Grapevine: Coincidence or something else?

JUNIOR CHESS champion Liel Levitan wins the gold medal.  (photo credit: Courtesy)
JUNIOR CHESS champion Liel Levitan wins the gold medal.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
■ THERE ARE people who believe there is no such thing as coincidence. But what other explanation could they have for Israel’s under-20 national basketball team winning the European championship immediately after Tisha Be’av on Sunday evening in Chemnitz, Germany, beating the Croatian team 80-66 for the gold medal the night before President Reuven Rivlin left on a state visit to Croatia? The Israeli team, coached by Ariel Beit-Halachmi, led for the entire game. Rivlin was the first of many to phone or tweet Halachmi after the game to congratulate him and the team on Israel’s historic victory, and said he had been following the progress of the under 20-national basketball team for 50 years, and Sunday night really proved what teamwork can do. On Monday, Rivlin, en route to Croatia, met the triumphant team at Ben-Gurion Airport when it returned home with the European trophy.
BDS and other hurdles notwithstanding, it’s victory time for Israel. First it was Netta Barzilai winning the Eurovision contest. Then it was seven-year-old Liel Levitan coming top in the Girls U7 category of the European School Chess Championships held in Krakow, Poland, from June 29 to July 8, and most recently, the under-20 national basketball team winning the European Cup.
Levitan, a cute seven-year-old, lives in Haifa with her parents and her three siblings. Come September, she will enter second grade. An avid chess player since learning the game from her older brother, Tal, who is now in the army, she triumphed over 12 other girls in her age group at the eight-day European championship games for school children in Krakow, which altogether attracted more than 300 players representing in excess of 20 European federations. Also competing in their respective age groups were Levitan’s sister, Ronit, 14, and brother, Yaron, 10. But they didn’t do as well as the youngest player in the family, who started playing at age four. When she climbed the podium to accept her gold medal, she was draped in an Israeli flag that was roughly the same size as the junior chess champion.
Although chess is classified within the realms of sport, the universal rule of which is supposed to be that it’s not winning that counts but how you play the game, many competitors are far from fair in how they play the game. Some even refuse to compete against Israelis, and some Israeli competitors who have the proper qualifications and backing of their respective federations, are denied entry by certain countries. Last year, for instance, Israeli chess players were unable to obtain visas for an international chess tournament in Saudi Arabia. Israeli chess champions, as winners of European championships in 2018, have the right to participate with free board and lodging in the World School Championship 2019 in Tunisia. But it’s not certain that Israeli champions will receive a visa, and therefore they might be unable to compete. Lior Aizenberg, spokesperson for the Israeli Chess Federation, wants to establish an alternative competition free of any national, religious or ethnic discrimination. The World Chess Federation is aware that any country practicing such discrimination should be disqualified from hosting international competitions, but that doesn’t seem to affect its approval of countries that discriminate against Israel.
Now that Natan Sharansky, a chess champion in his own right, who remained sane while in prison by playing chess games against himself, is no longer chairman of the Jewish Agency, perhaps he will take up the gauntlet of fighting for equal opportunity in international chess championships.
Perhaps the World Chess Federation will take a leaf out of the book of the International Judo Federation, which suspended international competitions in Tunisia and the United Arab Emirates when it could not receive guarantees that Israeli athletes would receive treatment equal to those from other countries, and that in the event that they would win in their respective divisions, the Israeli national anthem would be played.
■ IT WILL be interesting to see whether anyone will invite Lord Jacob Rothschild to the closing next month of educational television. Yes, the Educational Television Network, originally known as the Instructional Television Trust, was one of many gifts by members of the Rothschild family to the State of Israel before and since its establishment.
Urban renewal projects have systematically destroyed large amounts of what was the visible history of the state. In many such places there are blue plaques on a wall or pavement to tell the public that this site was the headquarters of some underground movement or the residence of some famous person. But in most cases, the buildings themselves have been destroyed, leaving no evidence for future generations to prove there was a Jewish presence in the country in any given century.
The Jerusalem Municipality is currently fighting the Society for the Protection of Israel Heritage Sites over an abandoned group of 19th century buildings opposite the Central Bus Station. The municipality wants to demolish the buildings and build a modern structure in their place, and the society wants to rehabilitate the buildings and make them available for cultural or commercial purposes, but under no circumstances will it agree to their destruction. It’s possible that, like some other heritage sites, this site will become the nucleus for the construction of a modern hotel complex, so that something of the original remains.
What does all this have to do with educational television? Both are examples of how little attention is given to history, despite the fact that history is the key justification for rejecting the Uganda plan and establishing the State of Israel where it is after 2,000 years of the exile of the bulk of the Jewish people.
While much is made of the fact that Israel Television was launched in May 1968, this is not exactly true. The channel originally known as Israel Television, then Channel 1, and now Kan 11, was preceded by educational television, whose first transmission was in March 1966, with the launch taking place with the participation of then-prime minister Levi Eshkol and Lord Jacob Rothschild. The original Instructional Television Trust and its foundation and operation were supported by the Rothschild Fund. In keeping with its name, the first transmissions via 60 television sets distributed to 32 schools were indeed instructional and designed to help students improve their studies in mathematics, English and biology. Expansion was quick, and very soon after its inception, it began broadcasting nationwide. With the establishment of the public broadcasting channel known as ITV, it began to share space on the air, and several years later began sharing space with Channel 2. The nature of its programming gradually changed from instructional to entertainment, and later included current affairs. Throughout its existence, it has remained an autonomous unit of the Education Ministry. When decisions were being made about closing down the Israel Broadcasting Authority and replacing it with the Israel Broadcasting Corporation, it was known that the ax would eventually come down on educational television as a separate entity, and that it would somehow be incorporated into the IBC. When that happens in mid-August, another piece of Israeli history will bite the dust, and future generations will probably never know about it. Educational television rebranded itself in December 2013, and is simply known as Hinuchit in Hebrew, but whether name will remain under the IBC banner is a matter of conjecture.
Meanwhile, the Rothschilds, despite being subjected to something reminiscent of Sallah Shabati, continue to support numerous projects in Israel through their individual foundations. As far as Lord Rothschild is concerned, his current main project via Yad Hanadiv, or the Rothschild Foundation as it is called in English, is the construction of the new national library, which will be much bigger in size and scope than the present national library and is being funded in partnership with the Gottesman family from the United States, which also has a large stake in Israel’s development.
■ AROUND MID-July, the City Improvements Division of the Jerusalem Municipality put up a notice in the hallways of buildings in the capital’s Balfour Road and Smolenskin Street (which intersect at the Prime Minister’s Residence), with the announcement that the two streets were to be upgraded, and that work to this effect would be conducted between 8 a.m.-6 p.m. from July 17 to August 31. This was actually the fourth time in just over a year that large sections of the road were being dug up in order to replace pipes, cables and security equipment. The first time was in advance of the visit of US President Donald Trump when the road directly outside the entrance to the Prime Minister’s Residence was dug up and a large shelter erected for security precautions. The shelter remained in place after Trump’s departure and to all intents and purposes has become a permanent fixture. Roadwork began on Smolenskin Street, but several meters away from the security shelter so that it would not be noticed by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban when he and his wife, Aniko Levai, joined Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, for dinner last week. The motorcade came to the PM’s residence via Balfour Road on which the roadwork has not yet commenced. Celebrity chef Segev Moshe, who this past May caused more than a little embarrassment when he served dessert in an ugly metal shoe when the Netanyahus were hosting Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his wife, Akie, was not invited to do the culinary honors on this occasion. The chefs were Dudu Elmikies and Yossi Shitrit, who run a popular non-kosher Tel Aviv restaurant known as David ve Yossef and who last year opened two similar branch restaurants – one in Moscow and the other in St. Petersburg, which means that when Netanyahu visits Russia and wants a taste of home, he knows where to go.
■ NETANYAHU IS unlikely to host controversial Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte when he comes to Israel in September. Although the two will meet, it will be Rivlin who hosts a dinner in Duterte’s honor. Duterte, master of the outrageous comment, with seemingly no concept or concern about political correctness, has compared himself to Hitler, though it’s drug traffickers, not Jews that he wants to eradicate. He has also publicly used derogatory terminology in references to former US president Barack Obama. Under ordinary circumstances, he would be declared persona non grata, but Israel has a long history with the Philippines that goes back to before the establishment of the state. When most of the world closed their doors to Jews fleeing Nazi Europe, the door to the Philippines was opened wide. In November 1947, the Philippines was one of the 33 UN member states that voted in favor of the partition of Palestine, which led to the creation of the State of Israel, and was the only Asian country to do so. Full diplomatic relations between Israel and the Philippines were established in February 1958, and Israel can often count on Philippines’ support when votes are taken at international forums. Netanyahu sought Duterte’s help when trying to garner votes against the UNESCO decision to deny the Jewish connection to Jerusalem. Duterte has since expressed a wish to visit Jerusalem, and the Philippines is regarded as a potential addition to those countries which have their embassies to Jerusalem or which are contemplating doing so. In addition, Israel and the Philippines have been negotiating for direct flights between the two countries.
■ ARGENTINE EXPATRIATES, Argentine groups traveling abroad, and people around the globe with Argentine connections last week marked the 24th anniversary of the 1994 bombing in Buenos Aires of AMIA, the Central Headquarters of the Argentine Jewish community, the investigation and judicial process of which are finally being properly addressed, though as yet, there have been no convictions. In Buenos Aires, a commemoration ceremony was held at the presidential executive mansion Casa Rosada with the participation of Argentine Vice President Gabriela Michetti and cabinet ministers Pablo Avelluto, Carolina Stanley, Patricia Bullrich , Rabbi Sergio Bergman, who  is also a cabinet minister, Israel Ambassador Ilan Sztulman, US Ambassador Edward Prado and Organization of American States Secretary-General Luis Almagro, who specially came to Buenos Aires for the occasion, and later tweeted: “Today I participated in the homage to the families who were victims of the AMIA terrorist attack in Buenos Aires. Every country is responsible for eradicating terrorism. Every country in the world is responsible for eradicating antisemitism.”
A memorial meeting was held in New York under the auspices of the World Jewish Congress, and in London a meeting at the House of Lords was dedicated to the memory of Argentine prosecutor Alberto Nisman, who was murdered in 2015 when it became known that he was scheduled to reveal findings linking the bombing not only to Iran, but to high-ranking Argentine officials. Nisman is considered to be the 86th victim of the bombing. Dr. Ariel Gelblung, the Latin America representative for the Simon Wiesenthal Center, which held the commemoration under the auspices of the Henry Jackson Society, explained that an investigation into Nisman’s death is one of four parallel cases in Argentina  that are related to the AMIA bombing. Argentine Ambassador to the UK Renato Carlos Sersale di Cerisano read a message from Argentine Foreign Minister Jorge Faurie, who wrote: “Together with the bombing of the Israeli Embassy in 1992, these two attacks constitute the two major acts of international terrorism perpetrated in our country’s history... The Argentine government is fully committed to seeking justice on behalf of the victims... to ensure that all those involved in the attack are brought before the Argentine courts…” Also present was Anita Weinstein, a daughter of Holocaust survivors who is herself a survivor of the AMIA bombing. She is a former director of the Federation of Jewish Communities of Argentina and currently serves as director of AMIA’s Documentation and Information Center on Argentine Jewry. Weinstein shared some of her memories of the traumatic experience.
It was a particularly busy time for Argentine diplomats in Israel. OLEI (the association of immigrants from Latin America, Spain and Portugal) organized memorial events throughout the country, particularly in places where there are significant numbers of residents of Argentine background. Argentine Ambassador Mariano Caucino attended a morning event in Jaffa organized by Taglit-Birthright and was present at another event in Kfar Saba, one of the main cities of domicile of Argentinians living in Israel. The latter event was organized by OLEI. In both his addresses, Caucino referred to both the AMIA attack and the 1992 bombing of the Israel Embassy in Buenos Aires as “savage acts against humanity, against Argentina and against the Jewish community.”
In his address in Kfar Saba, Caucino underscored Argentina’s ongoing quest for justice in the AMIA case and emphasized the renewed efforts carried forward by President Mauricio Macri as well as the commitment of the Argentine government against impunity. Caucino noted that President Macri had last year ordered the declassification of all files related to the case, in what was considered a major step toward transparency in all matters related to the investigation.
Argentine Consul General in Tel Aviv Ezequiel Páez, and diplomats Lucila Caviglia and Andrés Rojas attended ceremonies held in the Krayot in the North and Beersheba and Ashdod in the South.
■ IN ADVANCE of Tisha Be’av, Yigal Guetta, the former Shas MK who was forced to resign his seat in the Knesset after attending the marriage of his gay nephew, interviewed Esther Shkalim, a poet and researcher into Jewish customs and traditions in different countries. Guetta who is now a regular broadcaster on Kan 11, took a blood-is-thicker-than-water attitude toward his nephew, but is not as liberal on other religious issues, and often gets very hot under the collar on air. His indignation is on a par with that of fellow broadcaster Yossi Liberman, who interrogates rather than interviews some of the hapless people who agree to appear on the morning program that he co-hosts with Kalman Libeskind on Reshet Bet. However, Guetta for the most part, is very genial and was particularly so in his conversation with Shkalim, as he waxed nostalgic over customs that he remembered from childhood. Shkalim revealed that even though prayer books in different Jewish communities contain more or less the same texts, customs vary. In some communities, it is a tradition on Tisha Be’av to visit the graves of loved ones in order to combine national mourning with personal mourning. In one North African community, people cleaned their homes to a sparkle because it was believed that the messiah would come on Tisha Be’av. In this community, children were also given coins on Tisha Be’av in the same manner as on Hanukkah. In another North African community, it was customary to read or tell stories about pogroms against Jews who refused to convert to another faith, and to focus on the story of Hannah and her seven sons who were arrested by Antiochus IV who tried to force them to eat pork. Hannah watched them being put to death because of their refusal, but never compromised her faith. Elsewhere it was customary to sleep with a stone under one’s pillow in memory of the destruction of the Temple. Shkalim pointed out that the destruction of the Temple is remembered not only on Tisha Be’av but at every Jewish wedding, when the groom (and sometimes the bride as well), while on the verge of creating a new home, shatter a glass in memory of the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem; and when paying condolence calls, people as they exit tell the mourners that should be comforted together with all the mourners for Jerusalem.
■ IN CONTEMPORARY Jerusalem, a number of traditions have evolved, such as circling the walls of the old city on the night of Tisha Be’av, praying at the Western Wall, holding services and discussion groups in public squares among people of differing backgrounds and ideologies and showing films related to intolerance and violence at Jerusalem’s Beit Avi Chai. In the past, at the conclusion of each screening, there was a conversation between the film-maker and an interlocutor, which was often disturbing, because the interlocutor talked too much, denying the audience the opportunity to hear more from the film-maker. This year, there was less of that, and the film-makers, after introducing themselves and talking briefly about what prompted the making of the film, had wonderful interactions with the audience about the films themselves and related subject matter. Producer and director Uri Rosenwaks is fascinated by the way in which the media and the public relate to protest demonstrations, and made a series of documentaries based on archival footage, most of which had not been previously used. There is no narration. He let the footage, which included sound, speak for itself. The documentary that he showed was about the Black Panthers movement of the late 1970s. Its activists were mostly of Moroccan birth or background, lived in Jerusalem’s impoverished and vulnerable Musrara neighborhood, and suffered the discrimination of the Ashkenazi elite. Its leaders included Yamin Suissa, Charlie Biton and the late Saadia Marciano. Prime Minister Golda Meir referred to them as “not nice people,” but Biton and Marciano eventually won seats in the Knesset.
Another documentary about protest was made by social activist Daphni Leef, who started the social justice protest in Tel Aviv’s Rothschild Boulevard in 2011 to primarily protest the lack of affordable housing. The movement, though it failed to achieve its goal, mushroomed beyond Leef’s wildest dreams. Sometimes the path is more important than the target, said Leef, who had been joined in the leadership of the movement by Stav Shaffir and Itzik Shmuli, who went on to become legislators in the Knesset. Leef had no regrets about not having done the same. What she’s interested in is fostering cooperation between people who may be different from each other in every way except for one common denominator which causes them to put their differences aside and to join forces, because in the final analysis, that’s what makes for a healthy society. It may also explain why the LGBT Tisha Be’av protests around the country attracted such a large and diverse following. Leef pointed to various social welfare changes that had taken place over the past seven years, and said they emanated from the movement calling for social justice. In urging greater cooperation between people who seemingly have nothing in common, she urged that they “Find someone who speaks your language.”
In Leef’s documentary, there are many scenes of vicious police brutality, but Leef has no bitterness against the police and said in response to a question that there are many good, conscientious and dedicated people on the force, and that the many should not be judged by the actions of the few.
Scaffolding, the feature film was made by Matan Yair, who is both a history teacher and film-maker. He always had a fantasy, he said, about what people would say about him after he died, and so wrote a script about a literature teacher with a class of wild high school students, one of whom, Asher Lax, was a particularly difficult case to handle. Asher Lax is actually a real live person, on whom Yair based the main character in the film. He gained a completely different perspective of Lax when attending a shiva, and seeing how solicitous Lax was to everyone there. It made Yair much more aware of the many-sided complexities of his student. The film is primarily about the relationship between student and teacher, as well as the relationship between Lax and his father who wants him to take over his business. Lax’s parents are divorced, and Yair’s father, who never succeeded at anything, abandoned his family when Yair was a young boy, but eventually they made up, and he also appears in the film. Yair also has a connection to the late Yosi Banai with whom he shares a socio-economic and geographic background. In Banai’s famous song “Me, Shimon and little Moiz,” about the nostalgia of his childhood, Shimon and Moiz are authentic individuals who happen to be Yair’s uncles.
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