Grapevine May 15, 2022: Philanthropy still safe and sound

The BGU project will be inaugurated this week by Michael Sonnenfeldt and his wife Katja Goldman at the university’s annual Board of Governors meeting.

 FROM LEFT: Prof. Ithamar Theodor, Dr. Danielle Gurevitch, Ambassador Daniel Carmon and Anat Bernstein-Reich. (photo credit: Michal Zelcer-Lavid)
FROM LEFT: Prof. Ithamar Theodor, Dr. Danielle Gurevitch, Ambassador Daniel Carmon and Anat Bernstein-Reich.
(photo credit: Michal Zelcer-Lavid)

Fears of a severe drop in philanthropic contributions to Israel in the aftermath of the COVID-19 crisis appear to be unfounded. Just a few examples: the $21 million gift in March by Californian philanthropists Joan and Irwin Jacobs to the Israel Democracy Institute; the British Ronson Family’s funding of a new dormitory building at Reichman University; and last week, a $20m. gift to Ben-Gurion University of the Negev by the American Goldman-Sonnenfeldt Foundation for the establishment of a new school of Sustainability and Climate Change. Other well-known philanthropists with ongoing projects in Israel continue to support them and a new generation of philanthropists is coming to the fore.

The BGU project will be inaugurated this week by Michael Sonnenfeldt and his wife Katja Goldman at the university’s annual Board of Governors meeting. The two have been supporters of BGU since 1981 and have previously donated the Joya Claire Sonnenfeldt Auditorium named for their daughter; and the Forest Goldman Sonnenfeldt Building for Solar Energy and Environmental Physics named for their son. Michael Sonnenfeldt, a serial investor and philanthropist, has been involved in diverse profitable business ventures, political activism and community leadership in addition to his many large-scale philanthropic contributions to a variety of causes.

AT THE ground-breaking ceremony for the new dormitory at Reichman University, Gerald Maurice Ronson recalled having previously laid the cornerstone of a school building in the south of Israel in the presence of then-Prime Minister Shimon Peres and former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher. Terming the Reichman University event as “a moving occasion,” Ronson said that it brought back fond memories.

■ AT AN auction and musical event held recently at the residence in Herzliya Pituah of Finnish Ambassador Kirsikka Lehto-Asikainen on behalf of the people of Ukraine, the money raised amounted to NIS 82,000, which was a nice sum in view of the fact that the event was organized without much fanfare. It’s interesting to see how many diplomats, academic institutions and other individuals and organizations are coming together to show tangible solidarity with Ukraine. Coming up in Jerusalem is a charity concert in support of Ukrainian artists that is jointly organized by the embassies of Poland and Lithuania, the Polish Institute and the Lithuanian Cultural Institute together with the Hebrew University at the YMCA auditorium on Sunday, May 22, at 7.30 p.m.

■ THERE ARE a number of milestone anniversaries being celebrated this year, especially amongst Asian countries. Early this year, both China and India celebrated the 30th anniversary of their respective diplomatic relations with Israel. Japan celebrated its 70th anniversary. The Philippines actually established relations with Israel in 1957, but embassies were not opened in Manila or Tel Aviv till 1962. Now it’s South Korea’s turn to celebrate. Korean ambassador Suh Dong Gu will next week mark the 60th anniversary of his country’s relations with Israel. This is a somewhat special relationship, as Israel was indirectly involved in the 1953 Korean armistice agreement.

■ MILESTONE ANNIVERSARY events often go on for a whole year and even more, so it comes as no surprise that The Dangoor Centre in the Faculty of Humanities at Bar-Ilan University this month marked the 30th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between India and Israel.

While 4,000 km. separate the two countries, as the Indian Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar pointed out in a special column published to mark the occasion, there seem to be plenty of similarities over differences. “There are differences in the number of residents, of course,” noted Bar-Ilan University Prof. Ithamar Theodor, who initiated the conference. “Even so, it is impossible to ignore the fact that both remain the only democratic countries in the region, both face difficult internal rifts and, of course, both India and Israel face challenges posed by the threat of radical Islam.” Similar challenges and a common map of interests did little to advance the course of formal diplomatic relations between the countries over the years he explained. It has been a complex process spanning many years, with ups and downs, and diplomatic efforts that have only in recent years matured into a full public relationship.

Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU). (credit: AMERICANS FOR BEN-GURION UNIVERSITY)Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU). (credit: AMERICANS FOR BEN-GURION UNIVERSITY)

“The political process that ultimately led to the establishment of relations exactly 30 years ago was a long one,” said Dr. Danielle Gurevitch, director of the Dangoor Centre and host of the conference. “This event is intended to discuss this process from both perspectives – how things looked from the Indian side and how Israeli diplomacy and experts understood the dynamics,” she added.

“The story between India and Israel, or the Zionist movement, dates back to the time of Gandhi’s rule,” explained Lauren Dagan Amoss, a political science researcher who specializes in Gandhi’s rule. “Mahatma Gandhi was known to have viewed the Zionist movement unfavorably, as was his well-known statement “Palestine belongs to the Arabs in the same sense that England belongs to the English or France to the French,” but his attitude toward the Zionist movement stemmed mainly from his holistic view of the world. He saw Zionism as a movement with religious characteristics and balked at that narrative,” said Amoss.

Even after Gandhi’s time, India pursued a hostile policy against Israel. India, for example, was among the leaders at the UN in the days before the 29th (Kaf-Tet) of November that supported the Arab narrative and opposed the creation of a Jewish state in Mandatory Palestine. In addition, during the Cold War, India tried to maintain the concept of non-aligned states, as it needed the assistance of the two rival powers and avoided overt support for one of the hawkish sides.

Daniel Carmon, ambassador to India from 2014-2018, was the guest of honor. “It was only with the rise of Narendra Modi in 2014 that relations became distinctly public.” And for that, he emphasized, the hard work of the Indian Foreign Ministry in shaping foreign policy and India’s perception of Israel should be recognized. Modi’s great contribution has led to unprecedented warming of relations between the two countries.”

Why is Israel interested in cooperation with a huge country like India, apart from the trivial reasons of tourist attractions that are popular with Israelis?” asked Attorney Anat Bernstein-Reich, chairwoman of the Israel-India Chamber of Commerce. First, for reasons similar to Indian interests in the region, such as the exchange of technological know-how, agriculture and trade but certainly diplomatic-strategic considerations between the countries as well. India is developing into a regional power and aspiring to become an international one. Both countries will benefit from India’s position in the Middle East if they continue to cooperate on various levels.”

It is difficult to accurately predict how the tectonic plates of world politics will move in the future and what benefits the many Israel-India collaborations will yield. However, the conference concluded that it can be safely assumed that a regime change in India will not shake the strong bilateral relations.

Additional participants in the conference included Sanhit Borgham, head of the Indian Embassy’s Cultural Center; Abhinav Pandya, founder and CEO of the USANAS Foundation; Dr. Shimon Lev of Tel-Hai College; Avner Isaac, president of the Indian Jewish Heritage Centre; and doctoral student Ran Amitai. Ido Gafni and Madhav Haridas performed a musical tribute to mark the occasion.

■ ALTHOUGH CHRISTIANS generally fare better in Israel than elsewhere in the Middle East, Greek Patriarch Theophilos III is concerned about the mounting violence in the Old City, where Christians are among the victims. Asked what action he intended to take, the Patriarch replied: “Prayer is our weapon.” He has already made statements condemning violence and intends to make another in the hope that it will stop because so many pilgrims are expected during the summer and there is no need for them to see the ugly side of Jerusalem.

■ IT’S NO secret that Israelis are crazy about soccer and are looking forward to the World Cup competition to be held at Doha, Qatar, in November. As yet, Qatar is leaving the door open for Israeli soccer fans but that could change. More than 15,000 tickets have been sold to Israelis, and by the time November rolls around, soccer mavens estimate the number will double. But it could all be money thrown down the drain due to the efforts of Nazareth-born former MK Azmi Bishara, who fled Israel in 2006 while under investigation for allegedly passing information to Hezbollah. Bishara, who now lives in Qatar, is campaigning to prevent Israelis from entering the country to watch the games. An intellectual and an academic, who once allowed himself to be persuaded by the late Geula Cohen to give a public reading of a poem by Uri Zvi Greenberg, whom the fiery Cohen promoted with passion, is now so anti-Israel that he cannot be persuaded to say a good word about the country of his birth. If he succeeds in his campaign, Israeli ticket holders who are dual nationals, hold foreign passports and were not born in Israel, will in all probability be able to enter Qatar and make use of their tickets. But for those who have only Israeli nationality, uncertainty over the next few months will lead to a lot of nail-biting.

■ PRESIDENT OF the National Council of Austria Wolfgang Sobotka, who was previously in Israel in 2018, will on Monday of this week sign a Memorandum of Understanding on parliamentary cooperation with Knesset Speaker Mickey Levy.

During his earlier visit, Sobotka said “the Austrians were not only the victims of the Nazis during the Second World War. Among the Austrians were also many murderers. And as if that were not enough, in 1945, we did not ask the Jews to return to Austria. We did not invite them back and we repressed thoughts on the subject. I thank Israel who took them in and gave them a homeland.”