Grapevine December 15, 2021: Not lost in translation

Movers and shakers in Israeli society.

Opposition leader Tzipi Livni (photo credit: SIVAN FARAG)
Opposition leader Tzipi Livni
(photo credit: SIVAN FARAG)

It’s not often that a concise Hebrew expression finds its equivalent in English, but former politician, Tzipi Livni who served inter alia as foreign minister and justice minister, hit the nail on the head when asked in a Reshet Bet interview to characterize Angela Merkel, who has completed 16 years of rule. Speaking in Hebrew, Livni said of Merkel that she was the matzpen and matzpoon, which in English translates as “compass and conscience.” That’s a fairly good assessment, and the translation is a perfect match.

■ A GENERATION that grew up after the fall of the Iron Curtain cannot even begin to imagine the gray world that existed in Eastern Europe before communism was replaced by democracies, liberal economies and the resultant admission of several new member states to the European Union. December 12 marked the 40th anniversary of the imposition of martial law in Poland and President Andrzej Duda, who recently participated in Hanukkah candle-lighting, employed the Hanukkah message, urging Polish people to join in the “Light Up the Light of Freedom” campaign. In a widely distributed video, Duda recalled the Solidarity activists who fought for freedom, lost their jobs, and were brutally beaten and repressed. 

As a sign of remembrance of the victims, and of the regaining of Poland’s independence, he urged the public to light a flame of freedom in the windows of their homes. Solidarity founder Lech Walesa, the first democratically elected president of Poland, visited Israel in May, 1991, and in an address to the Knesset asked for forgiveness. Acknowledging that there were some evildoers among the Poles, Walesa asked that Jews should also remember the good things shared by Jews and Poles. 

Walesa again visited Israel when he was no longer president, and in April 2016, in response to one of his Facebook followers who asked if he was actually Jewish, Walesa replied: “In my family, there was no Jewish blood, which I accept with regret. If I were single and younger, I would fix this historic mistake,” he wrote. He also assured readers that he is not circumcised, which “can be checked.”

■ IT WAS somehow appropriate for India’s Harnaaz Sadhu to win the Miss Universe contest in Eilat during her country’s ongoing celebration of its 75th year of Independence, and its upcoming 30th anniversary next month of the establishment of full diplomatic relations with Israel.

 US AMBASSADOR Tom Nides with Transport Minister Merav Michaeli. (credit: JONATHAN CUMMINGS) US AMBASSADOR Tom Nides with Transport Minister Merav Michaeli. (credit: JONATHAN CUMMINGS)

An actress and advocate for women’s empowerment, Sadhu’s victory is yet another triumph for diversity and pluralism. It’s not so long ago that women of color had little or no hope of winning a national, let alone international, beauty pageant. It was not until 1990 that Carole Gist became the first Afro-American to be named Miss USA. The first woman of color to be crowned Miss Universe was politician, model and beauty queen Janelle Commissiong from Trinidad, who won the title in 1977. During her year-long term, she campaigned for black rights and world peace.

However, she was not the first woman of color to win an international beauty contest. Jennifer Hosten from Grenada in the West Indies was named Miss World in 1970. That contest was very controversial in that there were two contestants from Africa – one black, Pearl Jensen; the other white – Jillian Jessup. Africa was then in the throes of apartheid, so Jensen was known as Miss Africa South and Jessup as Miss Africa. Jensen was the runner-up in the contest, but this did not change her life after she returned home, because there were few if any opportunities for blacks under apartheid rule. Hopefully, Lalela Mswan, who came in third place, after defying her government which is boycotting Israel, will not get into trouble when she returns home. Many Israelis praised her courage, strength of character and determination.

For Eilat, the Miss Universe contest was a much-needed boost. Some 75% of Eilat’s population relies on some form of tourism for an income. For almost two years, the city has been suffering badly. But the Miss Universe contest put Eilat on the map, and when tourism resumes, it would not be surprising to learn that nearly all the Eilat hotels have been overbooked. 

The future progeny of Eilat Mayor Eli Lancry will have an interesting time looking through his photo album. Lancry, more than any other Israeli, with the possible exception of Jerusalem deputy mayor Fleur Hassan-Nahoum, has been photographed with many of the 80 beauty queens competing in the Miss Universe contest.

■ WHEN SHIMON Peres rook up office as President of the State of Israel, pressure was put upon him to remove the bust of Moshe Katsav from the line of sculptures of past presidents, which stands in the grounds of the President’s Residence. Peres refused, saying that one cannot change history, and the fact was that even though Katsav was a convicted felon, he had been president of the state for almost seven years. The same pressure was put on Reuven Rivlin who followed the example set by his predecessor but added information to the plaque that detailed Katsav’s biography so that visitors would know that he had been convicted of rape.

Unlike the Sackler family which after years of supporting New York’s Museum of Modern Art has had its name removed from the walls of the museum, Katsav was not a philanthropist. The Sacklers, whose family have been involved in the opioid scandal that rocked America, have supported MOMA for more than half a century. Certainly, people who break the law must face the consequences of their actions. 

Tel Aviv University has also been a major beneficiary of the Sackler family’s largesse, As yet, there has not been any talk of removing the Sackler name from TAU, but there is talk of removing the Steinhardt name from TAU’s Nature Museum because Michael Steinhardt had dealt in tens of millions of dollars worth of stolen Middle East artifacts, even though he is now giving them back to their rightful owners, and claims that he bought them in good faith. 

The question is: Are institutions that eliminate the names of their benefactors from their walls also giving them back their money? Otherwise, the situation falls in line with the old Jewish maxim: “You have killed and you have also inherited.”

■ THERE ARE none so blind as those who will not see. This old idiom applies equally to anti-vaxxers and to people who refuse to acknowledge the evils in Israeli society. Two current examples are the storm of threats and attacks against Rabbi Chaim Kaniewski, one of the greatest authorities on Jewish law in the ultra-Orthodox Jewish world, for urging parents to vaccinate their children. The other is lashing out against Internal Security Minister Omer Bar Lev for tweeting that at his meeting with US Undersecretary of State Victoria Nuland, she had enquired about settler violence.

In Jewish tradition, almost every Jewish law can be broken in order to save a life, so why threaten Kaniewski, who wants to take a preventive measure in order to save the lives of thousands of children? The proof of the benefits of the vaccine is all around us, but there are too many people who refuse to see the evidence before their eyes, which is why threats are aimed at Kaniewski.

Bar-Lev’s tweet was a wake-up call, prompted by situations that certain Israelis refuse to see. Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked berated Bar Lev for not responding to Nuland that Palestinians are throwing stones at Israelis on a daily basis for no reason other than the fact that they are Jews. Many Jews, particularly people on the right of the political spectrum, refuse to acknowledge that there are Jewish terrorists and bullies who deliberately provoke violence. Not all Palestinians are terrorists, and not all Jews live according to a moral code.

If Nuland was asking about settler violence, it’s because she knows that it exists, and she wanted to know if there was a means of defusing tensions. Watchdog organizations report on settlers attacking Palestinians, throwing rocks at their cars, torching their cars, ruining the olive trees of Palestinian farmers and more. Yes, Palestinian terrorists do the same to Jews, but it’s not a one-sided story.

■ WITHIN DAYS of President Isaac Herzog launching his campaign for the elimination of threats and vulgar language from social media, the Tzohar Rabbinical Council placed large advertisements in the print media stating that mutual respect must come before all else.

The advertisement explains that in recent weeks there has been divisive, abusive and even inciteful rhetoric against respected figures within the Religious Zionist movement in relation to reforms that Religious Affairs Minister Matan Kahana wishes to introduce.

The Tzohar Rabbinical Council acknowledges the legitimacy of differing opinions and criticism but takes issue with those who have accused the minister of a desire to disparage Torah Judaism and weaken the Chief Rabbinate.

What the advertisement does not say is that Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef has refused to meet with Kahana, and that haredi legislators snub Kahana if they pass him in the Knesset corridors.

The Sephardi chief rabbi’s late father, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, was known for finding halachic solutions for controversial religious and social problems, and in all probability would have met with Kahana, slapped him twice across the face, as was frequently his custom, and then would have sat down to talk to him, to see where they could find common ground. 

Even the Religious Zionist media has accepted advertisements that are insulting to both Kahana and to MK Gilad Kariv, a Reform rabbi.

A full-page advertisement in last week’s issue of B’Sheva shows caricatures of Kahana and Kariv standing in an Express Conversion booth, with Kahana holding an instant conversion certificate. The actual text of the advertisement warns of the dangers of conversion reform, which its authors say will divide the nation in two and will damage the Jewish character of the State of Israel.

In the biblical passages read in recent weeks, hardly any of the children of our biblical heroes would qualify as being halachically Jewish – and yet the 12 tribes are a very precious part of our history, and groups of people claiming to be descendants of the Lost Tribes of Israel have been welcomed in this country. What converts as well as many people who are born Jewish cannot understand, is why someone who wants to throw in their lot with the Jewish people, but does not want to totally change their lifestyle is unacceptable, whereas someone born Jewish, who is totally secular, does not observe any religious laws, never goes to synagogue, and even occasionally ridicules Jewish traditions, is acceptable. 

When technology didn’t do God’s work, there was a certain logic in insisting that only the child of a Jewish mother can be regarded as Jewish. But today Jewish women with fertility problems, who can produce ova, but can’t carry an embryo for more than a few weeks, resort to surrogate mothers, who very often are not Jewish, but are carrying an embryo that was conceived by a Jewish man and Jewish woman. Some Orthodox rabbis will accept the infant as Jewish, while others say that the child will have to be converted. 

Even then there are differences of opinion as to whether the child can be converted in infancy, or must wait until it is old enough to be able to make an informed decision. What happens when the child grows up in a non-Orthodox Jewish home but is sent to a Jewish day school and a Jewish youth movement? Are the rabbis going to deny that child a Jewish identity because the parents are not religious?

Such questions have been amicably settled in the past, and there is probably a good compromise solution that does not conflict with halacha. The chief rabbis just have to be willing to find it.

There is also a controversy over Kahana’s intention to introduce kashrut reforms, with the rabbinate insisting that the Chief Rabbinate is the only source for kashrut approval. That’s ironic considering that Hermozo, a banquet establishment with facilities in the Ben Shemen forest and in Modi’in, offers a kosher choice: Rabbanut, Glatt, Mehadrin, and Mahfooz. All are under different certification and the list of kosher possibilities goes on far beyond that of Hermozo.

The celebrity chef is Avi Levy, the owner of Hamoitzi restaurant in Jerusalem’s Jaffa Road, close to Mahane Yehuda market. Levy has joined forces with Hermozo’s resident chef Leonid Vinikov, and together they are producing a variety of attractively presented culinary delights.

■ ALTHOUGH MEMBERS of IBCA, the Israel Britain and the Commonwealth Association had been briefed that a members-only meeting in January with President Isaac Herzog was in the works, a notice about the exact date had barely been published before being followed by an announcement that the event is fully booked and that there is now a waiting list in case of cancellations.

Herzog in his previous capacities has been an honored guest at IBCA events, as has his mother Aura. His late father Chaim Herzog served as an IBCA chairman and presided at an IBCA Balfour Day dinner at the Knesset to mark the 50th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration. Twenty years later, as Israel’s sixth president, he was the guest of honor at the Balfour Dinner. With that kind of a background, Herzog, despite an extremely busy schedule, could hardly refuse an IBCA request for a meeting, which even though it will have a large attendance, will carry a certain degree of intimacy that is absent in meetings with other organizations.

■ IT’S VERY considerate of their guests when embassies that have events on the same day cooperate with each other. On the same date that Finland celebrated its 104th Independence Day at the residence of Ambassador Kirsikka Lehto-Asikainen last week, Norway’s Ambassador Kare R. Aas hosted a Norwegian Christmas party at the palatial Norwegian residence. 

The two residences are fairly close to each other in Herzliya Pituach, and many of the guests who were invited to the Finnish reception were also invited to the Norwegian pre-Christmas event. The Finnish reception started at 4 p.m. and the Norwegian at 6 p.m. It was somewhat like playing musical chairs to leave one residence, move on to the next, and suddenly see many of the same people.

There is always music at a Finnish Independence Day reception, and this occasion was no exception. What was wonderful was that the three-piece percussion, string and piano jazz band played loudly enough to be heard but soft enough to enable normal conversation. That’s quite an art. In hosting the event, the ambassador was joined by Defense Attache Lt. Col. Vesa Vainio and his wife Jaana, who was dressed in traditional Finnish costume. The defense attache’s colleagues from other embassies were among the guests, and it was interesting to observe the differences in their uniforms and the use of gold braid.

Lehto-Asikainen said that unlike last year, when Independence Day was celebrated via social media, she was happy to have an in-person reception at the residence. Though Finland was not always a prosperous country, today it is among the most prosperous in the world – independent, democratic, a leader in start-ups with investments in education and in its people, and according to the UN study on happiness, said Lehto-Asikainen.

Finns are very happy people, among the least corrupt in the world with one of the best systems of governance and in the forefront of gender equality. Moreover, people trust each other and trust the government. The level of trust is very high. In addition, Finland has an ambitious climate change program and is dedicated to social innovation.

She was very pleased that Communications Minister Yoaz Hendel was representing the government in view of the strong cooperation between Finland and Israel on matters of communication.

Unlike most other ministers, who stick to the speech prepared for them by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Hendel improvised as he went along, referring here and there to the written text, but generally speaking off the top of his head.

Noting that Finland’s flag, like Israel’s, is blue and white, Hendel said the two countries share much more than the colors of their flags.

Both countries are on the cutting edge of technology, and it is important to think about how technology and human resources can be used to create a better future for today’s young generation, which sees technological innovation as a way of life, said Hendel.

He credited Finland with being blessed with excellent human resources and brilliant minds in the fields of high tech, cyber and environmental issues.

In the latter context, he said that both countries are facing challenges of green solutions to environmental problems, especially power based on green energy. He also mentioned national security as another area of cooperation. On the issue of antisemitism, Hendel praised Finland for its uncompromising stand, and also recalled that during the Holocaust, Finland protected its Jewish community.

The national anthems of both countries were sung by Doron Nemes of the Jerusalem Music Academy. The ambassador joined in the singing of both, and when complemented on singing “Hatikva,” he replied: “I love it.”

■ AT THE Norwegian residence, all the food on the various buffets, especially the Norwegian delicacies were labelled, plus a large additional notice to state that they were non-kosher. Very often, people who observe the Jewish dietary laws, think that because a diplomatic reception is a catered affair, that the embassy has hired a kosher caterer. More often than not, if the event is in the residence rather than a hotel, the catering is not kosher, but in a rare gesture, the Norwegians made this known.

Among the guests were Yossi Beilin, who had played such an integral role in the Oslo accords of 1993; Chief of State Protocol Gil Haskel; head of the Peres Circle Yona Bartal; peace activist Alice Krieger; Tom Goldberger, director-general’s representative in Israel for the Multinational Force and Observers and former deputy chief of mission at the US Embassy, along with his wife Eden Goldberger who is president of the International Women’s Club; President of the Ambassadors’ Club of Israel Yitzhak Eldan; Yair Zivan, political advisor to the Foreign Minister; and Jonathan Cummings, political adviser to the Minister for Transportation and Road Safety. 

There were Christmas decorations throughout the house, and embassy staff wore red stocking caps such as that worn by Father Christmas; guests were told that they could stay for as long as they liked. Norwegian Christmas carols, which are quite different from those universally sung, were performed by the Jerusalem Youth Choir whose members lined the curved staircase, thereby adding a little drama to the occasion. Of course, it wouldn’t be Christmas without Christmas presents, and guests before departing were given a shoulder or waist pouch containing chocolate and a souvenir Norwegian pen, which was a very nice gesture on the part of the ambassador.

■ US AMBASSADOR Tom Nides is busy doing the rounds and getting to know government ministers and other dignitaries. Among the people he met this week was Transportation and Road Safety Minister Merav Michaeli, who described the meeting as “excellent,” and said that she was looking forward to working with Nides to advance US-Israel relations. In their discussion, they spoke of key issues of interest to both countries including national security. Because of the strange composition of the coalition government, Nides may find it confusing to hear the views of different ministers. 

■ IT HAS been more than seven years since three Israeli teenagers Naftali Frenkel, Gilad Shaer and Eyal Yifrah were kidnapped and later murdered after hitching a ride from a bus stop at Alon Shvut in the Gush Etzion area. Their parents, especially, their mothers, formed a close, unshakable bond, and became public figures almost overnight. The dignified example they set in coping with bereavement and in finding ways to promote Jewish unity has earned them several accolades.

In the afternoon of December 22, yet another accolade will come their way when Iris Yifrah, Bat-Galim Shaer and Rachelle Fraenkel will be presented with Hemdat Academy’s Resilience Award in recognition of their ability to flourish despite the painful difficulties which they have experienced. The award ceremony will take place at Sdot HaNegev Cultural Center.

■ AYUBOWAN means “hello again” in Sinhala, one of the official languages of Sri Lanka, whose Tourist Board is eagerly awaiting the opportunity to say this to Israeli vacationers.

“Sri Lanka has opened its borders to the international community,” said Sri Lankan Ambassador Waruna Wilpatha, who is extremely keen to see Israeli tourists visiting his country.

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