Grapevine June 3, 2022: Looking back and looking forward

Movers and shakers in Israeli society.

 FOREIGN MINISTER Yair Lapid is greeted by Swedish Ambassador Erik Ullenhag.  (photo credit: COURTESY FOREIGN MINISTRY)
FOREIGN MINISTER Yair Lapid is greeted by Swedish Ambassador Erik Ullenhag.
(photo credit: COURTESY FOREIGN MINISTRY)

People saved during the Holocaust by Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, offspring of survivors saved by Wallenberg, ambassadors of countries that have given honorary citizenship to Wallenberg, as well as ambassadors from other countries, along with representatives of human rights and Holocaust survivor organizations, were among the people who gathered at the residence of Swedish Ambassador Erik Ullenhag on Tuesday to honor Wallenberg’s memory on the 110th anniversary of his birth.

Wallenberg, a Swedish diplomat stationed in Budapest, is credited with having saved thousands of Jewish lives by issuing what was known as a Schutz Pass – protective passport – or as so many Hungarian Jews called it, a “Wallenberg passport,” which saved them from being deported to Auschwitz. Among those who were saved was the late former justice minister Tommy Lapid, whose son Yair is currently foreign minister and alternate prime minister of the Jewish state – the democratic State of Israel.

Lapid spoke of how Wallenberg had saved not only his father, but also his grandmother, who had been selected for a death march. He also spoke of how his father never forgot Wallenberg’s humanity and was the prime mover behind the naming of a street and the creation of a two-meter tall bronze statue of Wallenberg by Hungarian sculptor Imre Varga in Tel Aviv.

Retired diplomat Colette Avital, who heads the Center of Organizations of Holocaust Survivors in Israel, had invited Chava Katz, a former staff member of the Foreign Ministry to the event, not realizing that Katz was one of the people who had been saved by Wallenberg.

Katz, who was one of the recipients of a Wallenberg passport, has two children, six grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. “I sometimes can’t remember what happened yesterday, but I always remember Wallenberg,” she said. “The older I get, the stronger the memory.”

 THE RECEPTION LINE of ambassadors of African states in the front garden of the Nigerian ambassador’s residence. (credit: STEVE LINDE) THE RECEPTION LINE of ambassadors of African states in the front garden of the Nigerian ambassador’s residence. (credit: STEVE LINDE)

In welcoming his guests, Ullenhag said he was proud to serve the country of his role model, adding that he was sorry that Sweden had not done enough to give Wallenberg his rightful place in history. Quoting Wallenberg, who when asked what had motivated him to put himself at risk to save Jews, Ullenhag said “there was no other choice,” because Wallenberg had stated that he could not return to Stockholm without knowing that he had saved as many Jews as possible.

The best way to honor Wallenberg’s memory, said Ullenhag, was “to mean it when we say ‘never again.’ Each and everyone of us has a responsibility to fight antisemitism, racism and intolerance.”

Hungarian Ambassador Levente Benko said that Wallenberg was a diplomat, but first and foremost he was a human being who risked his life to save Jews. It was symbolic, he said, that Wallenberg’s birthday was being celebrated in Israel in the presence of survivors. Though not Hungarian, Wallenberg is a kind of folk hero in Hungary, and is the subject of an annual quiz for high schoolers, the ambassador revealed. He acknowledged that there is also Hungarian state responsibility for what happened to its Jews. Today, he said, Hungary protects its Jews and the Jewish community, which was decimated during the Holocaust, and is now one of the largest in Europe.

US Ambassador Tom Nides said that on his way from Jerusalem to Herzliya, he was reflecting on the situation in Ukraine, and of what Wallenberg would do under the circumstances. He surmised that Wallenberg would take comfort in the fact that the world had come together, including his own country, Sweden, to aid the Ukrainian people. Nides had also given thought to Wallenberg’s reaction to the creation of the democratic Jewish State of Israel. America is one of several countries including Australia, Israel, Canada and Hungary that have conferred honorary citizenship on Wallenberg. “This is one of the greatest honors that America can bestow,” said Nides. “Only eight people have been honored this way, with only Winston Churchill and Mother Teresa in their lifetimes.”

Quoting president Ronald Reagan’s remarks at the October 1981 ceremony in which Wallenberg was proclaimed an honorary citizen of the US, Nides said: “‘I heard someone say that a man has made at least a start on understanding the meaning of life human life when he plants shade trees under which he knows he will never sit. Raoul Wallenberg is just such a man. He nurtured the lives of those he never knew at the risk of his own.’”

International human rights activist Prof. Irwin Cotler, in a videotaped broadcast, noted that when the Russians entered Budapest, instead of hailing Wallenberg as a hero, they arrested him and transported him to Russia. “The person who saved so many was not saved by so many,” said Cotler. Praising Wallenberg as a man who had “the compassion to care and the courage to act,” Cotler urged that everything be done to discover Wallenberg’s fate. False information had been disseminated to indicate that he had died in 1947, but Cotler is convinced that he lived for a much longer period. The truth of what happened to Wallenberg has yet to be discovered. Until it is, Cotler, a former Canadian justice minister, insists that justice has been denied to Wallenberg.

African Day

■ ANYONE WHO had witnessed Robert Dussey, Togo’s foreign minister, praying at the Western Wall during the day on Tuesday, would not have been surprised in the evening when he started singing Shema Yisrael in Hebrew in the huge garden of Nigerian Ambassador Nart Augustine Kolo.

The occasion was the 59th annual Africa Day, attended by 18 heads of African diplomatic missions in Israel. Even though the large scale Italian Independence Day reception was held on the same night, Africa Day was without doubt, the most colorful and most heavily populated diplomatic event in the country, as happily smiling African men and women dressed in the eye-catching traditional attire of their respective countries, mingled on the lawn or posed for photographs in front of a backdrop of national flags.

As guests arrived, they were greeted by an ambassadorial reception line in the front garden of the residence, and then made their way to the back lawn, where several of the participating countries displayed arts and crafts and served culinary delights. Each individual buffet was manned by people from that country, and alongside national flags was the menu of what was being served at each buffet. The pièce de résistance was a large African Union cake, which was symbolically cut by several dignitaries.

Representing the government of Israel was Hamad Amar, a former Druze MK, who now serves as minister in the Finance Ministry. With no disrespect intended to Amar, it would have been more appropriate for the government to send a senior minister, especially in the aftermath of finally having Israel’s observer status at the AU restored after years of unsuccessful attempts. After all, the event was co-hosted by the heads of the diplomatic missions of Angola, Cameroon, Congo, Côte d’Ivoire, DR Congo, Egypt, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Morocco, Nigeria, Rwanda, South Africa, South Sudan, Tanzania and Zambia.

Moreover, Dean of the Diplomatic Corps Martin Mwanambale is the ambassador of Zambia.

The African states have their own dean in the person of Ambassador Jean-Pierre Biyiti Bi Essam of Cameroon, who said that the AU had targeted 2022 as the year of nutrition and food security on the African continent.

As for investments to be used to develop Africa’s natural resources, Biyiti Bi Essam pronounced Africa as the future with huge opportunities for investment that will accelerate development of more arable land for food and wealth.

Amar said Israel’s bilateral and regional relations with Africa represented years of multi-faceted roots, with the most significant step forward being the renewal of observer status at the AU. He was happy to see constant improvement in diplomatic relations, he said, and credited the Abraham Accords with having had a positive effect on Muslim countries.

Dussey, who the Foreign Ministry’s Chief of Protocol Gil Haskel characterized as “Israel’s best friend in Africa,” said this was his second Africa Day celebration. He had also celebrated last week at the AU Summit in Malabo, Equatorial Guinea. The Africa-Israel relationship is very strong, he said, emphasizing, “We need to continue to work together with Israel,” particularly with regard to diversification.

Of the 54 African states, he noted, 45, have relations with Israel. He also pledged to continue to support Israel in the AU, but warned that it would not be easy.

Above all, he stressed, all African nations need to live in peace.

Israel’s on-and-off love affair with Africa began in 1958 with the visit by then-foreign minister Golda Meir. Actually, when she was appointed two years earlier, she announced that the main thrust of her foreign policy would be to reach out to African states emerging from colonial rule.

Outreach at a different level is being practiced by current Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, who earlier in the day, speaking via video to a conference on Africa organized by the Israel Embassy in Paris, declared that Israel is back in Africa. 

“We will coordinate in the fight against terrorism to ensure peace and stability,” he said. “We will collaborate in hi-tech to create opportunities for millions of Israelis and Africans alike. We will cultivate deeper diplomatic ties to cement our historic and deeply rooted partnership.”

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