After being the first president of Israel to address a Holocaust Remembrance event in Bahrain, being the first to visit the United Arab Emirates this coming Sunday, having engaged in conversations with regional leaders such as King Abdullah II of Jordan, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed of the UAE, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, it would appear that one of President Isaac Herzog’s chief priorities is regional diplomacy. There has already been public speculation as to whether he will visit Turkey in February and repair the diplomatic rift between Israel and Turkey, and there have been reports that Erdogan is keen for that to happen without seeming to eat humble pie. Being first is part of the Herzog DNA. Former president Chaim Herzog, the father of the present incumbent, was the first president of Israel to visit Germany.
■ ON A lighter note, even presidential couples throw things at each other – but all in fun. The Herzogs could not resist going out into the snow in Jerusalem to throw snowballs at each other.
■ “I WANT to be judged by my achievements not as a Shoah survivor,” says Dutch-born, American-educated economist and former adviser to the International Monetary Fund Charles Steigman, who now lives in Israel along with wife Gita, children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Steigman was one of several child Holocaust survivors, who this week told their stories at Zoom meetings of Zikaron BaSalon (Remembrance in the Living Room) an initiative that brings together groups of up to 50 people to listen to Holocaust survivors tell their stories and to ask them questions about that traumatic period in their lives. In the past, in-person meetings of this kind took place in private homes, community centers, school rooms, and even in the official residence of the President of Israel, which was again a venue this year – but with a decided difference. Instead of being hosted by the president of Israel, it was cohosted by his wife Michal Herzog and Elke Büdenbender, wife of German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier. Also participating were second-generation Holocaust survivors Leah Schenirer in Jerusalem and Laura Kam, wife of the ambassador to Germany Jeremy Issacharoff in Berlin, German ambassador to Israel Susanne Wasum-Rainer, members of the Jewish Student Union in Germany and students from the University of Haifa’s Holocaust Studies Program. Steigman related that he was the youngest of five siblings in a religiously observant Jewish family, with relatives in Switzerland on the mother’s side and in New York on the father’s side. The three youngest siblings were placed in safe houses following the German invasion of Holland in 1940. Their mother had told them to take care of each other and to remember that they had relatives in Switzerland. Their father used to come every morning and take them to the synagogue. When he stopped coming, the children realized that he had been rounded up. The Steigman parents and two eldest brothers were murdered in Auschwitz almost immediately after arrival. Stiegman, his brother Leo and sister Lily were found during a roundup of Jewish children and deported to Westerbork and later to Theresienstadt. They were eventually liberated by the Red Army. Leo, the oldest of the three, had just turned 13. They stayed for almost a year with survivor relatives in Holland, who made contact with their relatives in Switzerland and New York. Both sets of relatives wanted to take all three children, but in the end, Charles and Leo went to New York to an uncle who had six children of his own but gave the two brothers full emotional, educational and material support, and Lily went to Switzerland but remained in touch with her brothers.
Both Michal Herzog and Elke Büdenbender emphasized the need to keep up the memory of the Holocaust, and the stories of the survivors so that the grim past should not be forgotten.
■ BAHRAIN WAS not the only Arab country in which International Holocaust Remembrance Day was commemorated. Ahead of the official commemoration date, US Ambassador to Egypt Jonathan Cohen, in partnership with the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, hosted the first such event in Cairo.
Cohen is not the first Jew to serve as US ambassador in Cairo but he is the first to host an event of this kind, which was attended by a large gathering at the Four Seasons Hotel at the Nile Plaza. Ambassador Amira Cohen, the first Israeli woman ambassador to Egypt, ambassadors from other countries, Egyptian dignitaries and Magda Haroun, the head of Egypt’s tiny and dwindling Jewish community attended.
Cohen told his guests that in addition to honoring the memories of six million Jews who were murdered, there were also Slavs, Roma, homosexuals, persons with disabilities and countless others.
“Today in far too many places around the world, complicity and silence have allowed intolerance and hatred to perpetuate,” he said, adding that International Holocaust Remembrance Day is “a reminder of our duty to counter the tide of antisemitism and other bigotry that threatens the values that we hold dear: pluralism, tolerance, inclusion, and the freedoms of religion and expression.”
Cohen spoke of the importance of teaching and learning about the full historic reality of the Holocaust as an important factor in combating antisemitism and promoting religious freedom. Additionally, he said, “an understanding of the Holocaust reinforces the message that individuals can play a significant role in confronting persecution wherever it arises.
“Many of those who survived the Holocaust were spared because of the courage of those who risked their lives to rescue Jews,” he said.
He also showed a film that disclosed a little-known fact that Arabs were among the rescuers of Jews during the Holocaust. The film – focused on North Africa – commemorates Arab heroes who saved the lives of their Jewish neighbors. “Their stories remind us that we’re never powerless in confronting intolerance and hatred,” said Cohen.
Also among the courageous Arabs featured in the film is Dr. Mohamed Helmy, an Egyptian doctor living in Nazi Berlin during the 1940s who secretly sheltered a Jewish teenage girl who was hunted by the Gestapo, saving her at a time of maximum danger and putting himself at great risk. The young woman survived and immigrated to the US after the war.
Cohen commended the Egyptian Government for demonstrating its commitment to religious tolerance by preserving places of worship and encouraged its efforts to safeguard the religious freedom of its diverse religious communities.
Cohen, who was posted at the United Nations at the time that International Holocaust Remembrance Day was established in 2005, was involved in that work and in helping found the International Task Force for Cooperation on Holocaust Education, Remembrance, and Research in 1998, which became The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance. It started with three countries, he recalled and now has more than 35 member nations.
He was pleased that this month representatives from the UN, including a representative from Egypt, adopted a resolution condemning Holocaust denial and urging the development of educational programs to prevent genocidal acts in the future.
■ MARTIAL ARTS champion and social entrepreneur Danny Hakim has been awarded the Order of Australia in the 2022 Australia Day Honors.
For Hakim who has been living in Israel for some 20 years, but is still heavily involved with Australia, the award came as a complete surprise because he was unaware that it was also given to Australians living outside the island continent.
He believes that his Australian multicultural upbringing and his pride in representing Australia in sport gave him the ideas, tools and confidence to make a sporting and social impact in other countries.
Hakim who founded Budo for Peace in 2004, continues to serve as its chairman and to train Israeli youth of all backgrounds and religions in the use of martial arts for peace rather than war. Budo is a type of martial arts. He has represented Australia, Japan and Israel in international karate competitions and twice won an international silver medal for Australia.
He was the founding chairman and remains a board member of the Israel branch of Kids Kicking Cancer, which empowers child cancer patients to deal with their pain through mastering martial arts. Hakim and his brother Paul are founders of the Israel Life Saving Federation and he is also a member of the secretariat of the Maccabi World Union.
Additionally, he has produced peace-oriented documentary films and is a board member of the Jerusalem Psik Theater. He is a director of the Azrielli Foundation Canada, and is married to Danna, one of the three Azrielli sisters, who is a prominent businesswoman and philanthropist.
Hakim is also a founding board member of the Heritage Center for Middle East and North African Jewry – and all this is only a fraction of what he does socially, culturally, educationally and in the spheres of sport and peace. He has won awards and recognition in Australia, Japan, Europe, the US and Israel.
■ CANADIAN LAWYER and philanthropist Harry Bloomfield, who is a personal friend of Israeli astronaut Eytan Stibbe, asked him whether he could bring back a simple memento from his space trip to be placed in Jerusalem’s Bloomfield Science Museum, one of several large-scale facilities which the Bloomfield family has given to Israel over the past seven decades.
The reason for the request was that 25 years ago, the museum received a glass mezuzah from the first Jewish astronaut Dr. Jeffrey Hoffman, an astrophysicist from Harvard University.
Stibbe was pleased to acquiesce but updated Bloomfield that the launch date has been moved to March 31.