Grapevine: Walking history

Shimon Peres meets Israeli POW Vets, Emunah wins Israel Prize, and art critic Mike Ronnen retires from the 'Post.'

shimon peres 88 224 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
shimon peres 88 224
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
'You are walking history," President Shimon Peres told members of Erim Balaila (Awake at Night), the Association of Israeli POW Veterans at Beit Hanassi last week. It was certainly not the first time that Peres had met with them or with members of the IDF Disabled War Veterans Association whose chairman, Moshe Matalon, was also present, along with Dr. Moti Zeira, director of Hamidrasha at Oranim College, and Raya Ofner, whose son, Avi, was one of 73 soldiers killed in the tragic 1997 helicopter crash. What they all had in common was a desire to foster patriotism and dialogue and to create awareness on a national scale of POWs and MIAs. They do this by developing walking trails across the length and breadth of Israel in which families and comrades of POWs, MIAs and soldiers who fell in all the wars in which Israel was engaged begin a memorial walk either in the extreme north or the extreme south of the country. They are joined in solidarity by people of all age groups from across the political spectrum and the ethnic divide. The families of the three abducted Israeli soldiers have also been included in their activities which give participants a renewed sense of belonging to their ancient homeland, an appreciation of the beauty of Israel and an understanding of the horrendous experiences of IDF veterans who were in Egyptian or Syrian captivity. Paraphrasing Lord Nelson, Peres said that history should not only be made, but recorded. In walking across Israel to tell their stories, the Israeli POW veterans were doing both. They had made history, and in telling their tales, were recording it for posterity. Most of the former POWs present were veterans of the Yom Kippur War, but some - such as Meir Moses - had been captured by the Syrians long before. Moses was part of a team that placed eavesdropping devices on Syrian phone lines. He was captured in December, 1954, together with Uri Ilan and others who were all brutally tortured. Ilan eventually committed suicide, but before doing so, placed notes in his pockets attesting to the fact that he had not betrayed his country. Moses was returned to Israel in 1956 after 16 months in captivity, and together with Meir Ya'akobi was tried for treason and demoted. Ya'akobi was subsequently killed in the Sinai campaign, and Moses endured many years of shame, until documents discovered during the Six Days War in 1967, indicated that both he and Ya'akobi had tried to kill themselves and their Syrian captors by walking into a minefield. Though exonerated, Moses did not receive a full pardon until 2005, when President Moshe Katsav righted the grievous wrong that had been done to him. Erim Balaila chairman Ram Doron, a former tank commander along the Suez Canal who was captured by the Egyptians and returned to Israel in November, 1973 along with others captured by Egypt and Syria recalled that when they came home, the State of Israel did not really know what to do with them. As a rule, he said, the outcome of war is death or disability. People knew how to deal with those issues, but they didn't know how to react to POWs and could not even begin to imagine what they had endured in terms of torture. Peres, who was then defense minister, and who had held intensive meetings with the returning POWs had enlightened the nation from the podium of the Knesset. The film of that address is still screened from time to time by Erim Balaila, said Doron, adding: "This organization showed the establishment how to deal with POWs." The Americans do it better, said Doron, noting that the US builds hospitals for and give grants to former POWs. They also honor MIAs and have introduced the whole subjects of POWs and MIAs into the school curriculum, he said. In Israel, the former POWs walk across the country, telling people who join them of their own experiences. Many of those to whom they have spoken were totally unaware of how many former POWs there are, or the nightmares they still suffer as a constant reminder of the barbaric tortures imposed on them. Matalon, after noting that disabled veterans and former POWs had paid a heavy price in demonstrating their loyalty to Israel, thanked Peres for his intervention on behalf of the disabled thereby assuring that all disabled IDF veterans will receive proper medical entitlements. When her son was killed, said Raya Ofner, "we had the choice of burying ourselves or doing something constructive in Avi's memory." They chose the latter course, and six years ago began the trail hikes purely as a family walk in memory of their loved one. To their surprise, they were joined by other families who'd lost a beloved son, by friends of the soldiers and by total strangers. "We were like one big extended family," she said. That family feeling spilled over to include the other organizations that honor and respect POWs and MIAs, and pay tribute to all those who died in defense of Israel over the past 60 years. The dialogue is important, she emphasized. People may argue vehemently on different issues, but the bottom line is that they all care. "We've met some absolutely wonderful people along the way," she said. "We've laughed with them, we've cried with them and we've danced with them." Ori Shahak, a former combat pilot who together with his navigator was taken prisoner by the Syrians during the Yom Kippur War in 1973, when his Phantom plane was downed on the Golan Heights, said that he had been tortured for eight months. The officers suffered the most, he said. Shahak showed Peres an Israeli flag that the officers had made out of bandages and ink while in captivity. They had flown it in secretly as POWs he said, but had later flown it proudly atop the Hermon on the 34th anniversary of the Yom Kippur War, and flew it again in Jerusalem on Friday to mark the 60th anniversary of the State in Israel's capital. Listening to the stories of individual POWs is an important lesson, he underscored. In Latrun, he said, they had met with a POW from the War of Independence, and had been mesmerized by his story, even though they all had stories of their own. "Everyone has a story," said Peres, "and each one is worth a book." From previous meetings with some of those present, he was well informed of their biographies, he said, and what they had revealed during this meeting was only the tip of the iceberg. Because he had also toured the country, he had discovered like the walkers that Israel is much better than its image and is filled with wonderful people who are willing to give of themselves. It was because of this selflessness and ongoing patriotism that Israel had become the miracle country that it is, Peres remarked. GOVERNOR OF the Bank of Israel Stanley Fischer had a busy morning on Tuesday. He was at Beit Hanassi at 8.30 a.m. to present the central bank's report for 2007 to President Peres and then rushed off to the Prime Minister's Office to present it to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, and finally to Finance Minister Ronnie Bar-On. Both Peres and Olmert are former finance ministers, so they had no difficulty in comprehending all the finer details of the report. While at Beit Hanassi, Fischer noticed that it had been redecorated, and commented favorably on the vast improvement to the small reception hall in which the presentation of the report was made. THE EMUNAH National Religious Women's Organization, one of eight groups and institutions that will receive the Israel Prize on Israel Independence Day, celebrated the honor accorded to it by announcing that it will enlarge its activities in the southern part of the country. Emunah has decided to establish additional day-care centers and educational facilities, to increase its funding of welfare and cultural activities and enlarge its family counseling network in the area. The Emunah executive held its meeting in Sderot last week under the heading: "We Are All Brethren." More than 200 Emunah members from across Israel participated, including the president of Emunah-Israel, Yehudith Huebner, chairperson Liora Minka, and her new deputy, Rina Wasserman, who is also the director of Emunah's Family Department. Emunah-Israel CEO David Hadari reported on how the organization was dealing with various security problems, especially with regard to the day care centers in Ashkelon, Netivot, Kfar Maimon and the settlements close to Gaza. Tami Beck, the director of The Sarah Ronson Crises and Intervention Center in Sderot, reported on the traumas experienced by both parents and children under the shadow of the "color red" alert. Yaffa Gisser, who heads the national service program Bat-Ami - run jointly by Emunah and Alumah - enlarged on the role that the Sherut Leumi (national service) volunteers play in the South and lauded their decision to remain in the danger zones in order to carry on their educational and social activities. These volunteers and their counselors received gifts and certificates of recognition from Emunah for their efforts. SDEROT HAS in recent months become the symbol of national unity. People on different sides of the political fence, of different ethnic backgrounds, of different faiths and of different streams of the same faith have all united to show solidarity with Sderot. Papouche Teperson of Kfar Shmaryahu was with the first huge convoy that brought people from all over the country to shop in Sderot for Shabbat. It was such a moving experience for her that when she returned to the quiet luxury of Kfar Shmaryahu, she rounded up a bunch of friends to contribute to pay for some of the basic needs in Sderot. She made contact with a young Chabadnik by the name of Zeev who lives in Sderot and asked him to suggest a project. Most children, he said, come from families too poor to be able to afford Purim costumes. He suggested that's what they should buy. He furnished them with the ages and sizes of recipients and they duly purchased 500 costumes, which they distributed in 14 kindergartens, arriving unannounced at each one to keep up the momentum of the surprise. After the first trip, they all wanted to go back, and this time they brought cosmetics and toiletries including baby wipes for young mothers. They also brought a lot of cash with them and went shopping in neighborhood stores rather than the city mall. Teperson was extremely moved when she entered the green grocer's store and asked him for a short list of the poorest of the poor, so as to pay for a week's supplies for them. He produced a notebook with some 50 names of which he gave her only a few. "He could have easily taken advantage of us, but he didn't," said Teperson who has been back several times and intends to keep doing so. In the local supermarket, the owner told the group from Kfar Shmaryahu that he tries inasmuch as possible to maintain the dignity of his clientele. Every week he distributes coupons worth NIS 200 each, for which he receives no recompense. The recipients then come with the coupons to make their purchases. Teperson has fallen in love with Sderot, partly because the people are not waiting for handouts and are busy helping each other. TRADITIONALLY, THE Government Press Office holds an annual New Year reception for the foreign media stationed in Israel. The reception, which used to be in a Jerusalem five-star hotel, is attended by the prime minister, who addresses the guests and fields questions. This year, the reception was much later than usual and the venue moved to the Bible Lands Museum so that participants could get a dose of culture with their politics. The food was much better too. GPO director Daniel Seaman explained that the reception had been delayed due to the arrival in January of US President George W. Bush and the busy schedule of Prime Minister Olmert. He also gave a lot more latitude to those who wanted to ask questions than he had done in the past - possibly because Olmert enjoys the repartee. Prior to Olmert's address and the question-and-answer session, Seaman added a touch of lightness to the occasion by playing a media-related segment of the acclaimed British TV series, "Yes, Prime Minister," in which Prime Minister Jim Hacker refers to the press. The text produced a number of belly laughs from the audience: "Don't tell me about the press. I know exactly who reads the papers: The Daily Mirror is read by people who think they run the country; The Guardian is read by people who think they ought to run the country; The Times is read by people who actually do run the country; The Daily Mail is read by the wives of the people who run the country; The Financial Times is read by people who own the country; The Morning Star is read by people who think the country ought to be run by another country; and The Daily Telegraph is read by people who think it is." The premier is then asked by Permanent Secretary Sir Humphrey Appleby: "Prime minister, what about the people who read the Sun?" To which there is an interjection by Principal Private Secretary Bernard Woolley: "Sun readers don't care who runs the country, as long as she's got big tits." ARRIVING EARLY at the home of Tel Aviv socialite Alice Krieger (who was hosting a dinner party for her long-time friends, eminent lawyers Michael and Sheila Fox, Yakar founder Rabbi Mickey Rosen found his hostess busy on the telephone. Not wanting to disturb her, he sat down on the living-room sofa and noticed a typed letter of several pages sitting atop the coffee table. He reached for it and became so engrossed with the contents that he barely noticed that Krieger had entered the room. He didn't look the least bit embarrassed that she had caught him reading her mail - and indeed there was no reason for him to be embarrassed. What he'd been reading was a print-out of the regular on-line newsletter put out by his older brother, Rabbi Jeremy Rosen, whose approach to the Torah is based on an openness to different worlds, cultures and ideas, tolerance of other people and other viewpoints, flexibility of lifestyle within the bounds of halacha and balance between the various ideologies of Torah. Indeed, some of the dinner-table conversation flowed along these lines, but a lot of it was also taken up with the intolerable problems that Krieger has with her German neighbor, a Brunhilde type, who though she lives in an upscale neighborhood, has taken it upon herself to feed all the stray cats in Tel Aviv, and leaves food for them near Krieger's doorstep. Krieger's front door faces the street. The cats have ruined her garden, and when she made the mistake of leaving a carpet in her backyard, they scratched it threadbare. While the matter of the cats is now in court, the Brunhilde lady has not only engaged one of Tel Aviv's leading lawyers, she has also managed to persuade him that cats more than dogs are man's best friend - and now he's surrounded by feline friends! CZECH MINISTER of Defense Vlasta Parkanová and her entourage were not the only Czech VIPs visiting Israel this week. Other visitors from the Czech Republic were impresario Ludomir Herza, who arranges concerts and music festivals all over Eastern Europe, and celebrated pianist Jan Simon, who is one of his country's best-known contemporary performers. Jerusalem-based composer, conductor and musician Elli Jaffe, who knows the two Czechs from way back (having conducted the Boston Symphony Orchestra when Simon was playing, and having his own appearances in Eastern Europe in general and the Czech Republic in particular organized by Herza), held a reception for them in his home, where most of the invitees had either Czech or musical connections or both. Among those present was former Israel ambassador to the Czech Republic, Moshe Yegar, who in September, 1995, organized an extremely well- received festival on The Bible in the Arts. Jaffe, who is dedicated to the development of young artistic talents, introduced his guests to budding pianist Talia Amar, who has played with the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra, the Israel Chamber Orchestra and the Rishon Lezion Chamber Orchestra; and to the famed 15-year-old Gurfinkel twins Daniel and Alexander, who performed on the clarinet only a few hours before boarding a plane for Hong Kong where they are performing this week. The long-haired, bespectacled twins are identical, and aside from their inherited gift for the clarinet, are an attraction as performers because it's almost impossible to tell them apart. IT'S DIFFICULT to reach consensus on what were the greatest inventions of the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries, but there would doubtless be a lot of people who would give high marks to anything that records for posterity - the faces and voices of loved ones and of the famous. Not all loved ones are famous, but most famous people have families who love them. Among Israel's world-famous figures was the late Chaim Herzog, Israel's sixth president, who died in April, 1997. His widow, Aura Herzog, and other members of his family were pleased and proud to receive a CD album titled "Speeches that changed the world," with genuine recordings of famous speeches introduced by acclaimed historian Simon Sebag Montefiore, whose books are published in 27 languages. The album includes the speech made at the United Nations by Herzog in November, 1975 when he dramatically tore up the resolution equating Zionism with racism. Other speeches on the two CDs were made by Neville Chamberlain, Winston Churchill, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Jawaharial Nehru, General Douglas Macarthur, Nelson Mandela, John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jnr., Richard M. Nixon, Mother Teresa, Ronald Reagan, F.W. de Clerk and George W. Bush. The producers of the album obviously regard Churchill as the best of speech makers. The album includes three of his speeches. WHEN THE IBA News' Steve Leibowitz was thinking about getting married, he invited his future mother-in-law to come to Israel from New York for the 50th birthday of her daughter, Jerusalem Post columnist and section editor Ruthie Blum. After the party, all three went to Eilat where Leibowitz casually took the opportunity to say to Blum's mother: "If we decide to get married, can we have the ceremony in your house?" The reply was naturally in the affirmative, as was Blum's. The couple intends to have two weddings - one in New York and the other in Jerusalem at the Kraft Family Stadium, which Leibowitz has turned into a second home for sports lovers, especially American expats and their kids. The nuptials have been tentatively planned for September. ONLY TWO members of the editorial staff of The Jerusalem Post have been at the paper for more than half a century, and both are octogenarians. In an era of constant change in which people swap jobs in an ongoing game of musical chairs, it is quite a feat to remain in the same place of employ for decades. However, as of this week, only Alexander Zvielli, the walking archive of the paper, will continue in the tradition. The Warsaw-born Zvielli, who will be 87 this month, has been a Post employee for 62 years. Australian-born art critic Meir Ronnen, announced his retirement after almost six decades on the job. Ronnen, who will be 82 in December, was treated to a sumptuous send-off by the staff of the Post in Romema on Tuesday. He said although he had been given at least three retirement parties in the past, he was very touched because it was the first time that the staff rather than management had organized such an event. He thanked the staff for their kindnesses and said they had given him a reason for coming to work every day. And he promised to come back and visit. Jerusalem Post Managing Editor Steve Linde proved that he had something of the bard in him by writing a poem in fealty to Ronnen, in which one of the verses ran: "We love and hate him for being here so long; for not always being right, but never being wrong. He has served as the Post's supreme ombudsman, Pointing to errors wherever they're done...." Indeed, Ronnen is known by all as a perfectionist - and he's bound to have a perfect retirement.