Grapevine January 15, 2023: Beyond Chiune Sugihara

Movers and shakers in Israeli society.

 EFRAT SOPHER (left) with Colette Avital. (photo credit: COURTESY ICFR)
EFRAT SOPHER (left) with Colette Avital.
(photo credit: COURTESY ICFR)

When there is any kind of discussion about diplomats who saved Jews during the Holocaust, two names invariably come to mind. One is Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, and the other is Japanese diplomat Chiune Sugihara, whose diplomatic career was cut short by his humanitarian act of subordination, but who in later years was recognized as a Japanese hero, not only in Japan, but in many other countries. 

Although hundreds of Jewish families were saved by the Visas for Life that he issued, Sugihara was not the only Japanese citizen who risked his own safety to help Jews escape the destiny that the Nazis had in store for them. Another was Dr. Abraham Kotsuji, a Japanese scholar whose area of expertise was Semitic linguistics, and others included Tatsuo Osako, an employee of the Japanese Tourist Bureau in Vladivostok, and Saburo Nei, an acting consul general in Vladivostok.

As part of its activities marking the 70th anniversary year of diplomatic relations with Israel, the Japanese Embassy wants to make these people become as well known to Israelis as is Sugihara.

Kotsuji, by the way, converted to Judaism, and his final resting place is in Jerusalem.

In the effort to make other Japanese Holocaust heroes known to the Israeli public, the Japanese Embassy is hosting a conference at the Tikotin Museum in Haifa on January 31, where keynote speakers will include two Japanese researchers, Akira Kitade and Jundai Yamada, who have lectured and written extensively about Japanese people who helped Jews during the Holocaust. They will introduce names of people who helped Jewish refugees, in addition to those listed above.

 Japanese diplomat Chiune Sugihara (credit: WIKIPEDIA)
Japanese diplomat Chiune Sugihara (credit: WIKIPEDIA)

The conference will be held in the immediate aftermath of International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

In an era in which racism, antisemitism and xenophobia are once again creating chaos and causing fear and even death, it is important to remember that there are good and decent people in every nation, regardless of government policies and the ill-will of the majority. Refusal to recognize the other and to accept that person as an equal is usually the result of brain-washing in early childhood, but some people can resist it. The conference will be held in English with simultaneous translation into Hebrew.

Changing names

■ THE BIGGEST news in Israeli genealogy in the last decade is the publication of a new collection covering immigration to Israel from 1919 onwards, says Daniel Horowitz of MyHeritage. The collection contains 1.7 million records, and according to Horowitz is the Israeli equivalent of the famous Ellis Island immigration database. It is available online free of charge. There is however a problem with people who Hebracized their names, with different versions in the same family, especially when branches of the family migrated to different countries before coming to Israel. For instance, a family named Schwartz may have migrated from Europe to an English-speaking country. Part of the family may have kept its name, and part may have translated its name to Black. But on coming to Israel, part of the family may have again translated its name from either Schwartz or Black to Shahor or Shchori. 

But that’s less of a headache than trying to trace relatives whose Hebrew names bear no resemblance to the names under which their forebears came to Israel. For instance, the original surname of second president Yitzhak Ben-Zvi was Shimshelevich; and the original surname of former prime minister Yitzhak Shamir was Jaziernicki. Another former prime minister, Ehud Barak was born as Ehud Brog, and the paternal grandfather of current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was called Milekowsky, a surname still borne by some of his other descendants.

Laws only for Arabs?

■ AMONG PROPOSALS emanating from members of the new government are death sentences for terrorists and expulsion of Arab-Israelis who engage in terrorist activities. More recently, there have been voices demanding that certain Jewish political leaders who oppose the new government be tried for treason. The question arises as to whether such laws, if enacted, will apply only to Arabs and to Jews who demonstrate against government policies, or also to people such as the so-called hilltop youth and members of the radical ultra-Orthodox anti-Zionist Neturei Karta. In statements recently released following a meeting in Jenin by a Neturei Karta delegation with Palestinian Islamic Jihad leaders, members of the delegation declared that they are Palestinian Jews who want to live under the Palestinian flag. Would such a public statement not justify their expulsion from Mea She’arim to a Palestinian village beyond the Green Line? It’s not certain that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas would welcome them. According to reports over the years, he doesn’t want any Jew living in what may become a future Palestinian state. 

As for the hilltop youth who reportedly attack Palestinians with increasing frequency – are they not terrorists? The fact that they are Jewish does not whitewash their actions, though the fact that they are minors helps to keep them out of prison. In a climate of more emphatic Jewish sovereignty, we have to ask ourselves why antisemitism against Jews is considered racism, whereas antisemitism against Arabs (who are pure Semites) is not. Too much anti-Arab feeling is being openly expressed by legislators, and that’s a long way from a recipe for peace and harmony. It also taints those members of the right-wing camp who do not identify with extremism.

■ ALTHOUGH WOMEN appear to be well represented in key positions in hi-tech, law and journalism, they are becoming less visible in government and in the Knesset and in various think tanks. Until recently, the members of the International Board and Advisory Board of the Israel Council on Foreign Relations included barely a handful of women – Ambassador and former MK Colette Avital, Orna Hozman-Bechor, Prof. Ruth Lapidoth, Dr. Juliana Geran Pilon, and Prof. Dina Porat, who were grossly outnumbered by men. This imbalance was partially rectified by the induction of new board members at the ICFR’s annual meeting this month. The new members are Prof. Gisela Dachs of the Hebrew University DAAD Center for German Studies / European Forum; veteran Newsweek foreign correspondent and award-winning author Andrew Nagorski; Iran expert Dr. Efrat Sopher of the University of Haifa’s Ezri Center; and Carice Witte, founder and executive director of SIGNAL (Sino-Israel Global Network Academic Leadership) think tank, who delivered the keynote lecture of the meeting, which was presided over by ICFR President Dan Meridor. The lecture was devoted to the “China Challenge.”

Porat, of Tel Aviv University, a foremost expert on Holocaust studies, presented reflections on the life and legacy of the late Gabriel Bach (1927-2022), stressing its relevance to the present day. Bach, a Supreme Court justice and deputy prosecutor in the Eichmann trial passed away in February of last year and was a long-term ICFR board member.

Based in Jerusalem, the ICFR, founded by the late Dr. David Kimche, operates under the auspices of the World Jewish Congress, and engages in the study and debate of foreign policies with special emphasis on Israeli and Jewish concerns.

■ HUMAN NATURE being what is, the British public, while gobbling up all the revelations that Prince Harry, the Duke of Sussex is making about the royal family, is simultaneously critical that he has painted a warts-and-all picture of the blue bloods, providing further proof that like most idols, they have feet of clay. Very few letters to the editor published in the British media indicate support for him, but among the exceptions is one that stands out in citing many of the positive things that Harry and his wife did while still performing royal duties before they choofed off to America. The letter is signed by British journalist Dame Esther Rantzen, who for 21 years presented the BBC television series That’s Life! She has a few notable achievements of her own, one of which is pioneering Childline, the first 24/7 hotline for children in distress who are seeking help. Any child who calls receives free, safe and confidential support. Rantzen, who is obviously more attuned to reality than the average newspaper reader or television viewer, is also somewhat different in other respects. Her name is a give-away. Yes, she is one of the tribe.

■ WITH A new awareness in Israel and around the world of the critical need for affordable mental health services – especially for people not fluent in the language of the country in which they live, Yeshiva University, together with Amudim Israel, has opened the Jerusalem Therapy Center, which will be officially inaugurated on January 18, at 7.30 p.m. at 3 Strauss St., near the corner of Hanevi’im Street.

For information and appointment contact or phone: 02-380-3060.

The center is being run in partnership with YU’s Wurzweiler School of Social Work and Amudim Israel and is staffed by Wurzweiler graduate students, recent graduates and other professionals.

“Good mental health services have never been more necessary,” says Nechama Munk, director of YU’s Wurzweiler School of Social Work Israel Program.