Grapevine December 16, 2020: Hanukkah lights – global and local

Movers and shakers in Israeli society.

RIVLIN WAVES TO his neighbors on the fourth night of Hanukkah.  (photo credit: MARK NEYMAN/GPO)
RIVLIN WAVES TO his neighbors on the fourth night of Hanukkah.
(photo credit: MARK NEYMAN/GPO)
 ■ ORDINARILY DURING December-January, Israeli heads of diplomatic missions around the world come home for a conference on the achievements and challenges that are part and parcel of their service. One session of the conference is traditionally held at the President’s Residence. This year, due to coronavirus restrictions, most of the ambassadors remained in their host countries, but came together on Zoom on Sunday for a Hanukkah candle- lighting ceremony at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem presided over by Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi, who was joined by President Reuven Rivlin and some of the members of Israel’s diplomatic corps.
Rivlin praised the work of the ministry and its representatives abroad during the coronavirus crisis, noting their resilience, resourcefulness and patience.
He also mentioned the positive regional developments in terms of diplomacy, the path to peace and Middle East stability
Earlier in the evening, Rivlin, who has already begun making his farewells, even though he has another seven months in office before completing his term, invited neighbors of the President’s Residence to light candles with him in the street or from their balconies. For security reasons, this mass candle-lighting could not be made public in advance, and members of the president’s staff went door-knocking on both sides of the street to personally invite the participation of the president’s neighbors.
Waving to people standing in the street or hanging over their balconies, Rivlin said, “I know that I am not always an easy neighbor. Sometimes there’s noise, sometimes the traffic is a problem, but you are wonderful neighbors.”
It was not the first time that Rivlin has demonstrated consideration for them. On the first Purim of his tenure, he and his late wife, Nechama, distributed gift packages of mishloach manot, as is the custom on Purim, and invited some of the neighbors into the residence.
This week, as he stood in the street alongside a giant hanukkiah, the president told his neighbors, “In a few months, I am going to vacate this place so that a new tenant can move in. Thank you for some wonderful years as good neighbors.” Referring to the story of the Hanukkah miracle, Rivlin said, “This year, we are hoping for another miracle, for signs and wonders in the field of health, but also for our society, economy and politics. May we soon know a welcome return to normality, a time of peace, stability, growth and light.”
■ DIVERSITY IS the name of the game for social entrepreneurs Danny Hakim and his wife, Danna Azrieli, who are actively and philanthropically engaged in numerous projects related to co-existence, Jewish heritage and pluralism, Holocaust remembrance, sport, education, environment, architecture and design, arts and culture with an emphasis on music, medical and scientific research, developmental disabilities with the focus on integrated housing in the community, social welfare, junior life saving and more. All of this is in the interests of promoting Middle East peace, preserving the cultural legacies of Jews from Middle Eastern countries and the general improvement of and respect for the quality of life.
The couple, who are hands-on social entrepreneurs, were in Dubai last week to attend the Rebuilding of Abraham’s Tent conference and to participate in the debate following the keynote addresses.
The Australian-born Hakim, who has an Egyptian background, said, “Jews from the Middle East and North Africa [MENA] can serve as bridges between Jews and Arabs due to their shared language, culture, heritage and tradition. Now is the time to acknowledge the past and promote understanding and dialogue so that future Jewish and Muslim generations will have opportunities to work together in harmony and in peace.”
Best known as a martial arts champion, Hakim is the founder of Budo for Peace, through which he has long conducted joint martial arts classes whereby meaningful encounters are created between all sectors of Israeli society and neighbors in the region. These martial arts sessions also help empower women at a time when violence against women is on the rise. Not only are women taught to defend themselves against attack, they are also emotionally supportive of each other regardless of religious or national differences.
In Dubai, Hakim and Azrieli also attended the launch of a photo exhibition of Jewish heritage from 14 Arab countries, co-sponsored by the Azrieli Center for Israel Studies at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. The exhibition, which features synagogues in Arab lands, was later opened to the public on the first day of Hanukkah, and will remain a permanent fixture.
Prior to arriving in Dubai, Hakim was in Australia, where he went to visit his mother on her 90th birthday. Due to coronavirus restrictions, he could not fly the quickest route via Bangkok or Hong Kong, which usually takes 24-26 hours, but had to fly via the US. That meant from the time he left Israel it took 48 hours before he was able to land in Sydney, where he then had to go through questioning by police, undergo health checks and fill out forms. He had no choice as to which hotel he would stay in, nor could he have any physical contact with anyone for 14 days. Every floor was guarded by police 24/7. Meals were delivered in paper bags and placed outside the door of each occupant, who had to wait for 10 seconds after the knock on the door before opening it to pick up the meal. It was no picnic.
On Tuesday of this week, Hakim, who is a member of the board of Alliance for Middle East Peace (ALLMEP), participated in the organization’s Shine a Light event, which was live-streamed to thousands of viewers world-wide. ALLMEP comprises more than 100 NGOs working for reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians. Among the speakers were many international luminaries, including among others, British actor Jason Isaacs, best known for his role as Lucius Malfoy in the Harry Potter series; French actress Laetitia Eido, who plays the Lebanese mother in Fauda; former British prime minister and Middle East envoy of the Quartet Tony Blair; and UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Nickolay Mladenov.
■ GENERALLY THE most genteel and gracious of news anchors on television, Michal Rabinovich was unusually aggressive when interviewing Gideon Sa’ar about his political future, and frequently interrupted him in mid-sentence, which is totally out of character for her. Sa’ar kept his cool throughout, speaking in carefully measured tones. One can only imagine that Rabinovich was receiving instructions from an off-screen editor in the control room. Whether one supports Sa’ar or not, his integrity has to be acknowledged. Unlike other MKs who have indicated that they will join him if and when there are elections, Sa’ar resigned from the Knesset after announcing that he could no longer serve under a government led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He also surprised Rabinovich when she asked if he would like to see Netanyahu become a Nobel Prize laureate. Sa’ar replied that he would and that he imagined all Israelis would be happy to see the Nobel Prize awarded to the prime minister of Israel.
■ “I’M BACK!” read the jubilant WhatsApp message from Sheldon Ritz, who for 20 years worked at the King David Hotel, the flagship of the Dan Hotel chain. Ritz had done such an excellent job being responsible for foreign delegations and their leaders who stayed at the King David that he was promoted to work in the chain’s head office in Tel Aviv as director of sales for embassies and government ministries. This occasionally meant his return to his old haunts when a lot of TLC was needed for a particular group of visitors.
A hotel man to the marrow in his bones, Ritz is the consummate unflappable professional. Much as he had been flattered by his promotion, he missed the atmosphere of the hotel environment, and said as much to the King David’s General Manager Tamir Kobrin, when the latter returned to Israel after many years of working abroad. Kobrin, who is also a top-notch professional, immediately decided that the two of them would one day work together. He told Ritz to be patient, and meanwhile fought to have him appointed as his assistant. 
It helped that the King David had been given leeway to accommodate visiting dignitaries. Ritz now wears two hats. In addition to being Kobrin’s assistant, he is back to doing what he does best, which is to be in charge of foreign delegations. And while he doesn’t have quite as much work as in the pre-COVID era, there’s enough to keep him on his toes. As the hotel is entering into its 90th anniversary year, both Kobrin and Ritz are hopeful that tourism will pick up and would like to see a surge of domestic tourism as well as tourists from overseas. 
When the hotel was previously opened for a brief period in the summer, Yossi Ivgy, the hotel butler and room service manager, had the added title on Thursdays and Fridays of historian in residence, and regaled guests with stories about the hotel as he led them on historical tours of the premises. Ivgy started working at the King David when he was 16 years old and was in the hotel in July 1946, when it was bombed. He has served kings and princes, as well as heads of state and prime ministers from scores of countries.
■ WITH THE resurfacing from beneath the radar of relations between Israel and Morocco, Israeli media personnel are rushing around to find prominent Israelis of Moroccan background to interview them on what it means to them that their ancestral homeland and the country of their birth have found a public modus vivendi. There’s also been a little brinkmanship on the part of non-Moroccans such as Ehud Barak, who tweeted and posted on Facebook his recollection of visiting the late King Hassan II, 42 years ago on the occasion of the latter’s 50th birthday, and meeting the young Prince Mohammed, who today is King Mohammed VI. Time occasionally blurs memory. If it was the king’s 50th birthday, it was 41 not 42 years ago, but who counts? At that time Barak was foreign minister.
■ LIKEWISE, TRICKED by memory, Moroccan-born Israel Prize-laureate and former foreign minister David Levy, in an interview with Reshet Bet’s Liat Regev, said he had sworn when he left Morocco as a 20-year-old that he would never return unless officially invited. In fact, on December 21, 1999, which happened to be Levy’s 62nd birthday, he received an official invitation from King Mohammed VI. It had taken a little over 40 years. However, Levy actually returned to Morocco before taking up the invitation. King Hassan ll had died in July 1999, and Levy, who was then foreign minister, accompanied president Ezer Weizman and Barak, who was then prime minister, to the funeral. 
Levy also thought his official visit had taken place 15 years ago, when in fact it took place 20 years ago. But both he and his wife, Rachel, received the full red-carpet treatment separately and together. He was taken to the house in which he grew up in Rabat, and she was taken to her former home in Mogador. The Moroccans also arranged for them to visit the graves of deceased relatives.
■ “THE LADY doth protest too much, methinks” – a famous quote from Shakespeare’s Hamlet – was paraphrased this week by Asaf Liberman and Kalman Liebeskind in relation to another Moroccan-born Israel Prize-laureate, Miriam Peretz, who has been widely mentioned as a potential candidate for president of the state, even though she has not been formally nominated. A superbly passionate orator who likes, whenever possible, to invoke her illiterate parents as a backdrop to her own accomplishments, Peretz – while denying that she was hoping to assume the presidency – made an extraordinarily moving campaign speech that was pounced on as such by her interlocutors.
■ NOT ALL Knesset members who were either born in Morocco, are the offspring of Moroccan immigrant parents or who married people of Moroccan background are serving in the current Knesset. Some are no longer living, but those who are still alive would make an impressive delegation of Israeli lawmakers to Morocco. The list below is incomplete and includes the names of deceased MKs, but it gives an indication of the Moroccan community’s influence in Israeli politics.
Among them are or were Samuel Avital, Daniel Ben Simon, Yehuda Lancry, Rafi Suissa, Rafi Edry, Rafi Peretz, Jacques Amir, Uri Sabag, Yitzhak Peretz, Arye Deri, Amir Ohana, Shimon Ohayon, David Levy, Miri Regev, Amir Peretz, Sharren Haskel, David Bitan, Charlie Bitton, Shlomo Ben-Ami, Meir Shitrit, Shimon Shetreet, Saadia Marciano, Aharon Abuhatzira, Jackie Levy, Orly Levy-Abecassis, Maxim Levy, Meir Cohen, Michael Biton and Yifat Shasha-Biton.
■ POLISH AMBASSADOR Marek Magierowski often puts immigrants to shame with his command of Hebrew. He did so again this week with his Hanukkah greetings, which were a lot more than simple good wishes to all of Israel. He has also made a video together with Polish-born Israeli broadcaster and son of Holocaust survivors Aryeh Golan, in which they read passages in English and Hebrew of a letter dated December 10, 1942, in which the Polish government-in-exile revealed to the world the tragic fate of European Jewry. Signed by Count Edward Raczynski, who was then the Polish foreign minister-in-exile, the letter was, as far as is known, the first diplomatic document to describe the horrors of the Holocaust.
Magierowski uploaded the video on the 78th anniversary of dispatch of Raczynski’s letter.
■ THE CORONAVIRUS crisis, coupled with the convoluted policies of the “corona cabinet,” put a strain not only on individuals stuck at home, but also on event planners. The Diplomat of the Year ceremony hosted by the Ambassadors’ Club of Israel had been scheduled to take place months ago, but the lockdown put an end to those plans. Organizers did not want it to be a Zoom event because they felt that would detract from the honor being given to Ambassador of Nepal Dr. Anjan Shakya, who was this year’s recipient of the award. 
When small socially distanced gatherings were permitted, a reception for 20 people was planned to be held last Thursday at 4 p.m. at a beautiful home in Jaffa. But then the corona cabinet announced an evening curfew and organizers hurriedly had to bring the event forward to 2:30 p.m. The problem was that this did not suit the Jaffa host. A new venue had to be found without delay. Fortunately, Yoram Naor, the vice president of the Ambassadors’ Club and the honorary consul of Belize, has his business premises in a large office building in Herzliya Pituah, and absolutely loves to play host. He immediately solved the problem.
Then, after everything had been rearranged, the corona cabinet backtracked on its evening curfew. However, there was a need to stick to the 2:30 time frame because those diplomats who were unable to attend in compliance with the restricted numbers at social and religious gatherings had been told the ceremony would be live streamed from 3 p.m. 
Another problem then presented itself. Gil Haskel, the new chief of state protocol, who knew Shakya well from his previous long-term position as head of MASHAV – Israel’s Agency for International Development Cooperation, had not yet arrived, and he was a scheduled speaker. Club president Yitzhak Eldan tried to drag out the proceedings to the best of his ability and invited several people to deliver greetings. In addition, there were videos sent by Shakya’s friends including Ambassador of Thailand Pannabha Chandraramya, who would have liked to be present but sent a charming audio-visual message instead. 
However, Myanmar Ambassador Maung Maung Lynn, who is dean of the Asia and Pacific group of ambassadors, did attend, and delivered a warm speech in which he declared himself to be “overwhelmed with pride” at what Shakya has accomplished, and said to her, “You are not only a dreamer, you are a doer.” He was also very proud of the fact that someone from Asia had been named Diplomat of the Year.
Given the circumstances, it was impossible to avoid any mention of COVID-19, and in his introductory remarks about Shakya, Eldan said that diplomats around the world had played a central role in battling the pandemic, adding that Shakya was an example of COVID diplomacy in her ability to conquer many Israeli hearts. He also voiced admiration for her devotion to Nepalese workers who are employed in Israel. Letters of praise for Shakya from Foreign Minister Ashkenazi and Gilad Cohen, the Foreign Ministry’s deputy director-general for Asia and the Pacific, were read out by Michael Ronen, head of the ministry’s Southeast Asia desk. 
Ronen has served as ambassador to 13 states in the Pacific. Ashkenazi congratulated the club on its choice, noting that Shakya “is undeniably worthy” of the honor. Cohen, who in his letter implied that Shakya is everywhere, wrote, “She wasn’t about to allow a virus to get in her way.” 
There was also a congratulatory message delivered on behalf of Shakya’s opposite number, Hanan Goder, who was ambassador to Nepal some years ago and is back there again. Goder wrote that in two years in Israel, Shakya’s achievements in promoting bilateral relations have made a great impact. There is no government office, municipality or NGO that she has not visited, he wrote. 
There was also a congratulatory letter from Nepal’s Foreign Minister Pradeep Gyawali read out by Nepal’s Deputy Chief of Mission Arjun Ghmire. When Goder was ambassador to Nepal the first time around, he initiated a friendship project whereby stones were brought from Mount Everest, the highest point on Earth, to the Dead Sea, the lowest, and a monument was created from stones from both places. Naturally, Shakya made it her business to visit the monument.
She was about to respond to all the accolades when Haskel arrived, apologizing profusely for his lateness, but explaining that despite the pandemic, he has been visited by a lot of ambassadors, most of whom overstayed the allotted time. He is also busy organizing the presentation of credentials next month by the new ambassadors of Brazil, Portugal, Ukraine and the Philippines.
Haskel, who was accompanied by Shakya when he visited Nepal last year, said that he knows that Nepal no longer has a monarch but for him, Shakya is the queen of Nepal. He said he could not remember such visibility of Nepal in Israel before her arrival. “She is effective, and charming and has enabled the relationship between Israel and Nepal to reach heights they never reached before.”
Prior to taking on a number of commercial and government roles, Shakya was an extremely popular singer in Nepal, and in a first for a Diplomat of the Year ceremony in Israel, sang a Hebrew song, “Nepal Far Away,” which had been recorded by Gali Atari in 1988. The lyrics were written by Rachel Shapira and the music by Ariel Zilber. Two weeks ago, Shakya invited all three to her residence together with Culture and Sport Minister Chili Tropper. Shakya and Atari sang the song as a duet and it now has a permanent spot on the Facebook page of the Embassy of Nepal. Although Atari sent a video message to the Diplomat of the Year ceremony, when Shakya performed the song again, her duet partner was Eldan, who acquitted himself very well.
■ WHEN YISRAEL Beyteinu’s Oded Forer was elected chairman of the Knesset Committee on the Status of Women and Gender Equality, feminists raised a hue and cry, failing to realize the importance of a man gaining an understanding of the hidden discrimination against women. But Forer is a quick learner, and he not only initiated projects that his predecessors had not thought to introduce, he also fought hard for change in the parental custodial laws. 
The family of Shira Isakov, whose husband tried to kill her in the presence of their infant son, cannot speak highly enough of Forer, who not only visited Isakov in the hospital, but initiated a bill whereby the custodial parent determines what is right for the well-being of any children of the union. Isakov had wanted to vaccinate her son, but the baby’s father, who is in prison, refused to give permission. Forer drafted a bill stating that anyone who attempts to kill or succeeds in killing their spouse loses all rights in determining the welfare of any children born to the couple. “He promised, and he kept his word,” say Isakov’s relatives with regard to Forer.
The bill was passed in record time this week.