Grapevine April 8, 2020: Boomerang diplomacy

Movrs and shakers in Israeli society.

A SCENE from ‘Unorthodox.’ (photo credit: ANIKA MOLNAR/NETFLIX)
A SCENE from ‘Unorthodox.’
(photo credit: ANIKA MOLNAR/NETFLIX)
Former Canadian ambassador to Israel Deborah Lyons, whose previous posting was as ambassador to Afghanistan, is back there in a new role as special representative and head of the United Nations Assistance Mission to Afghanistan.
Lyons let it be known in late February that she was leaving the Canadian Foreign Service, where she had worked for 21 years, and was taking up something new but in a sense related. She would not reveal where she was going until an official statement was made. A little under three weeks ago, her appointment was announced by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.
Lyons succeeds Tadamichi Yamamoto of Japan, who served since 2016 in what is considered a critical role. Lyons, who is widely regarded as a supremely professional diplomat with experience in political affairs, international cooperation and economic development, is an active champion of human rights and women’s rights.
She held several senior positions with Canada’s Department of Global Affairs, including as deputy ambassador at the country’s embassy in Washington, DC, assistant deputy minister for strategic policy and planning and chief strategist, with directorships covering commercial relations, international finance and technology. She has also worked with Canada’s Department of Natural Resources and Privy Council Office. Prior to joining the public service, Lyons owned and managed an environmental consulting firm.
During her time in Israel she was a hands-on ambassador for numerous causes for which she was also a passionate and articulate speaker. Although there are no official relations between Israel and Afghanistan, there have been relations under the radar, and in 2005, in an interview in Kabul with Yediot Aharonot, then-Afghan president Hamid Karzai hinted that his country would be interested in establishing formal ties with Israel once there is progress in the Middle East peace process.
If anyone could serve as a bridge toward bringing Afghanistan and Israel together, it is Lyons.
While focusing on her job in Afghanistan, Lyons will also be wondering whether there will be a major letup in the coronavirus crisis by June, when her daughter, Tessa, who works for Facebook in Los Angeles, is due to get married.
THE NETFLIX series Unorthodox, starring brilliant Israeli actress Shira Haas as Esty, the young woman who flees the strictures of the Satmar community in Williamsburg, New York, has received mixed reviews, although there has more or less been consensus in acknowledging the talents of the actress, who has such an extraordinary gift for showing her feelings through her facial expressions.
One of the pressures that hung heavy on Esty’s shoulders was her inability to conceive. All of her husband Yanky’s sisters-in-law gave birth in the ninth month of marriage, and Esty was married for a year when she finally learned that she was pregnant – but by then it was too late.
By coincidence, in the same week that Unorthodox was released, a golden age member of the same Satmar community from which Esty yearned to be free, died. Liba Ettil Zilberstein, a 102-year-old Hungarian-born Holocaust survivor whose parents and siblings were murdered by the Nazis, had after the war married Polish Holocaust survivor David Zilberstein, with whom she had eight children. By the time she died, her descendants, including children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren, numbered 1,200. This illustrates the importance that Satmar Hassidim attach to the biblical commandment “Increase and multiply.”
Strong and healthy until a week before her demise, Zilberstein did not hold the record for maximum prodigy. That belonged to another Satmar matriarch, Yitta Schwartz, who died in January 2010 at age 93, leaving behind 2,000 living descendants, including 16 of the 17 children to which she had given birth. Like Zilberstein, she, too, was a Hungarian Holocaust survivor, as was her husband. When he died in 1978, the couple already had more than 170 grandchildren.
Some critics of the film saw the Satmar community as being cruel and heartless, but in fact a major part of that community activity involves visiting the sick in hospitals and seeing to their comforts and those of their immediate families, regardless of whether they are religiously observant or not. The Satmar Bikur Holim societies provide food for patients and the patients’ families and, if necessary, accommodation for the families. There’s nothing cruel or heartless about that. They’re just different, as Esty was different from the community into which she was born. She told this to Yanky when they first met, and his response was “Different is good.” Unfortunately, it wasn’t.
INTERVIEWED ON Israel Radio’s Reshet Bet early on Sunday morning by Aryeh Golan, Joint List MK Ahmad Tibi, who is a medical doctor by profession, said that there was no need to impose the same restrictions on Arab villages as have been imposed on Bnei Brak, but voiced concern over the fact that insufficient coronavirus tests had been conducted in the Arab sector, saying that Arab DNA is no different from that of Jewish DNA.
He urged everyone in the Arab sector to obey the directives of the Health Ministry, adding that if anyone shows any symptoms, they should immediately telephone Magen David Adom on 101. Golan asked him if he wanted to repeat the message in Arabic, and Tibi, who is often militant in his tone, was almost humbly grateful for the opportunity to do so, and promptly reiterated the message in Arabic. Tibi also wished the residents of Bnei Brak well and added that he hopes that those who were infected would enjoy a full and speedy recovery.
LATER IN the day, three municipal sanitary workers from the Shuafat refugee camp were brutally attacked in the haredi Jerusalem neighborhood of Shmuel Hanavi, and one was so badly hurt that he had to be hospitalized. Jerusalem Mayor Moshe Lion condemned the attack and stated that he is opposed to any form of violence against any sector of society, in particular municipal workers who continue to loyally work on behalf of the city and its residents. Lion called on the police to show zero tolerance for any incident of violent behavior.
UNITED TORAH Judaism MK Moshe Gafni, who lives in Bnei Brak and knows the mentality of the community and how to talk to fellow residents, has a reputation for taking up social justice causes affecting all and any sectors of Israel’s population. It pains him that so much malice is now being hurled at haredi populations, not only in Israel but in other parts of the world. As far as Israel is concerned, he attributes blame to Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid , who, when finance minister, refused to approve funding for additional haredi neighborhoods, with the result that haredi enclaves are densely overcrowded.
Gafni would have been the logical person to head the Knesset committee on battling coronavirus, but the position is held by Ofer Shelah, who is a member of Lapid’s party and has a similar negative disposition to haredim. Nonetheless, he did go to Bnei Brak last week.
AVI BALASHNIKOV, together with management of the Jerusalem-headquartered Hagihon Company, of which he is the CEO, presented 300 masks to all the hospitals in Jerusalem as a mark of appreciation to doctors and nurses who are putting themselves at risk in treating coronavirus patients.
Also showing appreciation on a somewhat smaller scale, Jerusalem Foundation president Shai Doron and Shaare Zedek Medical Center director-general Ofer Merin, in a joint initiative, distributed Passover wine and delicacies to more than 130 staff members of the medical center, in recognition of their dedication to the highest values of their profession.
FORMER SHAS MK Yigal Gueta, who for the last two years and a quarter has been a radio and television journalist, lives in Bnei Brak, where several years ago he was a member of the Bnei Brak City Council. He is thoroughly familiar with the difficulties of the city, but currently is even more concerned with policy regarding the treatment or lack thereof of senior citizens residing in sheltered living facilities.
In recent years there has been an upsurge in golden age, sheltered living, retirement or nursing home facilities – call them what you will – and tremendous rivalry and numerous incentives to attract retirees. But judging from some of the horror stories that have surfaced, particularly from Jerusalem and Beersheba, in future, families of retirees entering such facilities will demand ironclad contracts detailing the medical treatment that their loved ones will receive.
In his television show, called Citizen Gueta, the former MK engages in investigative reporting and attempts to solve bureaucratic problems that ordinary citizens without political or media clout are unable to solve for themselves.
After learning what a disproportionate number of residents and staff at the Mishan retirement home in Beersheba had been infected, Gueta went to investigate and discovered that requests by the families of all the residents to have them tested had been ignored. No one had told the residents what was happening. According to Gueta, each resident was put into isolation and left for long periods without food. They were finally tested following protest demonstrations by relatives and intervention by Gueta with the Union of Retirement Homes. Those who tested positive were taken to a Jaffa geriatric center, where most of them died.
Gueta is livid, as are the families of the deceased as well as families of residents still in Beersheba, because they are still not allowed to visit them.
Surely under the circumstances, Israeli clothing companies should be allowed to manufacture protective suits for people who have relatives in retirement homes.
It is ironic that while Israel is waiting for supplies of masks from China, it is receiving them from Gaza manufacturer Nabil Bawab, who in normal times supplies clothes to Israeli outlets. His Unipal factory is supplying 20,000 masks a day to Israel and is thereby also ensuring a livelihood for his workers.
Presumably, if he were asked to, he could also manufacture safety suits, but there’s no reason that Israelis who work in the fashion industry could not do so and maintain social distancing at the same time.
Modern factories are, after all, not the old-fashioned sweat shops of New York’s Lower East Side.
NEW YORK is believed to be home to the largest Israeli diaspora in the world. This is the main reason that Dani Dayan, Israel’s consul-general in New York, has stayed on when he could just as easily have come home, along with literally thousands of other Israelis who have returned not only from New York but from many other parts of the world. But Dayan, whose term concludes in August, says that he cannot leave when so many Israelis are calling his office to ask for help.
Israeli-born Danielle Ziri, who when in Israel was the education and social affairs reporter for The Jerusalem Post, and subsequently became the paper’s New York correspondent, inter alia covering the American Jewish community and the United Nations, later freelanced for various publications, and last weekend reported in Haaretz on Israelis who decided to go home, including some who have lived for many years in New York. The general feeling is that at times like this, they want to be close to their families and friends.
One Israeli, who has lived in New York for eight years, told Ziri that it was wonderful to see how many members of her family came to the airport to meet her, but because of the social distance and isolation regulations, they could not hug her in welcome, and they could not drive her home. They had arrived in two cars, one that they gave to her, so that she could drive home alone.
ACCORDING TO the Foreign Ministry, there are more than 2,000 Israelis abroad who want to come home, but are trapped in the countries in which they find themselves because airports are closed and the governments of those countries refuse to allow Israel to make an emergency rescue landing.
One of those countries is New Zealand, though things could change as we go to press. Fiji Tonga and Samoa and other Pacific islands that have diplomatic ties with Israel have airports, and stranded Israelis could be taken by ship from New Zealand to one of these island states, where El Al might possibly be allowed to land.
The recent visit of President Reuven Rivlin helped to launch the State of Israel-Pacific Islands Summit, which, according to Tibor Schlosser, Israel's ambassador to the Pacific Islands, will continue in the future, as Israel is keen to enhance relations with these islands of the Pacific.
Meanwhile, in the United States, Micky Arison (the older brother of Shari Arison), who is chairman of Carnival Cruise Lines, which was established by their father, the late Ted Arison, has offered some of the Carnival Cruise Line ships to be used as floating hospitals if needed.
IT IS already a given that many Jews around the world will be conducting Seders via Zoom, so that families separated by fears of coronavirus will at least be able to see and hear each other. The Tampa Bay Times reports that some Florida families will be sitting around the Seder table with laptops.
SINGER AND band leader Kobi Oz lives across the road from his mother in Tel Aviv, so he can least see her in the flesh even if he can’t get close. He says that even at a distance people all over Israel who used to go to their parents for Seder are calling their mothers to ask for recipes, a call that many mothers have been waiting for years to receive. For people without culinary traditions, several restaurants and catering establishments are preparing takeaway Seders.
LIKE MOST heads of foreign missions in Israel, El Salvador's former ambassador to Israel Susana Gun de Hasenson, when presenting her credentials to President Moshe Katsav in January 2003, was accompanied by her immediate family. Kelly, the third of her four children came in army uniform – not the Salvadoran Army, but the Israeli army. All four siblings have triple citizenship – that of their mother, that of their father, Dave, who is from Finland, and that of their place of birth, which is Israel. The family is Jewish, and the parents have spent more than four decades in Israel, where they continue to live.
Mia, the eldest of the four siblings, served for several years as the head of the Israel branch of Amnesty International and later moved to London, where she was Amnesty’s international projects adviser. After 15 years with Amnesty, she became executive director of Rene Cassin – the Jewish Voice for Human Rights.
Nobel Peace Prize laureate Rene Cassin was a French Jewish jurist who coauthored the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The British organization that bears his name is a charity that works to promote and protect universal human rights, including women’s rights. He is also memorialized in several Israeli cities.
Last month, Rene Cassin held its inaugural Women’s Seder to celebrate the women of the Exodus, their untold stories and the individuals who inspire us today. The Seder ceremony called upon the experiences of the women of the Passover narrative, who played a role in the redemption of the Israelites, and women who advocate for freedom and equality in the present day and inspire others to continue their legacy.
Rene Cassin’s Women’s Seder Haggadah Companion is certainly different from the traditional Haggadah, with women replacing men throughout, and marching through history from the Exodus to the current period.
The six items on the Seder plate were far from what one sees on a regular Seder table. They represented Judaism, Empowerment, Solidarity, Legacy, Resistance and Collaboration, in the persons of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Helen Suzman, Simone Weil, the Women of #MeToo and Gloria Steinem.
Instead of the traditional four “Ma Nishtana” questions, the questions to be asked, according to the Haggadah Companion, are:
“What have we done to support the journeys of refugees and asylum-seekers in these times?
“How do you understand hate crime, where have you seen it and what can we do to combat this poison?
“What have we done in our personal and professional lives to combat modern slavery?
“What actions have we taken to support the Muslim Uyghurs and Gypsy, Roma and Traveler communities?”
On yet another twist to the Haggadah, instead of the Four Sons, Four Daughters challenge the reader as to their impact on social justice and responsibility for social action.
And finally, with a different take on the 10 Plagues, the women suggest changing the hardened hearts and minds of the Pharaohs of our time, who stand between the enjoyment of rights and freedoms by everyone.
JEWISH AGENCY Chairman Isaac Herzog joined Rivlin this week in a mutual morale boosting video call with several leaders of Jewish communities around the world, including former New York City Council member and current CEO of the Jewish Metropolitan Council on Poverty Rabbi David Greenfield and Rabbi Angela Buchdahal of Central Synagogue in New York; Noemi Di Segni, president of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities; Mary Kluk, national president of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies and World Jewish Congress vice president; Britain’s Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth; Lebana Pankar, chairwoman of Young Jewish Indians and member of the Indian Jewish Federation; Sidney Klajner, president of the SBIBAE welfare organization and Albert Einstein Israelite Hospital in Brazil; and Robert Ejnes, director of the CRIF, the French Jewish community’s umbrella organization.
The conference was facilitated by the Foreign Ministry, and the conversation naturally focused on how different this Passover is and the effects of coronavirus on Jewish communities around the world. The number of Jewish victims is disproportionately large in comparison to the ratio of the Jewish communities in the populations of their respective countries.
“No modern-day plague can break the chain that stretches back to the exodus from Egypt and binds our people together. Now more than ever, I feel that we are one family, with a shared history, shared values and a shared destiny,” said Rivlin.
“The Jewish people around the world are dealing with an enormous challenge. This Passover, the Jewish heart will beat in Israel and in the global Jewish community, and there is no greater moment to demonstrate the mutual commitment that exemplifies our people,” said Herzog.
“Our Torah is the book of life. It requires us to choose life, and so we must all act responsibly and follow the instructions of our government in order to protect everyone’s lives,” said Mirvis. “We see a rising tide of hate speech around us, and at times like these we must all remember that every human was created in God’s image, and behave accordingly.”
FOR JEWS everywhere, looking back at the year 2020, what they will remember most is the corona Seder. The memories of small weddings will fade because the photo of the bride and groom in their wedding finery will not tell the story as it was, nor will the photo of the bar mitzvah boy in his smart suit with the prayer shawl draped around his shoulders – because in both cases, there were other people there, albeit not many. But the solo Seder is a whole new ball game, for which there are some compensations.
To those who hosted a Seder in the past, they don’t have to knock themselves out this year, and can actually relax and not feel tired. To those who were always guests, there’s no need to buy an expensive gift, or to listen to every child at the table recite “Ma Nishtana.” People who were guests can read the Haggadah at their own pace and in the language in which they are most comfortable. Whether host or guest, there’s no need to explain to a child why the wine in Elijah’s cup has not been consumed, and, best of all, one doesn’t have to go through the process of hiding the afikomen and paying a king’s ransom to the child who finds it, because at a solo Seder, you are both the oldest and youngest person in the room.
If you are fortunate enough to be a couple or parents of children who are at home with you, inasmuch as possible, let the kids conduct the Seder. It will give them a sense of importance, and they are also less likely to misbehave.
Don’t forget to dress for the occasion. After all, it is a festival.
Don’t be disheartened, because when you strike an all-time low, the only direction you can go is up.
Chag Sameach.