ON-LINE GAMBLING tycoon Noam Lanir, the CEO of Empire Online, is championing the cause of Holocaust survivors who for decades have been shortchanged by the Israel welfare authorities and are living in abject poverty. Lanir was interviewed on Channel 2's Meet the Press and told Dana Weiss that he had recently met with Ze'ev Factor, the chairman of the Holocaust Survivors Welfare Fund. Factor told him about the thousands of Holocaust survivors, many of them with numbers on their arms, whose sole income is the National Insurance Institute pension of just under NIS 1,800 a month. Elderly and mostly ill, these survivors are desperately in need. Without the help of the Welfare Fund they would have fewer medications, less food and no dental care, eye glasses or new prostheses. Avner Shalev, chairman of the Yad Vashem Directorate, shares Lanir's concerns. In a statement released by Yad Vashem this week, Shalev notes that the theme this year for Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Day was "The Human Spirit in the Shadow of Death." "It is incumbent upon us as a society to raise the banner of Holocaust survivors who fought for their lives in the shadow of death and became eye witnesses and activists, reminding us constantly of our obligation to preserve our own humanity," he asserted. "These survivors, who gave so much to the establishment and growth of the State of Israel, are our example and our model. Israeli society has an ethical duty today to honor the Holocaust survivors, to embrace them and to take care of their welfare in the twilight of their days." The number of impoverished Holocaust survivors had increased significantly with the influx of immigration from the former Soviet Union, Lanir learned from Factor, who also informed him that the Fund was rapidly running out of financial resources. Lanir's initial reaction was expressed via a donation of NIS 100,000. He intends to make additional donations and is hopeful that other philanthropists will join him in this effort to amend what he says is "a terrible injustice." He also intends to lobby the Knesset and the incoming government to raise the level of pension payments for Holocaust survivors so they may live out their lives in dignity. With political pundits reflecting on 27 government ministries (and the expense of running them), there are not too many people who would bet on Lanir's chances of success in this particular quest.
THERE HAVE been many generous benefactors to the State of Israel both before and since the attainment of sovereignty - but no nonresident family has left a more indelible and wide ranging imprint than the Rothschild family. Long before Theodor Herzl made his mark on Jewish history and convened the first Zionist Congress in Basel, Baron Edmond de Rothschild was buying up land in Eretz Israel. No one is more deserving of the title "father of Jewish settlement."
Other members of the Rothschild family were initially less warm to the idea than Baron Edmond, who wanted to provide a haven for those European Jews who lived under constant threat of pogroms. But eventually, they followed his lead and continue to assist in Israel's social, cultural, educational, industrial and national development to the present day.
Among the many Rothschild gifts to Israel are the Knesset and Supreme Court buildings, not to mention a significant share of the permanent collection of the Israel Museum. Baron Benjamin de Rothschild, the greatgrandson of the first Baron Edmond de Rothschild, the coowner with the State of Israel of the Caesarea Development Company, lives in Geneva, Switzerland, but he and his wife Ariane own a house in Caesarea, and come to Israel at least once a year. They are here this week, as guests of honor of Hadassah International, which is celebrating 150 years of the relationship between the Rothschilds, Israel and Hadassah.
The Rothschild-Hadassah University Hospital on Mount Scopus was the first teaching hospital and medical center in Palestine. No other organization has had such a positive, continuing and lasting effect on Israel's development as Hadassah. Although the individual members of the Rothschild family, the Rothschild Foundation and the CDC may have had more diversified and far reaching influence in Israel than Hadassah, together they make an undeniable winning combination.
NEXT WEEK Hadassah International is honoring a native son of Israel and a citizen of the world - internationally renowned prize-winning architect Moshe Safdie, who has been named Hadassah International's "Man of Distinction 2006."
Safdie is being honored for the power of his vision, his innovative approach, and his ecological sensitivity in designing cities, buildings and special purpose projects around the world.
AS A sign that not only the weather is warming up, but also the relations between Israel and France, Israelis will be treated to performances by a broad range of French entertainment artists who will be appearing in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and the north between mid-May and the end of the summer.
In a message published in the Israel Festival program, French Ambassador Gerard Araud announces the upcoming French cultural season in Israel, which he states is an expression of the renewed friendship between the two countries.
The code word for the overall French program is "Voila!" Theater, dance, music, rap, fashion and more will be featured under the Voila umbrella. Given the ever increasing immigration from France, it's going to be a tough race between newcomers and locals for tickets to French performances.
AS IT did last year, Elem, the organization that cares for youth at risk, has organized an Israel Independence Day fundraiser whereby candles, purchased via SMS, make up the largest national flag in the country. Elem manages to receive more publicity than most other organizations, possibly because its president is Nava Barak, who in recent weeks has been endlessly interviewed on television and radio.
Appearing on Channel One on a current affairs program in which some of the ructions in the Labor Party had been discussed a moment earlier, she was told by political commentator and reporter Ayalah Hasson, "We won't ask your opinion about what's going on in the Labor Party."
To which Barak, the ex-wife of former prime minister Ehud Barak, replied: "I'm so happy to be on the sidelines and no longer involved."
CLOSE ENCOUNTERS. Astute Ma'ariv reporter Avishai Ben Haim noted that four of the Shas MKs reside in the same neighborhood, but even more astonishing, three of them have apartments in the same building on Jerusalem's Rehov Hakablan.
MKs Ariel Attias, Haim Amsalem and Meshulam Nahari are bound to bump into each other not only in the Knesset corridors or at the home of their spiritual mentor Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, who lives two buildings away from them in the capital's Har Nof neighborhood, but also in the lobby of their own building. Shas leader MK Eli Yishai lives in the adjacent Katzenelenbogen Street and former Shas leader Arye Deri has an apartment in Rehov Hakablan, which may one day be renamed Rehov Shas.
WHILE IT is par for the course for the media to comment on the attire and grooming of women in public office, less attention is paid to the men unless there is an exceptional example of sartorial splendor, or, on the obverse side of the coin, a super shlump.
Anyone watching the opening ceremony of the 17th Knesset could not help but notice how many MKs were sporting blue ties - not all the same shade, not all monochromes - but nonetheless blue. President Moshe Katsav wore a striped blue tie. Interim Knesset Speaker Shimon Peres chose a pale silver-blue tie, while some of the other MKs who opted for some form of blue included Interim Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Labor leader Amir Peretz, Yisrael Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman, National Union-NRP co-chairmen Benny Elon and Zvulun Orlev, Meretz-Yahad chairman Yossi Beilin, outgoing Knesset Speaker
Reuven Rivlin, Knesset
Secretary Arye Hahn and a host of others.
Although there were some blue ties amongst the Likud MKs, Likud chairman Binyamin Netanyahu preferred pale lemon, Silvan Shalom stood out in red, which would have been more appropriate for a Labor MK, and Natan Sharansky, as usual, came tie-less.
ONE OF the parting gifts received by former Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin was a certificate for 120 trees planted in his honor by members of the 16th Knesset. The framed certificate was presented to him by Interim Knesset Speaker Shimon Peres, who said Rivlin represents all that is ancient and all that is beautiful in Jerusalem. The Jerusalem-born Rivlin, who is staunchly proud of his city, invariably signs off radio interviews by noting that he is speaking from Jerusalem.
THE MIMOUNA came early in Jerusalem when members of the Beyahad Movement and the World Federation of Moroccan Jews celebrated the minting of a Mimouna medal by the Government Coins and Medals Corporation. The medal marked the 40th anniversary of Mimouna festivities in Israel, celebrated at a special ceremony held during the intermediate days of Pessah in the plaza of the capital's Great Synagogue.
There is a popular belief that the word Mimouna comes from Maimon, the father of the Rambam (Maimonides), who died on the day after Pessah, said Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar. But the true source of the word, he insisted, is from emuna - faith. Mimouna signifies faith in the redemption of the Jewish people, he said.
On the actual night of the Mimouna, Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger took the meaning of the word a step further, giving it a political slant by claiming that barring the last syllable, the word means funding (mimoun). Metzger voiced the hope that the incoming government would find sufficient funding to provide financial relief for the weakest sectors of society.
Like Amar, Metzger attended both events. At the first one, Amar, who has also tasted the bitter fruit of controversy and knows what it is like to be in the glare of an accusatory spotlight, greeted him as "my friend and colleague, the head of the Supreme Rabbinical Council."
"WHY IS this night different from all other nights?" former prime minister Shimon Peres asked on the actual night of the Mimouna in Jerusalem. No, it was not a delayed reaction to the Haggada.
"On all other nights," he continued, "we are a mix of different origins. Tonight we are all Moroccans." Peres was not the only guest of honor. Also present was US Senator
Joe Lieberman, whom Amar called "one of our most important friends in the United States."
Both Peres and Lieberman were enthusiastically applauded by the large crowd that squeezed into the lobby of the Great Synagogue before entering the synagogue proper to hear a concert by the Andalusia Orchestra, which will next week be awarded the Israel Prize. Lieberman and his wife Hadassah, who was also present, spent Pessah in Israel. Lieberman declared how proud he
was to salute the Moroccan and Sephardi communities in Israel "which helped to make Israel such a great country." He also said that in his family, Mimouna was special and important because he and his wife had been at a Mimouna celebration in Beit She'an when they received a telephone call from their son to tell them that their daughter-in-law had given birth to their grandson. As a US Senator, he said, and on behalf of all the members of the Senate, the president and the people of the United States, he wanted to assure the people of Israel that "we stand together with Israel yesterday, today and tomorrow. This is one thing that Democrats and Republicans stand firm on." To the delight of his audience, Lieberman started and concluded his speech with a few Hebrew words.
Even on Kol Nidre night, there are never as many people in the lobby of the Great Synagogue as there were on Mimouna night. Surprisingly, they did not eat all the delicacies that had been laid out on buffet tables, which were dangerously close to the glass cased displays of Judaica that line the lobby. Miraculously, nothing was broken. Although the crowd did not completely fill the synagogue, the attendance was far in excess of an average Shabbat, and the expressions of delight on people's faces as they listened to traditional North African melodies said it all.
IN NETIVOT, the focal point of this year's Mimouna festivities, US Ambassador Richard Jones, along with several members of the diplomatic community, was the guest of the Baba Baruch Abuhatzeira. It was here that Jones bit into his first moufleta, though presumably not his last.
For those readers who may not know what a moufleta is, it's a flattened ball of yeast dough that is usually fried in oil like a crepe and is then spread with butter, honey or confiture and cream to signify a rich, happy and sweet year. It is the first leavened food eaten at the close of Pessah.
ANNUAL AND semi-annual meetings that involve ambassadors and heads of missions of specific countries are par for the course in diplomatic life. This year, for the first time, the Swedish regional meeting is being held in Israel at the initiative of Swedish Ambassador Robert Rydberg. Rydberg says he had absolutely no trouble persuading his colleagues stationed in the Middle East and North Africa or the senior officials at home that Israel was a desirable venue.
"They were all enthusiastic," he said, pointing out there was natural curiosity about political developments both in Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Those diplomats working in countries which have no line of communication with Israel were particularly pleased to come here and meet with Israeli politicians and journalists. They arrived in Israel yesterday, coming from as far west as Rabat and as far east as Teheran. Those who came from Sweden include State Secretary for Migration and Asylum Policy Charlotte Svenson and State Secretary for International Development Cooperation Annika Soder. Rydberg is hosting a dinner this evening for all his colleagues plus some 30 non-Swedish invitees who include MKs, diplomats from other countries, senior academics and journalists. His only concern at this stage is the weather. The dinner is planned to be a garden affair at his Herzliya Pituah residence, but the weather forecast is for rain - so he may need to get hold of a tent in a hurry.
THE ISRAELI population is much more favorably disposed towards the Filipinos in its midst than is the Immigration Police, which is clamping down on Filipinos who are living in Israel without a work permit. Yet, despite some of the indignities suffered by Filipinos who have been arrested, the government of the Philippines is eager to welcome Israeli travelers to its shores. In line with a Philippines Tourism and Trade Promotion Campaign, "Shalom Filipinim," Ambassador Antonio Modena is this week hosting a cocktail reception on the Tel Aviv rooftop garden of the embassy.
MARCH OF the Living, arguably the most successful universal Jewish education project, this year included Jewish youth from Cuba and Morocco for the first time. The trip was the brainchild of current Tourism Minister Avraham Hirchson, president of March of the Living International, who was in Poland this week. Joining him were Interim Knesset Speaker Shimon Peres, who's grandfather was murdered in the Holocaust, and child Holocaust survivor Tel Aviv Chief Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, who has not missed a single March of the Living since its inception in 1988. Hirchson, 65, who was born in Tel Mond, does not have a direct family connection with the Holocaust, which makes his initiative all the more laudable.
INTERIM PRIME Minister Ehud Olmert knows most of Jerusalem like the back of his hand. During his years as mayor of the city, he toured almost every nook and cranny, but not under the same stringent security precautions that govern his life today.
Olmert is due to visit Heichal Shlomo on Thursday of this week. He has been there many times before, but this is probably the first time that tenants in the building have been asked to remove their cars from the car park before 2 p.m. so as to create a sterile area for Olmert and his entourage. Notices to this effect have been posted in various parts of the building.