Grapevine: A conference that attracts the crowd

Immediately afterward she will fly to France to attend the annual general meeting of the Jewish Agency Board of Governors.

Dr. Ruth Westheimer at JPost Annual Conference (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Dr. Ruth Westheimer at JPost Annual Conference
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
The excitement at the New York Marriott Marquis hotel Sunday morning was palpable. It was the opening day of the fifth annual Jerusalem Post Conference, and people who had been at one or more of the previous ones were lined up in anticipation before 7:30 a.m., even though the conference was not due to start till 9 a.m.
Several of the people wanted the opportunity to speak to former Jerusalem Post editor- in-chief Steve Linde, before he went on stage as moderator. They had met him at previous conferences and wanted to tell him how much they appreciated him. Linde was inundated with good wishes, both in person and on his Facebook page, and also received high praise from his successor, Yaakov Katz, from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a video broadcast and from Ambassador to the US Ron Dermer, who commended him for putting a firewall between news and opinion, which he said was all too rare in today’s media.
Katz, who announced that he was thrilled that Linde was staying on in a different capacity, introduced Dermer and listed some of the aspects of his background, but omitted to say that Dermer was also a former columnist for The Jerusalem Post – information that Dermer himself supplied before congratulating Katz on his new position.
■ AMONG THE 1,500 people present was Marlene Post, whose many Zionist hats include that of past national president of Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America. Post is in and out of Israel like a yo-yo, and is due to arrive again in June for the Genesis Prize award ceremony at which the honoree will be brilliant, Tel Avivborn violinist Itzhak Perlman, who lives in New York and frequently returns to Israel to conduct master classes for promising young musicians.
Immediately afterward she will fly to France to attend the annual general meeting of the Jewish Agency Board of Governors.
■ ALSO PRESENT was veteran travel agent Joseph Rapaport, who has been in business since 1969, specializing in discount air fares.
Rapaport, 75, has been to Israel many times and would like to spend six months a year in the Jewish homeland, but has trouble convincing his wife. A keen world traveler, he’s visited 136 countries altogether, and has been at all five Jerusalem Post conferences in the Big Apple. The son of secular communists, he is a committed right-winger, who regularly attends services at the B’nai Jeshurun Synagogue. Asked who he intends to vote for in the US presidential elections, he declared that he would vote for Donald Trump “with both hands.” He’s also a devoted fan of Post columnist Caroline Glick, of whom he said, “She’s my hero.”
■ ATTRACTING CONSIDERABLE attention was die-hard Republican Ariel Kahane, whose jacket was covered with metal badges for various right-wing causes, including one that indicated his support for Trump. Kahane is also a member of the Tea Party and, among other things, is busy drumming up support for physicist, lawyer and entrepreneur Philip J. Rosenthal, who’s running for Congress.
Rosenthal was also at the conference, as was computer expert Alan Bemben, who is the head of the Brooklyn branch of the Tea Party. Bemben purchased a copy of the Post coffee-table book Israel in Focus, featuring photographs by the paper’s chief photographer, Marc Israel Sellem, and chased an exhausted Sellem at the end of the day to get him to personally dedicate and autograph the book.
■ ON THE subject of books, Jerusalem Post Managing Editor David Brinn, who was also in New York, paid a visit to Barnes and Noble at Union Station to check out the latest offerings and, to his surprise and delight, discovered among the many volumes on the shelves of B&N the book that he co-authored with Alex Kerten, Goodbye Parkinson’s, Hello Life! Brinn subsequently presented a copy of the book to renowned sexologist Dr. Ruth Westheimer during the conference.
■ WESTHEIMER, WHO will be in Israel this week to promote her own book The Doctor is In, will celebrate her 88th birthday on June 4.
The subject of her age came up in an on-stage interview with Linde, who, when describing her, spoke of her long love affair with Israel.
To which the inimitable Dr. Ruth responded: “I love it when they say love affair to someone who will be 88 on June 4.” She also boasted with a chuckle: “My name is still at the King David on the floor.” To elaborate, the King David hotel in Jerusalem has large facsimiles of the signatures of some of its most famous guests over the years reproduced along the main corridor of the entrance lobby, and Dr.
Ruth, who travels to Israel at least once every year, has been a frequent guest.
Westheimer and Linde have known each other for some time, and are mutually admiring of each other. On learning that Linde has stepped down from the top job at the Post, Westheimer exclaimed: “Don’t retire, rewire,” and asked him to join her in an educational project whereby Jewish children in Israel will learn more about Arab culture, and Arab children will learn more about Jewish culture.
Westheimer initially refused to talk about the three-letter word on which she made her reputation, or more accurately, she talked around it, and succeeded in embarrassing Linde several times, but she finally did come out with it.
Though in Europe during the Second World War, the Frankfurt-born Westheimer does not call herself a Holocaust survivor but a Holocaust orphan, whose family were all murdered in Auschwitz. She spent the war years in Switzerland, and thus was saved.
She subsequently came to Israel and, petite though she is, fought in the War of Independence and was badly injured. “I can still put five bullets inside that red circle, and I can still put a Sten gun together,” she declared.
■ FIRST-TIME VISITORS to the conference were Marc and Chantal Belzberg, who are the key activists in OneFamily, the organization that for a decade-and-a-half has helped victims of terrorism and their families in restoring their spark of life. The Belzbergs thought it was a great conference and will definitely be back next year. They were only sorry that the date had not been announced so that they could put it in their diary.
Meanwhile, they intend to be at the Post’s annual Diplomatic Conference, which will take place at the Jerusalem Waldorf Astoria toward the end of this year.
■ ANY EXCUSE for the Post’s correspondents living abroad to meet with their Israel colleagues is a good one, but for Michael Wilner, the paper’s Washington bureau chief, it was a triple whammy. He came to New York to be part of the reporting team for the conference, met several Israeli colleagues and celebrated his 27th birthday at View, the rotating rooftop restaurant and bar of the Marriott.
■ “THE GREEN Prince” is the self-applied sobriquet of Mosab Hassan Yousef, the renegade son of a Hamas leader, Sheikh Hassan Yousef, who spent 16 months in an Israeli prison, saw the light, and at various times found himself in the employ of the Palestinians, Hamas, the Israelis and the Americans.
The good-looking, charismatic Yousef, with the engaging sense of humor and the dramatic aura of a pop star reminiscent of the late Michael Jackson, received a standing ovation as he walked across the stage waving to the crowd, and another when he concluded his address.
But in conversations among clusters of the audience afterward, the most oft-repeated question was how come he’s still living? In Muslim circles, anyone who betrays the family, the faith, the movement or the ideology is usually destined for execution. Yousef’s story is well known and it appears on the Internet.
Even though he is reportedly well guarded, it seems strange that he has managed to survive for so long.
One of the more impressive things about him is the richness of his English, which in part he credited to the Post, which he first began reading in prison 20 years ago. Initially, his main purpose for reading the Post was to improve his English, but it opened a window for him to Israeli life and policies, which gave him a completely different perspective to that with which he had been brainwashed since birth.
Through the Post he also learned a lot about the West. Here, too, the reality was at odds with the brainwashing. During the period that he lived in Tel Aviv, he practiced both Christianity and yoga. In the final analysis, he converted to Christianity. Through his intelligence service, he said, he had seen the Jewish nation as “the only light in the Middle East in an ocean of darkness.”
Everyone attending the conference had to wear name tags and color-coded wrist bands.
Starting off on a light tone, Yousef said: “They gave me a tag stating ‘Son of Hamas,’ and I went through security all the way to back stage.” Later he spiced his very passionate and serious address with anti-Palestinian jokes, the last one being that an Israeli and a Palestinian who were working together on a construction project had the same lunch every day. The Israeli had shwarma, and the Palestinian falafel. One day the Israeli said: “If I have a shwarma sandwich one more time, I’m going to jump off the roof and kill myself.” The Palestinian said: “If I have a falafel sandwich one more time, I’m going to jump off the roof and kill myself.” Sure enough, the following day, each had the same sandwich as on every previous occasion, and each jumped off the roof and was killed. At the funeral, the wife of the Israeli wept, saying that she couldn’t understand why he had never told her that he didn’t like shwarma. Had he done so, she would have given him something else. The wife of the Palestinian wept, saying she couldn’t understand why he had killed himself, because the fact was that he made his own sandwiches.
■ IT WAS only natural, given the government shake-up and the resignation from politics by Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, that the subject would come up again and again during the conference. Nearly all the Israeli speakers and panelists were asked to comment, and the consensus was that it was a shame that Ya’alon had opted to resign after having served the state so well in the IDF, the Knesset and the government. The general feeling was one of hope that he would eventually return to the political arena.
Only one person absolutely refused to comment on Ya’alon, and that was MK Anat Berko, who was on a panel on terrorism but was in a hurry to catch a plane. When asked about Ya’alon by moderator Katz, she emitted a long “Ooooh, I didn’t come to talk about that. I came to talk about terrorism.”
Then, for the umpteenth time, she spoke of her meeting with Hamas founder Ahmed Yassin – a subject that has become the mainstay of any address that she gives on terrorism. Important as that meeting was, it should be taken into account that Yassin died 12 years ago! ■ INCLUSIVENESS OF people who are not halachically Jewish but who regard themselves as Jews was another subject discussed at the conference. Yesh Atid MK Elazar Stern said that there should be as few obstacles as possible in the path of the conversion process.
Shalom Norman, of the Jerusalem-based Triguboff Foundation, warned that if such people are not given Jewish identity, and if conversion is not conducted in a more inclusive way, Israel will lose the demography battle. Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, recalled that his predecessor, the late Rabbi Alexander Schindler, practiced outreach to products of mixed marriages who were not halachically Jewish and welcomed the whole family.
Thanks to actor and producer Michael Douglas, who was last year’s recipient of the Genesis Prize, there are now several Jewish Funders Network projects aimed at encouraging inclusiveness and the exploration of Jewish roots. Birthright, since its inception, has brought numerous young people who are products of mixed marriages and who are not necessarily halachically Jewish to Israel, in order to generate in them something of their Jewish heritage. Despite the fact that Birthright has resulted in an upsurge in Jewish identity and in aliya, this is apparently not reflected on college campuses across America. “Where are the Birthright youngsters in the battle against BDS [the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement]?” asked Norman.
Coincidentally, on the plane returning to Israel, the writer of this column was seated alongside Ally Turkheimer, the Birthright coordinator for Maryland, who was bringing a large contingent of youngsters from Maryland to Birthright Israel Week in Tel Aviv.
A high percentage of the group members were products of mixed marriages, she said.
She also defended Birthright activities on campus, saying some 30 Birthright leaders do initiate anti-BDS activities on campus, but unfortunately most of the Jewish students who go to college have not been sufficiently educated about the facts in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and are therefore vulnerable to anti-Israel propaganda.
Former government minister Gideon Sa’ar, who spoke at the conference, warned that in addition to the battle for identity, Israel may lose the battle for Jerusalem, which is not being waged militarily or diplomatically but politically and demographically. In 1967, following the reunification of Jerusalem, he said Jews accounted for 74 percent of the population and Arabs for 26%. Today, Jews have slipped to 62% and Arabs have increased to 38%. Within 15 to 17 years, he predicted, there will be an Arab majority in Jerusalem.
“One day we will wake up and Jerusalem will not be in our hands.”
■ HOWEVER, A battle that has been won is yet another battle for inclusiveness, which may include people who are not halachically Jewish but which is first and foremost directed toward people with special needs who want to contribute to the state by serving in any possible capacity in the IDF.
They are being aided in the realization of this ambition by the Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael- Jewish National Fund. Yossi Kahana, the New York-based director of the JNF’s Task Force on Disabilities, told conference participants that the JNF is proud to support a program that invests in the weakest members of society and makes it a better society.
Education Minister Naftali Bennett, who had been scheduled to address the conference but backed out in the wake of the government upheaval, was shown on video with some of the soldiers with disabilities.
It’s not only an amazing opportunity for the kids, he said, but also an amazing gift to the soldiers of the IDF. By the way, these very special soldiers continue to contribute to the best of their abilities when they return to civilian life. Their service in the IDF enables them to adjust better to, and to be more easily accepted by, mainstream society.
■ PERHAPS IT’S a good thing that not all the 159 countries with which Israel has full diplomatic relations have resident ambassadors in Israel, and of those that do, it is just as well that not all of them hold receptions to celebrate their national days. As it is, there seems to be great difficulty in coordinating events to avoid clashes.
A case in point is June 2. British Ambassador David Quarrey is hosting a reception and talk for the Israel Britain and the Commonwealth Association at the British Residence. At approximately the same time, Ethiopian Ambassador Helawe Yosef is hosting a National Day reception at the Dan Panorama Hotel in Tel Aviv; and on the same date, at the same time, Italian Ambassador Francesco Maria Talo is hosting a National Day reception at the Italian residence in Ramat Gan. People invited to two if not all three of these events would have a difficult time in getting to more than one, especially on a Thursday, when traffic congestion in these areas is horrendous. Those invited to all three may have to decide on only one or none.
Just over a week later, Russian Ambassador Alexander Shein and Philippines Ambassador Neal Imperial celebrate the national days of their respective countries on the same day, but they reached an agreement to have the receptions on different days.
■ MEMBERS OF The Jerusalem Rotary Club last week celebrated the 90th birthday of one of its former presidents, Werner Loval, who held office in 1976. Born in Germany, from which he was able to escape after the Hitler regime came to power, he has lived in Europe, Latin America, North America and Israel. A born activist who has embraced many causes over the years, he has been a diplomat and a Realtor who founded the famed Anglo-Saxon real estate company, which invited Jews around the world to have a foothold in Israel. He was one of the founders of the Reform movement in Israel, one of the founders of Jerusalem’s Nayot neighborhood – and much more.
He and his wife, Pamela, were married 60 years ago, and all the who’s who of Israel at the time came to their wedding at the King David Hotel. It was the hotel’s first kosher wedding. They went back there to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary, and some of the guests on the latter occasion had also been present when the Lovals were bride and groom.
■ ISRAEL RADIO arguably holds some of the most valuable records of the history of the state in the making, and the state after independence.
Latter-day broadcasters as well as veterans are using every means at their disposal to bring back the voices of the past – the voices of political and military leaders no longer living, the voices of deceased singers, field reporters and news broadcasts by some of the radio’s best and brightest, including those who are no longer in the land of the living.
The nostalgia bug has also hit presenters on Channel 1, some of whom, such as Yigal Ravid, work both in radio and television.
Ravid hosts a weekly Friday show, Kach Haya (The Way it Was), in which he takes his once-famous guests who, for the most part, are no longer in the limelight on a trip down Memory Lane. Earlier this month, he devoted two programs to old Tel Aviv with tour guide and journalist Ilan Shchori, who is an expert on the history and geography of Tel Aviv. The two had similar memories of what the city used to look like, and the screen was filled with movies and still photos of the Tel Aviv of yesteryear.
Last Friday, Ravid brought back some voices of the past, including politicians, army officers and veteran broadcasters. Including that of the late Moshe Hovav, who was considered to be the best-ever Hebrew language male news reader and was the father of culinary expert and television host Gil Hovav. This week’s program, beginning at 6 p.m., will be a tribute to Aryeh Golan, the controversial early morning current affairs anchor who is celebrating a half-century at Israel Radio, and who over the years has interviewed literally hundreds of public figures from across the political spectrum, as well as high-ranking military officers, celebrities from the world of entertainment, and ordinary citizens whom he snatched from anonymity to give them their moments of glory.
■ OVER THE past few weeks, the voice of beloved singer, songwriter, actor and comedian Israel Prize laureate Yossi Banai has been frequently heard on the airwaves, and clips of his performances have been shown on television. This year is the 10th anniversary year of the death of this remarkably creative individual, who stood at the head of an extraordinarily talented family, some of whose members have been interviewed in connection with programs that have been produced in his memory. His brother Gavri, who still performs, was interviewed on a twohour program on Israel Radio, and provided anecdotal information, some of which was probably not heard before in public.
Two memorial concerts by the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra in tribute to Banai, who, though he lived in Tel Aviv, never forgot that his roots were in Jerusalem’s Mahaneh Yehuda market, will be held at the Bronfman Auditorium in Tel Aviv on May 28 and 29.
Conducted by Ilan Mochiach, the concerts will feature some of Banai’s most popular and most memorable songs. None of the members of the Banai family will be among the performers, partially because they seldom performed with him, although they frequently sought his advice with regard to their own entertainment careers.