Grapevine April 30, 2020: Ministries of convenience

Movers and shakers in Israeli society.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Blue and White leader Benny Gantz sign a unity government agreement (photo credit: Courtesy)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Blue and White leader Benny Gantz sign a unity government agreement
(photo credit: Courtesy)
There’s an old Jewish saying: If they give you a finger, take the whole hand. But all the fingers of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Blue and White leader Benny Gantz put together don’t come anywhere near the number of ministers to be appointed in their unity government.
In recent days there has been a lot of speculation as to who will receive the Health portfolio, and whether the Culture and Sport Ministry will be split into two ministries. Former culture and sport minister Limor Livnat was education, culture and sport minister in the 30th government, and in the 29th government she was simply education minister.
But ministries of convenience such as Jerusalem Affairs, Public Diplomacy and Diaspora Affairs are completely superfluous. If there’s a Jerusalem Affairs Ministry, why not for Tel Aviv, Haifa and Beersheba? The answer is simple: because each has a mayor and a city council. So does Jerusalem. The Foreign Ministry dealt for years with public diplomacy, Diaspora affairs and a whole bunch of other issues, including information, for which there was once another ministry of convenience.
If Netanyahu and Gantz genuinely have Israel's interests at heart, let them reduce the number of ministries to 12 to commemorate the 12 tribes of ancient Israel.
POLITICIANS DON’T make for good prophets. The end of the Netanyahu era has been predicted for the past two-and-half years by Avi Gabbay, Gantz, Avigdor Liberman, Zahava Gal-On, Yair Lapid, Ahmad Tibi , Ehud Barak and others, and Netanyahu, despite indictments for corruption and many broken promises, is still at the top of the totem pole.
WHILE MOST political pundits have already eulogized the demise of Labor, the founding party of the state, legendary political analyst Hanan Krystal quoted Mark Twain’s famous statement: “Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.” Noting that Gantz’s father, Nahum, was an active Mapainik, Krystal believes that Gantz will return to his political roots, and that in the next elections Gantz will be head of Labor Party because Blue and White doesn’t really have an ideology,
COMMENTING, IN the course of conversation with Shalom Kital, that nearly all the key players in the push for a unity government broke their pledges to their voters, Aviv Bushinsky, who served as an adviser to Netanyahu during the latter’s terms as prime minister, finance minister and foreign minister, recalled that former MK Zvi Hendel, during his term as a legislator from 1996 to 2009, had unsuccessfully tried to introduce a bill whereby any Knesset leader who reneged on a promise to his electorate would be summarily dismissed from the Knesset. Bushinsky added that current Derech Eretz MK Yoaz Hendel is closely related to Zvi Hendel.
IT HAS long been a tradition for the president of Israel and the foreign minister to host a late afternoon Independence Day reception for the diplomatic corps. This year, the reception was by way of a video conference, though Foreign Minister Israel Katz joined Rivlin in person at the President’s Residence, and they preempted tradition by holding the virtual reception at lunchtime on Sunday.
Participants included heads of foreign missions in Israel, consuls, honorary consuls and senior clergy. The main topic of conversation was, of course, global unity in fighting the coronavirus pandemic. The other topics were more or less a repeat of last year, the ongoing fight against antisemitism, racism and discrimination.
Katz voiced appreciation to the diplomats for staying at their posts and in most cases being away from their families. He was convinced that, together, the world would emerge from this difficult period stronger and more united than in the past.
Dean of the diplomatic corps Ambassador Hennadii Nadolenko of Ukraine underscored that the occasion marked not only the rebirth of the Jewish national state, but also the achievements of Israel that brought the country so much worldwide admiration.
Coincidentally, the video conference, with representatives of so many countries, was held on the 100th anniversary of the final day of the San Remo conference, which was an outgrowth of the Paris Peace Conference of the previous year, and which agreed on the dispossession of territories formerly ruled by Turkey, and replaced by mandates over Syria, Mesopotamia and Palestine.
The San Remo resolution, adopted on April 25, 1920, incorporated the Balfour Declaration, giving legitimacy to a future Jewish state, though it took several years for the wording to change from a homeland or national home to a state.
Following the Arab riots in Jerusalem in April 1920, the British arrested both Arabs and Jews, including Ze’ev Jabotinsky, who was sentenced to 15 years imprisonment, hard labor and deportation on completion of his sentence. There were mass protest demonstrations against his imprisonment, and there were also fears of the outcome of the San Remo conference. During the conference period, there was a general strike by Jewish merchants, and the rabbis of Jerusalem declared a fast day, which was canceled after they learned of the San Remo resolution.
When British high commissioner Sir Herbert Samuel arrived in Jerusalem, on June 30, 1920, and was made aware of what had occurred during the riots, he pardoned both the Jews and the Arabs, and Jabotinsky was released.
But simply regaining his freedom did not satisfy Jabotinsky. He and other Jews had defended themselves against Arab attacks and therefore, he argued, should not have been sentenced at all. He wanted the sentence against him revoked. After several months, during which he did not relent, the British War Office acceded to his demand. Jabotinsky’s grandson who is named for him is angry that this episode in pre-state history is not taught in Israeli schools. He did not learn it as a boy, and it is not taught today, he contends.
ON INDEPENDENCE Day itself, the ambassadors were all back on screen for a Zoom video conference hosted by the Ambassadors’ Club of Israel, with Nadelenko once more the key representative of the foreign envoys.
Considering how much time they have wasted collectively over the years driving in heavy traffic from Tel Aviv, Ramat Gan or Herzliya Pituah to Jerusalem, Zoom may become their ongoing platform for communication long after the crisis is over.
ALTHOUGH THE yearlong celebrations in Vilnius marking the 300th anniversary of the birth of the Vilna Gaon, Rabbi Elijah ben Solomon Zalman, had to be abandoned due to the COVID-19 crisis, on the actual date last Thursday, there was a minor ceremony outside the mausoleum housing his grave at the Suderve Jewish Cemetery. He was originally buried at the Snipiskes cemetery, which at some time in the 20th century was targeted for destruction, and the remains of the Gaon and his family were transferred to their present resting place.
The service in his memory was attended by Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Antanas Linkevicius, Ambassador to Lithuania Yossi Levy and Faina Kukliansky, the head of the Lithuanian Jewish community. Following Jewish tradition Linkevicius, placed a stone on the grave of the Vilna Gaon and spoke of the deep-rooted connection between Lithuanians and Jews and of the Gaon’s contribution to what became known as Jerusalem of Vilna.
Linkevicius subsequently tweeted in Hebrew: “300 years since the birth of Vilna Gaon. Today, by his grave in Vilnius, I am paying the highest tribute to Vilna Gaon, an eternal symbol of Lithuanian Jewish culture and history. The magnitude of Vilna Gaon’s contribution to the spiritual Jewish life is immensely important.”
In response, Foreign Minister Katz said that the legacy of the Vilna Gaon and the rich legacy of Lithuanian Jewry exist to this day.
Rivlin had been invited to attend the opening of the year of the Vilna Gaon, but obviously was unable to accept, aside from which the memorial ceremony at the cemetery was all that was left of the many events that had been planned around the history and culture of Lithuania’s Jews
For Rivlin the visit would have been important on a personal level. His ancestors were disciples of the Vilna Gaon and indirectly related to him. It was at his behest that they came to the Holy Land to await the coming of the Messiah. Rivlin often quips that for this reason they used to go to bed with their shoes on, so that they could run and meet him when he finally arrived. The Rivlins are still waiting.
Meanwhile, Rivlin spoke on the phone last Thursday with Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda, and the two discussed what could be done to salvage the situation once the crisis is over.
ON A much sadder note, Rivlin, Netanyahu and Gantz each published his profound regrets over the death from COVID-19 of Rabbi Yeshayahu Heber, who promoted the concept of altruistic kidney donations and through his own generosity of spirit changed attitudes to organ donations in general, and to the donation of organs from living beings in particular. Before his death, he was about to celebrate the 800th kidney donation since he founded Matnat Chaim (Gift of Life), which was based on the premise that true love of humanity was giving a kidney to someone you didn’t know.
When he took ill early this month, literally thousands of people from different faiths prayed for his recovery. But, apparently, he was wanted in a higher place. God was missing one of His angels.
Among the condolence notices in the Hebrew press was one from the Israel Medical Association, which stated that Heber’s legacy is the saving of life.
Not all kidney donors met the recipients of their Gift of Life, but many did, and formed something akin to a family connection with the person in whom their spare kidney had been transplanted.
In March 2017, Heber came with a large group of kidney donors and recipients to the President’s Residence to celebrate the fact that half the group had given life to the other half. His foundation had just marked the 400th kidney donation it had helped to facilitate.
Heber spoke of the kidney that he himself had received 10 years earlier. It broke his heart that a 19-year-old young man lying in the next bed had died because a suitable donor had not been found. This had spurred him to start his foundation.
On hearing the story, Rivlin said that if a member of his family was in need of a kidney, he would unhesitatingly donate one of his. He hoped that he could be sufficiently selfless to do the same for a stranger. In fact, he would since he carries an ADI card.
Not all transplants are successful. The president’s wife, Nechama, underwent a lung transplant last year, but her condition gradually deteriorated and she died on June 4.
One of the members of the president’s staff who could best empathize with the aims of Gift of Life was the president’s bureau chief, Rivka Ravitz, whose late father-in-law, MK Rabbi Avraham Ravitz, was in need of a kidney. All 12 of his children volunteered to donate one to him. Eventually, it was his eldest son, Moshe, who became the donor. Moshe has a son who followed in his father’s footsteps and also donated a kidney. The nephew was not present at the event that brought donors and recipients together, but the young woman who received his kidney was, and Ravitz was as excited to meet her as if meeting one of her own daughters.
IT WAS interesting, on both Holocaust Remembrance Day and Remembrance Day for the Fallen of Israel’s Wars, to hear how the strident tones of radio and television broadcasters became gentle and tolerant when interviewing Holocaust survivors and bereaved parents. With rare exceptions they patiently listened to Holocaust survivors tell their stories and barely interrupted, even when the interviewee strayed from the point. That same genteel attitude prevailed with interviewees on Remembrance Day for the Fallen.
But during the interim period between those two grief-laden memorials, they argued with their interviewees, almost to the point of screaming, and treated them as if they were the wall in a verbal practice session on a squash court. They just kept hitting and hitting, without waiting for a response. Blue and White MK Michael Biton, who was being interviewed by Zeev Kam and Keren Uzan, was asked about the inordinate number of ministers in the national-unity government and about the annexation of the West Bank. Biton attempted to answer both questions, but barely got as far as a sound bite.
THINGS DON’T always go according to plan. In the post-COVID-19 era, young couples who might have dreamed of buying an apartment somewhere in the center of the country will quickly learn that anything in this location is beyond their means, but that large, new, beautiful apartments in Sderot are very affordable in comparison.
Threats from Gaza notwithstanding, Sderot-based journalist and social activist Albert Gabay forecasts significant population growth for his city, where large-scale housing projects are well under way. The population is currently in excess of 26,000, but by this time next year, it could well increase to 30,000.
JERUSALEM MAYOR Moshe Lion and merchants from Jerusalem’s legendary Mahaneh Yehuda market appealed to Netanyahu almost a month ago to allow the market to resume operations, but their pleas fell on deaf ears. The merchants were angry not only because they were suffering from loss of income, but because Mahaneh Yehuda has long been a Likud stronghold, and they felt that in return for their votes, Netanyahu should honor their requests.
“He comes to us just before elections,” they grumbled, adding that at election time, party hacks call them every day, often several times a day, but during this crisis, no one has called to ask how they’re doing. They say that they’re not looking for any handouts. All they want to do is open their stalls and shops and get back to work.
But their protest demonstration last Sunday was illustrative of the worst fears of the Health Ministry. People were crowded together, and several allowed their masks to drop, so if they coughed or sneezed, their germs would be transferred to everyone near them. That’s a scary prospect these days.
Not only the market vendors missed out on calls to check out their well-being. There was widespread publicity that all senior citizens would receive food parcels for Passover so that they would not have to leave their homes to go shopping. Quite a lot of senior citizens missed out.
Regardless of promises that seniors would get priority for online orders at supermarkets, there were also reports of large-scale mix-ups of orders, so several senior citizens decided that it was more advantageous to take their shopping trolleys to local supermarkets. Just as well, because not all senior citizens were contacted to ask if they needed food, and certainly not every senior citizen received food, despite the fact that the names, addresses and phone numbers of all senior citizens are listed with the National Insurance Institute and the Interior Ministry.
THE SOMEWHAT hollow beacon lighting ceremony on Mount Herzl that was devoid of participation by the public was not the only ceremony of its kind. Yesh Gvul also had a ceremony in Jerusalem’s Emil Greenzweig Square in Givat Ram, with police permission. Among the 11 beacon lighters were computer scientist and Israel Prize laureate David Harel and eminent vascular surgeon Prof. Raphael Walden, who is the President of Physicians for Human Rights. Born in France during the Second World War, he was the son-in-law of and personal physician to Israel’s ninth president, Shimon Peres. The Yesh Gvul ceremony was aimed as a light in the darkness that threatens democracy, justice and equality, with the message that bad things happen in places where decent people remain silent.
THE STORM in the tea cup over Chani Lifshitz, the codirector of the Chabad Center in Nepal, bowing out of lighting the Independence Day beacon illustrates how little the non-ultra-Orthodox community understands the workings of ultra-Orthodox movements and the adherence of their members to the instructions of their rabbinical leaders. Lifshitz had erred in not asking for permission before accepting the honor conferred on her. When instructed to relinquish that honor, she did so rather than be relieved of Chabad’s holy work in Nepal.
Among the various reasons given for the instruction that she withdraw is that Chabad is active in countries that do not have diplomatic relations with Israel, but do have Jewish communities, however small. Wherever there is a Jewish community in the world, one can find Chabad.
This is why, contrary to earlier instructions by the late Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson that there should not be an official Chabad presence in Poland, which he characterized as the largest Jewish cemetery in the world, there are Chabad centers in Poland today. The Rebbe did permit Chabad students to go to Poland to rekindle whatever tiny spark of Judaism was left among the few Jewish remnants in a country once rich in Jewish culture in the fullness of its diversity.
With the fall of Communism, the Rebbe’s attitude changed, and he not only permitted but encouraged greater Chabad activity in Poland, because many Jews who up till then had hidden their Jewish identities began emerging from the woodwork.
In December 2005, Poland’s first Chabad House, headed by Shalom Ber and Dina Stambler, opened in Warsaw.
Long before that, Stambler, his brother Rabbi Meir Stambler and their father, Rabbi Zalman Stambler, visited Poland many times for business reasons, but always included some form of religious outreach while they were there.
As Warsaw’s Jewish community continued to grow, so did Chabad’s influence. Chabad is also active in Krakow, where unfortunately Rabbi Eliezer Gurary is involved in frequent clashes with Tadeusz Jakubowicz, who is the longtime leader of the small Jewish community of Krakow and as such a member of the executive board of the Union of Jewish Communities of Poland. Jakubowicz and his daughter control Krakow’s extensive Jewish community real estate. One of these properties is the Izaak Synagogue, which is rented by Chabad, and where there is a daily minyan. Gurary has many more followers than Jakubowicz, which may to some extent account for the clashes. In July last year, water and electricity were shut off in the synagogue, and guards were hired to keep people out.
In Warsaw, Chabad fares much better, and offers a full range of religious and community services.
As happens all over the world, directors of Chabad centers succeed in establishing close relations with people in high places, so much so that when the late president Lech Kaczynski paid a state visit to Israel in September 2006, Stambler and his brother were part of Kaczynski’s official entourage.
At that time Stambler told The Jerusalem Post that a Chabad Center in Poland was essential, not just to serve the spiritual needs of Polish Jewry, but because so many Jewish businesspeople of Polish background were coming on a frequent basis from other countries, to establish business ventures in Poland.
In January 2008, when former Polish president Lech Walesa visited Israel, he went to Kfar Chabad to convey greetings to Stambler’s parents.
In April 2008, on a rainy day, toward the end of a state visit to Poland by president Shimon Peres, Stembler, with a group of Chabadniks in tow, showed up at the Belvedere Palace, where Peres was staying, to complete the writing of a Torah scroll. Notwithstanding the rain, after Peres had inked the final letter in the scroll, some of the men who had accompanied him from Israel - Moshe Mizrahi, Yoram Dori, Shimon Hefetz and Joseph Avi Yair Engel, generally known as Jucha - joined the Chabadniks in a spirited dance through the grounds of the Belvedere Palace, each of them singing at the top of his voice and taking turns to dance with the Torah. In a country in which Jews had lived for a thousand years, but which in the post-Holocaust period had for too long been devoid of true Jewish joy, it was a heartfelt celebration of Jewish survival.
In December 2018, Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau, whose father, Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, is the youngest survivor of Buchenwald, was on a visit to Poland. Stamler, who had been invited, or who had managed to get himself invited to the Sejm, the lower house of the Polish parliament, was also instrumental in arranging for Lau to attend, and it was Lau who lit the triangular Chabad hanukkiah, which is seen in the streets on Hanukkah in all the places where Chabad exists. For Lau, who is descended from many generations of Polish rabbis, the lighting of the hanukkiah in Poland’s parliament in Warsaw represented the closing of a circle.