Grapevine March 2, 2022: Tel Aviv lights up in blue and yellow

Movers and shakers in Israeli society.

 PRIME MINISTER Menachem Begin with the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, in Brooklyn, New York, in 1977. (photo credit: YAACOV SAAR/GPO)
PRIME MINISTER Menachem Begin with the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, in Brooklyn, New York, in 1977.
(photo credit: YAACOV SAAR/GPO)

For most people, even if they leave the countries of their birth to live elsewhere, some spark remains for their native land.

This was particularly obvious among Ukrainian Israelis, who instantly gathered for protest demonstrations in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Haifa, with the largest demonstrations in Tel Aviv, where, in a show of sympathy with Ukraine, Mayor Ron Huldai, who has made a practice of lighting up city hall in the colors of the flag of every country with an embassy in Tel Aviv, on the national days of each of these countries, last week did so in sympathy with Ukraine.

The French Embassy also showed sympathy by flying the Ukrainian flag from one of the mastheads on its roof. On Rothschild Boulevard on Saturday night, more than a thousand demonstrators movingly sang the Ukrainian national anthem.

For Israel, the conflict between Russia and Ukraine is akin to being between a rock and a hard place. Jews suffered terribly in both countries, but great Jews also emerged from both countries, in addition to which Israel owes a lot to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Then again Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is Jewish, and Israel’s first loyalty is to the Jewish populations of both countries.

Two of Israel’s presidents, Izhak Ben-Zvi and Ephraim Katzir, were born in Ukraine, and three of Israel’s prime ministers, Moshe Sharett, Levi Eshkol and Golda Meir, were also born there. Great writers and poets such as Sholem Aleichem, Hayim Nahman Bialik, Isaac Babel, Yosef Hayim Brenner, Ilya Ehrenberg and Shaul Tchernichovsky; film and television icons Otto Preminger and Lew Grade; theater director Abraham Goldfaden; musicians Vladimir Horowitz, Leonid Kogan, David Oistrakh and Isaac Stern; cantor Yossele Rosenblatt, and many others of international renown were born in Ukraine.

 HAYIM NAHMAN BIALIK. (credit: KLUGER ZOLTAN/GPO) HAYIM NAHMAN BIALIK. (credit: KLUGER ZOLTAN/GPO)

■ OF THE many interviews that have been broadcast on Israeli radio and television stations with Israeli diplomats in Ukraine, Israelis stranded in Ukraine, Ukrainian citizens and Jewish religious leaders, the person who seems to be interviewed most is Rabbi Moshe Reuven Azman, the controversial Chabad emissary who started out in Kyiv, and who in 2005 appointed himself as chief rabbi of Ukraine and chief rabbi of Kyiv, thereby usurping the positions of Rabbi Azriel Chaikin, who was officially the chief rabbi of Ukraine, and Rabbi Jonathan Markovich, who was officially the chief rabbi of Kyiv.

Both Azman and Chaikin are Chabadniks. Chaikin remained chief rabbi till 2008, when he moved to New York.

There is yet another rabbi who claims to be the chief rabbi of Ukraine, and that is Rabbi Yaakov Dov Bleich, whom most Ukrainian Jews today regard as chief rabbi.

 MILI AVITAL and Charles Randolph arrive at the British Academy of Film and Television Arts Awards at the Royal Opera House in London, in 2016. (credit: TOBY MELVILLE/REUTERS) MILI AVITAL and Charles Randolph arrive at the British Academy of Film and Television Arts Awards at the Royal Opera House in London, in 2016. (credit: TOBY MELVILLE/REUTERS)

Markovich remains chief rabbi of Kyiv, and Azman set up a community in nearby Anatevka, where he is kingpin, but continues to commute regularly between Anatevka and Kyiv.

Anatevka was made famous by Solomon Rabinovich, better known as Sholem Aleichem, whose stories about Tevye the Dairyman were set there.

Among the other prominent Chabad rabbis in Ukraine are Shmuel Kaminezki of Dnipropetrovsk, Moshe Moskovitz of Kharkov, Shlomo Baksht and Avraham Wolff of Odessa, Shlomo Wilhelm of Zhitomir, and Pinchas Vishedski of Donetsk. But there are several other Chabad rabbis ministering to Jewish communities in Ukraine, which, according to Chabad’s main information center, has the sixth largest Jewish community in the world.

Last week, Baksht and his daughter Shira attempted to transport 150 orphaned Jewish children to the Romanian border, and even violated the Sabbath to do so, given that the saving of life transcends nearly all other religious laws. The logistics of the journey were difficult; the path was dangerous; and there were legal hurdles to overcome, in addition to which none of the children had passports.

Baksht called David Saranga, the Israel ambassador in Romania, who, prior to his appointment, was political adviser to president Reuven Rivlin. Saranga immediately went into action, calling several of his contacts in the Romanian government, and has been stationed at the Romanian-Ukrainian border ever since, posting texts and photographs on his Facebook account as people who have spent long hours, even days on the road, cross into safety.

Stolin-Karlin and Breslov Hassidim are also active in Ukraine, as are rabbis of the Conservative movement, who operate under the auspices of the Shechter Institute in Jerusalem. There are also Reform rabbis.

Despite the dangers involved, Chabad was also active in the former Soviet Union, but much more so after the fall of the Iron Curtain.

Almost anywhere in the world where Jews are in trouble or in need of a kosher meal, the first people to help are Chabad emissaries.

In what is an almost ironic reversal of roles, non-Jews are knocking at synagogue doors in Ukraine, asking for shelter and receiving it. During the Second World War, many Jews were sheltered in churches.

It was an extraordinary act of prescience on the part of the late Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who early during the Second World War managed to get out of Europe and reach the United States, to establish an emissary program. His father-in-law, Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, who was the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe in the seven-generation dynasty, had put him in charge of Chabad education projects, and in 1942 Menachem Mendel decided to send pairs of yeshiva students to remote Jewish communities in America, with the aim of upgrading Jewish life in these towns and cities. That program eventually became global, and now encompasses close to 5,000 emissaries who have opened Chabad centers on every continent and in scores of cities around the world wherever there are Jews, be they permanent residents, diplomats, businesspeople, academics and sports figures who are temporary residents, or tourists. Some of these emissaries are second and third generation, with grandparents that served in one country, parents that served in another, and they and their siblings all serving in different countries.

This year marks the 120th anniversary of Menachem Mendel’s birth.

When he died childless in June 1994, the final rebbe in the Lubavitch dynasty, many people predicted that Chabad would soon disintegrate. Instead, it has grown, and despite hardship and opposition in many places, its emissaries have remained firm in their commitment to strengthen Jewish communities in all ways possible, and to stand by them in times of extreme stress.

Wherever they are stationed Chabad emissaries manage to form close relationships with the governing administration, both local and federal, and this has proved very helpful in times of increased antisemitic incidents or when approval is needed for additional educational, cultural and religious facilities for Jewish communities.

The son of a shochet (ritual slaughterer), Azman, while still a youth, was active in the refusenik movement. When he was 18, he followed in his father’s footsteps, ensuring that those Jews who cared about kosher meat would receive it. But he did not allow his professional-cum-spiritual activities to interfere with his refusenik escapades. In 1982, Pravda, the major Communist newspaper, in reporting on Jewish refusenik activities in Leningrad, where Azman resided at the time, referred to him as “an enemy of Soviet power.” Finally, in 1987, after Mikhail Gorbachev had instituted perestroika – the restructuring of the Soviet Union, Azman was permitted to leave for Israel.

He studied in Chabad yeshivot, served in the IDF, in addition to which he worked as a secretary in Beit Chabad for Russian Jews during the massive immigration from Russia in 1991, helping Russian-Jewish immigrants adjust to life in Israel and to learn something about Judaism.

Azman was also involved in bringing Ukrainian-Jewish children to Israel from Chernobyl, where a nuclear disaster had occurred in April 1996. He also raised funds to pay for their medical and psychological rehabilitation.

Even before that, in 1995, he had gone to Kyiv, where he set up a prayer center in one of the rooms of the impressive Brodsky Choral Synagogue, which during Communist times had been turned into a puppet theater. He was active in helping to rebuild Kyiv’s Jewish community, and eventually the local authorities gave the whole building back to the Jewish community. Azman later founded a communal soup kitchen, a burial society, a kindergarten and a school. His work has been recognized by the mayor of Kyiv and the government of Ukraine. He has received awards from both.

He has returned to Israel during every major military conflict and has helped care for soldiers. In Ukraine, during the war of 2014, he led the effort to evacuate wounded people and take them to a hospital.

■ FOREIGN MINISTRY representatives in Ukraine, Poland, Hungary, Romania, Slovenia and Moldova were quickly mobilized into action on behalf of Ukrainian Jews fleeing to safety, and their efforts, together with those of various Israeli government and non-government enterprises, were nothing short of extraordinary. Ministry personnel have often been referred to as soldiers without uniforms. They risk their lives, are poorly paid and, individually and collectively, present Israel’s image at its best.

After this war is over, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid should really go to bat for them to ensure that they have better salaries and working conditions. Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman, who is himself a former foreign minister, should not turn a deaf ear, because he is fully aware of the sacrifices ministry employees working abroad have to make.

Ambassador to Ukraine Michael Brodsky has barely had a chance to sleep, while coordinating comfort and rescue activities, staying in touch with the ministry in Jerusalem, and giving interviews to media outlets in Israel and elsewhere, and helping to process Israelis who manage to cross the border from Ukraine into Poland.

And he’s managed to stay levelheaded and polite, no matter what inane questions he is asked by some of his interviewers.

■ BACK IN December last year, Osnat Lubrani, the United Nations resident coordinator and humanitarian coordinator in Ukraine, warned, in a press statement, of what was about to happen, but unfortunately, at the time, not enough people believed her. Those who did made appropriate arrangements to evacuate and were able to avoid the chaos on Ukraine’s exit highways that lead to bordering countries.

Lubrani has previously worked as a UN representative in Fiji, Kosova, New York and Brussels in a similar position as well as in conflict prevention and recovery.

She is the daughter of the late Uri Lubrani, a Haifa-born diplomat who served as ambassador to Uganda, Burundi, Rwanda Ethiopia and Iran. He was Israel’s last ambassador to Iran, serving from 1973 to 1978. Following the Second Lebanon War, in 1983, he was appointed coordinator of Israeli forces in Lebanon. In 1990, he was also a coordinator for Operation Solomon, the evacuation of Ethiopian Jews to Israel, and after that was a member of the Israeli delegation that negotiated a prisoner exchange with Hezbollah.

Before joining the UN, Osnat Lubrani was a human rights and development consultant in Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, which at the time was still called Zaire. She also produced and directed documentary films.

■ WITH INTERNATIONAL Women’s Day just around the corner on the calendar, many events highlighting the achievements of women in Israel have been and will be held throughout February-March. Areas of discrimination will also be highlighted, but one glaring discriminatory practice seems to have been overlooked.

KAN 11 has sent several reporters to Ukraine and to the border areas to which Ukrainians are flocking. One of the first to be sent was Hadas Greenberg, an excellent reporter, who was briefly on her own until she was joined by Dov Gil-Har, who has provided a very broad glimpse of the situation and who was also shot at by Ukrainian soldiers.

Almost every program anchor on KAN Reshet Bet and on KAN 11 television has interviewed Gil-Har, who is constantly referred to as “our reporter in Ukraine.” Greenberg receives nowhere near the same kind of recognition, even though she reports regularly, and is in no less danger than Gil-Har and other media personnel.

What all Israeli reporters who have been sent to cover the conflict have brought home to listeners, viewers and readers is the relatively vast number of Israelis – both Jewish and Arab – who are living in Eastern Europe. Not so long ago, the focus on Israeli expats was primarily on those who had moved to the United States, and the numbers there may still be greater than those who have chosen to live in Eastern and Western Europe as well as countries on the other side of the equator.

■ INVITEES WHO will be attending the opening this Thursday night at the Israel Museum of the exhibition “Fields of Abstraction,” named by Christie’s as one of 2022’s best exhibitions in the Asia-Pacific, Middle East and South America, will have the opportunity to meet the museum’s new director, Denis Weil.

The opening event will feature a unique dance performance and a meditative sound journey in the exhibition spaces, as well as a special tour with its curator, senior curator of modern art Dr. Adina Kamien.

■ VETERAN JEWISH community activist Seymour Reich of New York, who was among those who attended the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations in Jerusalem last week, also had a very personal interest in coming to Israel. He finally got to meet his Sabra great-granddaughter, Shaya Rivka Chocron, whose parents, Leya Amiram Chocron and Yehuda Chocron, live in Kfar Hess. Yehuda is a pastry chef, and Leya, who is Reich’s granddaughter, works in public relations. Reich’s daughter Jaime Amiram is Shaya Rivka’s proud grandmother, who has been living in Israel for many years.

■ AMONG THE guests at the residence of Kazakhstan Ambassador Satybaldy Burshakov last week were Russian Ambassador Anatoly Viktorov and Ukrainian Ambassador Yevgen Korniychuk. The occasion was a reception in honor of Kazakhstan honorary consul David Luxembourg, who received a special award from Kazakhstan President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, which was conferred on him by Burshakov. The reception took place only a few hours before Russia declared war on Ukraine.

It’s not uncommon for feuding personalities to be invited to the same event and to simply ignore each other for the duration; but prior to the current conflict, all the ambassadors of the Russian-speaking countries that were part of the former Soviet bloc used to congregate socially, as if they belonged to a special club. Now, until the two sides to the conflict sort themselves out, such clusters will be difficult and even embarrassing because either Viktorov or Korniychuk will have to be excluded.

■ FORMER US vice president Mike Pence is scheduled to be in Israel next week to spend two days in the country before continuing on to Morocco to give an additional boost to the Abraham Accords.

The main reason for his presence in Israel will be to receive an honorary doctorate from Ariel University. He will be accompanied by Tom Rose, a close confidant and former senior adviser to Pence, who several years ago, was the publisher of The Jerusalem Post.

Also being conferred with an honorary doctorate will be former US ambassador to Israel David Friedman, who recently published a book, Sledgehammer, about his experience as ambassador to Israel during the Trump administration. It was Friedman who persuaded president Donald Trump to move the US Embassy to Jerusalem.

Pence, an Evangelist, with strong emotional ties to Israel, was last in the country in January 2020, on the eve of the coronavirus pandemic. Before leaving office, he had been scheduled to travel to Israel on an international tour beginning on January 6, the day of the Capitol riot, but late in December decided to cancel the trip.

Pence is reportedly interested in meeting with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, Lapid, President Isaac Herzog and former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Pence’s trip to Israel comes on the heels of a number of recent high-profile visits by American officials, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-California) and Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina), who were both in Israel last month.

Pence in 2018 was the first American vice president to address the Knesset. He is also credited with influencing many of the Trump administration’s major foreign policy achievements in the Middle East, including the Abraham Accords, which have led to the normalization of relations between Israel and several Arab countries, with others still in the wings but expressing interest.

Pence may not be aware that Bennett is indirectly responsible for the award that he will receive next week. While education minister, Bennett fought tooth and nail against the Council for Higher Education, which was opposed to upgrading Ariel College to university status. Bennett won that battle, and Ariel University, despite its West Bank location, is part of the network of Israeli universities, and as such can award honorary doctorates.

■ ON SUNDAY, March 6, the Inbar and Marius Necht Family Foundation will sponsor a fundraising event at Habima Theater in aid of the Israel Rape Crisis Center, which is marking its 30th anniversary of activity.

Participants include Prof. Anita Hill, who has chalked up a number of groundbreaking achievements in combating sexual violence in the US; Orit Sulitzeaneu, the executive director of the Rape Crisis Centers in Israel; attorney Inbar Necht, who chairs her family’s foundation; Labor Party chairwoman Merav Michaeli and actress Mili Avital.

The Jerusalem-born Avital, who lives in New York with her American husband and their two children, returns to Israel periodically to appear in Israeli productions. Quite early in her career she costarred in a movie with a young, charismatic television personality with jet-black hair and a muscular physique by the name of Yair Lapid, and exchanged an on-screen kiss with him. Her costar is now white-haired, and the cameras before which he appears belong to photojournalists. Before he became a politician, Lapid was known for frequenting night clubs and dancing on the tables.

■ THE BEGIN symposium marking the 30th anniversary of the death of prime minister Menachem Begin will be held on Sunday and Monday, March 13-14, on which occasion John Charles Hagee, senior pastor of Hagee Ministries and chairman of Christians United for Israel, will be honored with the Menachem Begin Support of Israel Award, in appreciation of his decades of friendship and support for the State of Israel.

Hagee regularly promotes Israel through radio and television broadcasts, social media platforms and at public gatherings.

Oddly, the former prime minister’s son, MK Bennie Begin, is not listed among the speakers at the symposium, who include past and present figures from the Left as well as the Right. Among them is Dan Meridor, who was one of Begin’s cabinet secretaries.

Although the program lists former Supreme Court justice Elyakim Rubinstein among the participants, he is not listed among the speakers, though of all the names on the list, other than that of Meridor, who from childhood knew Begin, it was Rubinstein who knew Begin best, and who, as legal adviser to the Foreign Ministry, was a member of Begin’s delegation in the US in 1978 when he made peace with Egypt’s president Anwar Sadat.

The main topics of the symposium will be the rise in global antisemitism and how to fight it; anti-Zionism and the new antisemitism; and, of course, the teachings of Begin and Ze’ev Jabotinsky.

■ THERE HAVE been several occasions lately when train services in different parts of the country were disrupted and even canceled. But one essential train service that has been in the offing for decades is still waiting to be constructed. It’s hard to believe that there is no train service to Israel’s best-known tourist destination of Eilat, especially as this year marks the 130th anniversary of the inauguration, under Ottoman rule, of the first railway link between Jaffa and Jerusalem.

In 1915, the railway got as far Beersheba, with extensions to Sinai and Gaza. With the defeat of the Ottoman administration by the British, the railway was taken over by the Mandatory Administration in 1920. The British completed a military railway line from Haifa to Beirut in 1942. In 1949, the Israel Railway was established, and in 1953 it began reconstructing lines that been damaged and at the same time began constructing new lines – but it never got as far south as Eilat.

During the 10 years in which Israel Katz was transportation minister, he was determined to create a national rail link that would enable people from anywhere in the country to travel anywhere by train, in order to cut down on travel time and to have less traffic on the roads. He made considerable progress toward the realization of that ambition, but did not follow through to its completion.

The ball is now in the court of Merav Michaeli, but before she can even begin to think about Eilat, she has to find an alternative to the south Tel Aviv bus terminal, which is supposedly being evacuated in some two years’ time, with the aim of gentrifying the neighborhood.

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