Grapevine November 30, 2022: An intimate state dinner

Movers and shakers in Israeli society.

 PRESIDENT ISAAC HERZOG and World Zionist Organization Chairman Yaakov Hagoel (left) shake hands with participants at the commemoration ceremony marking the 75th anniversary of the UN resolution on the partition of Palestine.  (photo credit: KOBI GIDON / GPO)
PRESIDENT ISAAC HERZOG and World Zionist Organization Chairman Yaakov Hagoel (left) shake hands with participants at the commemoration ceremony marking the 75th anniversary of the UN resolution on the partition of Palestine.
(photo credit: KOBI GIDON / GPO)

The state dinner hosted on Monday by President Isaac Herzog and his wife, Michal, on behalf of Latvian President Egils Levits and his wife, Andra, was more intimate than most events of this kind, but also less formal.

Protocol demands that after a certain period of time, an announcement is made that the state dinner has reached its conclusion, and the guests of honor depart. But Levits was in no hurry to go, and Herzog was in no hurry to bid his guests farewell. The two continued to chat with each other, as well as with other guests.

Entertainment was provided by Rami Kleinstein, whose grandparents were born in Riga, Latvia. His grandfather was also a singer, who paid for his passage on the ship to Palestine by singing for the other passengers. Kleinstein said it was like closing a circle to be able to perform for both the president of Israel and the president of Latvia at the same time.

Kleinstein didn’t stay till the end of the evening. He had another engagement, and he and his wife, Alex, literally ran out of the hall after his second number, which received a roar of applause. There was an interval between his first and second numbers, during which many people present wanted to pose with him for selfies. Herzog beckoned to him to come to the head table and gave him a big hug.

Between courses, the Herzogs took the Latvian president and his wife around the room to meet personally with all the guests, to shake hands and to exchange a few words.

 FROM LEFT: Andra Levits, Latvian President Egils Levits, Rami and Alex Kleinstein and President Isaac Herzog and his wife, Michal.  (credit: HAIM ZACH/GPO) FROM LEFT: Andra Levits, Latvian President Egils Levits, Rami and Alex Kleinstein and President Isaac Herzog and his wife, Michal. (credit: HAIM ZACH/GPO)

The menu, catered by chef Haim Sabag of Maasia Catering, differed somewhat from the standard state dinner fare, and was absolutely delicious. On the table in front of every guest were two round shallow dishes, with a sourdough bun and a Jerusalem pretzel in one, and grated Maggie tomatoes and sea salt olive tapenade with thyme leaves in the other. This was followed by literally mouthwatering roasted pumpkin soup, with veal osso buco as a main course. The meat was so tender that it fell off the bone, and the taste was divine. There was also a vegetarian option for the non-carnivores. Dessert was attractively presented almond milk panna cotta accompanied by spiced chocolate slices.

The enclosed patio adjacent to the main hall served as a temporary kitchen. Even though the President’s Residence recently underwent a partial renovation, it is still lacking an industrial kitchen for state dinners and other catered events.

In their speeches both Herzog and Levits placed the emphasis on Latvia’s Jewish history, with Herzog mentioning the great rabbinical, academic and political leaders who had emerged from Latvia, and Levits related to the Holocaust, in which members of his father’s family were among the victims. Levits said he had been very moved by his visit earlier in the day to Yad Vashem, whose chairman, Dani Dayan, was among the guests at the dinner.

Also among the guests was Hebrew-speaking Latvian diplomat Einars Mikelsons, who some years ago served in the Latvian Embassy and currently heads the Latvian delegation to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.

Among the issues that Levits and his delegation explored during the visit was encouraging bilateral tourism, because, according to Levits, people-to-people contacts lead to greater understanding.

■ ON THE previous day, Herzog was back at his old stomping ground in the complex of the National Institutions in Jerusalem, where he previously served as chairman of the Jewish Agency, for a slightly premature celebration of the 75th anniversary of the UN resolution on the partition of Palestine.

The event was held at the initiative of the World Zionist Organization and the Hagana Heritage Association, with the participation of WZO chairman Yaakov Hagoel, HHA chairman Dr. Baruch Levy, agency CEO Amira Aharonovich as well as Hagana veterans and various young people.

In his address, Herzog said most people are not aware that the date of the historic UN vote had actually been scheduled for November 28, 1947, but was delayed by a day at the request of the French envoy to the UN, due to pressure being exerted by the agency team, headed by Moshe Sharett, David Horowitz and Abba Eban. A week prior to the vote, France had intended to abstain, as had Holland, Belgium and New Zealand, but in the final analysis all four voted in favor.

■ EFFORTS TO strengthen relations between Panama and Israel will be enhanced next week with the signing of a memorandum of understanding between the Export and Investment Promotion Authority of Panama (PROPANAMA) and the Israel Export Institute. The MOU is an important step toward increased trade relations between the two countries, which have continued to improve since the signing of a free trade agreement in January 2020.

The MOU will be signed during Panama Day, which will be held on December 5 at the Dan Panorama Hotel, Tel Aviv.

A delegation of senior PROPANAMA officials, headed by Ambassador Carmen Gisela Vergara, general administrator of PROPANAMA, and Eli Faskha, president of the Panama-Israeli Chamber of Commerce and Agriculture, will arrive in Israel, for the occasion.

N12 NEWS anchor Mohammad Magadli tweeted that he had heard some Israeli journalists who are in Qatar to cover the World Cup matches complain that they were not being nicely treated, and had in some cases been subjected to verbal aggression. Magadli, speaking against a backdrop of a local soccer game, in which nationalist soccer fans were chanting “Death to the Arabs,” suggested that anyone who felt that they were mistreated in Qatar should spend time in the field with an Arab journalist in Israel.

This contention is borne out by the Foreign Press Association (FPA), which last week published a statement in support of Channel France 24’s Arabic-speaking Jerusalem team – correspondent Leila Odeh and her cameraman Nader Baybers. The two were severely harassed on Wednesday, November 23, while covering the aftermath of the bomb explosion set off by an unknown terrorist.

The two journalists were surrounded by a group of young Israeli extremists, who interfered with their work, made offensive gestures, and were verbally aggressive. There is videotaped evidence to prove that this is true. The harassers also shouted “Death to Arabs,” “We don’t want Arabs. We don’t want terrorists. Get out of here.” All this occurred during a live broadcast.

Odeh, an experienced journalist who is fluent in Hebrew, Arabic and English, asked a nearby police officer for help, and was rebuffed. Not only did he refuse to help her, but asked the France 24 team to leave the site.

The FPA has received other reports of harassment, verbal abuse and physical attacks in Jerusalem, and calls on the authorities and members of the incoming government to ensure freedom of the press, which is one of the touchstones of a democratic society.

There is positive and negative in every society. Just as many Israeli journalists have reported aggressive attitudes toward them in Doha, others have had euphoric experiences. Likewise, there are Israelis who have excellent relations with Arabs, and there are those who consider every Arab to be a potential terrorist.

■ ISRAEL’S HUMANITARIAN services in response to emergency situations in other countries are well known. Such services are provided regardless of whether Israel has diplomatic relations with the countries in question. Now, two leading Israeli nongovernmental humanitarian aid groups, IsraAID and Save a Child’s Heart, have come together to provide urgently needed, lifesaving treatment to four children from South Sudan who have congenital heart conditions.

This collaborative effort is the culmination of two years of planning and overcoming local challenges in South Sudan, as the global pandemic severely limited international travel.

The children – Gai, eight, Habiba, six, Phillip, five, and Joel, five – all receive day-to-day support from IsraAID’s child-friendly spaces and protection programs in Juba IDP camps. They were diagnosed during a Save a Child’s Heart medical mission to South Sudan in March 2019, when Save a Child’s Heart pediatric cardiologist Dr. Akiva Tamir and former ambassador to South Sudan Hanan Goder traveled to Al Sabah Children’s Hospital to screen and diagnose 37 children with heart disease.

The four children, undergoing surgery at Wolfson Medical Center in Holon, were each accompanied on their way to Israel by a guardian as well as Save a Child’s Heart and IsraAID staff. The children and their guardians will stay at the Save a Child’s Heart Children’s Home for several months during the recovery process.

The Foreign Ministry purchased the flight tickets for the children and their escorts, as part of an initiative to bring children from 25 African countries, marking the 25th anniversary of Save a Child’s Heart.

South Sudan, one the world’s youngest countries, gained its independence in 2011, the year in which IsraAID launched operations in the country. Two years later, civil war erupted across South Sudan. Due to environmental disasters and armed conflict, there are more than two million internally displaced people in South Sudan and another 10.26 million South Sudanese refugees worldwide. IsraAID’s local team of South Sudanese humanitarian experts focus on child protection, preventing and responding to gender-based violence, and promoting sexual and reproductive health.

South Sudan is the 66th country from which Save a Child’s Heart patients have been brought to Israel for lifesaving surgery.

The four children from South Sudan are joining children from Chad, Rwanda, Zanzibar, Ethiopia, Somalia and Zambia and the Palestinian Authority, who are currently in Israel. The collaborative effort marks a milestone for both organizations: the first time that Save a Child’s Heart is serving communities in South Sudan, as well as marking the expansion of IsraAID South Sudan’s work into health.

Ambassador to South Sudan Gershon Kedar said: “When I first spoke to the president of South Sudan about the initiative to bring children to Israel for lifesaving heart surgery, he was very enthusiastic, but I was not sure if it would actually come about. But through the excellent cooperation of Save a Child’s Heart and IsraAID, working together with the Ministry of Health in South Sudan, it is happening.

“I hope and trust that this will be the first group of many that will come to Israel. This initiative complements the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ work in the health sector in South Sudan, including the building and outfitting of the first modern emergency unit at the Juba Teaching Hospital, and the recent training course for doctors and nurses.”

IsraAID’s head of the health sector, Sita Cacciope, said: “We’re incredibly grateful for this collaboration with Save a Child’s Heart. We have a deep and long-standing connection and commitment to this community and these children, who have been a part of our programming in Juba for years. We’ve always been amazed by the strength and resilience of the community in South Sudan, and we’re proud to be working to support health and wellness on multiple levels in the community.”

Save a Child’s Heart Executive Director Simon Fisher said: “We are very excited to see these children arrive in Israel after such a long wait. IsraAid’s offer to help has been a true game changer, and we look forward to finding more joint projects for our organizations to work together.”

■ THE MEMORY of Elie Wiesel, Auschwitz survivor, Nobel Peace Prize laureate, recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, founding chairman of the US President’s Commission on the Holocaust, first chairman of the US Holocaust Memorial Council, recipient of the National Book Award, and the first recipient of the Guardian of Zion Award, will be linked in perpetuity with Jerusalem, following the inauguration Wednesday of Elie Wiesel Square.

Although he did not live in Israel, the prolific author and journalist visited frequently and was an honorary citizen of Jerusalem. His relationship with the capital will be cemented today by Jerusalem Mayor Moshe Lion. Elie Wiesel Square is located adjacent to Yad Sarah, which, among its many activities and services, gives special 24/7 attention to Holocaust survivors.

 ELIE WIESEL delivers a speech at the Petra Conference of Nobel Laureates in Petra, Jordan, in 2008.  (credit: MOSHE MILNER / GPO) ELIE WIESEL delivers a speech at the Petra Conference of Nobel Laureates in Petra, Jordan, in 2008. (credit: MOSHE MILNER / GPO)

■ NEWS STORIES emanating from the Bedouin village of Hura are seldom positive, and are often associated with violence of one kind or another. This did not deter President Herzog, who, together with his wife, Michal, last week visited the Hura Municipality and opened the visit at the Amal school for scientific excellence, where they were greeted by Mayor Habas Alatuna and by traditionally attired ninth grade students, with whom they held a 40-minute open discussion.

Scientific subjects are the main focus of the Amal school, where students study chemistry, physics and biology. Despite some of Hura’s negative elements, the school itself has an excellent reputation, and Alatuna and his predecessors have noteworthy achievements to their credit.

Herzog said he was honored to be at Amal, which has become a symbol of success, and a symbol of joint development of the Negev.

“We are all brothers and sisters, and we all live here together,” said Herzog. “We all want to realize our dreams, and I am here so that we can speak about those dreams together. Our lives change rapidly before our eyes. We see the ongoing developments of science, space, communications – and all that, of course, begins in the classroom at school.”

Later in the day, the Herzogs heard some wonderful breakthrough stories. One was that of Wafa Altuna Abu Sharab, who as a young girl dreamed of becoming a physician.

That dream was shattered when she was 18. Firstly, she failed the psychometric exams, which are the bugbear of many would-be medical students, and secondly she was under 21, which was the minimum age of acceptance for medical studies.

Resigned to the fact that her dream would not be realized, she decided to study psychology, because at that time there were no psychologists in the Bedouin communities. Yet again, she was not accepted, but the head of the psychology unit suggested to her that she enroll for a course in education, and to simultaneously take courses in psychology. She did well, and was eventually accepted for a master’s course in educational psychology, which she completed with flying colors.

She wanted to have an influential role in the education of Bedouin students, and applied to become principal of the Alzahra School. Although most Bedouin school principals are male, she succeeded in her quest. She was fortunate that she had grown up in a home where education and female leadership were valued, and this gave her the impetus to continue against all odds and to arrive at where she is today.

The Herzogs heard other success stories, and at the conclusion of their visit, the president said that the future of the Bedouin communities is important, and their problems must be resolved. He pledged, as president, to do all that he could to help.

■ NOW THAT the nation has survived yet another election, attention is moving to local government, with municipal elections just under a year away. Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai, who in December 2020 launched a new center-left party which he called The Israelis, announced that he was heading for the Knesset. He didn’t make it. Prior to the elections, it was obvious that he did not have enough of a following, and so he stayed put.

A bombastic personality, Huldai will be running for his sixth term in the 2023 elections, and in all probability, at age 79, will be the oldest contender in the country. Though the longest-serving mayor of Tel Aviv, he is still running behind legendary Jerusalem mayor Teddy Kollek, who, as it happens, was not Israel’s longest-serving mayor, albeit the best known. The record for mayoral long service is jointly held by Shlomo Buhbut of Ma’alot-Tarshiha and Efraim Deri of Kfar Yona, who each served nine consecutive terms.

Although Tel Aviv’s eligible voters tend to be lethargic, and turnout is relatively low, things may change next year because of the chaos caused by multiple construction projects. Congestion in Tel Aviv was horrendous before the construction boom, but now people can actually walk long distances faster than traveling by car or bus.

There’s quite a long string of potential competitors against Huldai, among them outgoing Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz, who competed against him in 2013 and lost, but may have a better chance now. Other potential contenders are Merav Michaeli, if the Labor Party votes to replace her with someone else; former foreign minister and justice minister Tzipi Livni, former Labor Party leader Shelly Yacimovich, Ichilov Hospital director Prof. Ronni Gamzu, former president of El Al, Cellcom and the University of Haifa Amos Shapira, as well as two of Huldai’s deputies, Meital Lahavi and Tzipi Brand. Let’s not forget that outgoing Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked may be looking for another power position.

Of course, it’s doubtful that all of the abovementioned will throw their caps into the ring, but at least two or three of them undoubtedly will, and Huldai will have it much tougher than in the past.

■ ANY EUROPEAN history buff, when hearing about Corsica, immediately associates it with Napoleon, who was born there. An autonomous French island situated in the Mediterranean between France and Italy, it is now looking for close connections with Israel.

Leading that effort is a French Jew, Frédéric-Joseph Bianchi, president of Terra Eretz Corsica Israel, who has made it his goal to facilitate relations between Corsica and Israel, and has been promoting Israel in Corsica for quite some time.

Recently, he brought a large Corsican delegation to Israel to introduce participants to various aspects of Israeli technology, and to show them how technology can be used to best advantage in growing agricultural produce.

Bianchi, who lives in France, is the son of an Algerian Jewish mother and a father of Polish origin. He founded his association with the aim of promoting fruitful cooperation between Israel and Corsica in cultural, academic, scientific, economic and tourism spheres, and after years of work succeeded in bringing a delegation to Israel, which was the first significant visit of its kind from Corsica.

The 60-member delegation included farmers, agronomists, academics, cattle breeders and owners of wineries and vineyards. Their visit was organized through the Israeli Experience, an educational subsidiary of the agency, and with the help of the Israeli Embassy in France. Part of their itinerary included a visit to Netafim, Israel’s world-famous precision engineering, irrigation and agronomic company; the Agriculture Ministry, the Sorek desalination plant, wineries, a dairy farm, and more. Academics met with counterparts at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology and Tel Aviv University.

Stefan Peke, president of Corsica’s Regional Chamber of Commerce, said that it is important for the members of the delegation to see agriculture and irrigation, especially the treatment of seawater and the types of irrigation. On the way to Masada, they saw trees in the heart of the desert and were amazed by Israeli technology that can be adapted to any place and any situation.

Jean-Nicolas Ontanuity, the director of the Corte Technological Institute, declared that he has been waiting for such a visit for 40 years, and plans to bring young people to Israel to study here at the Technion and TAU.

Joseph Colambani, president of the Chamber of Agriculture, said that Israel is a small country with many difficulties, and yet it has shown that nonetheless it is possible to succeed.

Businessman Albert Fozzale, who is president of the foundation of the Pascal Pauli University explained something about the man whose name graces the university.

“Pascal Pauli, he is like your Herzl. He gave the Jews a safety net in the Shoah when he granted them citizenship. There is even a debate in Yad Vashem whether to give the whole island the title of Righteous Among the Nations because in World War II no one touched them here. The Jews in Corsica have always been partners in our destiny, and they received rights like everyone else.”

It is equally important to Bianchi to emphasize that during World War II Corsica was the safest place for Jews. No one in Corsica was handed over to the Nazis, he says. Asked about antisemitism, Bianchi laughed and said that there is a synagogue in the city of Bastia, and on Friday Israeli tourists who see the door open marvel that, unlike elsewhere in Europe, there are no fortifications and there is no security guard. There is no need, because there is no antisemitism in Corsica, Bianchi asserted.

Israel Experience CEO Amos Hermon, noting that every year dozens of foreign delegations that visit Israel on study tours that encompass a variety of subjects serve as a backlash against the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. “Every such delegation is another step in the fight against boycotts of Israel,” he said.

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