Stelios Kazantzidis, no one enjoyed it more than Rivlin, who, sitting at the head table, swayed and clapped his hands in time to the music and alternately threw his arms wide in pure joy.
There were two main topics among the Greek guests who accompanied their president and Israelis of Greek origin: the brands of ouzo that they favor and the quality of Greek halva versus Israeli halva.
There was, of course, a serious side to the evening as well. For Pavlopoulos this was his first-ever visit to Israel, and he said that he thanked God for the possibility and the opportunity to see the sun rise and set over the Jerusalem hills. It was an emotional experience for him, after visiting Yad Vashem earlier in the day to plant an olive tree in the Garden of the Righteous. He drew an analogy between the sturdiness and deep roots of the olive tree and the relations between Greece and Israel. He noted that 67,150 Greek Jews had been murdered in the Holocaust, and 327 Greeks had saved Jews from the Nazis, proving how to be “true Greeks” in those dark days.
Pavlopoulos also underlined that just as Greece is a close friend of Israel, Greece also enjoys good relations with the Palestinians, and because it is friendly with both, he is hopeful that Greece will be able to find a way to help Israel and the Palestinians reach a sustainable peace agreement.
To illustrate that Athens and Jerusalem were literally two sides of the same coin, Rivlin mentioned an ancient coin that had been unearthed some years ago at Beit Tzur. On one side there was an owl which was the symbol of Greece, and engraved on the other side were the words “Yohanan the High Priest.” “This points to the deep historic connection between Athens and Jerusalem,” said Rivlin. He also emphasized how much the two ancient Jewish and Greek cultures had given to the world.
■ REMEMBER THAT pretty young White House intern with whom Bill Clinton claimed never to have had sex with? In case you’ve forgotten, her name is Monica Lewinsky, who these days is a social activist, and she’s scheduled to participate in next week’s Forbes Under 30 Summit taking place at the Peres Center in Jaffa and the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, April 3-7. Lewinsky has been listed as a participant in a panel discussion under the heading “Changing the Dialogue,” in which she and fellow panelists will try to come up with a solution for ending cyber-bullying and online shaming.
Having suffered greatly herself for being made the scapegoat for a US president with an overactive libido, Lewinsky certainly knows what it is to suffer the effects of social media malice. Instead of wallowing in self-pity, Lewinsky is dedicated, through her writings and TED talks, to attempting to prevent others from suffering similar shaming by trying to create what she calls “a compassionate society.”
If the subject seems out of place at a conference targeted at bringing together some 600 young entrepreneurs and game changers who will be working together to change the world, just think what a blemished reputation does to someone of any age who is trying to make a career advancement, start a business or get married. Among the many speakers will be 92-year-old former president Shimon Peres, who was not yet 30 when appointed director-general of the Defense Ministry.
■ A UNIVERSAL characteristic is the pride that any group or community takes when one of its own becomes a widely recognized achiever.
It can be someone of the same nationality or faith whom they don’t necessarily know personally, but with whom they can identify.
Thus, when Ambassador Jeremy Issacharoff, the deputy director-general of the Foreign Ministry and highest-ranking Israeli official of Bukharan descent, was in Tashkent this week leading a strategic dialogue, the fact that his family hails from the region made his visit the main story on Uzbeki national news.
Although he had come to meet with senior government officials, including Uzbekistan’s foreign minister, he also had to make time for the Jewish community, which feted him endlessly. The London-born Issacharoff is the scion of an affluent family which made aliya at the turn of the 20th century and in the early 1900s built a large orphanage in downtown Jerusalem. The building, which still exists today, serves as a yeshiva for boys from difficult backgrounds.
The family also built a beautiful synagogue in the capital’s Bukharin Quarter which is still in daily use. Issacharoff always sits on the board of both institutions, and the Issacharoff clan often celebrate bar and bat mitzvas and circumcision ceremonies there.
For the Jewish community of Tashkent, the arrival of an Issacharoff in their midst was almost akin to that of royalty, and they decked their Israeli visitor in the traditional gold embroidered robe that is a sign of esteem and worn by elders of the community at religious events or celebrations.
■ ELSEWHERE IN the former Soviet Union, the Lavi Furniture Industries, famous for designing and creating synagogue furniture, completed its specially designed installation of furniture at the newly built synagogue in the upscale neighborhood of Zhokovka, where one of the neighbors happens to be Russian President Vladimir Putin, who, on the day that the synagogue was officially opened, came to take a look at the Israeli handiwork and was suitably impressed. He met privately with rabbis Berel Lazar, chief rabbi of Russia, and Alexander Boroda, the president of the Federation of Jewish Communities. The synagogue is believed to be the largest constructed in Moscow in the past 15 years.
Lavi Furniture Industries, located on Kibbutz Lavi, is a world leader in the design and manufacture of seating systems and furniture for synagogues, yeshivot and institutions, and has supplied close to 5,000 clients in Israel and abroad.
■ INDEPENDENCE DAY is just around the corner and the Education Ministry is stuck for a moderator-cum-quizmaster for the annual International Youth Bible Quiz, which is one of the traditional Independence Day events.
Notwithstanding the fact that Avshalom Kor held the position for almost three decades, the ministry published tenders for which the applicants were Kor, Channel 2 reporter Sivan Rahav-Meir and stage and screen personality Jacky Levy. Of the trio, Rahav-Meir asked for the lowest fee, and an announcement was published with great fanfare.
It subsequently transpired that whoever was supposed to inform Kor that he would be at leisure on Independence Day this year could not contact him by phone, and therefore did the next best thing and sent him an email and SMS. Kor was cut to the quick, but nonetheless contacted Rahav-Meir and wished her well.
Education Minister Naftali Bennett, on learning what had happened, hastily called Kor to apologize. When Rahav-Meir became aware of the situation, she wrote a thanks but no thanks letter to the ministry, explaining that she had not known that Kor was also a candidate. She had thought, when she applied, that he no longer wanted to do the job. The ministry decided to eat humble pie and asked Kor to continue as Bible Quiz moderator.
But this year the format has changed, and Kor wasn’t happy with it, so he declined.
Levy was then approached, but no one wants to be thought of as a last resort, so he, too, declined. Veteran Israel Radio broadcaster Dan Kaner, who is frequently sought after to moderate various events, was also approached, but declined on that grounds that Kor was the person most closely identified with the Bible Quiz. Next in line was Yehoram Gaon, who also has a healthy knowledge of the Bible, but after giving the matter due consideration, Gaon also declined. If the chain of refusal continues, Bennett may have no option but to be the moderator himself.
■ AT THE press conference held this week at the National Library of Israel in advance of the laying of the cornerstone on Tuesday for the new National Library on a large tract of land facing the Knesset, no mention was made of an impressive gift received a few days earlier – a rare Torah written in book form in Ge’ez, one of the languages of Ethiopia. The volume, referred to as Orit, is believed to be 350-400 years old, and was passed down from generation to generation, serving, among others, Isaac Yaso, the great spiritual leader of the Ethiopian Jewish community of Tigray province.
Yaso’s nephew Yaakov Gonchal tells the story of how his grandfather lived in a region of Ethiopia in which the Jewish community was dwindling. For fear that the Orit might be violated or destroyed, he moved with it to Tigray and gave it to Yaso.
The Orit comprises the five books of Moses, as well as the books of Joshua, Judges and Ruth. Even though Israel’s Ethiopian community is scattered in different parts of the country, their ambition while still in Ethiopia was to reach Jerusalem.
Thus there was consensus that the most precious of their holy scriptures be permanently deposited in Jerusalem and that the best place to ensure its preservation would be the National Library. Despite all the hardships endured by Ethiopians who crossed the desert to reach the Holy Land, the Orit somehow remained intact as it was transported from Ethiopia to Sudan and then to Israel.
Dr. Yoel Finkelman, the National Library’s curator, was thrilled to receive this holy, extremely rare item, which he regards as a significant contribution to the National Library’s efforts to document the religious and cultural lifestyles of Jewish communities around the world. The presentation was accompanied by singing and dancing by members of the Ethiopian community, who turned the occasion into a festive ceremonial affair.
The area around the new National Library, which will be open to the public in 2020, is evolving into a Jerusalem version of Washington’s famous Smithsonian museum and research complex. In addition to the nearby Israel Museum, Bible Museum, Shrine of the Book and Science Museum, as well as exhibits on view at the Knesset, at least two other museums are destined for the area. One is under construction and the other in the planning stages, and it’s possible that the current National Library building, which is within easy walking distance of the new National Library, will be transformed into yet another museum. Just as the Smithsonian has a rail line running past it, so the museum belt of Jerusalem will also have the light rail stopping there, once the light rail network is expanded.
The Museum of Tolerance people may regret having fought so hard for the controversial space in an Arab cemetery bordering the capital’s Hillel Street. It’s already 12 years since then-governor of California Arnold Schwartzenegger came to Jerusalem for the groundbreaking ceremony for the Museum of Tolerance, and the project is nowhere near completion.
■ WHILE MANY newspapers and magazines around the world are either closing, downsizing or abandoning the printed tactile editions in favor of digital online publication, Tablet Magazine, the daily online New Yorkbased Jewish news and culture publication, has gone in the opposite direction. In November last year, Tablet launched its bimonthly print magazine.
Alana Newhouse, who had previously worked for five years as the culture editor of The Forward, joined in September 2008 and supervised its relaunch as Tablet Magazine in 2009. After almost seven years, she reached the conclusion that there are people who will always prefer to read traditional print publications, and thus the print magazine, whose second issue was recently released, came into being, with Newhouse as the editor of both.
Nextbook was a nonprofit Jewish enterprise founded by Mem Bernstein through her Keren Keshet-The Rainbow Foundation, which now supports Tablet. Bernstein is the widow of Wall Street billionaire Sanford (Zalman) Bernstein, who lived much of the latter part of his life in Jerusalem and bequeathed his fortune to her. She has used it to a large extent to boost Jewish culture and education in America and Israel.
Among the foundation’s projects in Israel are Hebrew Book Week and Beit Avi Chai in Jerusalem, along with conferences and symposia in schools and in the general public sphere to perpetuate Jewish continuity, Judaism and the State of Israel.