Grapevine April 22, 2020: Something for Hollywood to think about

Movers and shakers in Israeli society.

BENNY GANTZ, head of the Blue and White party. (photo credit: REUTERS)
BENNY GANTZ, head of the Blue and White party.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
If it wasn’t so serious, it would have read like the outline of a screenplay for a Hollywood movie. After stringing Blue and White leader Benny Gantz along for a couple of weeks, and causing political analysts to speculate that he was aiming for a fourth election without Gantz as a partner, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu decided approximately an hour and a half before the start of commemorative events for Holocaust Remembrance Day to sign the agreement for the “corona coalition,” which will be a unity government of sorts with more rights of veto than of freedom.
It should be remembered that Gantz, a former IDF chief of staff, is the son of Holocaust survivors. His late mother, Malka, who was born in Hungary as Malka Weiss, survived Bergen-Belsen. More than that, she saved the life of another inmate, a little girl named Esther, who had been left for dead on a pile of bodies. But Malka detected life in the child, pulled her away and revived her. Later, they went to Sweden, and in 1947 set sail for the Land of Israel. The ship on which they were traveling was intercepted by the British Mandate authorities, and like so many other Holocaust survivors, they were sent to Cyprus, from where they eventually reached their destination.
The theme of this year’s official Holocaust commemoration was Jews saving Jews, so the timing for Netanyahu to sign a coalition agreement with Gantz was perfect.
In his Holocaust commemoration address, Netanyahu could not resist injecting a political message. Quoting his friend and mentor, the late Moshe Arens, who in his book Flags Over the Warsaw Ghetto wrote of Pawel Frankel, who led a right-wing resistance group in the Warsaw Ghetto at around the same time that Mordechai Anielewicz led his left-wing group, Netanyahu said that it had always troubled Arens that the two young leaders failed to unite, even though they were fighting for the same cause. At his last meeting with Arens only days before the latter’s death in January last year, Arens pondered how, in the face of this hateful enemy, Anielewicz and Frankel had not been able to set aside their differences. Their ideological rivalry was stronger than their ability to stand united against their enemy, said Netanyahu. “After 77 years we must act differently. We must have unity.”
But there was a snag to the theory that the speech was timed to crown the success of reaching an accord. The speech was pretaped, so either Netanyahu knew well in advance that he would have a signed agreement in the final analysis, or this was to be a final plea to Gantz to make him look like the bad guy preventing the formation of a national-unity government. We will probably never know.
AMONG THE many events that were either canceled or conducted via social media platforms was the 75th anniversary last week of the liberation of Bergen-Belsen. Although the main 75th anniversary event this year was the liberation of Auschwitz, which was marked in January, all the camps were liberated at various stages in 1945 by Red Army, US Army and British Army units. Prisoners in all the camps were amazed when approached by an officer from the liberating army who addressed them in Yiddish, saying “Ich bin a Yid” (I am a Jew).
As far as Bergen-Belsen was concerned, it has a certain degree of special meaning for Israel. Liberated on April 15, 1945, by British troops, one of the Yiddish-speaking officers who entered the camp was a man by the name of Vivian Herzog, who in 1983, as Chaim Herzog, was sworn in as the sixth president of the State of Israel. Herzog was an intelligence officer and one of the last British officers to interrogate Gestapo chief Heinrich Himmler, who was the key architect of the Holocaust, and the second-most powerful person in Nazi Germany after Hitler. While in prison, Himmler committed suicide on May 23, 1945, by swallowing a cyanide capsule that had been implanted in one of his teeth.
This year also marks the 75th anniversary on April 30 of the death of Hitler. Ironically, this year his birthday coincided with Holocaust Remembrance Day. Hitler was born on April 20, 1889.
In April 1987, Herzog, as president, paid a state visit to what was then West Germany. He was the first president of Israel to set foot on German soil in an official capacity, and his first stop there after landing was Bergen-Belsen, where there is now a museum and documentation center.
Isaac, the youngest of Herzog’s three sons, who is currently chairman of the Jewish Agency, is on the short list to be Israel’s 11th president following the conclusion of the seven-year term of President Reuven Rivlin in July 2021. A lot depends on whether Likud MK Yuli Edelstein, who was the former lead contender, but lost a lot of his popularity when defying the Supreme Court, will regain favor in the eyes of the rest of the legislature, which will vote the next president into office.
A BATTLE to save 70 Holocaust survivors living in the Malben nursing home in Rishon Lezion has been won. The battle was first taken up by Moti Gilat of KAN 11, when he learned that the Health Ministry planned to move the hapless residents into private nursing homes so that the facility where they had come to live out the twilight of their lives would be utilized for recovering coronavirus patients. Gilat argued that it would be fatal to move people of such an advanced age from familiar surroundings, and said there was no justification for such a measure when so many empty hotels could be converted into sanitariums or rehabilitation centers. He consistently raised the issue on radio and television, with the result that Rivlin and Social Equality Minister Gila Gamliel, among others, took up the gauntlet together with Gilat, and the battle was won on the eve of Holocaust Remembrance Day. The 70 Holocaust survivors are staying put. Few dates could be more significantly symbolic for such a victory.
RADIO CAN often be more effective than the legislature. Former MKs Shelly Yacimovich and Yigal Gueta, who cohost an evening current affairs program on Israel Radio’s Reshet Bet, were discussing the lack of logic in denying the right to return to their places of employment to healthy senior citizens who were still part of the workforce and who were given a compulsory furlough due to the COVID-19 lockdown. Yacimovich began to list well-known broadcasters who are in the so-called high-risk age group, but who continue to broadcast regularly. Then she moved on to the politicians who are in the same high-risk age group, beginning, of course, with Netanyahu, who is most definitely working. Perhaps those who would like to remove him from the Prime Minister’s Residence could do so by using his own ammunition against him, by declaring that a 71-year-old man cannot be a prime minister. The same goes for Health Minister Ya’acov Litzman, who a lot of people would like to replace.
Yacimovich and Gueta also hinted that there’s a lot of price gouging going on with regard to the price of masks that can be worn only once, and the fines that are being imposed on people without masks and without jobs. Some people are definitely making money out of the crisis.
THE FOREIGN Ministry has received considerable publicity for its role in rescue operations of stranded Israelis, helping to organize the transport of medical equipment from abroad during the corona crisis, maintaining contact with Diaspora Jewish communities and with Israelis in foreign countries and helping them wherever possible, and in the case of embassy and consular staff, remaining at their posts in the countries in which the virus has been most virulent.
More recently, ministry staff were also instrumental in enabling the transfer of Holy Fire from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre by Eastern Orthodox clergy to high-ranking diplomats waiting at the Jaffa Gate at the entrance to Jerusalem’s Old City. The fire was then taken by the police-escorted diplomats driving in a convoy to Ben-Gurion Airport, where planes with spiritual and diplomatic delegations on board took the Holy Fire to Greece, Cyprus, Russia, Poland, Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Belarus and Romania.
This was the first time in nearly a thousand years that only a handful of pilgrims were present. In previous years thousands of pilgrims from many parts of the world clustered at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, but such a gathering this year was impossible. Even if they had decided to ignore the risk, there were very few places from which they could have gotten a flight, and they would have had to come two weeks ahead to get past the quarantine period in order to travel to Jerusalem.
Interim Foreign Minister Israel Katz, who is tipped to be the next finance minister, is not only an active minister who uses his own influence to get things done, but whenever interviewed on radio or television, he is full of praise for ministry staff who he says are working 24/7 during the current crisis.
Over the years, the Foreign Ministry has had numerous clashes with the Finance Ministry, which is systematically cutting the Foreign Ministry’s budget and making it extremely difficult for Foreign Ministry personnel to properly do their exceedingly vital work. The big question is: Will there be a change of policy when Katz moves from the Foreign Ministry to the Finance Ministry?
FOREIGN LEADERS or their cohorts are always looking at developments in other countries to see what they can glean to improve situations in their own countries. It’s possible that Netanyahu, after becoming aware of what happened in South Korea last week, may have considered that it would be to his advantage to have a fourth election within a period of less than two years, before deciding otherwise.
In South Korea’s parliamentary elections, voter turnout was the highest in almost three decades, with 68% of the public exercising its democratic right, notwithstanding COVID-19, and expressing its confidence in the way that President Moon Jae-in has handled the crisis by giving him a landslide victory.
Although Netanyahu’s policies have been unpopular, and the Health Ministry has not exactly scored brownie points, the lockdown, wearing of masks and social distancing in Israel have undoubtedly saved lives, although we can never know how many. Perhaps Netanyahu believed that the Israeli public would place the same confidence in him, as the Korean public placed in Moon. But then again, Netanyahu may have been sincere in his desire to form a unity government. At this stage, it no longer matters, because he has signed on the dotted line.
IN A time of global crisis, many world leaders are taking unique steps to handle the unprecedented situation. New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who is a true example of leadership to her people, announced last week, that she and other senior government officials would be taking a 20% pay cut for the duration of the coronavirus pandemic. New Zealanders are suffering economic hardship no less than people in other countries, and this was Ardern’s way of showing sympathy for their plight, and making an additional, albeit relatively small sum, available for social welfare needs.
By contrast, Israel’s new government will be the largest in the nation’s history, and it’s doubtful that its members, who are each earning in excess of NIS 40,000 per month, will take a voluntary pay cut at a time when more than a million Israelis are out of work.
The Czech Republic has disseminated a video of a young woman who is telling the world that one of the reasons that the death toll in her country is relatively low is that very soon after it was realized that there is a pandemic, Czechs wore masks.
IN ICELAND, where members of the public have been permitted to go into parks and forests so long as they maintain social distancing, the Icelandic Forestry Service has recommended that the best way to overcome feelings of loneliness and despair is to hug a tree, and is actually giving lessons in tree-hugging techniques, which, according to a report by Larissa Kyzer in Iceland Review, is good for both the body and the soul, and which, at times of fear and stress, enables people to feel connected.
INTERVIEWED BY Shalom Kital on Reshet Bet, Ambassador to the UK Mark Regev said that nearly all the Israelis who wanted to return to Israel have done so, but the embassy has remained open to serve those Israelis who are still in England and may need help. He also noted the unfortunate high incidence of coronavirus fatalities among British Jews, saying that the number of British Jews who have succumbed to the disease exceeds that of the number of Israelis.
Regev, who has more than 25 years’ experience as a diplomat, was previously adviser to Netanyahu and international spokesman for Israel, positions he held for eight years.
Aside from too many people in confined spaces, there is no explanation why the virus runs rampant in some places and yet is barely present in others. While we shudder over the tens of thousands of fatalities in the US, Britain, Italy and Spain, at the time of writing on Tuesday morning of this week, there were six fatalities in Taiwan, 11 in Singapore, 13 in New Zealand, 71 in Australia, 89 in Malaysia, 194 in the Czech Republic and 16,522 in the United Kingdom.
HUMANITARIAN AID is a generally accepted international practice to provide mutual support to members of the world community, says Malik Ussenov, a senior diplomat in the Kazakhstan Embassy, noting that like many other countries, Kazakhstan is active in this sphere and is providing economic support and humanitarian assistance to neighboring countries.
Kazakhstan President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, following appeals by Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, decided to send them supplies of Kazakhstan’s flour to ensure an uninterrupted food supply. Each country received five thousand tons of flour valued in each case at more than $3 million.
As early as February of this year, Kazakhstan was one of the first countries to provide partnership support to China, and sent several deliveries of protective medical equipment there. The provision of humanitarian aid is one of the important areas of Kazakhstan’s foreign policy, said Ussenov, listing more than a dozen countries on three continents that have received various kinds of assistance from Kazakhstan in recent years.
APPROXIMATELY A month and a half ago, when Australian Ambassador Chris Cannan sent out invitations for the annual ANZAC Day commemoration for Australian and New Zealand soldiers who paid the supreme sacrifice, there were two minor concerns. One was that the event traditionally held at the Commonwealth Graves Cemetery on Mount Scopus in Jerusalem would be a day early, because April 25, which is the actual date of ANZAC Day, this year falls on a Shabbat, and the other was the possibility of too much sun in the open-air event. The thought that it would be impossible to bring together more than 200 Australian and New Zealand expatriates, gap-year volunteers and tourists, along with representatives of Allied and even former enemy nations, did not cross the minds of those who regularly attend the ceremony.
By mid-March, it was realized by embassy personnel that this year’s ceremony would not take place, and a message to that effect was sent out.
The final decision came from Canberra, where it was determined that even though ANZAC Day is one of the most important days in Australia’s national calendar, all overseas Australian-led ANZAC Day services would be canceled this year.
Although ANZAC Day, as such, commemorates soldiers who fell in Gallipoli during the First World War, it also pays tribute to Australian and New Zealand soldiers who fell in all the wars in which their countries were involved.
For Australians and New Zealanders in Israel, ANZAC Day has special significance relating to the role played by Australian and New Zealand soldiers in the Sinai-Palestine campaign from 1916-1918, including the landmark victory in the Battle of Beersheba in 1917.
Though saddened by the absence of a service in Jerusalem this year, on April 25, the actual ANZAC Day, Cannan and Australian defense attache Col. Brandon Wood, together with longtime honorary consul for New Zealand Gad Propper, will visit the Commonwealth War Graves Commission in the Ramle War Cemetery to pay tribute to the 71 Australians and 94 New Zealanders who are buried there. The trio will lay a wreath at the cenotaph and recite the traditional ode, and will then observe a minute’s silence.
THE GOVERNMENT of Lithuania had designated 2020 as the Year of the Vilna Gaon, but few if any of the numerous events that were long in the planning stages marking the 300th anniversary of his birth are likely to be held, due to the emergency situation. The Gregorian anniversary date of his birth is April 23.
This year is also a milestone anniversary year for the birth of another great rabbi, Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, who was born in 1740, though the exact date is unknown.
Events which had been designated for Vilna Gaon Year included international scientific conferences, presentations of treasures of Litvak culture and art, as well as concerts dedicated to artists who were either born or lived in Lithuania, such as Jascha Heifetz, Joseph Achron and George Gershwin.
Also something that would either please or anger historian and Nazi hunter Efraim Zuroff, was the planned launch of a book on the Holocaust history of Lithuania, summarizing 20 years of research by an International Commission for the Evaluation of the Nazi and Soviet Occupation Regimes in Lithuania.
Zuroff, who was born in New York, but has lived for many years in Israel, is of Lithuanian background, and has long charged that Lithuania is trying to whitewash the involvement of many of its citizens in the murder of Jews during the Holocaust, including the killing of members of his own family. Now that few former Nazis are still living, Zuroff devotes more time to combating Holocaust denial and fighting antisemitism.
Several other projects and events planned for Vilna Gaon Year will have to be postponed or canceled.
ISRAEL’S RENOWNED medical icon Rabbi Avraham Elimelech Firer, who without any medical qualifications has helped to heal literary thousands of people suffering from a variety of ailments, many of which were life-threatening, has called on Israelis who have recovered from COVID-19 to donate blood plasma for transfusion to patients still suffering from coronavirus, so that the antibodies in the plasma will contribute to their faster recovery. Within a few hours of the call, 140 people who had recovered from the disease responded positively, Yediot Aharonot reported.
In 1979, Firer founded Ezra Lemarpeh, a not-for-profit medical support organization, which has connections with expert physicians worldwide, operates its own fleet of 22 ambulances, and has a special intensive care unit for flying passengers abroad. He also maintains a homecare network.
In 1997 Firer was awarded the Israel Prize, in recognition of his extraordinary contribution to the well-being of society, and in 2002 the Weizmann Institute of Science conferred an honorary doctorate on him, not only in recognition for what he does, but also for the specialized medical knowledge that he has amassed without any formal studies. In 2008, he received another honorary doctorate from the University of Haifa.
A very modest, ultra-Orthodox individual, who inadvertently sparked an indignant protest last November, when he refused to attend a tribute concert for singer Shlomo Artzi on the latter’s 70th birthday, with proceeds from ticket sales marked for Ezra Lemarpeh. Firer’s religious beliefs preclude him from listening to the voice of a woman singing. He made it clear that if women were to sing at the concert, he would not be able to attend. Outraged feminists were ready to draw and quarter him, refusing to understand that he prioritized principle over profit, and that he has nothing against women per se. In the final analysis, the concert was canceled.
This year, Firer was offered the opportunity to light a beacon in honor of Israel’s 72nd anniversary of independence, but he declined, saying that he would rather get on with his work, which by the way includes making his ambulances available to residents of Bnei Brak who do not have other means of transport and require medical attention. One suspects that in declining the Independence Day honor, he simply did not want to revive the hackles that were raised against him in November.
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