Grapevine April 15, 2022: Just an outstretched hand away

Movers and shakers in Israeli society.

 PRESIDENT ISAAC HERZOG addresses guests at his Iftar break fast dinner. (photo credit: AMOS BEN GERSHOM/GPO)
PRESIDENT ISAAC HERZOG addresses guests at his Iftar break fast dinner.
(photo credit: AMOS BEN GERSHOM/GPO)

In the approximately twenty years since successive presidents of Israel have annually hosted Iftar dinners during the month of Ramadan, never has there been an Arab keynote speaker who did not complain about Israel’s inability to curb violence in Arab towns and villages, or to reduce crime among the country’s Arab population. This year, for the first time, no such complaint was uttered.

It was not because these issues have been resolved. Quite the contrary – they have escalated – but sociologist, anthropologist and feminist activist Sarab Abu Rabia of Ben Gurion University of the Negev, the first Bedouin woman to earn a doctorate in Israel, preferred to focus on the positive rather than the negative, and was pleased to see so much diversity among the guests who came from a variety of national, religious and professional backgrounds.

President Isaac Herzog had also included this aspect in his address, noting that there were politicians, diplomats, academics, military officers, police officers, journalists and even soccer players among the guests.

This was not the only difference from past Iftars. When the tradition was initiated by president Moshe Katsav, there were far fewer guests, and less than a handful of diplomats. This time there was a record diplomatic attendance with ambassadors from Kazakhstan, Albania, Kosovo, Uzbekistan, Tanzania, Nigeria, Morocco, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Jordan, The consul general of Turkey was also present – not the ambassador – because even though relations between Jerusalem and Ankara have begun to warm up, there is as yet no Turkish ambassador in Israel.

In the past, because there were fewer ambassadors, they all sat at the president’s table. This time, because there were so many, none were seated there because there wasn’t room for all of them, and Herzog wanted to ensure that no one felt slighted by being excluded. The diplomats sat at a table nearby, and Gil Haskel, Chief of Protocol at the Foreign Ministry sat at a table next to the one where the ambassadors were seated. Among those at Herzog’s table were Sheikh Jamal Obata, Rabbi David Rosen and Haim Bibas, the mayor of Modiin and head of the Federation of local authorities.

A Muslim family hosts Jewish Israelis at the traditional Iftar evening meal during Ramadan. (credit: OPEN HOLIDAYS)A Muslim family hosts Jewish Israelis at the traditional Iftar evening meal during Ramadan. (credit: OPEN HOLIDAYS)

The major point in Herzog’s address was against the seeds of evil and hatred sown on social media platform – and those who want to reek havoc between Arabs and Jews. He was particularly upset over the malicious lies relating to the Temple Mount and other holy sites that are running rampant on such platforms. The president assured his guests that Israel intends to maintain the status quo vis-à-vis the Temple Mount. He said that he had made this clear to Jordan’s King Abdullah and other Muslim leaders.

In his address, Herzog gravitated between Arabic and Hebrew, and received applause whenever he spoke in Arabic. He urged the public to stop all forms of provocation and voiced his trust in the Israel Police to act fearlessly and with zero tolerance against anyone who defies the law and attempts to provoke disquiet. He encouraged people to know the other, and talked about commonalities between diverse groups who are actually closer to each other than they realize. The distance between them, he said, is an outstretched hand.

He said that there must be more encounters between Jews and Arabs, Muslims, Circassians, Christians and Druze – and Arabic and Hebrew studies must be strengthened in all streams of state education.

Toward the conclusion of the dinner, Herzog walked from table to table to greet his guests personally, and was immediately surrounded by people who wanted to be photographed with him.

The president has more than once said that he would like to start a dialogue with other Arab states in the hope that this will help to bring about peace and more diplomatic ties between Israel and her neighbors.

■ IT IS customary for the president of Israel to host lone soldiers at his Seder table. This year, at his first Seder as president, Herzog will not only host lone soldiers, but also immigrants from Ukraine, as has already been reported. The lone soldiers are Sgt. Glen Chaves from Costa Rica, who serves in the IDF Kfir Brigade and made aliyah because of his grandfather’s special connection to Israel and his family’s conversion, and Cpl. Iara Lerner Turchinsky (21), who came on aliyah from Argentina two years ago and serves in a canine unit in the Israeli Air Force.

The Ukrainian family of three are Ilena Ivanova and her sons, Vadim (9) and Yevgeny (2½), who are from Odessa. Husband and father Aleksander was forced to remain in Ukraine to fight the Russians. His family, who crossed the border into Poland and continued on to Israel in March, live in accommodation organized by the Jewish Agency.

Another important guest who will join Herzog, his wife Michal and their three sons at the Seder will be US Ambassador Tom Nides. One suspects that in addition to the traditional four questions, there will be many more questions throughout the night. Considering the diversity that in itself symbolizes the Israel-Diaspora relationship and the Israel-US alliance – plus the defense, immigration and war aspects that in various various ways encompass all those sitting at the table – the conversation during and after the reading of the Hagaddah is bound to be very interesting. Oh, to be a fly on the wall...

Herzog has also recorded a special message for world Jewry in which he stresses the collective identity and sense of peoplehood of the Jewish people and the importance of unity, which he says is more critical today than it ever has been.

■ REGIONAL COOPERATION Minister Esawi Frej carved his niche into history this week when he became the first Israeli cabinet minister to visit Kosovo; last week, a coalition crisis forced him to bow out of a much closer-to-home meeting.

Frej had been scheduled to attend the launch of Sport for Social Change at which members of 13 sports organizations committed to social change throughout Israel came together on the banks of the Yarkon River to launch the National Sports for Social Change Coalition and to celebrate the International Day of Sports for Development and Peace. The coalition represents 25,000 youth from 384 localities throughout Israel, representing all faiths and all strata of Israeli society, who are engaged in bridging differences and in building a shared society.

■ BEING MARRIED to an Israeli who happens to be Jewish, British Ambassador Neil Wigan is obviously familiar with matzah and other Passover fare. But on Tuesday this week, he experienced the unique process of rolling out the dough for matzah at the Belz matzah factory in Bnei Brak. While touring the major ultra-Orthodox city, Wigan watched the preparations for Passover and the Kimcha Depischa custom of providing for the city’s poor, so that they can have all their Passover needs.

 BRITISH AMBASSADOR Neil Wigan tries his hand at kneading dough at the Belz matzah factory in Bnei Brak. (credit: EMBASSY OF THE UNITED KINGDOM IN ISRAEL) BRITISH AMBASSADOR Neil Wigan tries his hand at kneading dough at the Belz matzah factory in Bnei Brak. (credit: EMBASSY OF THE UNITED KINGDOM IN ISRAEL)

He met Mayor Avraham Rubinstein, received a blessing from Rabbi Baruch Dov Povarsky, head of the Ponevezh Yeshiva, and later met with leading haredi (ultra-Orthodox) businesswomen at the Achim Business Center and talked to them about opportunities for promoting women in the haredi sector through entrepreneurship, technology and finances.

■ NINE MONTHS after the departure of its former CEO and director-general Prof. Zeev Rotstein, the Board of the Hadassah Medical Organization has begun head-hunting for a successor. In the interim, Prof. Yoram Weiss has been holding the fort, and has calmed the atmosphere which was often toxic under Rotstein due to his clashes with the board. There are many Hadassah insiders who acknowledge that Rotstein did many good things for the hospital, but was simply too temperamental to remain in his post. In fact, he leaped before he was pushed.

Under ordinary circumstances, it could be assumed that Weiss would become the permanent CEO and director-general instead of the acting one, but unfortunately there is a medical blemish from his distant past which may preclude that from happening, even though he was not directly involved in a case of medical negligence.

Among the people being considered are Dr. Orly Weinstein who is in charge of the Clalit hospitals, Dr. Anat Angel who is the Director-General of Wolfson Medical Center and Moshe Bar Siman Tov, the former director-general of the Health Ministry, who became a television star in the first year of the pandemic. There are other prominent medical experts with proven management skills who are also being considered. The question now remains: If Weiss doesn’t get the position, will he remain at Hadassah?

■ AT THIS time of year, we should all be filled with goodwill towards others. Pesach Sameach, Ramadan Kareem and Happy Easter!

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