Grapevine April 20, 2022: Herzog revives President’s Medal of Distinction award

Movers and shakers in Israeli society

 SHIMON PERES presenting the President’s Medal of Distinction to Elie Wiesel. (photo credit: Mark Neiman/GPO)
SHIMON PERES presenting the President’s Medal of Distinction to Elie Wiesel.
(photo credit: Mark Neiman/GPO)

In his various positions Shimon Peres received numerous decorations from foreign governments. As president, he reached the conclusion that Israel should have something in the nature of America’s Presidential Medal of Freedom or France’s Legion of Honor, both of which were among the high civilian awards conferred on him. So, he came up with the idea of the President’s Medal of Distinction to be awarded to individuals or organizations who have made an outstanding contribution to Israel or to humanity, through their talents, services, or in any other form.

The medal, designed by Yossi Matityahu, was awarded for the first time on March 1, 2012. It was awarded again in 2013 and 2014. When Reuven Rivlin became president, he declined to continue with the award, even though Peres had never attached his name to it, but had established it as a means of recognizing the outstanding good that people do. It was never intended just for Israelis or for Jews alone, but for people of any nationality or any faith. Among the non-Israeli recipients were Henry Kissinger, Zubin Mehta, Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, Elie Wiesel, Giorgio Napolitano and Angela Merkel.

In Wiesel’s case, he was too ill to travel to Israel, so Peres stopped off in New York on his way to pay a state visit to Mexico in November, 2013. Wiesel, an Auschwitz survivor and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, received Israel’s highest civilian award for his unique contribution to the memorial of the Holocaust, and in light of his uncompromising drive for peace and tolerance. What was overlooked in the citation was that Wiesel, through his book The Jews of Silence, published in 1966 and documenting Wiesel’s experience in the Soviet Union during the High Holy Days in September, 1965, made the world aware of the plight of Soviet Jewry.

When receiving the award, Wiesel remarked: “Even though I don’t live in Israel, Israel lives within me.”

All the people who have received the award to date, were undoubtedly deserving, but there are others who have not received it, who are not only equally deserving, but perhaps even more deserving in light of the diversity of their activities for the Jewish world and for Israel. One such person is World Jewish Congress President Ronald Lauder, who through his various past and present roles as chairman of the International Public Committee of the World Jewish Restitution Organization, treasurer of the World Jewish Congress, chairman of the Jewish Heritage Council, and numerous other titles,  has contributed greatly to Jewish life in Israel and the diaspora, and to justice for Jews, particularly Holocaust survivors.

 UAE RABBI Levi Duchman (2nd from right front row) with his Chabad team. (credit: Courtesy JEWISH UAE) UAE RABBI Levi Duchman (2nd from right front row) with his Chabad team. (credit: Courtesy JEWISH UAE)

Moreover, he has undertaken diplomatic missions on behalf of Israel in countries with which Israel does not have diplomatic relations, and through his Lauder Foundation was instrumental in reviving Jewish life in Eastern Europe, long before the fall of the Iron curtain. He has invested in Israel, thereby creating jobs, and he opened an employment bureau in Beersheba with the aim of finding jobs for graduates of Ben Gurion University as an incentive for them to stay in the south of the country and help to build up the Negev.

Lauder has many other credits, but there is no room to list them all.

Admittedly, as a billionaire, Lauder can afford to do all these things, but there are other Jewish billionaires and millionaires who make large donations to hospitals, universities and cultural centers in their places of domicile, but ignore Israel and the plethora of Jewish causes. Lauder gives not only of his money, but of himself, and it’s time that Israel accorded him the recognition and appreciation due to him.

Of course there are other deserving individuals such as Miriam Adelson, who together with her late husband Sheldon has contributed significantly to higher education in Israel, established a medical school and a medical clinic for treatment of drug abuse, and has contributed millions of dollars to Yad Vashem and Birthright.

As well, there are organizations such as Friends of the IDF that raise millions of dollars each year to make life easier for young men and women who are doing their mandatory army service, United Hatzalah and ZAKA, which have done so much life saving and rescue work at home and abroad, and have helped to enhance Israel’s image in the world. There are many more deserving individuals and organizations, and President Herzog has appointed an advisory committee headed by retired Supreme Court Judge Dr. Yoram Danziger to examine all nominations and give him their final recommendations.

■ IT’S SO pleasantly refreshing to read a tweet by Yair Netanyahu in which he doesn’t attack anyone, but passes on a piece of information generally known to Jews, but which may come as a shock to many Christians.

“This year Easter and Passover are celebrated on the same day. You might not know it, but the last supper was actually the celebration of the Passover Seder by Jesus and his disciples (all of whom were Jewish). The supper took place in Mount Zion in Jerusalem, where the word Zionism comes from,” tweeted Netanyahu.

If, as Christians believe, there will be a second coming, Jesus will presumably return as a Conservative or Reform Jew. If the Orthodox Rabbinate refuses to accept current Conservative and Reform movements in Judaism, the mind boggles at what would happen in the event of a second coming. Incidentally, despite the negative attitude that the Chief Rabbinate has towards the Conservative and Reform Movements, just before Passover, when Jews use rabbinic intermediaries to sell the leavened products belonging to Jews living in Israel to a non-Jew, the lists assembled by Conservative and Reform Rabbis are sent to the Chief Rabbinate, which is responsible for selling the leavened products in the land, and these lists are accepted. Hope burns eternal.

■ ANYONE WHO wonders why Poland was so quick in siding with Ukraine against Russia and so generous in accepting and providing for Ukrainian refugees, only has to look back in history.

On April 13, Poland observed Remembrance Day for the Victims of Katyń Massacre of 1940, when 22,000 Polish officers and members of the intelligentsia were killed by the Soviet NKVD. To commemorate the victims, Agata Czaplińska, the chargé d’affaires at the Polish Embassy in Israel and Colonel Andrzej Stanek, Defense Attaché laid flowers at the Katyń Massacre memorial plaque in the Martyrs’ Forest near Jerusalem.

Czaplińska subsequently paid a visit to Yad Vashem where she visited the temporary exhibition Flashes of Memory, which she declared to be a must see. It was the second meaningful anniversary in less than a week.

On April 10, 2010, a plane carrying the Polish delegation to the 70th anniversary of the Katyń Massacre crashed near Smoleńsk in Russia.

All 96 passengers died in the crash, including President Lech Kaczyński and his wife Maria Kaczyńska.

As warm-hearted a reception which the Poles have given to Ukrainian refugees, they have been most unwelcoming where refugees from Muslim countries are concerned.

The Polish Embassy, and the Polish Cultural Institute in Tel Aviv, when publishing seasonal greetings on their websites and social media platforms wished people Chag Sameach and Happy Easter, but omitted Ramadan Kareem.

■ CHABAD has been so prominent in looking after and evacuating Ukrainian citizens, both Jews and non-Jews, and was busy preparing Seders for Ukraine’s remaining Jews. The Jewish Agency and other organizations and movements also prepared large community Seders and Pesach food packages for the rest of the holidays.

In Poland, Chabad in Warsaw is hoping to raise $1 million to cover costs for the whole month of April. Rabbis Dov Ber and Mayer Stambler are the leading Chabad rabbis in Poland and accompanied the late President Kaczynski on his state visit to Israel in September 2006. They say that they are caring for 200 Ukrainian refugees daily, providing them with food, shelter and medical care. The late Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson placed a ban on Poland, saying it was the largest Jewish graveyard in the world.

When the Stamblers came to Jerusalem with Kaczynski, they were asked why they had defied the Rebbe’s instructions. They explained that the Rebbe also had a rule, that where there are Jews, there should also be Chabad. Many Jewish business people were investing in Poland at the time, and Jewish life in Poland was beginning to flourish as people who had previously hidden their Jewish identities were gradually attending synagogue services, joining Jewish organizations and sending their children to Jewish kindergartens and schools. Thus, in their view, there was a need for Chabad.

■ AS PROOF that Chabad is active wherever there are Jews, the main team joining Rabbi Levi Duchman in preparing the mega community seders in Dubai and Abu Dhabi were Chabadniks. In other countries Chabad sometimes encroach on the territory of other Jewish religious movements, or as in Israel, on secular Jewish communities, but in the United Arab Emirates, where Duchman appears to be the key mover and shaker in matters Jewish, there are no religious disputes, because he himself is a Chabadnik, who came to Israel to bake Shmura Matzah and to order large quantities for the UAE.

Altogether, more than a thousand people attended the Seders in the UAE, including diplomats, government officials, community members and tourists. The Seders were conducted in Hebrew, English, French and Russian. In addition, Duchman received video-taped greetings from Israel’s Chief Rabbis David Lau, and Yitzhak Yosef.

By the way, Ukraine President Vlodymyr Zelensky returned to his Jewish roots and hosted a Seder, replete with all the traditional trimmings – and the matzot were supplied by none other than a Chabad Rabbi. In a video recorded Friday night in his bunker, where Zelensky held a Seder together with his family, Zelensky said: “On this Sabbath, the Jewish community celebrates Pesach, the festival of freedom, the festival of life. To all those who are celebrating in Ukraine and around the world, I wish peace and victory. Happy Pesach. Long live Ukraine.”

Chabad rabbis and Jewish Agency personnel prepared communal seders throughout Ukraine and in all the neighboring countries that had taken in Ukrainian refugees.

■ MOST EMBASSIES, on their websites or social media platforms published season’s greetings, but Japanese ambassador Mizushima Koichi, who combined the Passover festival with the 70th anniversary celebrations of diplomatic relations between Japan and Israel, really went to town getting every diplomat in the embassy to sing one verse of one of the songs sung at the Passover Seder: Ehad mi yodea? (Who knows one?). The song goes all the way to 13 and each diplomat was separately videotaped, singing in Hebrew. It’s still online and thoroughly enjoyable.

■ THE NORDIC and Baltic embassies are joining forces next week to hold a charity event in support of Ukraine at the residence of the Finnish Ambassador Kirsikka Lehto-Asikainen. Finnish ambassadors seem to have a particular fondness for music, both classical and jazz. This time, the music will be provided by a jazz group.

■ FOR THE second time in less than a year, Transportation and Road Safety Minister Merav Michaeli was in the US. The first time around, she and her significant other Lior Schleien went to take delivery of their son Uri, who was born to a surrogate mother.

Prior to Passover, Michaeli was on a working visit, and amongst other events, was the keynote speaker at the gala dinner marking the 10th anniversary of the establishment of the Younes and Soraya Nazarian Center for Jewish Studies at UCLA.

She also met with AIPAC President-elect Michael Tuchin, with the Los Angeles Chapter of WIZO and with representatives of other Jewish organizations.

At various meetings throughout her visit, she spoke about the importance of Israel-US relations, and relations between Israel and the American Jewish community. She also spoke about Israel’s national security issues, including the Iranian nuclear program, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Israel’s relations with neighboring states in the Middle East. Michaeli also spoke of her vision as a leader of the Labor Party, and emphasized that no effort will be spared in ensuring the integrity of the present government.

Aside from her meetings with Jewish community leaders and organizations, Michaeli also met with municipal transport authorities in Los Angeles and San Francisco, and with representatives of companies working on autonomous road and aerial vehicles.

Next week, Michaeli is scheduled to address the Foreign Press Association in Israel, and in light of recent and current political upheavals, will be plied with many questions.

■ APROPOS POLITICAL upheavals and provocations, KAN 11 reporter Suleiman Maswadeh, who covers Jerusalem affairs for KAN 11, has become a radio and television star. A quick learner, Maswadeh who is a native of the Muslim Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem, has reported on events in Mea Shearim, political demonstrations in the capital, Arab party politics, crime and much more.

A good reporter under any circumstances, Maswadeh was propelled into the limelight by the simultaneous discovery of the murderer in 2019 of Yehuda and Tamar Kaduri and Moldovan Foreign worker Ivan Tarnowski in 2022; as well as riots on the Temple Mount and at Nablus Gate. The upshot was that for several days he broadcast on almost every news and current affairs program on Reshet Bet and Kan 11, to the extent that he was broadcasting from early morning till late at night.

Sometimes it is the reporter who turns a drab story into news, and sometimes the news is such that it turns the reporter into a star. Maswadeh had previously exhibited star qualities , but events this month took him to the pinnacle. What is truly remarkable is his objectivity when reporting on violence and provocation regardless of whether it is by Palestinians or Jewish extremists. That’s true journalistic professionalism.

■ AT THE peak of the pandemic, doomsayers were predicting that because so many people from all strata of society had lost income through lockdowns, philanthropy would go down the drain. There’s an old song the refrain of which is “the rich get rich and the poor get poorer.” As painful as this may be for the poor, and the middle class who have been reduced to poor, it still holds true for the very rich other than Russian oligarchs, who collectively have had billions of dollars of assets seized or frozen by various governments in whose countries they had luxury homes, planes, yachts and/or investments.

Not enough is publicized about what is happening to those assets. Are they still operating? Have they been frozen? Will they be returned after the war is over? Will the oligarchs have any legal recourse for the possible losses incurred as a result of the seizures?

It should be remembered that in most cases, particularly that of Roman Abramovich, the oligarchs were exceedingly generous in their philanthropy giving to both Jewish and non-Jewish causes and projects in Israel and elsewhere which are now missing out.

But not all is lost. Happily, there are other big-time philanthropists in the world, and last week some of them came together in Herzliya Pituach at the home of businessman Efi Hershkovitz, together with well-known entertainers, such as Rita, who has been chosen to light one of the Independence Day beacons, Tali Moreno and Eyal Kitzis, to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the OR Movement, a non-profit organization that is involved in developing the Negev and the Galilee in Arab and Jewish areas.

In the Negev it is working in places such as Rahat, Ofakim, and Dimona. Among those attending the festivities were Batsheva Moshe from WIX Software, Philanthropist Gloria Kaylie, President of New York headquartered Continental Ventures Jane Gol and Ishaia Gol, businessman Lonnie Hercikovich, Harel Locker of Israel Aerospace Industries, former MK Daniel Ben Simon, businesswoman and social entrepreneur Galia Albin, Orna Pesach from Impact, entrepreneur Ilan Cohen, and many other representatives of the business world and philanthropic foundations.

During the evening internationally known economist Prof. Nouriel Rubini from NYU, who is also Chairman of RGE Monitor, fascinated other guests with his evaluation of the continuing geopolitical crisis and Israel’s sensitive place globally. Another source of fascination was futurist Prof. David Pasig, who recommended investing in Negev real estate before it will be too late.

OR Movement founder and CEO Roni Flamer said: “After hearing two experts, I can modestly say that they are right and this is our opportunity to invest in Israel’s future, and develop the Negev and the Galilee”.

■ FOR THE first time in its three-decade history, the International March of the Living will include the participation of an official delegation of the UAE to be led by H.E. Ahmed Obaid Al Mansoori, together with entrepreneur and philanthropist Eitan Neishlos, the newly appointed Founder and Ambassador of International March of the Living in the Gulf states.

Together, they will light a memorial at the official ceremony in Auschwitz-Birkenau, as they join Holocaust survivors and other delegations on April 28.

Ahmed Obaid Al Mansoori is founder of the first Holocaust Memorial Gallery in the Arabic and Islamic world, as well as founder of the Crossroads of Civilizations Museum. In addition, he is a former Member of the Federal National Council.

Eitan Neishlos, a third-generation descendant of a Holocaust survivor, the late Tamar Zisserman, has joined March of the Living as a strategic partner to lead a journey of remembrance and responsibility among members of the third generation. His commitment to this organization led to the creation of this important new relationship with the UAE.

The 32km March from Auschwitz 1 to Auschwitz-Birkenau will conclude with the traditional ceremony held on the remains of the Auschwitz-Birkenau crematoria and will include former Israeli Chief Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, Mayor of Jerusalem Moshe Lion, and Holocaust survivors and delegates from 25 countries. Torches of Remembrance will be lit in memory of the six million Jewish women, children and men who were murdered by the Nazis and their collaborators.

Speaking ahead of the March, Al Mansoori noted: “The lessons of the past and the dangers of hatred and prejudice must be learned across the world for the sake of humanity. The new realities in the Middle East that have greatly contributed to the warm friendships between Jews and Muslims, offers an historic opportunity for the children of Abraham to stand together in remembrance of the victims of the Holocaust, and serve as a sign of cooperation and partnership for the future in our region and further.”

“The opportunity to establish the March of the Living’s presence in the UAE and the Gulf is not only a privilege, it is also an opportunity to reach more people in our region to learn about and understand the horrors of the Holocaust, and take forward a message of reconciliation and peace for the future,” commented Neishlos.

Phyllis Greenberg Heideman, president of March of the Living added, “After the Abraham Accords, we have the opportunity and the obligation to educate more people about the Holocaust and the lessons to be learned from that time in history.”

■ BUSY BLOGGER and retired journalist Macabee Dean, who for many years was a Jerusalem Post reporter working out of the Tel Aviv office, celebrated his 99th birthday on Tuesday. Dean’s brain and wry sense of humor remain intact, and he’s quite active on social media.

Another nonagenarian born in April is noted historian Prof. Yehuda Bauer, who is one of Israel’s foremost experts on the Holocaust and the history of antisemitism. Bauer, who celebrated his 96th birthday on April 6, has also retained a sharp brain and an eloquent tongue. He is scheduled to be the keynote speaker next week at an event co-hosted by the Israel branch of the World Jewish Congress and Israel Council on Foreign Relations.

Bauer has never been hampered by the need to be politically correct. He has no hesitation in calling a spade a spade, but he does it with so much wit and charm, that he is invariably forgiven.

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