Grapevine December 14, 2022: Making headlines

Movers and shakers in Israeli society.

 OUTGOING COMMUNICATIONS Minister Yoaz Hendel with Ambassador of Finland Kirsikka Lehto-Asikainen.  (photo credit: Courtesy Embassy of Finland)
OUTGOING COMMUNICATIONS Minister Yoaz Hendel with Ambassador of Finland Kirsikka Lehto-Asikainen.
(photo credit: Courtesy Embassy of Finland)

After upstaging prime minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu at the UAE national day reception in Tel Aviv, MK Itamar Ben-Gvir received even more media attention at the bat mitzvah ceremony of his daughter Emunah, which was held in Hebron last week. It wasn’t so much the event or the venue that were newsworthy, but the presence of Police commissioner Insp.-Gen. Kobi Shabtai, who was given an honored place at the head table. Presumably, a case of “if you can’t beat them, join them.”

In all likelihood, Ben-Gvir will again make headlines this week when he attends the Bahrain national day reception hosted by Ambassador Khaled Yusuf Al Jalahma.

Christmas at the Finnish and Norwegian embassies

■ THE EMBASSIES of Finland and Norway have created a tradition of joining forces to make life easier for people who are on the guest lists of both. Just as they did last year, Finland’s Ambassador Kirsikka Lehto-Asikainen hosted a late afternoon Independence Day reception at her residence in Herzliya Pituah, after which at least half of her guests took a five-minute drive to the residence of Norwegian Ambassador Kare Reider Aas to celebrate a Norwegian Christmas – albeit somewhat early.

Christmas trees with fairy lights were already in place in both residences, and there was actually more than one at the Norwegian residence.

 PRESIDENT ISAAC HERZOG with recipients of the President’s Medal of Honor (from left): Pinchas Buchris, Chaim Peri, Rachel Shapira Dr. Dalia Fadila and Michael Siegal. (credit: HAIM ZACH/GPO) PRESIDENT ISAAC HERZOG with recipients of the President’s Medal of Honor (from left): Pinchas Buchris, Chaim Peri, Rachel Shapira Dr. Dalia Fadila and Michael Siegal. (credit: HAIM ZACH/GPO)

While the focus at the Norwegian reception was mostly on fun, that at the Finnish reception was much more politically oriented, and the ambassador did not pull her punches in her criticism of Russia and her support of Ukraine. In fact, a Ukrainian flag was on display.

In her address Lehto-Asikainen declared that Ukraine is fighting for freedom and independence not just against Russia, “but for all of us. Ukraine is fighting for global security.”

She pledged that Finland will continue to support Ukraine “till they win this war.”

Describing Ukraine as a small country against a large aggressor, which she characterized as “a common enemy,” she was nonetheless confident that Ukraine will prevail and win.

Moving on to Finland’s impending accession to NATO, Lehto-Asikainen noted that 28 of the 30 countries in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization have already ratified Finland’s membership.

She added that once Finland is part of NATO, it will continue to provide its own defense.

On a lighter note, Finland’s 105th anniversary of independence was celebrated on December 8, which is the date of birth of the country’s most famous composer, Jean Sibelius. In honor of that occasion, David Sebba, the music director of the Israeli Opera’s Meitar Opera Studio, and a singer and composer in his own right, sang two compositions by Sibelius and later sang Finnish tangos, explaining that when one thinks of tangos, one automatically things of Argentina, but Finland also has beautiful tangos. And indeed, he proved this to be true.

Representing the government for the second consecutive year was Communications Minister Yoaz Hendel, who has had quite a lot to do with the Finnish Embassy. Lehto-Asikainen said that she was very pleased that he was the minister who had been chosen to represent the government.

Hendel, who was equally pleased to be there, commented that this was the final episode in his career as communications minister. While mentioning that a lot of changes were taking place, he was optimistic that regardless of which government is in office in Israel, the good relations between Israel and Finland will continue and will even improve, because the two countries share a lot of values and aspirations in areas such as national security, innovation and the climate crisis.

Despite the generally positive atmosphere, Hendel could not refrain from mentioning the importance that Israel attaches to the memory of the Holocaust and Israel’s concern over the growing intensity of antisemitism in Europe, including in Finland.

During the playing of the national anthems of both countries, Lehto-Asikainen sang “Hatikvah” in full voice.

Kosher and the spirit of Christmas

■ THE MOOSE is the year-round symbol of Norway, and a decorative inspiration for many kinds of gift items. At Christmas, its image includes a red stocking cap attached to its antlers. Ambassador Aas, whose residence was ablaze with Christmas lights, welcomed guests by wishing them “Happy Christmoose,” and repeated the Norwegian version of the name of the nativity holiday many times during a welcome speech, as he stood on the staircase of his residence surrounded by some 20 members of the Jerusalem Youth Chorus, which includes Palestinian, and Israeli Muslim, Christian and Jewish singers. More singers of any faith will be welcome at JYC.

Last year, it specifically sang Norwegian Christmas songs, which are somewhat different from those which are universally known. This year, due to a convergence in Jewish, Christian and Muslim holy days, it sang songs appropriate to each faith, moving seamlessly between English, Hebrew and Arabic. Not only the choir was ecumenical – so were the guests.

Invitees had been asked well in advance for dietary preferences, which resulted in a desire not to confuse. Many religious Jews presume that a diplomatic reception is kosher. Most are not, and not always obviously so. A dish of sliced ham does not look all that different from sliced turkey, and quite a few observant Jews have fallen into the trap. However, the Norwegians, even though they did not provide kosher food per se, included some items, albeit without rabbinic certification, that the kosher diner could eat. But the buffet table, which contained traditional Norwegian culinary delicacies, was labeled “Not Kosher” in large letters.

The curious thing is that in a country brimming with kosher caterers, most embassies choose nonkosher caterers for their large-scale events, even though they may work closely with some religious Jews who are frequently on their guest lists.

Aside from infusing the Christmas spirit more than two weeks ahead of time, the event was also a Norway promo. Bartenders wore navy blue T-shirts emblazoned with the word “Norway” in large letters, and waiters and waitresses wore red T-shirts that were likewise emblazoned. In addition, it was difficult to escape images of the moose.

El Salvador's veteran ambassador to retire

■ EL SALVADOR’S Ambassador Susana Gun de Hasenson is retiring this week for the second time. Though a resident of Israel, she first presented credentials to president Moshe Katsav, resigned from the diplomatic corps during the presidency of Shimon Peres, and was recalled during the presidency of Reuven Rivlin. Now she is resigning permanently under the presidency of Isaac Herzog.

After 48 years of diplomatic service, she thinks that she is entitled to a life of her own. She would like to travel around the world without thinking about what she should be doing to enhance relations between El Salvador and Israel.

She was among the guests at the Finnish Independence Day reception, and was there in a dual capacity – both as ambassador and as the wife of a Finnish husband.

Rabbinate cares more about children catching polio than adults dying from COVID-19

■ IT WOULD appear that the rabbinate is much more concerned about the possibility of children contracting polio than it was about adults falling victim to COVID-19. Close to 30 rabbis, led by Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau, have signed an appeal to parents to inoculate their children against polio, and, bearing in mind the anti-vaxxers during COVID, they have declared that it is forbidden for any individual to prevent someone else including his or her own children from being vaccinated, because there are physicians who know more about public health than nonprofessionals.

Awards for education at the President's Residence

■ THE VALUE that Israel places on education was evidenced at the President’s Residence on Sunday evening, when two of five outstanding individuals who were awarded the President’s Prize of Honor were educators – one Jewish and the other Muslim. Two of their former pupils rose to extol their virtues and to thank them for teaching them that Israel’s Arabs are partners in determining the future of the State of Israel, and that education is an important component of that future.

The two educators are Chaim Peri and Dr. Dalia Fadila. The other recipients were global Jewish community leader Michael Siegel, Brig.-Gen. (ret.) Pinchas Buchris and poet Rachel Shapira, who was introduced as one of the cultural icons of the nation

Peri, who was chosen to give an address on behalf of all five recipients, could not help but teach a lesson. Generally, when honors are presented to a group of people, whoever speaks on behalf of the group, whether or not its members have prior contact with each other, does not mention fellow recipients by name, but refers to them as a collective and then goes on to speak endlessly about his or her field. Peri mentioned each of his fellow recipients by name and related to the outstanding deeds or talents that had earned them the award. It was a lesson in both modesty and diplomacy, not to mention basic consideration.

In praising their achievements, President Herzog said that Israel’s society is full of hidden lights – men and women whose deeds light up the whole world. “We don’t always pay attention to these hidden lights in our midst,” he said, in reference to the honorees and literally thousands of people whose commitment to the betterment of life for others often goes unrecognized. What unites them all, said Herzog, is their unshakable belief that they have to make new breakthroughs and to provide the nation with new dreams and new goals in order to change and to repair the world.

Hinting at what Israel might expect in terms of political and social fragmentation in the immediate future, Herzog voiced his conviction that by the time that Israel celebrates its 80th anniversary, “Israel will be more united and less divided.”

Although this was not the first time that Herzog had conferred the Presidential Medal of Honor since taking office in July 2021, it was the first time that he had presided over a group ceremony. Previous recipients were Czech President Milos Zeman, US President Joe Biden and Nicos Anastasiades, the president of Cyprus. The medal was also awarded posthumously to Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

None of the recipients at this week’s ceremony were national leaders, and all but one were Israelis. The exception was Siegel , a former chairman of the board of the Jewish Agency, with whom Herzog worked closely during his own period as chairman of the agency.

In the citation, Siegel was referred to as “a towering Jewish leader” and was recognized for his efforts in securing the future of the Jewish people and the State of Israel. He has been a leader in prominent Jewish organizations such as Israel Bonds and the Jewish Federations of North America. He has also worked diligently for Jewish and Zionist projects around the globe and has been instrumental in bringing Diaspora Jewry closer to Israel.

Fadila is a groundbreaking educator and visionary dedicated to the advancement of Arab society in Israel, and to building bridges between Arabs and Jews. She has also made higher education accessible to hundreds of Arab-Israelis whose backgrounds might have been an impediment to their educational progress.

Herzog said of Buchris that most Israelis do not realize how much they owe him. Buchris is committed to security, to industry and to the resilience of the Israeli people. He has been a pivotal figure in the advancement of Israel’s elite technology industry and has helped to promote numerous projects at Rabin Medical Center-Beilinson Hospital.

A prolific poet, Shapira has composed many of Israel’s cultural treasures which have enriched the nation. She has a gift for giving profound meaning to the smallest and most simple things in life.

Peri is a lifelong educator who, in the early years of the state, taught immigrant children at school in the mornings, and in the afternoons and evenings went to their homes to help them with their homework. He spent almost 30 years as director of the Yemin Orde Youth Village, and was the first to absorb and educate young immigrants from Ethiopia. He also absorbed and educated Muslim refugees from Darfur. He established a conversion institute for students from the former Soviet Union who were not halachicly Jewish. He has worked toward the social integration of Arab and Jewish youth, and among his activities outside of Israel was his partnership in the founding of the Agahozo Shalom Youth Village that cared for orphaned survivors of the Rwanda genocide.

Usually, Herzog’s staff and security detail whisk him away at the end of a function, but on Sunday he spent a long time posing for photographs with medalists and their families, and looked very happy doing so, while his wife, Michal, networked her way around the floor talking to scores of people.

Rumor has it that the next time that Herzog awards medals will be in March 2023, when one of the recipients will be influential Emirati businessman Ahmed bin Sulayem.

A large English-language event in Hod Hasharon

■ ISRAEL’S ENGLISH-speaking community, in terms of people whose native tongue is English, comprises immigrants from England, Scotland, Ireland, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, US, Canada plus many for whom English is a second language which they speak with the same degree of fluency as their mother tongues.

That doesn’t mean that native English-speakers are a homogeneous group – far from it. Depending on their countries of origin, they have specific linguistic expressions, different traditions, different political outlooks and belong to different faiths or different streams of the same faith. They also have different levels of affluence and education and work in different professions.

Some native English-speakers try to join English-speaking groups. Others try to become as Israeli as possible. But Hebrew is not the easiest of languages to learn, and anyone with a pronounced foreign accent remains something of an outsider forever, even though one may mix socially in Sabra circles.

In Hod Hasharon, there is a newly formed Anglo Community Center (ACC) which in early December held a daylong event that attracted more than 450 people. It is believed to be the largest English-speaking community event ever held in Hod Hasharon, and presumably there are more English-speakers who will attend future events.

It was a “something for everyone” day, with Mayor Amir Kochavi participating in a series of short “Hod talks,” a children’s fair, an early musical Kabbalat Shabbat led by Rabbi Efrat Rotem and a communal sit-down catered dinner.

The Hod Talks and Kabbalat Shabbat were in partnership with the Zionist Council in Israel, the Hod Hasharon Municipality, Aluma Hod Hasharon and the International Relations Committee of the Municipality.

Lori Erlich, the Director of International Relations of Hod Hasharon Municipality, was instrumental in ensuring these partnerships and providing support to the ACC. Twenty-two local businesses also showed their support by donating items for a fundraising raffle and subsidizing or operating stalls at the children's fair.

“We want to encourage more Anglo olim to make their homes here, and we want to create a more vibrant, diverse city,” said Jessica Kosmin, director of community development.

Rachel Collins, director of operations, added, “The level of volunteer engagement is simply unbelievable. Over 30 volunteers were involved in making the community day a success.”

The four-person managing committee of the ACC includes Collins, Kosmin, Jen Glazer and Becca Noy – all residents of Hod Hasharon, hailing from four different English-speaking countries: Scotland, England, Canada and the US.

Dani Dayan goes to the French Embassy

■ THE EMBASSY of France has promoted Yad Vashem chairman Dani Dayan and has given him the title of president. In a Hebrew press release sent out by the embassy last week about Dayan’s meeting in Paris with French President Emmanuel Macron, both men were referred to as president.

Also present at the meeting were Nazi hunter and Holocaust historian Serge Klarsfeld and Pierre Francois Veil, who heads the French Friends of Yad Vashem, and Israel Ambassador Yael German.

Dayan and Macron discussed Holocaust remembrance and the rise of antisemitism in Europe, including in France, and how to cope with this disturbing manifestation. Macron reiterated what he has previously expressed to Israeli and other Jewish leaders – that the French government is fighting antisemitism in all its forms.

Klarsfeld, who was previously in Israel in June as a guest of honor at the Genesis Prize Ceremony, at which Pfizer chairman and CEO Albert Burla was awarded the prize, will be in Israel again this week at the invitation of the organizers of the annual Jewish Film Festival at the Jerusalem Cinematheque.

Western Wall rabbi welcomes outspoken Reform Jew

■ US AMBASSADOR Tom Nides frequently tweets that he is a Reform Jew, and more recently tweeted how much he enjoyed marching in this year’s gay pride parade, and how much he is looking forward to doing so again next year. Having said all that, he is a welcome figure at the Western Wall, and is warmly greeted by Western Wall Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz.

Shining a light on people with disabilities in Israel

■ MORE ATTENTION is being paid these days to people with disabilities than was the case in previous years. Curiously, while so many young men are trying to evade military service, and ultra-Orthodox young women are exempt for religious reasons, many young men and women with physical and/or intellectual disabilities are all but breaking down doors to be allowed to serve the country, whether in uniform or as part of National Service.

The desire – even the need – to serve was given special focus last week in light of the International Day of Disabled Persons on December 3, and International Volunteer Day on December 5. It should be remembered that all the young people with disabilities who are in the army or working in one of numerous National Service posts are volunteers. Because of their various disabilities, they do not have to serve, but they want to serve, because they believe that their abilities outweigh their disabilities.

To be fair, there are also many young ultra-Orthodox people who, despite family and community opposition, serve in the army or do National Service, and there are also male and female Arab citizens who are entitled to exemptions but who want to serve the country.

Calcalist, the business supplement of Yediot Aharonot, last week ran a feature story about the remarkable Prof. Alon Domanis, who was recently elected chairman of the executive board of Ilan, the organization that cares for children and youth with disabilities.

The Tel Aviv-born academic, at the age of one, became one of many Israeli children who were infected with polio. His parents were determined that he would lead a full existence and not spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair. His mother encouraged him to walk regardless of how difficult it was for him. She also made him walk up and down stairs. Until the age of five, he could not walk without crutches, and there were braces on his legs. Eventually, only his left leg was in a brace. Whenever the brace needed adjusting, he went to a technician in Bnei Brak by the name of Borer. Watching him work, Domanis thought that the brace that was attached to the outside of his shoe would be more effective if it was attached from the inside. He put the idea to Borer who agreed with him.

Some years later, Domanis, who is now 72, wanted to join the IDF, and fought valiantly against rejection. He was the first person with an obvious disability who was accepted. While still a youth, he climbed Masada. He was an engineer in the Israel Air Force and became the chief IAF engineer on the Lavi jet fighter project. He later became an academic, rising to the rank of professor. He also has a commercial pilot license, is an avid skier and horse rider, and as an entrepreneur has made more than 80 successful start-up investments in hi-tech, and has profited nicely from 20 exits.

He is certainly not alone in proving that a particular disability may get in the way of some things, but is not an overall impediment.

Three young adults with disabilities – two of them with cerebral palsy – who are engaged in voluntary National Service at Galilee Medical Center have become an important part of the landscape of the hospital’s physiotherapy services, and have become an integral part of the team. Noy Miller, 18, and Matan Greenberg, 20, contribute in a variety of ways, and are wonderful examples of volunteerism. Noa Zandberg, 20, another young volunteer with disabilities, prior to completing her year of voluntary National Service, helped to transition Noy and Matan into their roles in the physiotherapy unit.

All three were highly commended by Daphna Livne, director of physiotherapy services, and Prof. Masad Barhoum, general-director of the Galilee Medical Center.

Each year there is a fresh intake of Jewish, Christian, Muslim and Druze volunteers with disabilities who all approach their varied tasks with the kind of dedication and determination that is not always prevalent in the mainstream population.

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