Grapevine June 11, 2023: Turning tragedy into a force for good

Movers and shakers in Israeli society.

 THE FRIENDS OF ZION exhibition of 40 Holocaust survivors and the words they live by. (photo credit: SHIMON COHEN)
THE FRIENDS OF ZION exhibition of 40 Holocaust survivors and the words they live by.
(photo credit: SHIMON COHEN)

Any death is sad. Family and friends mourn, and a light goes out in the world. But it is more than sad when someone dies as the result of a terrorist attack. Grief is immeasurable, and the actions of those left behind should not be judged, because in so many cases bereavement causes people to act in a manner that is not in keeping with their personalities.

But some, despite their grief, have the enormous strength of character to memorialize their loved ones by donating their organs to save the lives of others, or to establish memorial foundations or organizations to preserve the memories of lost loved ones. The Malki Foundation for instance, was created by Frimet and Arnold Roth after their teenage daughter Malki was killed in a terrorist assault on the now non-existent Sbarro restaurant in Jerusalem. Malki’s younger sister to whom she was greatly attached was born with severe disabilities. Their parents decided after Malki’s death that the best way to honor her memory was to create a foundation that would help other parents who are providing home care in a loving environment, for other children with disabilities.

Similarly, Comedy for Koby, a stand-up comedy show devised by comedian Avi Liberman together with Seth and Sheri Mandell, whose teenage son Koby and his friend Yosef Ishran were cruelly murdered by a Palestinian terrorist, replaces tears with laughter. The show, which tours several Israeli cities, features the best Israeli and American comedians. It’s a sell-out wherever it goes, and proceeds are used for projects designed to help surviving victims of terrorism and their families. Laughter has always been good medicine, and stand-up comedy has proved to be a balm for the soul.

More recently, in 2014, three teenage boys, Gil-Ad Shaer, Eyal Yifrah and Naftali Fraenkel were thumbing a ride and had the misfortune to enter a vehicle driven by a Palestinian terrorist. It was known that they were kidnapped, but not until 18 days later did it become public that they had been murdered very soon after their abduction. During those 18 days, people throughout Israel and the Jewish Diaspora rallied around the three families, praying with them and for them, offering moral and financial support. Such an outpouring of the milk of human kindness is rare, even in war time. Following the period of mourning, Nir Barkat, who then was mayor of Jerusalem, sat with the families, who said they wanted to do something that would reflect the spirit of unity that had engulfed them during the crisis. And thus, the annual Jerusalem Unity Prize in memory of the three boys was born, and it was awarded last week for the ninth consecutive year at a ceremony at the President’s Residence.

It is doubtful that any of these three organizations, along with several others, would exist without the tragedies that inspired them. It’s a terrible price to pay for doing good, but there must be some small comfort in the number of people who have been helped as a direct outcome of those tragedies. The unity prizes were awarded to organizations in Israel and abroad.

 FROM LEFT: FOZ museum director Nir Kimhi, Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz and Dr. Mike Evans. (credit: SHIMON COHEN)
FROM LEFT: FOZ museum director Nir Kimhi, Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz and Dr. Mike Evans. (credit: SHIMON COHEN)

President Isaac Herzog and all other speakers emphasized that unity is at the core of Israel’s existence. It is the common denominator on which diversity finds its home.

■ FOR NON-RADICALS, it’s very difficult to understand how a political leader as astute, intelligent and experienced as Benjamin Netanyahu keeps shooting himself in the foot like a game of political Russian roulette. He keeps appointing people whose views and actions have done and can do him harm. Netanyahu has ignored newspaper editorials and interviews with prominent figures in education by appointing homophobic MK Avi Maoz to take charge of Israel’s Jewish identity. This is ironic, given that Netanyahu himself is a universal Jew, not a religious Jew. Netanyahu eats in non-kosher restaurants and does not observe the Sabbath. How could he entrust matters of Jewish identity to someone who is even beyond the opposite extreme? Yediot Aharonot interviewed former education ministers Limor Livnat, Yuli Tamir, Shai Piron and Yifat Shasha-Biton, who belong to different political parties, but share the viewpoint that someone like Maoz, who will be working closely with current Education Minister Yoav Kisch, is bad newsfor Israel, and suggest that parents should take action before Maoz has a chance to ruin the minds of their children.

■ IT HAPPENS to all of us. We are standing or sitting somewhere and our eyes catch sight of someone we never expected to see in this particular environment. Knowing how the Western Wall authorities crack down on irreverent Jews who come improperly attired, or on women who choose to wear prayer shawls and phylacteries, which are regarded in strictly Orthodox circles as a purely male province, the last person one would expect to see at the Friends of Zion Museum, which is an Evangelical enterprise, was Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, rabbi of the Western Wall and the holy sites.

Rabinowitz accepted the invitation to attend the opening last week of the exhibition The Power of Words, which features the portraits of 40 Holocaust survivors and the phrases or slogans that they live by.

The exhibition was coordinated with therapist Michal Fundaminsky, who has been working with the survivors for the past 12 years.

Rabinowitz was very moved by the exhibition, which directly and indirectly is a tribute to Jewish resilience and the ability to overcome the most traumatic experiences, and build a new life. “Every youngster in the State of Israel must visit the museum and the exhibition, read the story of each survivor and embrace his or her saying,” he said, as he thanked FOZ founder and president Dr. Mike Evans, whom he called “my dear friend,” and praised the work that Evans does for the State of Israel and for Holocaust survivors in Israel and around the world.

The exhibition is indeed impressive, but it would be more so if the texts were translated into three or four languages.

Not everyone who visits the museum understands Hebrew, and can much less read it. To properly get the message across, it is imperative for it to be translated.

Bastille Day

■ FILM BUFFS who are also regular invitees to the annual Bastille Day reception hosted by French Ambassador Éric Danon and his wife, Marie-Christine Dupuis-Danon, will be in somewhat of a quandary this year. Bastille Day actually falls on July 14, which this year is a Friday, so the celebration has been moved to the evening of July 13. But that also happens to be the date for the launch of this year’s Jerusalem Film Festival, and the opening film is the much-publicized Golda, starring award-winning British actress Helen Mirren. There’s almost no way to get to both without hiring a helicopter. The Bastille Day reception is at the ambassador’s residence in Jaffa, and the opening of the Jerusalem Film Festival is at the Sultan’s Pool in Jerusalem.

Life is full of challenges and frustrations.

■ WE DO not always recognize the heroes in our midst. Israel’s Iraqi community could certainly wax long and loud about Mordechai Ben-Porat, but to most other people, he was just a pleasant, elderly gentleman.

Visitors to the Babylonian Jewry Heritage Center and Museum, which he founded in 1973 and over which he presided, can trace the story of his life through a new permanent exhibition of photographs, documents and citations, which his family presented to curator Orly Bahar Levi and designer Lavi Tzarfat.

Born in Baghdad in September 1923, he died in January 2022, after having led a full and adventurous life.

The eldest of 11 siblings, Ben-Porat came to the Land of Israel in 1945, and soon joined the Hagana. He later fought in the War of Independence.

In 1949, the Mossad sent him to Iraq to organize the illegal emigration of Iraqi Jews, in what was known as Operation Ezra and Nehemiah. During the two years he spent in Iraq organizing clandestine Zionist activities, he was caught and arrested four times, and subjected to hard labor. He succeeded in escaping after his fourth arrest and returned to Israel. In 1955, he was elected head of the Or Yehuda local council, and in 1965, he was elected to the Knesset.

He was reelected in 1969 and 1973, but lost his seat in 1977. In 1970, he returned to illegal emigration – this time helping the Jewish Agency to help get Jews out of Iran. In 1981, he was reelected to the Knesset, and was made a minister-without-portfolio.

Ben-Porat went party hopping from the Left to the Right. He was a member of at least five political parties at one time or another, and a life-long activist for social justice regardless of which party he belonged to at any given time.

In recognition of all that he had done for the state and its people, Ben-Porat was awarded the Israel Prize.

It is quite amazing how many unsung or barely sung heroes we have in our midst – people who have given their all for this country and its people, but who have received scant recognition for what they have done.