Grapevine July 19, 2023: Au revoir, Monsieur Ambassadeur

Movers and shakers in Israeli society.

 OUTGOING FRENCH AMBASSADOR Eric Danon and his wife, Marie. (photo credit: RAFI DELOYA)
OUTGOING FRENCH AMBASSADOR Eric Danon and his wife, Marie.
(photo credit: RAFI DELOYA)

Outgoing French Ambassador Eric Danon was on an emotional roller coaster last week, as he wound up not only his posting in Israel, but also his long, varied and distinguished career in France’s foreign service. Although he attended a number of farewell events in Ashdod and Haifa in connection with Bastille Day, his main swan song was at his residence in Jaffa, where he and his wife, Marie, their children and French Embassy staff hosted the main Bastille Day ceremony.

Representing the government was Intelligence Minister Gila Gamliel, who made the most embarrassing faux pas, which she tried to laugh off – but it was a mistake that will be long remembered. In acknowledging the presence of various dignitaries, she should have taken a leaf out of the book of former president Reuven Rivlin, who made a point of explaining that he was not going to mention dignitaries by name in case he left someone out. Gamliel, in acknowledging Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai, called him Ron Dermer, who happens to be the strategic affairs minister. The crowd assembled in the ambassador’s rear garden tittered, while Gamliel made a stumbling attempt to right her wrong.

Prior to the official ceremony singer Eden Holan spent more than an hour singing favorite French songs.

Although Danon speaks excellent English, the French, being the French, are very chauvinistic about their language – so he delivered his speech in French.

For the intended benefit of those guests unable to include French as one of the languages that they understand, there was a PowerPoint translation of the speech in English. Unfortunately, with all the many talents that can be attributed to the French, PowerPoint presentations are sorely lacking. Even someone with 20/20 vision would have had problems in reading the small font, even if only two meters away, in addition to which the screen was so low and set so far back from the crowd that it was little more than useless.

Danon noted that this was the last time in his present capacity that he would hear the “La Marseillaise,” “Hatikvah,” and the “European Anthem” played consecutively.

In fact, immediately after the anthems and just before the toasts, he invited Ambassador Dimiter Tzantchev, the head of the Delegation of the European Union, and Ukrainian Ambassador Yevgen Kornichuk to join the official party on stage.

When he arrived in Israel four years ago, said Danon, it was to fulfill one clear ambition, which was to develop the French-Israeli relationship to its full potential and to build on the depth of the common history of the two countries.

He is proud of what has been accomplished since then in the areas of defense and security, and the renewal of dialogue. He reiterated France’s ironclad commitment to Israel’s security and noted that France is now Israel’s second-closest partner after the US. In this context he mentioned permanent consultations on Iran, which neither Israel nor France will ever accept as a nuclear power, the increase in shared intelligence, the relentless fight against terrorism, and the negotiating of a maritime border.

Bilateral trade is another area in which there has been significant progress, with a 45% surge in both imports and exports.

Danon also mentioned the thriving of French culture in Israel.

The US and Israel are not the only countries with delays in issuing passports. Danon said that consular services have been improved, and there are now more than 120 appointments per day with people seeking to renew their French passports.

On a personal note Danon said that after graduating from the National School of Administration, he was congratulated by the secretary-general of the French Ministry for Europe and Foreign Affairs, who told him: “You know, my young friend, with such a name, you will never be appointed to Israel.” Danon is a common surname among Jews of North African background. Danon carried this suspicion of possible dual loyalty like an open wound. But he did not change his name, and ultimately his final posting was in Israel – the first French Jew to serve here as his country’s ambassador, and he performed in such a manner that such an appointment will never again be a subject of debate.

He is infinitely grateful to French President Emmanuel Macron for having appointed him.

Israel is also grateful to Macron, not only for appointing an ambassador of Danon’s caliber, but also for the strong stance that Macron has taken in fighting antisemitism, said Gamliel, who told Danon that Israel will always welcome him whenever he chooses to return. He should regard Israel as his second home, she said.

Colombian Independence Day feted with music, dance, and cultural exchange celebrated in Israel 

■ TO CELEBRATE her country’s 213th anniversary of independence from Spain, vivacious Colombian Ambassador Margarita Manjarrez Herrera decided to hold the traditional reception at Zappa, Herzliya. She chooses a different venue every year – a factor that excites a certain amount of surprise and curiosity. Manjarrez, who in addition to being a seasoned diplomat is also an accomplished dancer, loves to share her country’s culture, especially in areas in which her guests can join in. Her receptions therefore include a lot of singing and dancing.

The key singers this year were Alejandro Escobar and Gustavo Quiñonez. Escobar has sung with a number of international orchestras and has won several prizes. On July 30 and 31, he will be appearing in La traviata with the Haifa Symphony Orchestra. There were more than enough members of the Colombian community present to sing along with them and to join in the dancing. Most of the diplomats among the 300 guests had likewise put on their dancing shoes.

There were also some Colombian culinary delights and a photographic exhibition about life in the eastern plains of Colombia by Juanita Escobar.

In her address, the ambassador acknowledged that Independence Day celebrations, usually held on July 20, are generally formal in nature, but she wanted to offer her guests a cultural event “not only honoring our homeland and the country that hosts us with our national anthems, but mostly focusing on our beautiful Colombian music within a festive atmosphere.”

Before embarking on the festivities, she had a few serious things to say.

“Building a nation is not an easy task. Colombia, despite its 213 years, continues to walk, with progress, with setbacks, with challenges, and hopes, like those of all societies that seek well-being, the guarantee of rights, happiness, and a good life for their citizens.

“In our country,” she continued, “one of the challenges we continue to work on is the objective of achieving true and definitive peace. This national purpose is based on the conviction that dialogue is the way to resolve conflicts. The second challenge is the task of continuing to develop while doing so in a sustainable way, because although we are a biodiverse nation rich in resources, we also suffer to a high degree from the effects of climate change and environmental deterioration.”

These two challenges, the achievement of total peace and overcoming the environmental crisis, not only concern Colombia, but they also concern the entire world, said Manjarrez.

The ambassador suggested that people should rejoice when progress is made in coexistence and democracy anywhere on the planet, because these issues are no less important than technologies, and actions that preserve and improve the environment. In this last aspect, she said, Colombia has made progress in cooperation with Israel in crucial sectors such as agriculture and clean energy.

Referring to her decision to turn the reception into a cultural event, the ambassador said, “I am convinced that knowing the cultural richness of other societies and sharing ours is the basis for achieving understanding, good relations, agreements, and coexistence. Recognizing and valuing the other also allows us to do business, to invest, to visit, and to cooperate with one another.”

Following a series of negotiations, Colombia is on the verge of signing a film co-production agreement with Israel and entering a cooperation program in education, science, culture, sports, and youth, “because Colombia and Israel feed off each other. Tourists, investors, workers and students, officials, diplomats, scientists, all of us who weave relations between our two countries, soak up each other’s culture and are representatives of our own. Colombians in Israel also represent us, with their joy, their tenacity, and their perseverance, and each one is a bridge with Israel and its people.”

Spanish EU presidency kickoff highlights disability rights at unique Jaffa venue

■ IN TANDEM with a number of events held in member states of the EU, a diplomatic cocktail reception was held at Na Laga’at in Jaffa to celebrate Spain’s accession to the presidency of the Council of the European Union. Among the various priorities of the Spanish presidency is accessibility in all its forms for people with various disabilities. There is no valid reason for excluding someone with a disability from mainstream society. Na Laga’at is a restaurant and cultural center in which meals are served in the dark by waiters and waitresses with severe vision impairment, including total blindness. Theater performers are blind and deaf but oozing with talent. The venue was deliberately chosen to emphasize the message.

Spanish Ambassador Ana Maria Salomon Perez and Na Laga’at CEO Oren Yitzhaki announced the launch of a partnership between the embassy and the NGO to advance the social integration of people with disabilities. Salomon Perez said that she is not only the ambassador of Spain, but also the ambassador of Na Laga’at. Among those present was Tzantchev, as well as ambassadors of EU member states along with ambassadors of non-European countries.

Netanyahu's health concerns stir unity, Biden invites PM for meeting 

■ EVEN HIS most vicious detractors, last Saturday wished Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu good health and a speedy recovery from whatever it was that caused him to be transported to Sheba Medical Center, Tel Hashomer. Ehud Barak, Avigdor Liberman, and Yair Lapid, among others, were quick to tweet good wishes. The frightening possibility that Yariv Levin might take over if Netanyahu is incapacitated was too traumatic a thought to bear.

Perhaps US President Joe Biden also had this in mind on Monday night, when he finally invited Bibi to a meeting. Former US ambassador Tom Nides, who kept assuring that the invitation would be issued, can now say: “I told you so.”

Holocaust restitution negotiations progress during WJRP Delegation's visit to Croatia

■ SEVENTY EIGHT years after the end of the Second World War, restoration of property to Holocaust survivors and heirs of proven owners has largely remained a source of dispute and negotiation. During a recent visit to Croatia by a World Jewish Restitution Organization delegation led by Mark Weitzman, COO of WJRO, and Daniel S. Mariaschin, CEO of B’nai B’rith International, the issue was raised with Deputy Prime Minister of Croatia Davor Božinovic.

According to the participants the discussions were “constructive and positive.”

“While there is still more progress to be made in resolving the outstanding issues in Croatia, we recognize the increasing urgency, as Holocaust survivors grow older. This drives us to intensify our collaborative efforts not only in Croatia but with all Eastern European countries,” said WJRO president Gideon Taylor.

Panama ambassadors deliver major clothing donation to Pitchon-Lev Aid Center

■ ONE OF the ways in which foreign diplomats contribute to the enhancement of bilateral relations between their countries and Israel is to involve themselves in Israeli charitable endeavors, especially when it comes to helping people who live below the poverty line.

A recent example was demonstrated by Ambassador of Panama Adis Urieta Vega, who last week joined forces with Ambassador to Panama Itai Bardov, to visit the Pitchon-Lev aid center in Rishon Lezion to officially deliver the gift of a container with more than four tons of clothing collected by the Panamanian Jewish charity Tzedaka Umarpe Foundation. The Jewish community of Panama numbers some 20,000 souls, but makes up with its generosity for what it lacks in size. The container had arrived in Israel a week earlier, and some of the clothes had already been unpacked and were ready to be distributed during the visit by the two ambassadors.

Pitchon-Lev CEO Eli Cohen, along with volunteers and recipients, were on hand to greet the two ambassadors, who were briefed on the different facets of the work of Pitchon-Lev and expressed admiration for what the organization does, and for its continued dedication to the well-being of Holocaust survivors and the poor.

Warsaw building unveils plaque honoring Holocaust survivor Samuel Willenberg and artist father 

■ HOLOCAUST SURVIVOR Samuel Willenberg, who was one of the leaders of the revolt in the Treblinka death camp, and who later joined the Polish resistance forces in fighting the Nazis, was decorated by the Polish government, and was a beloved figure in Poland during his return visits from Israel. When he died in 2016, his funeral was attended by president Rivlin. Willenberg, who was born in Czestochowa in1923, was also an author and a sculptor. Most of his sculptures related to his memories of people who had gone to their deaths in Treblinka. His father, Perec Willenberg, who was a well-known artist, hid throughout the war in a building at 60 Marszalkowska Boulevard in Warsaw. He lived under the assumed identity of Karol Beltazar Pankoslavsky.

Due to his pronounced Yiddish accent when speaking Polish, he pretended to be a deaf mute.

Located in the heart of the Polish capital, Marszalkowska Boulevard was one of the most fashionable streets in Warsaw, with many ornate buildings. Some 80% of the street was destroyed, and has since been impressively rebuilt. Among those buildings that survived the war and subsequently the Communist master plan for restructuring Warsaw, was the house in which Perec Willenberg took shelter.

During the war, he used his artistic talents to survive, and painted figures of saints. One of his paintings on the ceiling of the stairwell in the building in which he lived is an image of Jesus with the words “Jesus, I put my trust in you.” All the surrounding buildings were severely damaged during the bombings of the city, but for the house at 60 Marszalkowska Boulevard. The tenants believed that the painting protected them.

At 11 a.m. on August 1, the unveiling ceremony of a plaque honoring the memories of Perec and Samuel Willenberg will take place at that building.

Coincidentally, Samuel Willinberg’s wife, Ada, is a survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto. Her mother was among the Jews murdered in Treblinka. Ada Willenberg and her daughter Orit Willenberg-Giladi are in the forefront of efforts to build a Treblinka memorial museum to fulfill the last wish of Samuel Willenberg.

World Cup soccer coach partners with Bank Hapoalim for financial growth campaign 

■ LAUGHING ALL the way to the bank is soccer coach Ofir Haim, who scored such a resounding success when he coached Israel’s Under 20 soccer team to third place in the World Cup in Argentina. Haim has been contracted by Bank Hapoalim’s Center for Financial Growth to be the presenter of its summer campaign. Haim will be seen in a series of different situations in which most people find themselves from time to time, and are called upon to make serious financial decisions. If nothing else, it should add to his own financial growth. In his pre-politician days, when he was still a media personality, Lapid was one of the best known endorsers of Bank Hapoalim, and thereby improved his own bank account.

Peres Center and US Embassy champion Women's soccer in Israel 

■ AHEAD OF the FIFA Women’s World Cup, the Peres Center for Peace and Innovation last week joined forces with the US Embassy to cohost an event celebrating and promoting women’s soccer in Israel. The event, held in cooperation with the Israel Football Association, the Olympic Committee of Israel, the Athena Center for Promoting Women’s Sports in Israel and the Culture and Sport Ministry, highlighted sports as a tool for social change in Israel, the Middle East, and across the world.

 STEPHANIE HALLETT, deputy chief of mission and acting US ambassador, at the Peres Center for Peace and Innovation. (credit: DAVID AZAGURY/ US EMBASSY)
STEPHANIE HALLETT, deputy chief of mission and acting US ambassador, at the Peres Center for Peace and Innovation. (credit: DAVID AZAGURY/ US EMBASSY)

The evening featured a special screening of the award-winning documentary LFG, which follows the inspiring journey of Megan Rapinoe and other US women soccer players as they challenged pay discrimination within the United States Soccer Federation.

Female soccer players from Israel and elsewhere in the Middle East shared stories of hurdles experienced and often overcome by female players, and underscored the role of sports as a potent instrument for generating social transformation.

Among the highlights of the evening was an online conversation with Fatima Zahra Benfares, founder of the “She Plays Football” capacity-building program in Morocco. Benfares related her experiences in empowering young Moroccan female soccer players and promoting the sport in her North African country.

Women’s soccer in Israel has witnessed significant strides in recent years, capturing the attention and enthusiasm of players, fans, and communities alike. For some 20 years now, the Peres Center has been running soccer programs, including women’s soccer, to promote social interaction in Israel. Women’s soccer in Israel has witnessed more opportunities for participation, training, and development.

Tami Hay Sagiv, deputy director-general for education, at the Peres Center said: “We firmly believe that empowering women in sports is not only about scoring goals on the field but also about breaking down barriers and challenging societal norms.”

Stephanie Hallett, US Embassy deputy chief of mission, and currently acting ambassador, said that the event “represents the US Embassy’s effort to promote American values such as equal opportunity and is part of our continuing effort to promote sports as a means for advancing equality, opportunity, and leadership, especially among women and girls.” America will continue to support and promote equal opportunities, not only for women but for other disadvantaged communities, to help build a stronger and more resilient Israeli society,” she declared.

United Hatzalah volunteer and midwife Dana Ben Shoshan dies in car crash 

■ BEING A volunteer EMT is no guarantee against being killed or injured. Last week Dana Ben Shoshan, from the Galilee chapter of United Hatzalah, who volunteered as an EMT and a midwife, was killed in a car crash while driving her private car on her way home from the hospital where she worked as a nurse. The crash took place near the southern entrance of Safed.


Married and the mother of four, Dana was critically injured in the crash and later succumbed to her injuries. She was a member of the Adele and Joel Sandberg’s Women’s Initiative that was launched in 2021 with the goal of raising the number of female first responders from 1,000 to 2,000.

This week, a United Hatzalah volunteer was one of five people who were lightly injured in a rock throwing attack on their vehicles near Karnei Shomron in Samaria.

The United Hatzalah Psychotrauma and Crisis Response Unit is working with Dana’s family. Her husband is also a volunteer.

As part of the effort to support the family, a special fundraising page has been opened where people can make a donation. All the money raised will go directly to the family.

President Herzog and Helen Mirren meet prior to 'Golda' premiere at Jerusalem Film Festival

■ ONE OF the perks of being a head of state is the ability to meet the rich and the famous, some of whom want to meet the head of state more than he or she wants to meet them. A case in point may be this week’s meeting between Biden and President Isaac Herzog. The two had met on previous occasions, but this time it was arguably a more important meeting, in which Biden wanted to underscore the message of shared values and the issue of Israel’s democracy, which is widely regarded as being under threat in the event that judicial reform is enacted.

 PRESIDENT ISAAC HERZOG in conversation with Dame Helen Mirren. (credit: HAIM ZACH/GPO)
PRESIDENT ISAAC HERZOG in conversation with Dame Helen Mirren. (credit: HAIM ZACH/GPO)

Last week Herzog and his wife, Michal, hosted Academy Award-winning actress Dame Helen Mirren, immediately prior to the screening of Golda, at the opening of the 40th annual Jerusalem Film Festival. Much has been said and written of Mirren’s portrayal of Israel’s only female prime minister, who is one of the historic figures in the annals of Israel’s pre-state and post-independence saga.

Mirren was accompanied to the meeting with the Herzogs by the film’s director, Guy Nattiv. Sometimes arrangements should be made for the attendance of other people who can make valuable contributions to the conversation. In the case of this particular meeting, it should have been Meron Medzini, a professor emeritus of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, whose mother, Regina, was a close friend of Golda Meir since they were girls. Meron Medzini, who was director of the Israel Government Press Office during the Yom Kippur War, and was Golda’s spokesman from 1973 to 1974, spent much of his childhood and youth in Golda’s home. His book Golda – A political biography won the Prime Minister’s Award in 2010. Had he been invited, he could have contributed a number of insights of which neither the Herzogs nor Mirren were aware.