Grapevine: Preserving unity

A round-up of news from around the country.

Unity Day banners commemorating Eyal Ifrach, Gil-ad Shaer and Naftali Fraenkel. (photo credit: Courtesy)
Unity Day banners commemorating Eyal Ifrach, Gil-ad Shaer and Naftali Fraenkel.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Seldom if ever in the history of the State of Israel was there as much national and world Jewish unity as in the search and prayers and for Eyal Ifrah, Gil- Ad Shaer and Naftali Fraenkel, the three yeshiva students kidnapped and murdered by terrorists in summer 2014.
What served to unite the nation was the attitude of the boys’ parents, particularly the bilingual Racheli Fraenkel, who became the families’ spokeswoman and whose nobility of spirit shone like a beacon through the darkness of uncertainty – and the subsequent grief, after the bodies of the three boys were found.
The unity that prevailed throughout the time the boys were missing, coupled with the exemplary conduct of the parents, made a profound impact on many people. This was the kind of Israel that truly committed Zionists, whether religious or not, had dreamed of.
Thus it was a natural progression when Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat visited the families during the shiva period and asked what could be done to preserve that sense of unity. As it was, the families wanted to do something to memorialize their sons in a meaningful way – something that would have a more far-reaching effect than a bunch of scholarships or a stone monument. Together with Barkat and Gesher, and with the blessing of the president, they conceived of a Jewish Unity Day for the promotion of tolerance and cooperation by the Jewish people’s various sectors in Israel and the Diaspora.
They also wanted to acknowledge outstanding individuals and organizations that were sources of inspiration in these fields, and simultaneously launched an annual Jerusalem Unity Prize in memory of the three boys. The prize will be awarded for the first time this evening, Wednesday, by President Reuven Rivlin at his official residence – which is a national symbol for tolerance, cooperation and understanding. The winners were selected by a jury comprising Barkat, Gesher president Rabbi Dr. Danny Troper, former education minister Prof. Yuli Tamir, Israel Prize laureate Rabbi Yitzchak David Grossman, former UK Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, singer and composer Kobi Oz, media personality Orly Vilnai and representatives of the families.
The winners include the Chabad House of Bangkok, a meeting point for hundreds of thousands of Jews from all over the world who flock to Thailand, in the Israel-Diaspora category. Nifgashim Beshvil Yisrael won in the social initiative category; an educational project, it was initiated by Raya and Yossi Epner to memorialize their son Avi, a first sergeant killed in the military helicopter tragedy in 1997, and in memory of all those killed in Israel’s wars or through acts of terrorism.
The initiative is an annual hike along the Israel Trail from Eilat to She’ar Yashuv; its main goal is to reinforce and deepen Israeli societal unity through conversation among people from diverse sectors and backgrounds who meet along the trail.
The individual winners are Brig.-Gen. (res.) Ram Shmueli and Rabbi David Menachem.
Shmueli promotes dialogue between different sectors of Israeli society in the hope that through understanding one other, the people will become a cohesive force. Menachem, a liturgical singer and composer, genuinely believes that music soothes the savage breast and can be an important vehicle in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Unity Day activities will be taking place throughout Israel and the Jewish world, with more than a million participants.
Among the highlights will be a Unity Day conference in Hebrew at the Van Leer Institute in Jerusalem, with simultaneous translation in English; Rabbi Lord Sacks is scheduled to address the conference in English at 12:15 p.m.
Sacks has a packed speaking schedule during his current visit to Israel. On Tuesday, he spoke at Tel Aviv University; on Thursday, he has a sold-out lecture in Modi’in on “Confronting Violence in the Name of God.”
On Friday morning, he will be at the capital’s Kehillat Yedidya congregation to speak on behalf of the Free Loan Association on “Tzedaka and Social Justice”; on Shabbat, he will join Rabbi Benny Lau at the capital’s Ramban Synagogue to deliver a sermon in English. But the piece de resistance will be on June 9, when he speaks at the National Library on Hebrew’s University’s Givat Ram campus on “The Battle of the Book: Faith, Fratricide and the Power of Text.”
FOR SOME time now, people interested in promoting peace between Palestinians and Israelis have not left the matter in the hands of politicians, but have taken it to grassroots levels.
One such relatively recent initiative is Palestine House in Tel Aviv, which was founded by Ilan Baruch, a former ambassador to South Africa, and former Palestinian Authority prisoners affairs minister Ashraf al-Ajrami; they strongly believe Israelis and Palestinians should learn more about each other’s culture so they can better understand one other.
While Palestinians who work in Israel do know something of Israeli culture, which in some cases they may discuss at home, Israelis know very little about Palestinian culture and society.
The idea of having Palestine House in the heartland of Tel Aviv is to overcome this lacuna and pave the way for friendships – which will be extremely valuable when the politicians eventually reach a final settlement.
■ ANOTHER INITIATIVE that’s been going on a little longer is the Peace Team comprised of Israeli Jews and Arabs – Arabs from east Jerusalem who do not have Israeli citizenship, and players from Hebron and various Palestinian villages. The Peace Team plays football – not soccer, not rugby, not American football, but Australian Rules football, which is quite different.
“We are a fully sponsored Australian football team, based in Jerusalem and made up of Israeli and Palestinian players. Our team brings both populations together as equals with an aspiration to grow as a unified, understanding and tolerant team living in one of the most polarized cities in the world,” explained team manager and captain Yonatan Belik, whose parents, Harvey and Loretta, are veteran Australian immigrants living in Ra’anana.
An initiative of the Peres Center for Peace, the team was founded in 2008 in cooperation with the Australian chapter of the Peres Center and in partnership with the Al-Quds Association for Democracy and Dialogue. Comprised of young men aged 18-35 who initially go through six months of intensive training and group dialogue, the team has twice played in competitive matches in Australia.
Belik put out a Facebook invitation for new players to come for the tryouts, which took place in Jerusalem’s Katamon neighborhood this week, and received more Arab responses than Jewish ones, although there were quite a lot on both sides. Belik himself is a veteran player who has taken part in international competitions for several years, and also played whenever he was on leave from the army during his mandatory service period. He is looking forward to the Peace Team’s participation in the AFL European Cup championship in Croatia in October, the expenses for which will be covered by the team’s sponsors.
It’s not just playing a game they all love; it’s also proving they can coexist in a friendly environment of tolerance and understanding.
■ SOARING TEMPERATURES last Thursday were not exactly conducive to touring the country, but this did not deter a group of diplomats from traveling to the Galilee under the auspices of the Ambassadors Club of Israel – and they visited the Hagit Forest near Yokne’am and the Agamon Hahula birdwatching park.
For relative newcomers such as Thailand’s Ambassador-Designate Angsana Sihapitak and her assistant, this was an important visit because it allowed her to see a fair expanse of the country on the way from Tel Aviv to the Galilee. Other participants included Philippines Ambassador Nathaniel G. Imperial and his wife, and Honduras’s Deputy Ambassador Jose Natividad Ortiz Cisnado and his wife.
The tour was organized by Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund; the Hagit Forest is a cooperative project between the Israel Electric Corporation and KKL-JNF, and is located next to the IEC’s green energy power station. KKL-JNF chief scientist Omri Boneh, who hosted the group, spoke of the challenges of irrigation in semi-arid areas and his organization’s modern solutions for the problem.
After a good lunch in Yokne’am the group traveled to Agamon Hahula, known as “a paradise for birds and people.”
During the one-hour visit, the diplomats learned that Israel is a favored destination for birds to rest during their migration from Europe to Africa and back. Participants were driven around in golf carts, which left them free to focus on their surroundings.
The trip ended at the opening ceremony of the fifth Rosh Pina Wine Festival, where the group was warmly received at the Baron’s Gardens by the head of the municipal council.
Ambassadors Club founder and president Yitzhak Eldan said afterwards: “The atmosphere was great, and so were the varieties of wine and cheese.”
■ OVER THE summer a number of familiar faces will disappear from the diplomatic scene, as ambassadors and diplomats of lower rank complete their terms and move on to parts elsewhere. In addition to his many other duties, President Rivlin will be busy over the next few months accepting the credentials of numerous new ambassadors.
The first group in the summer season will include five new envoys – Sihapitak of Thailand, Benito Andion Sancho of Mexico, Adis Arlene Urieta Vega of Panama, Martin Chungu Mwanambale of Zambia and non-resident ambassador Eustaquio Nseng Esono of Equatorial Guinea – who will present their credentials on Thursday.
Fortunately for the new ambassadors, there are several diplomatic receptions this week and next where they will have ample opportunities to meet their new colleagues and exchange business cards.
Among the ambassadors leaving during the summer is German Ambassador Andreas Michaelis, who will conclude his term in July, just around the time of his 56th birthday.
Michaelis has been busy this week running around with German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier (who inter alia was in Israel to receive an honorary doctorate from the Hebrew University), and before that oversaw the 50th-anniversary celebrations of diplomatic relations between Germany and Israel.
Curiously, in tandem with Steinmeier’s visit, Israeli cinemas screened the chilling but compelling German-language film Labyrinth of Lies, about the nationwide conspiracy to protect former Nazis from prosecution.
Today, of course, the story is different and Germany is among Israel’s best friends in Europe, with a fast-growing Jewish community – despite a resurgence of neo-Nazism in certain parts of German society, particularly in Essen, Hannover and Gottingen.
■ IRISH AMBASSADOR Eamon McKee and Zvi Gabay, who was Israel’s first ambassador to Ireland, will on Friday participate in a memorial event at the IDF Armored Corps Museum in Latrun, to honor the memory of Irishman Mike Flanagan. In 1948, Flanagan heroically commandeered two Cromwell tanks from a British army base in Haifa where he was stationed, and delivered them to the Hagana – which on the termination of the British Mandate formed the basis of the fledgling IDF Tank Corps, playing a significant role in winning decisive battles during the War of Independence.
With the establishment of Israel, Flanagan joined Mahal (foreign volunteer) troops in fighting the Arabs, and fought many battles from one of his commandeered Cromwell tanks. He remained in Israel after the fighting and adopted the Hebrew name Michael Peleg, converted, married Ruth Levy and settled on Kibbutz Sha’ar Ha’amakim.
“We owe a great debt to Mike Flanagan,” said Malcolm Gafson, chairman of the Ireland- Israel Friendship League, which organized the memorial tribute.
■ AT MORE or less the same time on Sunday that Rivlin was speaking in the Knesset at the distribution of the Wolf Prize, his predecessor, Shimon Peres, was speaking at the Hebrew University – where he received the Bublik Prize. Both the present and former president spoke out against academic boycotts.
Less than two weeks ago, Peres attended the World Economic Forum in Jordan, where he met with King Abdullah and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Last week, he told Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya graduates not to forget to dream. This past Monday, at the launch of a peace through technology joint project co-sponsored by the Peres Center for Peace, the Science, Technology and Space Ministry, Google and the ORT network of schools, Science, Technology and Space Minister Danny Danon said that if Peres wasn’t so busy, Danon would recommend to the prime minister that Peres be appointed to the ministerial post. Noting that politics should be free of science, Peres replied, “Politics is not science, but science can have a great effect on politics.”
He also spoke of the importance of making scientific studies available to students all over the country, especially in the peripheral communities. The launch at the Tel Aviv Municipal Music Center was attended by 500 Arab and Jewish students from schools around the country, who were the nucleus for a technological bridge provided by Google’s virtual hangout – which will bring together technologically and scientifically minded Jews and Arabs in online conversations, in hopefully yet another stepping stone on the path to peace.
■ PERES WAS not the only nonagenarian at the Hebrew University’s awards ceremony on Sunday. Another was Australian businessman and philanthropist Marc Besen, who with his wife, Eva, has been a generous benefactor of many causes in Australia and Israel. The Besens are best-known for their contributions to the visual and performing arts.
In his speech at the Hebrew University’s Mount Scopus campus, Besen – who is a former chancellor and president of Mount Scopus College, the most veteran and one of the largest Jewish day schools in Australia – mentioned two former collegians who have more or less become household names in Israel. One was Mark Regev, a longstanding spokesman for the prime minister and government who is frequently seen on television around the world.
Many other Scopus old collegians have also built successful careers in Israel. One of them, Gary Stock – who was the first old collegian to become president of the college, a position he held for several years before making aliya – was sitting in the audience, and was thrilled to hear mention of his old school.
Stock is the head of the James Richardson duty-free shops at Ben-Gurion Airport.
■ AMONG THE MKs who briefly left the country last Thursday to participate in New York City’s Salute to Israel Parade was Ophir Akunis, a minister-without- portfolio in the Communications Ministry. As it happened the date, May 28, coincided with his 42nd birthday; he was pleasantly surprised when the El Al cabin crew presented him with a birthday cake.
Given all the rumors that Akunis may be appointed Israel’s next permanent representative to the New York-headquartered UN, one can’t help but wonder whether he took the opportunity while in the Big Apple to get a few tips from Israel’s present incumbent at the UN, Ron Prosor.
As far as is publicly known, Akunis has not yet been offered the job, and the rumor may very well be part of a spin. But the story going around is that Akunis, providing his English is sufficiently fluent, will succeed Prosor – so that Bennie Begin, who resigned on Sunday after only two weeks as minister- without-portfolio, can be brought back into the government.
■ ON THE same date Akunis and his wife left for New York, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, his wife, Sara, and their two sons, Yair and Avner (who had weekend leave from the army), took a mini-vacation closer to home and went to the Ruth Rimonim Hotel in Safed, where staff had spent a week preparing for their visit. The prime minister and his wife were understandably given the best room in the hotel, whose previous occupants had included singer/songwriter Arik Einstein, who had written many of his songs in that very room.
The Netanyahu family did what most visitors to Safed do, touring the artists’ quarter and the ancient synagogue sites as well as other parts of the Galilee, and ate their meals in the hotel’s 800-year-old wine cellar. But it wasn’t all fun and relaxation: Netanyahu kept his finger on the pulse of FIFA developments in Zurich, and following the retraction by the Palestinians of the request to expel Israel from FIFA, made his statement about the outcome from the hotel premises.
Ruth Rimonim general manager Julia Friedman personally attended to all of the family’s needs and requests. Until the arrival of the Netanyahus, hotel staff were not informed of the identity of the VIP guests for security reasons.
■ THE INTERNATIONAL Sephardic Education Foundation – which provides hundreds of scholarships for Israeli students each year, and was founded 38 years ago by Edmond and Lily Safra – recently held a fund-raiser at the Tel Aviv Museum, with a performance by Rita as an incentive.
Many of the students who have been helped by ISEF have gone on to become important figures in Israel’s economy and academia, and some of them are now in the position of giving back by contributing to the foundation – so that another generation of students will have the possibility to shine.
ISEF president Nina Avidar Weiner, who flew in from New York for the occasion, spoke of the organization having a sense of mission and vision where Israel is concerned; she was particularly pleased to have met with talented young students from peripheral communities who had been helped by ISEF, and had gone far as a result.
Dr. Yifat Biton, an ISEF graduate who came in for special recognition this year for her important social and legal work, reflected on her background and shared the experience of a child who had grown up in Kiryat Malachi and had traveled the long road toward post-doctoral studies – something she could never have aspired to without ISEF. Vino Tarafa – an Ethiopian student from Nesher who made great strides academically with the help of ISEF, and today is both an entrepreneur and respected educator – also emphasized that he would not have been able to achieve as much without the organization.
Among those present were businessman Albert Nasser, who was an ISEF pioneers, and his wife, Nancy; Gabi Malka, head of the University of Haifa’s School of Tourism and the first director-general of ISEF; Prof. Eli Avraham, ISEF chairman and a senior lecturer at the University of Haifa’s Communications Department; former education minister Prof.
Amnon Rubinstein; Iraqi-born Aharon Abudi, an activist in the compensation struggle for Jews expelled from Arab lands; MKs Yossi Yonah and Merav Ben-Ari; and ISEF Israel director Tomer Samarkandi.
■ IF CHANNEL 10 was a living creature rather than a media outlet, it would undoubtedly be a cat. Indeed, it does seem to have nine lives: Whenever its demise is predicted, a tycoon comes to its rescue just in time to evade doomsday. It’s happened yet again.
Despite the fact that some of its affluent shareholders have gotten tired of being milked and have bowed out of the ever-financially ailing Channel 10, others have quickly stepped in and come to the rescue.
Ronald Lauder, who helped to keep Channel 10 afloat for quite some time, quit some 18 months ago after having lost an estimated NIS 500 million.
Yossi Maimon has lost much more, but he and Arnon Milchan are still on board. Only a few weeks before its broadcasting license was due to expire, Channel 10 was once again saved – this time by RGE Media, whose major shareholders are Len Blavatnik, recently named the richest man in England, Avi Giladi and Udi Recanati.
There are still some bureaucratic hassles to overcome, plus the fact that Prime Minister Netanyahu holds the Communications portfolio, and he has more than a few scores to settle with Channel 10. But if all goes well, the channel will be out of the woods financially, and will be licensed to broadcast for another 15 years.
■ REGULAR LISTENERS to Israel Radio’s Reshet Bet are subjected to the frequent airing several times an hour, seven days a week, of a commercial in which someone with a raucous voice says, “Rina, Rina, a peach or a nectarine?” An occasional alternative is “You know what, Rina, I’ll have both a peach and a nectarine.” (In Hebrew, nectarine is pronounced nectarina.) If the broadcast of this annoying ad is fraying the nerves of listeners, they should be aware that some radio staff are no less irritated. Early-morning current affairs anchor Arye Golan couldn’t stop himself last Thursday morning following one such commercial, and muttered into the microphone, “That nectarine again!”