Grapevine May 4, 2022: In the shadow of history

Movers and shakers in Israeli society.

 FROM LEFT: Amir Shani, Chinese Ambassador Cai Run and Uriel Lynn. (photo credit: COURTESY FICC)
FROM LEFT: Amir Shani, Chinese Ambassador Cai Run and Uriel Lynn.
(photo credit: COURTESY FICC)

Overcoming the demons that had haunted him for most of his life, Yehuda Poliker, whose parents were deported to Auschwitz from Thessaloniki, and settled in Israel after the war, put aside his antipathy to all things German and, for the first time in his career, performed in Germany last week.

He had been invited by the Israel Embassy and by Taglit (Birthright) to participate in the Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony in the Sachsenhausen concentration camp near Berlin. Poliker also lit a memorial candle.In post-performance interviews, Poliker said that he had found Berlin to be a beautiful city, and the Germans to be pleasant and obliging, but he could not help thinking about how many people their grandparents had murdered.

■ ALSO ON his way to Germany, to the Munich SLS Conference taking place from May 20 to 22, is hi-tech guru and entrepreneur Yossi Vardi. Vardi has annually hosted the DLD Conference in Tel Aviv, welcoming technology geeks with the most far-out ideas and the ability to prove that the improbable is actually possible. But this month he’s cohosting in Munich, where there will be 22 speakers representing some of the top companies in hi-tech and social media, including Mark Zuckerberg of Meta (Facebook).

■ HOLOCAUST REMEMBRANCE Day found celebrity restaurateur Reena Pushkarna in her native India, where she had gone to meet her brother, who lives in Singapore. The siblings are descended from India’s Iraqi Jewish community and participated in a memorial service at the impressive Baghdadi Knesset Eliyahoo Synagogue in Mumbai.Consuls-general and other diplomats representing many countries, including some from the Arab world, paid homage to the victims of the Holocaust and lit memorial candles. Various dignitaries spoke of the horrors of the past and of the conflict in Ukraine today. When the Russian representative rose to speak, most of the diplomats left the room. Among the Indian dignitaries in attendance was the governor of Maharashtra, Bhagat Singh Koshyari, who was the guest of honor.

In contrast to Ashkenazi practice, as well as that in many Sephardi synagogues, women in the Iraqi synagogue in Bombay approach the ark, say a prayer and kiss the curtain covering the Torah scrolls.

 BRITISH AMBASSADOR Neal Wigan behind the wheel of the new electric Jaguar I-Pace. (credit: RONEN TOPELBERG) BRITISH AMBASSADOR Neal Wigan behind the wheel of the new electric Jaguar I-Pace. (credit: RONEN TOPELBERG)
■ ASIDE FROM professional researchers, the vast majority of people who probe the archives of Yad Vashem and other Holocaust museums and educational centers are people looking for roots: something directly related to their families or to the places in which their families had lived for generations.Regardless of how intensive research is, by a professional or someone with a specific roots interest, no one ever gets to learn it all, Prof. Dina Porat, chief historian at Yad Vashem, said in some of several interviews she gave during Holocaust Remembrance week.Thus, not too many people would be aware of data presented by Hessy Taft to Yad Vashem in 2014 illustrating that Hitler’s ideal Aryan poster child was, in fact, a little Jewish girl.Taft, who is now an octogenarian professor of chemistry living in New York, was born Hessy Levinson, to parents who had migrated from Latvia to Germany. When she was six months old, her parents had her photographed. Unbeknownst to them, the photographer submitted the photograph to a competition aimed at finding the most beautiful Aryan baby, and the young Hessy was chosen by none other than propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels. Shortly afterward, the baby’s mother, Pauline, was horrified to see the face of her child gracing a Nazi magazine. Terrified that the Nazis would discover the baby’s identity, the Levinsons confronted the photographer, Hans Ballin, who said that he had submitted the photograph in order to make the Nazis look ridiculous. It subsequently appeared in other Nazi publications.The Levinson family fled back to Latvia, then from there to Paris, and then to Cuba, eventually settling in the US in 1949, by which time Hessy was 14 years old. She waited a long time before presenting her photograph and the Nazi magazines that featured her image to Yad Vashem, as yet another reminder to never judge a book by its cover.

■ IN A speech dripping with hatred and vitriolic incitement, Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar last week called for attacks against synagogues around the world in retaliation for the Jewish presence on the Temple Mount.Ironically, only a few days earlier, Danish and Swedish Jewish community leaders harshly condemned far-right extremist political figure Rasmus Paludan, a citizen of both countries, for public burnings of the Koran. There is a debate in Scandinavia as to how far freedom of expression should be permitted to go.Meanwhile, Jewish community leaders, mindful that the Holocaust was preceded by the burning of Jewish holy books, including Torah scrolls, have issued warnings as to where Paludan’s actions might lead. The world would do well to remember the prophetic words of German-Jewish poet Heinrich Heine, who converted to Christianity but retained something of his Jewish identity. “Where they burn books,” said Heine, “they will eventually burn people.”

■ IT WAS not a secret that Eldad Koblenz, the founding director-general of the Israeli Public Broadcasting Corporation, was in line for dismissal. Koblenz and Gil Omer, the chairman of the IPBC Council, did not see eye to eye and had exchanged numerous recriminations. Koblenz had been summoned for a hearing before the ax was due to fall, but it was common knowledge that the hearing was nothing more than a farce – in other words, a show trial, and that the council had already made up its mind.Presumably, Koblenz, like others in his position, has his devotees and his enemies. But if he was to be dismissed, surely the council could have found a more appropriate date for giving him a month’s notice than to do so on Holocaust Remembrance Day. That’s really digging in the knife and showing a total lack of sensitivity. Perhaps it’s Omer who should be fired. What sort of a message does it convey?For that matter, Koblenz had only a year left before his contract ran its course. If he fights his dismissal in the National Labor Court, as he indicated in an email to staff that he intends to do, there will in all probability be a stay of execution until the case is heard and a ruling is handed down. By that time, there won’t be much left of the time in which his contract will run out. So why fire him in the first place? After all the difficulties that Koblenz overcame in building up IPBC, did anyone really expect him to take a puppy dog attitude to being fired?On the other hand, it’s very difficult to fight the bureaucratic hierarchy in Israel. We saw this with the dismantling of the IPBC’s forerunner, the Israel Broadcasting Authority, which then-communication minister Gilad Erdan decided to close down. Erdan succeeded in pushing through legislation to that effect, and mass demonstrations by IBA employees outside his home, the Knesset and the Finance Ministry were to no avail, just as representations made by IBA icons to Knesset committees fell on deaf ears.

 REENA PUSHKARNA (left, in light-colored dress), stands with diplomats at the Knesset Eliyahoo Baghdadi synagogue in Mumbai.  (credit: REENA PUSHKARNA) REENA PUSHKARNA (left, in light-colored dress), stands with diplomats at the Knesset Eliyahoo Baghdadi synagogue in Mumbai. (credit: REENA PUSHKARNA)
The IBA was brought to a halt in mid-broadcast of the main evening news on television. News anchor Michal Rabinovich could not stop herself from bursting into tears. Happily, her services were retained by the new broadcasting corporation, as were the services of many other veteran IBA employees, some of whom are well past pension age, but whose talents and contributions to good reporting and broadcasting continue to be valued.One such veteran is KAN Reshet Bet Saturday morning anchor Yitzhak Noy, who last Friday celebrated his 80th birthday. Relatives and friends who live on Moshav Neta’im, as do Noy and his wife, Nurit, had planned a large surprise party for him, but it was not to be.Noy, a historian by training and inclination, for many years hosted a unique program in which he usually brought in three experts on a certain incident or period in history, and had each of them speak about a different aspect. He often tied such programs to anniversaries of the subjects under discussion, and some amazing nuggets of information came to light. These programs lasted for an hour, and were followed by his perusal, for another hour, of international news and feature stories. He could be either very enthusiastic, bemused or disgusted over what he was reading, and the listener was left in absolutely no doubt as to which emotion he was expressing in his deep baritone voice. The programs were rebroadcast on Sunday nights so that religiously observant listeners could also enjoy them. On the Saturday of Passover, a message from him stating that he was no longer capable of running a radio show was read out. Noy has developed an aggressive brain tumor, and as he was taken to a hospital by ambulance, he said to his wife that this was probably the last trip he was taking. Nonetheless, his fans continue to hear him every week, as the powers that be at Reshet Bet play recordings of his previous programs. This, in contrast to what Omer did to Koblenz, is an extremely humane gesture, and one that illustrates the affection and esteem in which Noy is held.In his message to staff, Koblenz, who has held his present post since early 2015, asked everyone to continue to focus on the mission to which they had been assigned, which was to provide excellent and constantly improving broadcasts for the Israeli public.So far, that’s what they’ve been doing. Keren Neubach, for instance, has been interviewing people whose names have not made the headlines, but whose deeds are certainly worthy of headlines. Naomi Shemer once wrote a song called “Anashim tovim” (Good people). There are indeed some wonderful people who do extraordinary things. Neubach said that of all the nominations received, it had been very difficult to select the very few whom she interviewed.Hopefully, she may find a way to interview at least one such person on every program that she anchors. Many of these people are sources of inspiration, coming from the lowest socioeconomic backgrounds, or having been terribly abused in their youth, and yet finding it in themselves to help others who are less fortunate. To hear how honored they felt to appear on her program should prompt all of us to make a more strenuous effort to show and express appreciation.

■ ONE OF the staunch on- and off-air defenders of social rights is Prof. Yuval Elbashan, the newly appointed director-general of the National Insurance Institute.A lawyer by profession, a novelist and an author of children’s books, Elbashan, who is a former dean of Ono Academic College’s School of Law, sits on various think tanks and social rights committees, has won many prestigious awards and is also a broadcaster, having worked for several years for Army Radio and currently for KAN Reshet Bet, most notably cohosting a Friday morning show with right-wing religious journalist Emily Amrousi.Elbashan is left-wing and secular, and the two have many arguments on air, enabling listeners to make up their own minds after hearing both points of view. It is not certain whether Elbashan will be able to continue in this capacity after taking up his new position.

■ WITH LACK of fanfare, deputy Supreme Court president Neal Hendel retired last week. Born on April 27, 1952, he reached the mandatory retired age for judges, which is 70 – presumably a cutoff age for rational thought.Unlike the vast majority of his predecessors, Hendel’s background in the study and practice of law was neither in Europe nor in Israel, but in America. After working in the Legal Aid Office and in private practice in New York, he came on aliyah in 1983 and settled in Beersheba, where he worked in the southern district’s Prosecutor’s Office until 1988, when he was appointed as a Beersheba District Court judge, and eventually its vice president.He was appointed to the Supreme Court in 2009.But he is not the only American to have served on Israel’s Supreme Court. Shimon Agranat, its third president, was born in Louisville, Kentucky, and grew up in Chicago. After graduating from the University of Chicago Law School, he immigrated to what was then Palestine in 1930 and settled in Haifa. After serving as a judge in the Haifa Magistrate’s Court, he became president of the Haifa District Court in 1948. At the end of that year, at age 42, he was appointed to the Supreme Court, becoming one of its youngest members. He also taught criminal law at the Hebrew University, and in 1965 became president of the Supreme Court, remaining in that position till 1976. In 1974, he headed the Agranat Commission which investigated Israel’s lack of preparedness for the Yom Kippur War. Like Golda Meir, Agranat spoke Hebrew with a strong American accent till the end of his days.

■ THE LAST official Independence Day function is the awarding of the Israel Prize. Among the honorees this year will be Mariuma Klein, better known as Mariuma Ben Yosef, who will receive a life achievement award. Mariuma is the founder of the Beit Hashanti Association, which has helped thousands of youth at risk to rehabilitate themselves and to become self-respecting, productive citizens.She has saved young boys and girls from drug addiction, prostitution and petty crime. Many found their way to Beit Hashanti as a last resort, not really expecting anything, but receiving, shelter, food, clothing, a willing ear, respect, responsibility, a variety of therapies – including horseback riding, hydrotherapy and art therapy – plus lots of TLC.Having experienced emotional and physical abuse, including rape, but having the strength of character to pull herself out of the abyss and serve in the army, Mariuma was quick to recognize young people who needed help. Following her discharge, she invited young homeless individuals to join her for Shabbat meals, which was a prelude to the opening of the first Beit Hashanti in Tel Aviv’s Neveh Tzedek neighborhood in 1984. In 2009, she expanded her efforts and opened the Hashanti Village near Sde Boker in the Negev.Last year, together with the Jerusalem Foundation, the Beit Hashanti Association purchased a building in the capital’s Ein Kerem neighborhood to serve as a home for youth at risk from the Jerusalem area. The acquisition was made possible primarily by significant donations from the families of Solo and Maurice Dwek as well as other sources.Beit Hashanti provides an instant anchor 24/7, 365 days a year. Youth who come there do not require a referral, and there is no waiting period nor time limit on their stay. They immediately move into a warm, loving family environment, which has been denied them for most of their lives.In her autobiography, Mariuma wrote: “For souls like me who have experienced violence, sexual assault, suffering, pain and especially abandonment from parents – those who should have been the anchor, safeguards and initial embrace – there is a choice to disconnect or overcome, to be a victim or choose life.“A moment of enlightenment and understanding led me to my destiny and the essence of my life. In a moment of clarity, I realized that my way is to create a cosmic family of souls like me who have not experienced home and family. God guided me, and homes were created for homeless children like me.“This moment was at the age of 21 when I found the meaning of my way in this world. At this age I had a purpose and goal, and no one could stop me and my understanding and belief in the way I chose. I knew I came into the world to help children like me choose life, faith, passion, optimism and hope when they could choose death, due to what they went through. They are saving my life every day... and like them, I am daily choosing life.”

■ IT WAS a little like sending coal to Newcastle. On Tuesday of this week, the Atlantic Council hosted an online conversation between US Ambassador to Israel Thomas R. Nides and one of his predecessors, Daniel B. Shapiro, who recently joined the Atlantic Council as a distinguished fellow. Inter alia, the two discussed the Biden administration’s priorities for US-Israel bilateral relations and what Nides is doing to deepen and broaden Arab-Israeli normalization.Since taking up his position in Jerusalem last November, Nides has been at the forefront of US efforts to build upon the Abraham Accords during a period of regional geopolitical and economic transformations.As interesting as the conversation was, it would have been even more interesting had it been a three-way session that included another former US ambassador to Israel, David M. Friedman, whose political views are somewhat different from those of Nides and Shapiro. All three know each other, and any two of them have gotten together in both the US and Israel, so there would have been no awkwardness in a three-way conversation. Some other organization might care to take up this challenge at a future date.

■ MOST AMBASSADORS don’t do their own driving, but have drivers who transport them from place to place in a posh embassy car. However, this week, British Ambassador Neal Wigan could not resist getting behind the wheel of the new Jaguar Land Rover at its Israeli launch in Herzliya.As one of the most iconic products of the British automotive industry, the fifth-generation Range Rover represents a combination of a long tradition of quality and modern technology. Wigan welcomed the new model’s entry into the booming Israeli luxury car market, and emphasized the growth and strengthening of trade relations between Israel and the UK.The ambassador also had the chance to drive the crown jewel of the British car industry – the electric Jaguar I-Pace – when he took it for a test drive on Israel’s Coastal Highway.

■ WITHIN THE framework of the 30th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Israel and China, the Federation of Israeli Chambers of Commerce hosted Chinese Ambassador Cai Run, who was greeted by FICC president Uriel Lynn and FICC vice president Amir Shani. The ambassador was accompanied by China’s Commercial and Economic Attaché Zhang Xingfu.Unlike Israel, China has not yet abandoned the mandatory wearing of masks, and the two Chinese dignitaries followed the rule from back home, while their hosts remained barefaced.The COVID-19 crisis led to significant challenges in the global supply chain, which in turn resulted in a global rise in prices that is also affecting Israel.According to the ambassador, China has been working to maintain the stability of global supply chains, and is more than willing to further cooperate with Israel to address the challenges faced by global supply chains. Furthermore, China will continue supporting and facilitating exchanges and cooperation between Chinese and Israeli companies.Cai noted that the promotion of a free-trade agreement between China and Israel is an important move, and the Chinese and Israeli governments are working effectively and quickly to complete the agreement.Lynn said that the encouragement of free trade between Israel and China should be accelerated. “Such a move will give another leap to trade relations between the two countries, will be very beneficial to the Israeli economy and will be an important factor in lowering the cost of living in Israel,” he declared. “We welcome Chinese companies’ investments in Israel’s infrastructure, especially in seaports – a fruitful cooperation that will lead to growth and economic prosperity for the business sectors in Israel and China.”Shani emphasized the importance of China’s work regarding the costs of global marine shipping, which have increased dramatically to seven times the cost before the COVID-19 pandemic. Any effort by China in order to balance the costs of shipping could contribute greatly to the overall trade of China globally and, of course, with Israel.Zhang Xingfu emphasized the importance of cooperation between the Chinese Embassy and the Association of Chambers of Commerce, which he said contributes not only to the promotion of trade between the two countries but also to China-Israel relations.China is Israel’s second largest trading partner in total volume of trade, and is in first place in the volume of imports to Israel as of 2021.According to data from the Economy Ministry’s Foreign Trade Administration, the total volume of trade in goods between Israel and China and Hong Kong in 2021 increased by an astonishing rate of about 20% compared to 2020, and at the end of 2021 stood at about $20.4 billion, compared to $17b. in 2020. Exports from Israel to China between the years 2020 and 2021 are relatively moderate, so the source of the significant increase in the volume of trade is in the increase in imports of goods from China to Israel of about 26%. There was also a significant increase in the volume of trade in [email protected]