Grapevine December 7, 2022: Instant introductions

Movers and shakers in Israeli society.

 THAI AMBASSADOR Pannabha Chandraramya with outgoing Tourism Minister Yoel Razvozov, during the playing of national anthems.  (photo credit: Courtesy Royal Thai Embassy)
THAI AMBASSADOR Pannabha Chandraramya with outgoing Tourism Minister Yoel Razvozov, during the playing of national anthems.
(photo credit: Courtesy Royal Thai Embassy)

Turkey’s new ambassador, Sakir Ozkan Torunlar, wasted no time in getting to know his diplomatic colleagues from other embassies. Torunlar, who arrived in Israel last Thursday and presented his credentials to Gil Haskel, the chief of state protocol, was among the guests on Sunday of this week at the Thai national day reception hosted by Thai Ambassador Pannabha Chandraramya at the Israel Air Force Center in Herzliya.

However, according to Haskel, it may take another month or more before Torunlar presents his credentials to President Isaac Herzog. By that time, several additional new ambassadors will have arrived in Israel. Haskel is hoping that the president’s schedule will allow for the presentation ceremonies to take place at the end of January, but suspects that, in the final analysis, the date will be closer to mid-February.

Dominating the Thai event were large portraits of King Maha Vajiralongkorn, and his late father, King Bhumibol, who set Thailand’s policy for sustainable development.

The portraits were mounted against a backdrop of yellow draped curtains. In Thai culture, each day of the week signifies a particular color. Both monarchs were born on a Monday, for which the color is yellow. There was an abundance of yellow floral decorations, and most of the Thai Embassy female staff wore national costumes of yellow Thai silk, but the ambassador wore a traditional Thai silk maxi suit in a shade of lilac highlighted by a delicate gold pattern.

There were Thai culinary delights along the length of a very long buffet. Most of the offerings were vegetarian, with a couple of chicken and beef dishes for the carnivores. There were no dairy items, and in the case of any recipe that required milk or cream, the product used was coconut milk or coconut cream mixed with sticky rice. In a word – yum!

 MK ITAMAR BEN-GVIR conveys good wishes to UAE Ambassador Mohamed Al Khaja at the reception marking the UAE’s 51st anniversary of independence.  (credit:  Eliran Avital) MK ITAMAR BEN-GVIR conveys good wishes to UAE Ambassador Mohamed Al Khaja at the reception marking the UAE’s 51st anniversary of independence. (credit: Eliran Avital)

Asia was very well represented at the reception, with diplomats – mostly ambassadors – who were from India, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Myanmar, Nepal, Japan, Philippines and China.

In addition to the buffet display, there were the traditional sculpted fruits and vegetables which are so integral to Thai culture, including a multi-petaled rose carved into a side of watermelon.

There were also replicas of the exotic pagoda style, exquisitely beautiful gold crowns worn by the king and queen of Thailand.

Before making her speech, the charming Chandraramya curtsied to the portrait of King Bhumibol, a testimony to the esteem in which he is still held. She spoke warmly of the legacy that Bhumibol had left for her country, and hinted that Israelis who travel to Thailand receive much warmer hospitality than that accorded to some of the thousands of Thai workers who come to Israel. For all that, relations between Israel and Thailand have continued to flourish, and there have been important exchanges in both the private and the public sectors.

Chandraramya said that she looks forward to welcoming more Israelis to Thailand, and emphasized the importance of people-to-people contacts. She also mentioned Thailand’s interest in Israeli technology and water management.

Tourism Minister Yoel Razvozov, who represented the government, said that 30,000 Thai workers had contributed greatly to Israel’s economy, and also noted that Thailand is a popular destination for Israeli tourists, of which some 70,000 traveled there in this year alone. He had planned to be one of them, he said, but, because of the political situation, had been forced to postpone his trip. But he anticipated that he would be going there soon.

Razvozov said that Israel is pleased to share its technology and water management know-how with Thailand.

Usually, the minister leaves after the formal ceremony, but Razvozov stayed and happily mingled with the many guests.

Chandraramya, who is an expert at social networking, also mingled, and posed for numerous selfies with her guests, many of whom actually lined up to be photographed with her.

Embassy staff also wafted among the guests, thanking them for their attendance and making sure that everyone sampled the Thai cuisine.

Another prize for David Grossman

■ PRIZEWINNING AUTHOR David Grossman has added yet another award to his collection. Last week, he was in the Netherlands to receive the prestigious Erasmus Prize, which was awarded to him by King Willem-Alexander at a ceremony in the Royal Palace in Amsterdam.

The Erasmus Prize is awarded annually to individuals or institutions in recognition of their exceptional contributions to the humanities, social sciences or the arts. The theme behind this year’s award was “Mending a torn world.” Despite the formality of the occasion, Grossman showed up tieless in the palace.

The Jerusalem Post turns 90

■ READERS OF the nostalgic 90th-anniversary Jerusalem Post Magazine last Friday were reminded by Liat Collins, David Brinn and Ori Lewis of some of the characters whose bylines appeared almost daily in the paper. The trio were not writing a telephone directory, so obviously a lot of names were omitted, aside from which they were writing from the periods in which they began working for the paper, and the Post was founded in 1932, before any of them were born.

Long before women were given influential roles in Israeli journalism, Helen Rossi was the editor of the Women’s Pages and the fashion supplements. She also initiated and directed the Jerusalem Post Toy Fund and the Forsake Me Not Fund, and every Christmas delivered sacks of toys to the orphan children being cared for by the nuns of Saint Vincent de Paul. There was Lea Ben-Dor, who served briefly as editor-in-chief, and Susan Bellos, who was editor of the youth magazines. Joanna Yehiel later took over Rossi’s editorial role, and was also editor of the weekend Magazine. On the desk, Devora Getzler served as chief copy editor. Among the copy editors of the Magazine were Ruth Connell Robertson, who was Israel Radio’s first English-language broadcaster, and Judy Montagu, now a grandmother, who used to come to work bringing her infant daughter in a carry cot.

Many of the journalists whose bylines have become household words started out in the local In Jerusalem supplement, which was the joint brainchild of Robert Rosenberg and Mikey Elan.

Much before being gay was legal in Israel, the Post employed a gay reporter, Mark Segal, who was a first-class political reporter and also wrote a political social column in which he frequently featured Geula Cohen, whom he referred to as La Passionata, in deference to her temperament. Everyone in the Knesset knew he was gay, as did the paper’s joint editors-in-chief, Ari Rath and Erwin Frenkel, but no one made a big deal out of it.

Personally, the writer of this column is very indebted to Segal and economics writer David Krivine, who “adopted” her soon after her arrival in Israel. At the time she was working for an Australian paper, which had assigned her to cover a major economics conference. She knew hardly anyone in Israel, and knew even less about economics. The two saw her wandering around and looking lost and asked whether they could help her – and they certainly did, with introductions and explanations.

Several years later, when president Chaim Herzog was readying to take his three-week trip to the South Pacific, it was Segal who successfully lobbied for yours truly to be included in the president’s large media entourage as the representative of the Post. Mark was not the only political reporter during his time at the paper. There was also Asher Wallfish, who simultaneously wrote for publications abroad, and was highly respected.

Among the many editors, most of whose names were mentioned in the 90th-anniversary edition, one that was omitted was that of David Bar-Illan, who, though he wrote an acerbic column, was the epitome of kindness and consideration.

Of course, everyone has a different take on the time they spent at the Post, and who it was that influenced them most, or the experiences that remain uppermost in their minds.

Like Ori, I, too, was in Communist Czechoslovakia, suffering a nightmare experience. Because diplomatic relations between Israel and Czechoslovakia had not yet been restored, I applied for a visa at the Czech Consulate in Warsaw, while on a visit to Poland, and presented my Australian passport. The form that applicants had to fill out included place of residence. Nonetheless, within three minutes, I had my visa. “Did you not notice where I live?” I asked the official who had processed the application. “Yes,” he said with a smile. “Enjoy your trip.” During the train journey from Warsaw to Prague, a Czech passport inspector noticed the spine of my Israeli passport when I opened the wallet containing my documents. I gave him the Australian passport with the visa, but he insisted on seeing the other passport. I tried to hold back, but to no avail. He threatened to put me off the train in the middle of the night. He then illegally wrote in my Australian passport that I was the holder of an Israeli passport.

Ori also mentioned the now obsolete fax machine. I had the honor of sending the last fax to the Post before the fax machine was dismantled.

In Soviet Russia, I was advised not to file a story from there, but to wait till I got to my next destination, which was the now nonexistent Yugoslavia. I wanted to phone in the story, which was common practice at the time, but the lines between Yugoslavia and Israel were down, and the fax was the only other option – if it worked. Fortunately, it did, and the story went through and was published. I had filed stories by phone from Poland, and the bill came to some exorbitant, jaw-dropping amount in Polish zlotys. But when translated into dollars, several hours of phone calls cost the grand total of $15.

The Indian exhibition launches in the Israel Museum

■ A QUESTION begging to be asked is if and when the government of India will decide to move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Earlier this year, as part of its celebrations marking 30 years of diplomatic relations with Israel, the Indian Embassy hosted Indian dance performances in Jerusalem. A couple of years back, Indian artists participated in a group exhibition in Jerusalem, and now the National Museum of India in New Delhi has made available to the Israel Museum in Jerusalem priceless Indian artifacts – statues of Hindu deities, mostly in sandstone but also in bronze and basalt dating back to the eighth to 10th centuries and the 10th to 12th centuries. Some of these works have never previously been seen outside of India.

Mounted on scaffolding, most bear a remarkable resemblance to modern human beings, whereas many ancient Western works of art depict people as looking quite different from those of today.

For the grand opening last Thursday, the Israel Museum developed a decidedly Indian identity, with a mouthwatering buffet of Indian delicacies, which were eagerly consumed by invited guests; a lobby performance of Indian music and song; and a wonderful Indian dance performance in the museum’s packed-to-capacity Springer Auditorium by the Trikudhim Trio, a group of Israeli dancers who fell in love with Indian dance techniques and learned to executive them to perfection.

Guest of honor was President Isaac Herzog, who characterized the exhibition as “yet another byproduct of the growing friendship between the Indian and Israeli nations and a reflection of the deep resonance of arts and culture that our nations share.”

Knowing that in a few days he would meet India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the space conference in Abu Dhabi, Herzog said that he was particularly pleased to take part in the opening of the exhibition at the museum.

He, along with museum Director Denis Weil, chairman of the Israel Museum board of directors Isaac Molho, Asian art curator Miriam Malachi and Indian Ambassador Sanjeev Singla all waxed enthusiastic about the significance of this first collaboration between the National Museum of India and the Israel Museum.

After all the speeches, the invitees made their way up two flights of stairs to see the exhibition, for which Malachi received many compliments. In addition to the statues of the deities, there was a fascinating documentary video of Hindu temple rites. Presumably, in the not-too-distant future, artifacts will travel from Jerusalem to New Delhi to be exhibited in India’s National Museum.

Germany's ambassador addresses the Post

■ GERMAN AMBASSADOR Steffen Seibert, who appears to be keen to absorb as much of Israel’s diversity as possible, met this week with some of the editorial staff of the Post and answered questions with remarkable candor. As a former longtime journalist himself, he had a few questions of his own, and an incredible number of subjects were covered in a relatively short space of time.

Most of Israel's accomplishments impossible without Diaspora Jewry's support

■ WHILE ISRAEL likes to boast of its achievements, the truth is that much of what it has accomplished would not have been possible without the support of mostly Diaspora Jews, and of these philanthropic investments in Israel’s development and future, the overwhelming majority of donations – some in excess of $1 million – came from the United States. That was always the case, and it continues to be so, despite Pew reports about large-scale assimilation and fears that the present generation will be less inclined than their parents and grandparents to give to Israel.

A recent gift from the New York-based Mark Foundation for Cancer Research will help to advance cancer research in Israel. In partnership with the Israel Cancer Research Fund, which was established in 1975, The Mark Foundation has created a new research fund to support a project grant at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot. The grant has been given to Dr. Ravid Straussman for the study of the role of bacteria in glioblastoma multiforme, the most common kind of brain tumor. Straussman was awarded $198,000 over a three-year period to support his research.

The Mark Foundation actively partners with scientists, research institutions and philanthropic organizations around the world to accelerate research that will transform the prevention diagnosis and treatment of cancer. Since 2017, The Mark Foundation has awarded more than $180m. in grants to enable innovative basic, translational and clinical cancer research, including drug discovery.

How much will Israel's public servants get paid?

■ THE MOST senior of Israel’s public servants receive an automatic pay hike at the beginning of every year, and some of them are already earning more than hi-tech mavens, and will have even more in their January salary slips. The shame of it is that in the most extreme cases, the pay rise is two and three times more than the minimum monthly wage, which currently stands at NIS 5,300 and will be increased in April to NIS 5,400.

Yediot Aharonot this week published a salary table that indicates by how much salaries of upper-echelon public servants will soar. The president of the Supreme Court, who currently earns NIS 104,256, will receive NIS 119,894. The salary of the president of the state will rise from NIS 64,673 to NIS 74,374. The prime minister, who arguably works a lot harder, gets less. Currently earning NIS 56,345, his monthly pay will rise to NIS 64,797, as will that of the speaker of the Knesset.

For Benjamin Netanyahu, if he does succeed in forming a government, the pay rise will be even more meaningful, as the leader of the opposition currently earns NIS 50,673 per month, which will go up to NIS 58,274, but Netanyahu, who is set to transfer from the opposition to the Prime Minister’s Office, will receive NIS 64,797, which is quite a hike.

Government ministers earn the same as the leader of the opposition, and will receive the same increases, while a deputy minister and all members of Knesset earn NIS 45,274, which will increase to NIS 52,065. Actually, there is a NIS 1 difference between the salaries of a deputy minister and an MK – but that’s not worth quibbling about.

The average gross salary of police officers, who frequently endanger their lives while on the job, is just under NIS 12,000 per month, which explains why there is a dearth of human resources in the police force. For that kind of money, it’s not worth taking all the risks that are part and parcel of the job, especially in the face of constantly rising prices and interest rates on loans and mortgages.

Given some of the people who become legislators, one has to wonder whether they are there to serve the public or whether what attracts them is the salary, the perks and the handsome pension.

Ben-Gvir steals the show from Netanyahu at UAE Independence Day ceremony

■ PRESUMPTIVE PRIME MINISTER Netanyahu was the guest of honor last week at the UAE Independence Day reception hosted by Ambassador Mohamed Al Khaja at the Tel Aviv Hilton, but MK and presumptive minister Itamar Ben-Gvir stole the show.

It is customary for ambassadors hosting national day receptions to invite members of the government and MKs from across the board. With the exception of the American Independence Day reception, which is almost always attended by both the president and the prime minister, such events are seldom reported in the media, other than in the Post. However, this time, the reception was reported in nearly all of the mainstream print and online publications.

Ben-Gvir, who was warmly welcomed by the ambassador, in writing a congratulatory message on his Twitter account, declared of the welcome that he received that this is what real peace means. The text was accompanied by a photograph of the two shaking hands with happy expressions on their faces.

The whole story of Herzog's trip to Bahrain

■ THE RED-CARPET reception that President Herzog received in Bahrain on Sunday, did not tell the whole story. Although he was invited by King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, there was quite a lot of opposition to an Israeli head of state setting foot in Bahrain, however historic an occasion that may have been.

Under the outgoing government, Herzog has been a kind of quasi foreign minister, with more than a dozen overseas trips since taking office in July 2021, and countless telephone conversations with foreign heads of state. That could change under the new administration, as all overseas trips are coordinated with the Foreign Ministry and the prime minister. Even though the president is apolitical, his CV includes leadership of the Labor Party from 2013 to 2017, a factor that may rankle with some of the members of the incoming government. Aside from that, the incoming foreign minister may be less willing than Yair Lapid to share in diplomatic kudos.

Diplomacy is one of Herzog’s strong points, evident in his dealings not only with foreign counterparts, but also in his conversations with heads of foreign diplomatic missions in Israel. Herzog is not only au fait with current events in their respective countries, but also with the history of those countries and with some of the influential personalities in those countries. He also likes traveling abroad to represent Israel, and it would be to Israel’s disadvantage to clip his wings.

But then again there are so many changes taking place under the new regime that only time will tell to what extent the president will continue to be a frequent flyer.

MEPs in Israel

■ COCHAIRMAN OF the soon to be launched Abraham Accords Network in the European Parliament, Swedish MEP David Lega; Latvian MEP and former chairwoman of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the National Parliament Inese Vaidere; Spanish-Venezuelan MEP Leopoldo Lopez Gil, the father of Prisoner of Conscience and Sakharov Prize winner Leopoldo Lopez Mendoza; Slovenian MEP Romana Tomc and Croatian MEP Karlo Ressler are in Israel this week as part of a delegation headed by B’nai B’rith International and the B’nai B’rith World Center Jerusalem.

On an intensive investigative trip to strengthen EU-Israel ties and to learn about a multitude of political, diplomatic, economic, military, educational, technological, innovative and municipal factors that are part and parcel of life in Israel, the delegation will also study relations between Jewish and Arab citizens, and will meet with diplomats from the Abraham Accords countries. Like most foreign visitors, they will also tour Yad Vashem to glean a more in-depth understanding of Holocaust history.

A theme of antisemitism

■ IN ONE of the storytelling sessions that are hosted by Yossi Alfi, and which are broadcast and rebroadcast on KAN Reshet Bet, the theme was antisemitism. The panelists were either researchers or activists in the struggle against antisemitism. One of them said that there is less to worry about from people who go on an antisemitic rant, than there is from the insidious antisemitism that can be detected in the ranks of so-called high society.

This brought to mind the revelations of British-born Canadian journalist Barbara Amiel, who is married to Conrad Black, a former co-owner and publisher of the Post. Amiel is Jewish, and in her writings has often defended Israel and has disclosed the antisemitism that pervades so many upper-crust dinner tables.

She was once seated at dinner next to a somewhat prominent member of the British royal family who not only insulted her profession, but also made an inexcusable remark about Israel. Worse still was her experience at the Everglades Club in Palm Beach, where she was denied entry – even as her husband’s guest – because she is Jewish. It wasn’t the only club in Palm Beach that refused to admit Jews.

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