Grapevine February 25, 2022: Diplomacy – a presidential priority

Movers and shakers in Israeli society.

 PRESIDENT ISAAC HERZOG and his wife, Michal, with Japanese Ambassador Mizushima Koichi and his wife, Asako. (photo credit: Courtesy the Japanese Embassy)
PRESIDENT ISAAC HERZOG and his wife, Michal, with Japanese Ambassador Mizushima Koichi and his wife, Asako.
(photo credit: Courtesy the Japanese Embassy)

The fact that he was flying to Greece on Thursday morning did not deter President Isaac Herzog and his wife, Michal, from going to the Japanese Ambassador’s Residence in Herzliya Pituah on Wednesday night to join Ambassador Mizushima Koichi and his wife, Asako, in celebrating the 62nd birthday of Emperor Naruhito as well as the 70th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Japan and Israel and to once again pay tribute to the memory of Japanese Diplomat Chiune Sugihara for defying the orders of his country’s Foreign Ministry and issuing visas to thousands of Polish and Lithuanian Jews who were fleeing the Nazis. Nowadays Sugihara is regarded as a hero in Japan and monuments have been erected in his honor. But some 80 years ago he was an outcast.

Herzog noted that one of the people saved by Sugihara was the late Zerach Warhaftig, who later became a minister. Herzog omitted to say that Warhaftig was one of the signatories to Israel’s Declaration of Independence, and that he was elected to the first Knesset.

With COVID-19 precautions still lingering, the guest list was considerably trimmed down, and unlike previous years in which most of the Japanese female guests wore exquisite kimonos, the only people wearing kimonos on this occasion were the ambassador and his wife.

When the ambassador rose to speak, he removed his mask and put it in a pocket in the sleeve of his kimono.

In emphasizing the special relationship that exists between Japan and Israel, the ambassador mentioned Sugihara, and that for the first time in the history of the Olympic Games, the Israeli victims of the massacre at the 1972 Munich Olympics were commemorated at the opening ceremony of the Tokyo Olympics last year. He also commented that it was in Tokyo that the Israeli team put on its best performance.

HANNA MINENKO and Yaakov Toumarkin lead the Israeli delegation of athletes at the opening of the Tokyo Olympics, in which the country captured four medals. (credit: REUTERS)HANNA MINENKO and Yaakov Toumarkin lead the Israeli delegation of athletes at the opening of the Tokyo Olympics, in which the country captured four medals. (credit: REUTERS)

The Olympic Games, he said, brought Japan and Israel together in the shadow of the tragic past and the brilliance of the present.

Referring to the pandemic, which affected so much of the world, Koichi reflected on what could have been achieved over the past two years, but was put on hold. For all that, there was a substantial increase in trade and investment between Japan and Israel.

The two countries are now working together on climate change.

Japan is also contributing to the prosperity and stability of the region through its partnership with Israel and Jordan in giving the Palestinians economic independence; condemning Holocaust denial; and working as a moderator to help bring peace to the Middle East.

Herzog, whose father as president twice visited Japan, was there himself, when he and his wife accompanied Shimon Peres on his visit to Japan. Herzog lauded Japan as the first East Asian country to officially establish diplomatic relations with Israel, and was pleased that these bilateral relations have become a blessing, economically, culturally and in academia.

There are more than 100 Japanese companies currently operating in Israel, he said.

Herzog was hopeful that ties with Japan will be expanded if the long-projected direct flights from Israel to Japan become a reality this spring.

New Hope MK Zvi Hauser, who heads the Knesset’s parliamentary friendship group for Japan, was invited to come to the stage to propose the toast to Emperor Naruhito. He read out a somewhat lengthier toast than usual, but when it came to raising a glass of wine, he realized that he did not have one in his hand, and the waiter who had brought glasses for the Herzogs and the ambassador and his wife, was not in the immediate vicinity. One of the guests saved the situation by handing Hauser his own glass of wine.

■ MALMÖ IS one of the largest cities in Sweden with a population of 350,000, reaching 700,000 in the Malmö Metropolitan Region. According to Deputy Mayor Roko Kursar, who is currently visiting Israel, Malmö, with 180 different ethnic groups, is one of 290 Swedish municipalities, but the city with the most diverse population. 

It also has the highest incidence of antisemitism, despite the relatively small Jewish population. There are 1,500 Jews in Malmö and its surrounds and 500 registered members of the Jewish community, says Rabbi Moshe David Hacohen, who came to Israel with Kursar, and participated with him at the Swedish Embassy in Tel Aviv in a panel discussion on how to fight antisemitism. The event, hosted by Swedish ambassador Erik Ullenhag, was attended by representatives of Yad Vashem, the Israel Foreign Ministry, ADL, the American Jewish Committee and other major institutions and organizations. Also participating via Zoom were Mirjam Katzin, coordinator for combating antisemitism, City of Malmö; Fredrik Sieradzki, head of the Jewish Community Information Center in Malmö; and Siavosh Derakhti, founder and chairman of Young People Against Antisemitism and Xenophobia, which he established 10 years ago.

Although each of the panelists spoke from a different perspective, the common message was that the best way to combat antisemitism and all other forms of racism is through dialogue and education.

In commending Ullenhag for hosting such an event, one of the representatives of a Jewish organization said that she hoped that other ambassadors would follow his example so that there would be a greater understanding of situations in different countries and a more united effort in fighting the scourge, which keeps rearing its head in every generation.

Katzin insisted that education must start at the earliest possible age so as to prevent racial language from developing.

Sieradzki said that as was the case in other places in which there were Holocaust survivors, those living in Malmö used to go to schools to tell their stories, but now that they are dying out or not physically strong enough to do this, their children and grandchildren have taken over and are telling classes of school children what it means to grow up as the descendant of a Holocaust survivor.

It bothers him that teachers have a lack of knowledge what constitutes antisemitism.

Derakhti, who has taken his work beyond Malmö, says the struggle against antisemitism and all forms of xenophobia is not just a Malmö issue or a Swedish issue. “It’s a global issue.”

Hacohen, who is co-director of Amanah, The Muslim-Jewish Trust Partnership in Malmö, has peyot hanging down to his shoulders, and wears a very large kippah. Asked whether he is not afraid to walk in the streets of Malmö while so openly displaying his religious identity, he replied that he not only goes everywhere without any attempt to hide his Jewishness, but also enters Muslim enclaves, where he is well received.

As far as defining antisemitism in Malmö, Hacohen said it was a combination of classical European antisemitism promoted by fascist organizations, which he opines is not dealt with in sufficient depth, antisemitic artwork in churches, social media’s online hate, which is the new antisemitism, and Palestinian antisemitism and anti-Zionism. All put together against a young child, this can be very frightening, he said.

He also emphasized that people must be made aware that discrimination destroys society. In Malmö this can be seen with Palestinian demonstrations. “They are not just about Jews, but about society.”

The Jewish world is currently challenged with keeping the Holocaust relevant.

In Hacohen’s view, education is “not about the Shoah, but what we can learn from the Shoah in the society in which we live today.”

Kursar believes that every ethnic group should be free to practice its traditions openly, and in the case of members of the Jewish community, should not be afraid to wear a Star of David or any other Jewish adornment outside of their home.

■ JUDGING BY the uproar caused by the appointment of Meretz MK Ghaida Rinawie Zoabi to the position of consul general in Shanghai, it seems that any female MK with that surname is going to cause trouble in the Knesset. Both she and former MK Haneen Zoabi are troublemakers, because their first loyalty is to their own Palestinian people, be they Israeli citizens or not. 

While the current MK declared her loyalty to the state when she became a legislator, she cannot bring herself to sing the national anthem, which is understandable given the lyrics, but if she stands respectfully, that should suffice for all those who wish to deny her the new role given to her by Foreign Minister Yair Lapid. 

With the government on shaky ground, it’s not certain that even if all the objections to Zoabi’s appointment will be overcome, that she will succeed in transferring from being a legislator to a diplomat, simply because the government may fall in the interim, and she is scheduled to take up her appointment in six months’ time. It would be a pity if she does miss out, because she is the first Arab and Muslim woman to be appointed to such a high rank.

But it is not the highest rank to which any Arab has been appointed.

In 1995, Ali Yahya, a teacher, broadcaster, university lecturer and former mayor, was appointed ambassador to Finland. There’s always someone who has to be the first so that others can follow.

In 1999, Hussniya Jabara became the first Muslim – and Arab – woman elected to the Knesset,. Like Zoabi, she was also a member of Meretz. Four Arab women joined the Knesset following the most recent elections.

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