LEGENDARY BOXING promoter Don King, who voted for Barack Obama, in an interview on Channel 1 with Yaacov Ahimeir, credited George W. Bush for paving the way for Obama's victory by appointing Condoleezza Rice as Secretary of State and Colin Powell as the first black Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Rice echoed that sentiment when she arrived in Jerusalem earlier this month, but it seems that she and King, as well as many Obama supporters, have forgotten their history. Rice and Powell were not the first people of color to hold high office in the US. While Afro-Americans were and to some extent continue to be victims of discriminatory practice, there were exceptions to the rule. One of the most notable was Ralph Bunche, diplomat, statesman and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, who just over 60 years ago - long before Martin Luther King's "I have a dream" oration was eternally enshrined in the crown of spectacular rhetoric - became the first Afro-American desk officer at the State Department as head of the Division of Dependent Affairs. It was in that capacity that he helped to draft the UN Charter. In 1947 he joined the United Nations, and was promptly appointed director of the Trustee Division that helped to establish territorial guidelines for emerging nations seeking independence. In mid-1947, he was appointed assistant to the UN Special Committee on Palestine, and subsequently became secretary to the UN Palestine Commission, which had been charged with implementing the partition plan that had been voted in by the UN General Assembly. In 1949, he negotiated an armistice between Israel and the neighboring Arab states. Prior to joining the UN, Bunche, as a member of the "Black Cabinet," was consulted on minority issues by president Franklin Roosevelt. When president Harry Truman came to power he offered Bunche the position of assistant secretary of state, but Bunche declined because of the segregated housing policy that was still in force in Washington. In 1965, he marched in Alabama with Martin Luther King Jr. He continued with his UN activities, and for three years prior to his retirement in 1971 he served as UN undersecretary general, the highest ranking position held by any American at the UN. Not bad for someone who was orphaned at the age of 11, grew up in the slums of Detroit and won an athletic scholarship to UCLA. He later went to Harvard, where in 1934 he became the first Afro-American to earn a Ph.D. Without detracting from George W. Bush, or from Martin Luther King Jr., or even from Jesse Jackson, who in 1984 was a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, it was Bunche who first paved the way for Obama.
WITH REGARD to King and Obama, Rabbi Levi Weiman-Kelman, the American-born and raised founder and spiritual leader of Jerusalem's Kol HaNeshama congregation, was tremendously enthused by Obama's triumph, which in a sense took him back to his boyhood, especially since it fitted in so well with last week's Lech Lecha Torah portion. Like Abraham the Patriarch, who left the familiar for the uncertain and the unknown and embarked on something new and for him uncharted, so Barack Obama is taking a new path in his quest for change. Kelman was almost euphoric and showed congregants two framed photographs which he keeps in his office. One is of Rabbi Joshua Heschel, one of the outstanding Jewish theologians of the 20th century, marching with King in Selma, and another is of Heschel, King and Kelman's late father, Rabbi Wolfe Kelman, who was one of the great leaders of Conservative Judaism. In the last year of King's life, Heschel had invited King to join him at his Passover Seder. King had accepted, but an assassin's bullet, only slightly before Passover, made his attendance impossible. From that Passover onwards, Kelman's family instituted a Seder night tradition of singing "We shall overcome" when they opened the door for Elijah the Prophet.
ONE OF the most sought after people in Jerusalem in the early hours of Wednesday morning of last week was US Ambassador James B. Cunningham.
The US Embassy had set up an election night monitoring system in one of the larger reception halls of the King David Hotel, with breakfast available to anyone who stopped by.
The breakfast invitation was for 7 a.m., but some people got there earlier and others - mostly Americans - kept drifting in for more than an hour later. American and Israeli journalists were interviewing each other about the election results, and buttonholing members of the US Embassy to get their take on the situation.
There were also several members of Knesset such as Rabbi Michael Melchior, as well as a strong showing of senior representatives of numerous American headquartered organizations with branches in Israel, who stood in clusters pondering over America's new reality and the realization that at long last the dream voiced by Martin Luther King Jr. - that the day would come when people would be judged by the content of their character and not by the color of their skin - had arrived.
When President-elect Barack Obama appeared on the large television screens that had been strategically placed in different parts of the room, the chatter died down as everyone gathered to hear an historic victory address that was a preface to the turning of the tide of history. It should be remembered that Obama is only the president-elect. He is not yet the President. He will take his oath of office on January 20. The tears that glistened on many cheeks at the King David matched those of people standing in the crowd in Chicago's Grant Park as Obama spoke.
Soon afterwards Cunningham, flanked by several security personnel, entered the room and pumped a lot of palms as he made his way to the podium. His remarks were brief, poignant and reassuring.
Declaring that it was a proud day in American history and part of a process, Cunningham did not forget to say a good word about John McCain, whom he lauded for "his incredibly gracious concession speech."
Although he could not speak for the incoming administration, said Cunningham, he could say that Obama is determined to bring about peace and security in the region. "He will be a great friend of Israel," he said.
No sooner did he step away from the microphone, than Cunningham was besieged by reporters with video cameras and recording devices, and although embassy staff and security personnel tried to extricate him from the news hungry media hounds, reporters and cameramen kept coming at him from all directions.
Traditionally, US ambassadors all over the world resign when a new administration takes over, especially when the new president is not a member of the same party as his predecessor. "It's a pro-forma letter," US Embassy spokesman Stewart Tuttle told The Jerusalem Post, adding that the president does not have to accept it and does not always accept it. Meanwhile, the Embassy expects Cunningham to be at the helm for the foreseeable future and is carrying on with business as usual.
Tuttle anticipated that the letter of resignation would be sent just a few days prior to Obama's inauguration.
President Shimon Peres tried to get in touch with Obama immediately after it was confirmed that he would be the next president of the United States, but found it impossible and conveyed congratulations via one of Obama's senior aides. He also sent a letter to Obama in which he wrote: "Dear Mr. President, The world needs a great leader. It is in your making. It is in our prayers. God bless you."
Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger said that while it was deplorable that a Yeshiva student had pilfered the note that Obama had placed in a crevice of the Western Wall when candidate Obama visited in July, he had been happy to learn the contents of the note because it indicated that Obama was a God-fearing man and a believer.
(The note read: "Lord, Protect my family and me. Forgive me my sins and help me guard against pride and despair.Give me the wisdom to do what is right and just, and make me an instrument of your will.")
"Whoever believes in God and thinks in this manner, will succeed. It's a message to the world," said Metzger.
"From the heart of the Holy City of Jerusalem, I wish him every success," said Shas leader Eli Yishai, adding that he was certain that Obama would be good for Israel and the Jewish people because "he is a man who seeks peace and we always ask for peace in our prayers." Pressed as to how he would respond if Obama urged the division of Jerusalem, Yishai said: "I don't want to predict what Obama will do, but I know that we will be protected by the Almighty."
ON THAT same Wednesday, Peres hosted a ceremony at Beit Hanassi for the installation of the new Chief Rabbinate Council which includes Israel Prize laureate Rabbi Yitzhak Dovid Grossman, Rabbis Shmuel Eliahu, Yaacov Shapira and Avraham Yosef, who are all the sons of former Chief Rabbis of Israel, Rabbis Yosef Glicksberg and Yitzhak Raalbag, former government minister and MK Yitzhak Peretz, Ratzon Arusi, Yaacov Rosze, Shimon Elituv, Shlomo Chelouche and Yehuda Deri, who is the brother of former Shas leader Arye Deri. The ceremony was held in the presence of Chief Rabbis Shlomo Amar and Yona Metzger, Religious Affairs Minister Yitzhak Cohen and Vice Premier Yishai, who was there as head of the Shas Party. Amar urged the Council members to work together as one man with one heart for the glory of God and the Torah. Metzger drew attention to the fact that over the past decade rabbis dying or going out on pension have not been replaced and asked that Peres intercede with the new government to ensure that this trend does not continue. He also told the rabbis to act with firm resolve but not without compassion, and suggested that just as the religious community practices the age-old custom of counseling with its elders, the community at large should set up a council of elders and benefit from their sagacity and their experience.
Cohen reminded the incoming Chief Rabbinate Council that the Chief Rabbis' Law states that before reaching a decision, a rabbi must give consideration to 200 halachic opinions related to the case.
Peres was confident that the Council members would work together in outreach programs aimed at bringing Jewish heritage and Torah values to young people.
He also advocated a separation of religion and politics, saying that the two don't mix.
CONVENTIONAL WISDOM says that one should not ask a woman her age, but when she's 92, still active, wearing elegant high-heeled shoes and sporting a perfect manicure, it's a little difficult to refrain from remarking on her age and abilities. At the gala opening of Mifgash, the triennial meeting of the International Women's Division of Keren Hayesod Women, Dr. Sara Dumont of Mexico was one of two women who received an Or Le'Atid (Light for the Future) award, an initiative of the Mexican Division of the Lions of Judah, which is a special unit of Keren Hayesod women who are this year saluting 60 new immigrant women in tribute to Israel's 60th anniversary. As Dumont, or Sarita as she is widely known in Mexico, approached the stage to receive her award, a shout of approval, followed by cheers and long and loud applause, came from the Mexican table.
Dumont's popularity is hardly surprising. Born in Uman in the Ukraine, she went to elementary school in Russia and at age 11 migrated with her mother and aunt to Mexico where she had relatives. After graduating in engineering and chemistry, she decided that she wanted a career in medicine and in 1936 was admitted to the National Autonomous University, which was then the country's most prestigious institute for higher education. In 1943, after graduating with honors, she decided to specialize in gynecology and pediatrics. In the same year she married Dr. Felix Dumont, who held degrees in engineering and law. When her only son Jose, who died three months ago, was an infant, she completed her internship working with undernourished children at the Mexican Red Hospital.
A year prior to her marriage, she had joined OSE, a Mexican welfare organization that cared for Jewish refugee children who had somehow been taken out of Europe. In 1950, as the first Jewish female pediatrician in Mexico, she co-founded OSE's pediatrics department. She later became involved with B'nai B'rith, was a long time president of its women's division and is currently honorary president. In 1946, she went into private practice, but also did volunteer work with the Red Cross. She was subsequently a founder of the Mexican Committee of Magen David Adom and the Friends of Magen David Adom and continues to be president of both. She has worked for numerous Mexican and Israeli organizations and institutions and represents the Mexican Council of Jewish Women at Keren Hayesod.
When she was young, Dumont said, few women were admitted to university and most were thus denied the professional skills with which they could make contributions to the communities and their country. She was happy to note that this is no longer the case and that the advancement of women is much less of a challenge than it used to be. As she made her way back to the table, the other Mexicans rushed forward to embrace her.
Also at the dinner was Israeli businesswoman and philanthropist Galia Albin, who disclosed that, like the state, she turned 60 this year. In Israel she said, it is impossible to hide one's age, "because people remember you from school and from the army."
South African new immigrant Bella Simon, whose field is business management, sat at the same table as an International Women's Division member from Italy, who on learning that the petite, pretty and charming Simon is 34, exclaimed "the same age as my son - and he's not married." The two exchanged phone numbers...
ISRAEL'S AMBASSADOR to Egypt Shalom Cohen has incurred the wrath of a judge who lives in the same building as the gym in which Cohen works out twice a day. According to a report in Yediot Aharonot, Cohen's security detail does not allow the judge to enter or leave the building at the same time as the ambassador, who used to work out in the gym at the American School until it was closed for renovations. Someone familiar with the situation found it difficult to believe that the ambassador had enough time on his hands to work out twice a day - but more important noted that there are fitness facilities in the ambassador's residence that are used by both the ambassador and the security detail, and therefore there was no valid reason for annoying the judge.
AFTER MORE than five years in Israel, Croatian Ambassador Ivan Del Vechio was transferred to Warsaw, and left at the end of last week. Like most departing ambassadors, he was feted at a series of farewell parties, but the one he hosted himself at the Sharon Hotel in Herzliya Pituah was probably the most emotional. A popular man, who worked hard to foster good relations between Croatia and Israel, Del Vechio was also known as a good tennis player. At the peak of the intifada, when there were terrible scenes on television, he had been given a choice of three diplomatic destinations - two of them in Europe, but he had opted for Israel, "and I have never regretted my choice," he said.
He was particularly appreciative of the assistance he had received from the Protocol Office of the Foreign Ministry, he said, and cited its two most senior officers, Yitzhak Eldan and Nitza Raz. On the political scene, he singled out Ministers Haim Ramon and Meir Sheetrit, MKs Colette Avital and Elhanan Glazer and Jerusalem Mayor Uri Lupolianski. In the business world he had established friendships with Yossi Peled, President of the Israel-Croatia Chamber of Commerce, Alfred Akirov and Rafi Ungar. He had also been closely involved with the Association of Serbian and Croatian Jews, one of whose leading members, Miriam Steiner-Aviezer lauded him for coming to every meeting of the Association. Eldan declared that he was revoking Del Vechio's diplomatic passport so that he would be unable to leave the country, "because you are persona grata." Peled said that what Del Vechio had done for both Croatia and Israel was beyond description.
IT'S SELDOM easy for a new ambassador to acclimatize quickly. There are too many new faces, too many new customs and a foreign language. But Latvian ambassador-designate Martins Perts had a tougher time than some of his colleagues. His Foreign Minister Maris Riekstins was supposed to attend the 90th anniversary celebrations of Latvia's independence - but because of a crisis on the home front, he didn't arrive. In addition, no minister was available so Perts had to make do with Foreign Ministry deputy director-general Pinchas Avivi (who to be honest, does a much better and more sincere job than many of the ministers). As if that was not enough, Perts was scheduled to present his credentials to President Peres on Thursday, but Peres had to fly to New York, so the ceremony has been postponed to the first week in December.
Nonetheless, the reception was a very pleasant affair and well attended by the diplomatic community, church leaders and Latvian expatriates. Elie Valk, chairman of the Association of Latvian and Estonian Jews, gave Perts a warm welcome. Perts commented that although Latvia is also celebrating the 16th anniversary of diplomatic relations with Israel, its diplomatic contacts with the Holy Land date back to 1928. He noted that Israel was one of the first countries to establish diplomatic relations with Latvia after his country regained independence.
THERE IS a degree of flexibility in planning National Day receptions because there are myriad reasons for ambassadors' inability to host them on the correct date. If it had been entirely up to her, Polish Ambassador Agnieszka Magdziak Miszewska would not have had her country's national day reception on Kristallnacht. One reason is obvious: She did not want to offend anyone's sensibilities. The second reason was that it was Sunday and many of her diplomatic colleagues are Catholics who go to Mass on Sunday. She couldn't very well ask them not to forsake the Church in favor of her reception. The next night there was the Rabin memorial at Beit Hanassi and following that there was Gateway and the Prime Minister's Conference, then Lion of Judah. She had initially thought of November 6, but former Latvian ambassador Karlis Eihenbaums had booked the hotel banquet room for his successor on that date, so there was no alternative but Sunday.
At the entrance to the Dan Panorama banquet hall in Tel Aviv there was a display of photographs and documents attesting to Jewish participation in the Polish Army during World War II, as well as the suffering endured by Jews when the Nazis conquered Poland. Magdziak Miszewska spoke about what it been like for Poles first under the Nazi yoke and then the Russian occupation and of the 20 years of rebuilding relations with Israel since Poland regained its freedom. At the conclusion of her address, she asked her guests to observe a moment of silence in respect and remembrance of Kristallnacht.
Representing the government was Vice Prime Minister Haim Ramon, who said that although his parents were Polish Holocaust survivors, they never spoke Polish at home, which was why he was unable to address the gathering in that language. Both Ramon and the ambassador referred to the visit to Israel by Polish President Lech Kaczynski, who had come with other dignitaries from abroad to attend Peres's conference in honor of Israel's 60th anniversary. Ramon also mentioned visits to Israel by other high level Polish dignitaries and expressed the hope that problems related to Jewish property rights in Poland would soon be resolved. In mentioning the visits by Israeli high school students to Poland to learn of the history of Polish Jews during the Holocaust, Ramon said that such visits were not only for the purpose of visiting the camps, but also for coming face to face with the new Poland.
Entertainment was provided by Polish born rock musician Ephraim Shamir who was expelled from Poland when a teenager, but who earlier this year had his citizenship restored and was given the red carpet treatment in the land of his birth.
The Polish Embassy is very much involved with Tel Aviv's 100th anniversary celebrations that begin next year and also with the preparations to mark the 70th anniversary of the Nazi invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939. Meanwhile, according to the ambassador, young Poles are associating themselves with efforts to release Gilad Schalit.
DEVOTEES OF Shlomo Carlebach, the singing rabbi whose melodies resonate in synagogues around the world, will assemble at his graveside in Jerusalem on Thursday to mark the 14th anniversary of his passing. In the evening they will gather at Yakar to discuss his teachings and his abiding influence, after which everyone will join in a Carlebach kumzitz led by Yehuda Katz, who traveled to many parts of the world with Carlebach and sang with him in front of audiences who barely knew what it meant to be Jewish. Carlebach was a strong believer in the ability of music to stir the soul and with his music brought many estranged young Jews back into the fold.