Grapevine December 9, 2020: Another virtual celebration

Movers and shakers in Israeli society.

Members of the Falash Mura community from Ethiopia land in Israel as part of the second flight of the Rock of Israel operation. (photo credit: SHIRA AMAN/THE JEWISH AGENCY)
Members of the Falash Mura community from Ethiopia land in Israel as part of the second flight of the Rock of Israel operation.
The celebration in Israel of Finland’s 103rd anniversary of independence did not take place in the Finnish residence in Herzliya Pituah or in the Finnish Embassy in Tel Aviv. This year, as has been the case with most countries, Finland’s day was a virtual celebration, which began with greetings by Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz and an address by Ambassador Kirsikka Lehto-Asikainen, who explained why this year’s celebrations are very different from the norm due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Seventy years ago, Finland was among the first countries to establish diplomatic ties with Israel, though unfortunately today, despite good relations at the government level and in people-to-people contacts, there are extremist anti-Zionist elements in Finland which over the past two years have attacked the Israeli Embassy more than 15 times and have harassed its staff and members of the Jewish community.
This week, while Jews will light candles in memory of the Hanukkah miracle and to honor the Sabbath, Fins lit two candles in each of the windows of their homes, a custom dating back to the time when Finland was under Russian oppression. The candles were the light in the darkness and a sign of silent protest.
Like Israel, Finland has evolved from a poor agricultural country to one of the most successful countries in the world. “We are high in international rankings, such as in education, gender equality, good governance, innovation and environmental protection,” said Lehto-Asikainen, adding: “For the third time in a row, Finland was named the happiest country in the world, according to the UN World Happiness Report 2020.”
In recounting Finland’s success story, the ambassador gave priority to gender equality. In 1906, even before independence, she said, Finnish women were the first to receive full political rights. “Since then, women have had an active role in decision-making and the working life in our society. Today, almost half of Finnish parliament members are women. The majority of the current government ministers are women, including Prime Minister Sanna Marin, who has received a lot of attention in Israel, too.”
Finland realized early that the contribution of the whole population is needed to succeed, said Lehto-Asikainen “Now Finland is one of the world’s leading countries in fostering gender equality.”
Next year, the Finnish Embassy will have cause to join in celebrating the 50th anniversary of Yad Hashmona, originally established as a cooperative village in the Judean Hills by a group of devout Christian volunteers from Finland who wanted to pursue their Bible studies and to do something by way of atonement to help the Jewish people in building up the state in their ancestral homeland.
The village was named in memory of eight Austrian Jews who were handed over to the Nazis by the Finnish police, though Finland refused to surrender its own Jews to the Nazis, and was outraged by the murder of the Austrian Jews.
■ FINLAND AND Sweden have a very close relationship and a shared history. Despite many disagreements between Israel and Sweden, it must be remembered that Sweden was one of the early countries that 70 years ago established diplomatic ties with Israel and, in 1947, voted in favor of the partition of Palestine.
When new ambassadors arrive in any country, they pay courtesy calls to their colleagues, who represent other countries that have diplomatic relations with the host country. When Hagit Ben-Yaakov, Israel’s ambassador to Finland, who took up office in August of this year, paid a courtesy call to Swedish Ambassador Nicola Clase, the latter showed her a letter that had been written on December 5, 1951, by founding prime minister David Ben-Gurion, which had been sent to a Swedish journalist working for a magazine that had published an article about Israel.
In the long letter, which Ben Gurion wrote in Hebrew, he stated: “Israel is a young state, but the people of Israel is among the oldest of the nations. With the founding of the State of Israel, the dream of generations of Jewish people for national restoration was realized. We are just at the beginning of our journey....”
Elsewhere in the letter, Ben-Gurion wrote: “More than anything else at this time, humanity as a whole is in need of peace, cooperation and friendship between nations, and true friendship can be achieved only through mutual recognition.”
The journalist who received Ben-Gurion’s letter was Clase’s grandfather, who is no longer living. Clase carries this letter with her wherever she goes. The two ambassadors were almost moved to tears as they read it together.
■ DURING THE Holocaust, many Polish citizens fled to the Soviet Union. According to Yad Vashem it is estimated that the 400,000 Jews among the Polish exiles accounted for a third of the total number. Following an agreement signed in July 1941, the government of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics permitted the formation on Soviet territory of a Polish army which was commanded by Gen. Wladyslaw Anders.
Many of the Jewish refugees had been banished to desolate areas or incarcerated under cruel conditions in Soviet prisons and labor camps. The military accord reached between Poland and the Soviet Union enabled the release from prisons and labor camps of masses of tortured, frail and infirm Polish citizens, including Jews. Many of these people were recruited into Polish military units. Thousands of Jews flocked to the recruitment points. For the majority, mobilization into the army signified a guarantee of day-to-day existence and a relative sense of belonging, given the war situation.
Initially, they were not welcomed, as Poles generally considered Jews to be unfit for military service. Many were rejected or expelled from courses, after having been recruited. However, many more were eventually found to be eligible, among them a young man by the name of Menachem Begin. In March 1942, based on a trilateral understanding between the British, Polish, and Soviet authorities, Anders’s army, as it was came to be known, was evacuated from the Soviet Union and made its way to what was then Palestine, via Persia, which was then the common name for Iran.
On Tuesday morning of this week, in tandem with the opening of an exhibition titled “From Anders’s Army to the Israel Army,” a virtual conference on Jews in Anders’s army was held at the Begin Heritage Center in Jerusalem, with the participation of its director, Herzl Makov, and Polish Ambassador Marek Magierowski. In the evening there was a joint Polish-Israeli musical production, Bravely Beating Hearts, about Anders’s army and the Jewish war orphans who went with the soldiers from Tehran to Palestine.
Last week, Magierowski appeared on a Zoom program commemorating the liquidation of the Czestochowa Ghetto and the murder by the Nazis of Czestochowa Jews, most of whom were sent to Treblinka. Speaking in flawless Hebrew, Magierowski said that although the Jewish experience in Europe during the Holocaust was different from that of any other people persecuted by the Nazis, it should not be forgotten that there were times when Jews and Poles suffered and were afraid together.
■ IN DURBAN South Africa, as elsewhere in the world, the generation of the Holocaust is dying out. The Durban Holocaust and Genocide Center announced the death on December 4 of Polish-born Holocaust survivor 91-year-old Jack Puterman, who had never shared his story publicly prior to the official opening in March 2008 of the center.
Puterman was one of several Holocaust survivors who participated in an unusual ribbon-cutting ceremony. Because there was a relatively large number of survivors, many ribbons were threaded at the entrance to the center’s exhibition hall, to ensure that each survivor would have his or her own ribbon to cut.
Puterman’s sister and paternal grandparents were murdered in Treblinka. Out of an extended family of some 150 souls, only 17 were left. Puterman and his mother, Bronia, survived several camps, but were separated when he was sent to Buchenwald and, toward the end of the war, was force-marched to the Russian front.
After the war he searched for his mother and found her, then discovered that his uncle Yair Puterman had survived Auschwitz and was living in Sweden, where Puterman and his mother subsequently spent time before settling in Durban, where another uncle lived, took them in and helped Puterman set up a successful upholstery business. Puterman married Marcia, with whom he spent 65 years, and became the father of five sons.
He was extremely supportive of the center, from its planning stages to its opening and in the years that followed. He eventually gave testimony to the Spielberg Holocaust Project with the University of Southern California’s Shoah Foundation Institute, and after that he wrote a book, Testimony: The Story of a Holocaust Survivor, which details what happened to him and his family during the Holocaust. His eight grandchildren are part of the proof of the failure of the “Final Solution” for the Jewish people.
■ IT HAPPENS often that when people are voted into office by those who drank from the same well, they forget them or ignore them as they move up in status. Not so Aliyah and Integration Minister Pnina Tamano-Shata, who perhaps, because she was born in Ethiopia, was fully sensitive to the need to reunite families and to bring to Israel those who had been left behind after siblings and parents had migrated to Israel. So many have been living for years on hope and broken promises.
Tamano-Shata was not able to bring them all here, but perhaps because a relatively large number arrived last week, this will enable those who are still waiting to come to arrive early in the new year. Tamano-Shata did not only campaign for promises to the Falash Mura to be honored, but she actually went to Ethiopia together with various Israeli officials to help speed up the bureaucratic process.
Unfortunately, some 7,000-8,000 would-be immigrants from Ethiopia will still be waiting for a long time. What has been done to them is extremely cruel, especially as in some cases parents and siblings are living in Israel, and the last one or two people in any given family have been denied entry. This is cruel to them and cruel to their families.
When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said at the airport that he and his wife had tears in their eyes when seeing what Netanyahu called “refined Zionism,” he was referring to several of the new immigrants who, after disembarking from the plane, bent to kiss the ground on the tarmac at Ben-Gurion Airport. Such idealism is rarely seen these days, and Netanyahu remarked that the sight took him back to scenes from his childhood.
■ THE ULTRA-ORTHODOX community has found a solution for holding weddings with considerably more guests than are permitted to attend in Israel. The solution is Dubai, where no one interferes with the festivities.
KAN 11’s Sharon Idan and Uri Levy were in Dubai where, in the public areas of the luxurious Waldorf Astoria hotel, they noticed a lot of ultra-Orthodox Jews from Israel and the United States. When they inquired about such a large presence from a specific sector of the Jewish community, they were told that they were there for a wedding. The bride and groom were from Jerusalem, and didn’t want to exclude any close relatives or friends. The best option was Dubai, especially since Dubai hotels have a high standard of kosher catering, and the total cost of such a wedding, including the flight, was less than they would have paid in Israel.
The two reporters discovered that this particular wedding was not an isolated case, and that there have already been other Jewish weddings, and more are in the pipeline. In fact, four Israeli firms specializing in event organization have already set up offices in Dubai and are saturated with reservations from Israel.
It stands to reason that it’s only a matter of time before Israel’s Arab community follows the Orthodox example. No wonder that Dubai’s airline companies have introduced so many weekly flights between Dubai and Tel Aviv, and why they anticipate increasing this number from 60 plus to 100 in coming months
■ DURING LOCKDOWN, major hotels in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv nonetheless hosted visiting foreign dignitaries and foreign airline crews. Among these hotels was the Tel Aviv Hilton which is one of several hotels on the Tel Aviv beachfront which for years have included airline staff among their guests.
But there’s always a first for something, and in the case of the Tel Aviv Hilton, it was a group of flight attendants who had come to Israel on the first historic flight from Bahrain to Tel Aviv, and were waiting to return, while in Jerusalem at the Waldorf Astoria, three memoranda of understanding and a joint declaration, covering technical cooperation, innovation and transfer of technology, small and medium enterprises and ecosystems, were signed by Bahrain’s Minister of Industry, Commerce and Tourism Zayad bin Rashid Al Zayani and Economy Minister Amir Peretz.
■ ONE CAN imagine that if he were talking from the grave, Shimon Peres would have asked his son Chemi “What took you so long?” Chemi Peres, who today chairs the Peres Center for Peace and Innovation which was founded by his father, last Sunday led a delegation of Israeli ecosystem and business executives to Dubai. This, after journalists in publications across the country have been bombarded with press releases from numerous business groups, institutions and organizations about links that they have established with UAE counterparts.
The senior Peres would have been in Dubai while a normalization agreement was being signed on the White House lawns. In fact, it would not come as a surprise to learn that he had visited Dubai in the course of the various positions he held. When he was president, Shimon Peres, while being interviewed by a journalist, was shown a list of all the countries with which Israel has diplomatic relations, and was asked how many of these he had not visited. Peres scanned the list and replied “four.” Then he grinned and said to the journalist, “But you haven’t asked me about the countries I visited with which we don’t have diplomatic relations.”
■ THERE ARE now four declared candidates for president of Israel. The most recent is Arab businesswoman Alham Kazan, who is making history with her candidature, even if she fails to reach her goal.
Who knows what can happen in changing times? If an Arab, who is not even an Arab-Israeli, can become half owner of the contentious Beitar Jerusalem Football Club, maybe an Arab-Israeli woman can become president of Israel – making double history as the first Arab and the first woman to hold the position, though Dalia Itzik, as speaker of the Knesset, did hold it on a temporary basis when president Moshe Katsav suspended himself prior to his trial.
■ AFTER MUCH speculation, Labor Party chairman Amir Peretz finally threw his hat into the presidential ring last week, but not before bringing the party to its nadir.
All political pundits say that if Labor runs in the Knesset elections, it is unlikely to cross the threshold. It will be the first time since the establishment of the state that no Mapai, Labor, Labor Alignment or Zionist Union politicians will be members of Knesset, unless one or two make it in through an alliance with Blue and White.
What a comedown from the number of seats held by any of the aforementioned in the first 44 years of the state, when Labor or the Labor Alignment scored between 40 and 46 seats, with a top score of 56 seats in 1969, which was the year of the seventh Knesset.
Peretz has had an on-and-off romance with the Labor Party, having left twice over the years, and having been defeated several times in the run for the chairmanship. Last year, he was elected chairman for the second time. When then-party leader Shimon Peres brought him back in 2004, Peretz turned against him, running for party chairmanship election in 2005 – and winning. But Labor has been going gradually downhill ever since.
At the beginning of 2017, Labor received new impetus when Kulanu’s Avi Gabbay resigned from a Netanyahu-led government and joined Labor. Gabbay was initially considered a breath of fresh air, and after six months was elected chairman. Boasting that he would take Labor to new heights albeit not quite to its former status, he failed dismally after publicly humiliating Tzipi Livni and unilaterally announcing the dissolution of the Zionist Union, which had comprised a merger between Labor and Livni’s Hatnua Party, which together held 24 Knesset seats, of which 19 belonged to Labor. Gabbay brought Labor to its lowest ebb of six Knesset seats and resigned soon afterward. Gabbay had been an authoritarian leader who ignored party traditions and made his own rules, which, strangely, were supported by Labor’s central committee.
Peretz has now done the same with regard to primaries in the event of another Knesset election – essentially to guarantee that he will be reelected as chairman. If Gabbay destroyed Labor, Peretz is killing what is left of the party. Many veterans, including former MKs and ministers, have left. Peretz made promises and betrayed the electorate. He shaved off his iconic mustache, which had been so much a part of his persona, so that people could better read his lips when he pledged never to join a Netanyahu-led government.
He formed an alliance with Gesher leader Orly Levy-Abecassis, who didn’t have a hope in hell of winning a Knesset seat, so she piggy-backed on Labor, and after winning a seat deserted a sinking ship to join Netanyahu, in return for which she was made a minister, and a special ministry was created to accommodate her. Without the alliance with Levy-Abecassis, Labor might have had one or more additional seats.
Peretz and MK Itzik Shmuli became ministers in the so-called unity government, which to all intents and purposes is being led by Netanyahu.
Now, after have changed the rules for the primaries, Peres has announced that he’s running for president. Unfortunately, the vote is confined to his fellow MKs and not to the general public, many of whom would not want a man who has betrayed the voters to hold the office of president.
It was already known more than a year ago that Peretz was thinking of running for president, and it was obvious well before his announcement. The workman’s shirt, which like his mustache had been part of his trademark, was replaced by smart business suits and a tie.
What are his chances? Hard to tell. On the way to where he is now, he did some damage to Meretz as well, so will the Meretz MKs vote for him? Perhaps they would prefer Shimon Shetreet; or if Jewish Agency chairman and former Labor leader and minister Isaac Herzog enters the race, they may vote for him.
■ AFTER TEN years as administrator for the Israel, Britain and the Commonwealth Association, the ever-obliging Renee Singer is stepping back to make way for her successor, Olivia Eder. Although she has retired from the association in terms of work, she will continue to attend its events.
Born in Poland, raised in England and living in Israel since 1969, except for a couple of years that she spent in America while her husband, Maurice, was an emissary in Chicago, Singer is actually a journalist by profession, who worked for many years with foreign media both as a journalist and television producer, working in particular with the late Jay Bushinsky, covering the Middle East, and when he was the Jerusalem-based bureau chief of CNN. She also worked for 11 years as an administrator with the Foreign Press Association. When her husband was an emissary in Chicago, she was the director of special events for the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews.
Her primary role in the English Speakers Residents Association, where she has been a volunteer for more than 20 years, is as anchorwoman for ESRAVision, the weekly community TV program shown on cable and satellite TV. She also contributes to ESRA Magazine.
■ WEDNESDAY, December 9, is Al-Monitor’s special online event “Israel, the UAE and Normalization: Looking Ahead,” moderated by Al-Monitor president Andrew Parasiliti and veteran Israeli print media, radio and television journalist Ben Caspit, a columnist for Al-Monitor’s Israel Pulse and for Maariv, a sister publication of The Jerusalem Post.
The other Israeli on the program will be Alon Ushpiz, the director-general of the Foreign Ministry, while the UAE will be represented by Omar Saif Ghobash, assistant minister for culture and public diplomacy, who sits in a high-ranking capacity on the boards of a number of prestigious international organizations and institutions.
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