Grapevine February 4, 2022: A matter of faith

Movers and shakers in Israeli society.

 FROM LEFT: Hagit Pe’er, president of Na’amat, Prof. Shiri Artstein, Michal Herzog, President Isaac Herzog and Prof. Beena Kalisky.  (photo credit: KOBI GIDEON/GPO)
FROM LEFT: Hagit Pe’er, president of Na’amat, Prof. Shiri Artstein, Michal Herzog, President Isaac Herzog and Prof. Beena Kalisky.
(photo credit: KOBI GIDEON/GPO)

In last Friday’s Grapevine, there was an item that mentioned the gift of a glass mezuzah to Jerusalem’s Bloomfield Science Museum by Dr. Jeffrey Hoffman, the first Jewish astronaut. In Jewish terms, Hoffman made history. He might have been deprived of that honor, had Gary Steinman an earlier candidate for NASA not been religiously observant. In 1967, NASA was completing the Gemini program and planning for Apollo by recruiting the first full group of scientist-astronauts. At that time, Steinman’s research interest was the primordial origin of life. He applied and was invited to undergo the extensive physical and psychological testing required for the program at the USAF School of Aerospace Medicine in San Antonio, Texas. As far as he is aware, he was the first American Jew to qualify for space crew duties.

The final stage of the evaluation was a group of interviews in Houston a few weeks later. After a long discussion with Alan Shepard, the second person and first American in space, it was clear that Steinman being a Sabbath observer precluded his continuing in the program, since the possibility of a Saturday launch could not be avoided. Coincidentally, his discussion with Shepard occurred during the week of the Six Day War, which, inter alia, resulted in the reunification of Jerusalem where Steinman now lives. Some people of faith might read more into this than meets the eye.

■ THE CENTENARY celebrations of two of the major women’s organizations headquartered in Israel – Women’s International Zionist Organization and Na’amat were marked within two years of each other. WIZO was established in London in 1920 and Na’amat was established in what was then-Palestine in 1922. Both organizations have branches in other countries, though Na’amat’s prime overseas activities are in the United States and Canada.

Na’amat was an outgrowth of the Women’s Workers Council established by Mania Shochat, who was also among the founders of Hashomer, the Jewish self-defense movement. She was also active in promoting social welfare and was among the founders of the League for Jewish-Arab Friendship to which she devoted much of her energies in later years.

Among the other prominent women who were active in WWC which evolved into Pioneer Women and finally into Na’amat were Rachel Yanait Ben-Zvi, the wife of Israel’s second president, Yitzhak Ben-Zvi who curiously took up office 70 years ago, in 1952. Rachel Yanait, was also active in Hashomer, in education and in agriculture. Another presidential wife who was active in Na’amat in its early incarnations was Rachel Katznelson, who was married to Israel’s third president Zalman Shazar. Golda Meir – Israel’s only woman prime minister – was much earlier in the piece, as the national secretary of WWC and did a lot to strengthen Pioneer Women in America.

 MASKED DIPLOMATIC spouses pose with Michal Herzog.   (credit: Spoksperson’s unit, President’s Office) MASKED DIPLOMATIC spouses pose with Michal Herzog. (credit: Spoksperson’s unit, President’s Office)

Beba Idelson, who was elected to the first Knesset as was Golda Meir, chaired the World Movement of Pioneer Women from 1969 to 1975, the year of her demise. Ada Maimon, the sister of one of the signatories to Israel’s Declaration of Independence, was among the founders of the Women’s Workers Movement, was also elected to the first Knesset and was part of the WIZO leadership.

Tamar Eshel, who was born in the year that WIZO came into being, was elected to the Knesset many years later, after having previously served as a member of the Jerusalem City Council and secretary-general of Na’amat. As far as is known, she is the oldest living member of Na’amat.

Part of Na’amat’s centenary festivities took place at the President’s Residence, where a special centenary prize was awarded by Na’amat through its global scholarship fund to ground-breaking women scientists. The main award went to Prof. Beena Kalisky of Bar-Ilan University’s Physics Department, and special citations were awarded to Prof. Shiri Artstein of Tel Aviv University and Dr. Yonit Hochberg of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, in the presence of President Isaac Herzog and his wife Michal.

One of the criteria for awarding the prize was to give it to women in professions in which there are relatively few women, and the other was to give it to women who have already progressed significantly in their careers.

Herzog noted the extent to which Na’amat has grown and expanded its activities over the years, and made the point that the organization could even boast a prime minister among its members.

He said that over the years he and his wife had met several of the prominent figures in Na’amat and had become so well acquainted with them “that we feel part of the family.” As a former chairman of the Labor Party, and a long-time member, Herzog paid tribute to Na’amat, which now, as then, has remained a staunch Labor Zionist movement, representing generations of ideals and values.

Kalisky was awarded her prize by Na’amat President Hagit Pe’er and Masha Lubelsky, a former Na’amat president and former government minister.

■ EARLIER IN the day, Michal Herzog hosted a group of women from the Diplomatic Spouses Club which is headed by Stephanie Baric, the wife of Deputy Chief of Mission at the US Embassy Jonathan Shrier. The group was taken on a tour of public areas of the President’s Residence and later watched an interesting video that featured vignettes of all the presidents of Israel from Chaim Weizman to Reuven Rivlin. The narration was in English but the vignettes were all in Hebrew, which very few of those present could understand. The video even included Moshe Katsav and was briefly complimentary to him, but then the narrator said that Katsav had sinned and gone to prison, but the nature of the sin was not stated. Likewise, there was no mention of a sin of another kind pertaining to former president Ezer Weizman, who was given the choice of stepping down or being indicted. He chose to step down. There is no reference to this in the video, nor of his dismissive attitude to women who wanted to serve as pilots in the Israel Air Force. The famous scene of former president Chaim Herzog in a previous role as Israel’s permanent representative to the United Nations tearing up the resolution equating Zionism with racism, and saying that it was nothing more than a piece of paper and he would treat it as such, was heard in Moscow by a young refusenik and human rights activist by the name of Anatoly Sharansky, who was inspired by Herzog’s words. Sharansky was later arrested and spent a long term in prison. When he was eventually released on February 11, 1986 – thanks to US President Ronald Reagan – and came to Israel, it was as Natan Sharansky, and one of the first visits he paid, was to Chaim Herzog.

After the video, Michal Herzog came out from the inner sanctum to greet her guests in a friendly, informal manner. Baric told her that the organization is changing its name to Diplomatic Spouses and Partners. Not all diplomats are married to their partners, in addition to which not all are heterosexual.

The association includes the spouses and partners of ambassadors, deputy chiefs of mission, consuls, defense and naval attaches, et al. Also present was Eden Goldberger, who is president of the International Women’s Club and deputy head of the Diplomatic Spouses. Several diplomatic spouses belong to both. Goldberger’s husband, Thomas, was former deputy chief of mission at the US embassy and after a couple of other postings, resigned from the State Department and now heads the Multinational Force and Observers operations in Israel. Among the others present, was artist Sali Ariel, who was celebrating her birthday. Ariel is also an art teacher, whose pupils are mainly diplomatic spouses, and they invited her to come along. She is married to internationally syndicated cartoonist Yaakov Kirschen.

When Michal Herzog was asked how she sees her role, she explained that legally, she doesn’t have to do anything, because it was her husband who was elected and not her. However, she decided to put her career as a white-collar criminal lawyer and the CEO of a philanthropic organization on hold, to do what she could to help her husband and to provide a willing ear to any and all segments of the population.

When asked her opinion about how diplomatic life affects children, she was able to answer from personal experience, having spent part of her childhood in Brazil where her father served as defense attaché in the Israeli Embassy. At first, it was difficult mastering a strange language and getting used to a different culture, but once she mastered Portuguese and made friends, she loved it. The worst part was when she had to leave. But that affects adults as well as children she observed. She’s still not sure where she will give the bulk of her attention. “I’m still learning,” she said. When asked what had prepared her and her husband for the presidency, her reply was “life.” Separately and together, the two have lived through so many varied experiences that they were prepared for just about anything.

■ ANYONE WHO was unaware that US Ambassador Tom Nides is Jewish, could not mistake his body language, which is stereotypical Jewish East European, with expansive hand and arm movements to punctuate his speech and a way of leaning forward to either emphasize what he’s saying or to listen to his interlocutor. This was extremely obvious in the conversation that he had this week with Prof. Manuel Trajtenberg, executive director of the Institute for National Security Studies. To check it out go to Nides’s Twitter account or to one of the INSS social media platforms.

[email protected]