Grapevine: Between Moscow and Jerusalem

Russian Ambassador Anatoly Viktorov this week addressed an event hosted by the Israel Council on Foreign Relations under the auspices of the World Jewish Congress.

PROF. SHLOMO AVINERI (left) and Russian Ambassador Anatoly Viktorov (photo credit: Courtesy)
PROF. SHLOMO AVINERI (left) and Russian Ambassador Anatoly Viktorov
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Notwithstanding Russia’s long history with Jerusalem dating back to Czarist times, or the fact that it owns extensive property in Israel’s capital, Russia has no plans to transfer its embassy to Jerusalem, and will not consider doing so until the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is resolved. This was confirmed by Russian Ambassador Anatoly Viktorov this week when he addressed an event hosted by the Israel Council on Foreign Relations under the auspices of the World Jewish Congress.
And yes, his lecture, “Russia and the Middle East: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow,” took place in Jerusalem at the recently restored and re-opened Bat Sheva Hotel.
Viktorov, a former director of the Russian Foreign Ministry’s Department for Humanitarian Cooperation and Human Rights, was asked by ICFR board member Prof. Shlomo Avineri how he could reconcile Moscow’s position with acts of violence that have enabled the Assad regime to maintain its power, and with Syria’s abuse of human rights, which in some cases has been aided by Russia. Viktorov replied by saying, what most people don’t realize is that Russia contributed to the withdrawal of chemical weapons. Had it not done so, he said, the consequences could have been catastrophic if such weapons had fallen into the hands of terrorists.
Avineri, the moderator for the evening, also pointed out that despite the many disagreements among Israelis, there is consensus on one issue: Iranian forces should not be in Syria. He mentioned Iran more than once, and Viktorov somehow skirted the issue. He avoided making specific comments about Iran beyond saying the Russian Federation does not accept Iran’s statements that Israel should be destroyed. He made an indirect reference to Iran by saying if statehood and free democratic elections are restored to Syria, all foreign forces will withdraw. But he gave no timeline.
Viktorov did, however, call on the international community to respond to the daily human needs of the Syrian population. He attributed the destabilization of governments in the region to the Arab Spring, adding that the imposition of other people’s values on the Middle East would lead to grave consequences and cause further instability.
In this context, he mentioned international terrorism, which he said was unprecedented, because there are terrorists “in all stripes.”
He also warned that if the Israeli-Palestinian issue is not resolved, the lack of resolution will spawn extremism.
Russia is willing to facilitate negotiations in the hope of resolving conflicts between different elements in the Middle East, Viktorov said, and noted that President Vladimir Putin had offered to host an Israeli-Palestinian summit without any pre-conditions. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas had agreed in principle, said Viktorov, but as yet, no such meeting has been held.
■ JUST AS it takes two to tango, it takes two to start a fight. Hundreds of haredi women and Ulpana students – on the instructions of Israel’s foremost halachic (Jewish law) authority, Rabbi Haim Kanievsky – will assemble at the Western Wall this morning on International Women’s Day. It is an effort to overwhelm the 30th anniversary celebrations of Women at the Wall. However, the latter will not be lured into violence by any provocation on the part of ultra-Orthodox Ulpana girls or yeshiva boys who object to women reading from the Torah, wearing prayer shawls and binding phylacteries – all of which are considered to be strictly male provinces in Orthodox Jewish tradition.
The Women of the Wall – which includes the whole gamut of Jewish observance (other than haredi), from modern Orthodox to Reform and Reconstructionist – comes together at the Western Wall at the beginning of every Hebrew calendar month for Rosh Hodesh prayers. Despite the Jerusalem District Court in 2013 ruling that police cannot arrest women for praying in their own way at the Western Wall, the women are still subjected to body searches in case – heaven forbid – they are trying to smuggle a Torah scroll into the area where they congregate for prayer.
At a time when antisemitism is rife around the globe, one would think that despite their differences, Jews would band together and take on a more live-and-let-live attitude. The late Rabbi Herman Sanger, a Reform rabbi in Melbourne, Australia, has been quoted in this column before. But what he said bears repeating again and again. In his arguments with representatives of the Orthodox community, Sanger used to say: “The trouble with you people is that you always see us as the last door on the way out, instead of the first door on the way back.”
In an era of increasing assimilation, the less-stringent demands of Reform Judaism help semi-assimilated Jews to identify Jewishly, and gives them a sense of belonging. Some then move on to Conservative or Orthodox congregations. Those who create problems for Women at the Wall will also be responsible for turning some of them away from Judaism, and this will affect their children and all their future progeny. Is that really what Rabbi Kanievsky wants?
■ DESPITE ONGOING discrimination and abuse, it cannot be denied that women have broken through the glass ceilings in almost every field. Admittedly, there are many professions in which men are still overwhelmingly in the majority, but every journey begins with the first step. And even if women are a minority in some professions, the fact is they got a foot in the door.
One of the areas in which women are increasingly making headway is diplomacy. Women ambassadors, past and present have helmed the foreign diplomatic missions in Israel in close to 30 countries, and in these and other diplomatic missions, there are and have been women among the senior diplomats. At the Croatian Embassy, for instance, women, including the ambassador, hold the top three positions. Thus it was no wonder that the Ambassadors’ Club of Israel this week held a special event in honor of International Women’s Day at which one woman ambassador and one woman who teaches female empowerment to women in many countries were honored with Woman of Valor awards. Several male diplomats also showed up at the event at ZOA House in Tel Aviv, including Eyal Sela, Israel’s ambassador to Slovenia. The two honorees who were introduced by Ambassadors’ Club founder and president Yitzhak Eldan were Slovenian Ambassador Barbara Susnik and Yehudit Sidikman, the founder and CEO of El Halev, which teaches women self-defense, and empowerment over their own bodies and their own destinies.
The two women happen to be good friends and colleagues. Each is active in promoting women’s empowerment and in advocating against violence and abuse of women and children. Before coming to Israel, Susnik represented her country at the Council of Europe, where she focused primarily on advocating against sexual abuse of children and against violence toward women. When she took her post in Israel, she wondered if she could continue with this role in a host country. But after talking about these subjects to various people, she realized how important it was to continue talking, in order to heighten awareness and to promote preventive measures. Abuse and violence don’t happen in one country or another, she said. They happen everywhere.
American-born Sidikman was sexually abused as an adolescent by a charismatic cantor at the temple she attended. She didn’t realize at the time that she was being sexually abused, because she thought she was in love with him. The abuse went on for several years until she made her first trip to Israel. That was also the first time she had been away from him, and she had time to think. She’d never told anyone about her romance. Sexual relations were something not openly discussed in those years. But following her return to the US, she felt the need to confide in a friend about her relationship with the cantor. The friend told the rabbi, and the rabbi fired the cantor.
After she came to live in Israel and was already married and a mother, Sidikman went to a judo class, which she found very liberating. She eventually earned a 4th degree black belt, established El Halev and began teaching girls and women self-defense. She also trained some of them to teach others, and this is beginning to take on a global dimension. She gives classes and lectures in many countries, and will soon be on her way to Greece to teach women working with refugees how to defend themselves.
Although hiring a prostitute is now illegal in Israel, Sidikman revealed that there are some 300 under-age prostitutes in Tel Aviv, many of whom are giving sex for drugs.
Also present at the event was Oshrat Friedman, deputy director of the Authority for the Advancement of the Status of Women, which inter alia trains women to take up leadership positions. One of the things currently occupying the attention of the authority is an attempt to introduce gender equality to the Israel Prize. In any given year, said Friedman, the laureates are mostly men, and very few women. The authority compiled a list of 70 outstanding women in different fields, to ensure they are taken into consideration by the committees that decide on the honorees for this year’s Israel Prize awards, so that no one can use the excuse that the dearth of women in any given field is a reason for so few women being awarded the Israel Prize.
Susnik received her Woman of Valor award from Ruth Fogel, an Ambassadors’ Club vice president and honorary consul for Paraguay, and Sidikman received hers from Sara Allalouf, who is also a vice president of the club and honorary consul for Latvia.
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