GRAPEVINE: Does Israel have a first lady?

What the bulk of the public and a lot of journalists don’t know is that some of our highest-ranking public figures are treated like puppets by their spokespeople.

OPPOSITION LEADER Isaac Herzog with Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos in Davos. (photo credit: Courtesy)
OPPOSITION LEADER Isaac Herzog with Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos in Davos.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Audacious Haaretz columnist Nir Gontarz likes to ask pointed questions of his interviewees. The answers, when taken out of context, can cause great embarrassment, with sometimes painful results for the hapless interviewee.
His victim last Friday was the Foreign Ministry’s Chief of Protocol Meron Reuben. Gontarz wanted to know since when Sara Netanyahu had become the first lady.
Reuben replied that, as far as he was aware, the title of “first lady” applied only to the wife of the president of the United States. But Gontarz said that he had a copy of the invitation to the dinner hosted by the prime minister and his wife in honor of US Vice President Mike Pence and his wife, Karen, and that Sara Netanyahu was titled in the invitation as “first lady.” Reuben said that the invitation was not the responsibility of the Foreign Office and advised Gontarz to contact the Prime Minister’s Office.
The interesting thing is that press releases from President Reuven Rivlin’s office also refer to Nechama Rivlin as “first lady,” but none of her predecessors used that title – not even Aura Herzog, who was a stickler for protocol. However, they were each given the title by Wikipedia, which seems to have impinged on what is the norm in Israel.
Although the Israeli media in general tend not to refer to either woman as “first lady,” the spokespeople in both the President’s Office and the Prime Minister’s Office are into spousal uplift mode, and in all probability introduced the title without consulting either of the two women concerned.
While no one makes a big deal of the title being appended to the name of Nechama Rivlin, unfortunately for Sara Netanyahu the various embarrassing recordings related to members of her family, including one of her screeching, have fueled negative comments about her, and caused several journalists to remark that she insisted on the title, when very few people really know whether she actually did.
What the bulk of the public and a lot of journalists don’t know is that some of our highest-ranking public figures are treated like puppets by their spokespeople.
Shimon Peres never had a problem talking to the press. If he was asked a question that he did not want to answer, he simply changed the subject. But his spokespeople were always terrified of the potential Freudian slip, which he sometimes made deliberately, and often tried to prevent contact between the president and the media. If, on any occasion in which Peres was mingling with the crowd, a journalist approached him, a member of the spokesman’s department came racing toward them with the speed of an Olympic runner.
In Rivlin’s case, there is an even greater effort to put distance between him and the media, possibly because Rivlin has a gift for the spontaneous wisecrack, and sometimes comes out with utterances that are not entirely appropriate, considering the position that he holds.
■ FORMER GERMAN president Roman Herzog died on January 10 this year at age 82. The media didn’t really give him his due. It was Herzog who, in 1996, declared that January 27, the date of the liberation of Auschwitz, would be observed as an annual Holocaust Remembrance Day in Germany. At the time, he said remembrance “must remind future generations to be vigilant.”
Germany was the first European country to institute a national remembrance day on January 27.
UN resolution 60/7, which, in November 2005, made it an international day of remembrance, was the result of an Israeli-led initiative during the term of Silvan Shalom as foreign minister. At the time that the resolution was adopted, he headed the Israeli delegation at the UN. Prior to that, the United Kingdom and Italy held remembrance days on January 27 from 2001 onward.
■ THE POLES have always been sensitive about the fact that Nazi extermination camps, concentration camps and labor camps established on Polish soil have been described as Polish concentration camps. They were not. Nor does the fact that more Poles than people from any other country have been recognized by Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations eliminate the reality of the antisemitism that too often characterized Polish attitudes which continued long after the Holocaust, and are still prevalent in certain circles today, despite the revival of Jewish life in Poland and the income that Poland has derived from Jews arriving there on roots trips or the March of the Living, not to mention business ventures initiated by Jewish investors, which provide jobs for Poles.
Rising antisemitism in Poland today will be further fueled if the draft law is not amended. Moreover, because many antisemites, not only in Poland, do not distinguish between full Jews and people who are not Jewish but have Jewish ancestry, Agata Kornhauser- Duda, the wife of Poland’s President Andrzej Duda, is in danger, because her paternal grandfather, Jakub Kornhauser, was Jewish, and her paternal great-grandparents were Jewish on all sides.
Curiously, President Duda was highly critical of his predecessor Bronislaw Komorowski for acknowledging the June 1941 Jedwabne massacre, in which Polish farmers killed at least 340 Jews by locking them in a barn and setting it on fire.
Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, who is a practicing Catholic, also has Jewish roots, and has an aunt living in Israel.
Zofia Gomulka, who was born as Liwa Szoken to an Orthodox Jewish family in Warsaw, was the common-law wife of Wladyslaw Gomulka, the secretary-general of the United Workers Party and a powerful politician in provisional governments until 1948, who was then reinstated in the mid-1950s and maintained power till 1970.
■ TIMING BEING everything, it was particularly interesting that Yad Vashem coincidentally chose this week in which to posthumously honor Polish non- Jews Sabina Perzyna (previously Dziadosz), her husband, Jan Dziadosz, and their son Aleksandr Dziadosz as Righteous Among the Nations, in the midst of the storm over Poland’s draft law that makes it a crime to accuse Poles of having collaborated with the Nazis to kill Jews.
Yad Vashem’s director of the Department for the Righteous Among the Nations Irena Steinfeldt presented the medal and certificate of honor to Alicja Mularska, the daughter of Jan Dziadosz and Sabina Perzyna, on behalf of Yad Vashem, the State of Israel and the Jewish people. The ceremony was attended by a representative of the Polish Embassy, who must have felt greatly vindicated, in view of some of the extremely negative publicity that Poland has received in the Israeli media over the past few days.
During Word War II, the Dziadosz family lived in Modliborzyce in the Lublin district. They were known to help people in distress regardless of their religion or nationality. After Jan became seriously ill, Sabina offered Felek (William) Toytman, a Jewish friend of her son, Aleksandr, a job on their farm. When the situation became more precarious for Jews, Sabina convinced Toytman to go into hiding in the attic of her cowshed.
The Dziadosz family also hid Albert Spivak, a Jewish acquaintance from Modliborzyce. Spivak had served in the Polish Army, was captured by the Nazis and escaped twice from German camps in Brest-Litovsk and Krasnik, eventually finding shelter with the Dziadosz family. Spivak and Toytman remained in hiding until they decided to join the partisans in the nearby woods, but returned several times to the Dziadosz farm for help. After the war, Toytman and Spivak left Poland. Toytman stayed in contact with the Dziadosz family and visited them in 1975, but eventually the two families lost touch.
On June 5, 2017, Yad Vashem recognized Sabina Perzyna, Jan Dziadosz and their son Aleksandr as Righteous Among the Nations.
To date, Yad Vashem has recognized more than 26,500 Righteous Among the Nations – non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust. There are still many other recommendations to be processed, and searches for additional testimony and evidence take a lot of time.
■ WHILE IN New York this week for meetings at the UN, Laurie Cardoza-Moore, founder and president of Evangelical pro-Israel advocacy group Proclaiming Justice to the Nations, responded sharply to the criticism being leveled at Pence for his weekend Twitter message relating to January 27 as International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
The vice president tweeted a video of himself and his wife laying a wreath at Yad Vashem and wrote: “A few days ago Karen and I paid our respects at Yad Vashem to honor the 6 million Jewish martyrs of the Holocaust who 3 years after walking beneath the shadow of death, rose up from the ashes to resurrect themselves and reclaim a Jewish future.”
A recognized Evangelical Christian leader in the fight against the “new” global antisemitism, Cardoza- Moore was quick to come to the defense of the vice president, whose critics are calling his comments “shameful, tone deaf, insensitive to Jews and glossing over the murder of millions of Jews.”
In her reaction she noted: “I stand amazed at the depths the Trump haters will stoop to over Vice President Pence’s use of the word ‘resurrection’ to describe the people of Israel’s rebirth in their biblical homeland. Had these critics only read their Bible, they would know we are privileged to be living in the most biblically historic and prophetic time in history.
Vice President Pence was only referencing what the prophets foretold about this period of the ingathering of the exiles to their ancient homeland.
“There should be nothing offensive to Jews or Christians who believe in the fulfillment of these prophecies. Vice President Pence was stating a fact that the Jewish people have been brought back to their land by Almighty God as the prophets of Israel prophesied in the Torah. This prophecy, including Isaiah, and the Psalms, occurred after the Jewish people were almost wiped from the face of the Earth by the Nazis, the modern-day Amalek.
The definition of ‘resurrection’ is ‘the action or fact of resurrecting or being resurrected.’ This shouldn’t offend anyone that knows his or her Tanach (Hebrew Bible). If we can learn anything from this episode, it is that those who hate Trump and Pence need a lesson in the Bible before they make such uninformed comments,” she declared.
■ APROPOS YAD Vashem, which has a fantastic collection of Holocaust- themed feature films and documentaries, such films were in high demand in major Jewish communities around the world this past week.
One of the key distributors of such productions is LOGTV Films, which has released the titles of a series of award-winning films in this category. Among them is Blind Love, which recounts a trip to Poland of six blind Israelis and their guide dogs, who took part in the annual March of the Living and also visited once-thriving sites of Jewish life and culture.
Holocaust survivors who appear in the film are Belgian Auschwitz survivor David Shentow, and Polish- born Max Glauben, a survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto and Majdanek. Both survivors reflect upon the dramatic contrast in the usage of dogs by those who sought to harm innocent people and those who employ dogs in the service of others. Shentow describes his arrival in Auschwitz at 17 years of age, recalling how the man standing next to him was attacked – and killed – by a German shepherd dog upon the order of a Nazi guard, for refusing to part with a family photo. Glauben shares his impressions of seeing guide dogs on the March of the Living, helping – not attacking – the blind Jewish visitors walking through the former concentration camp.
■ ALSO OF interest to Israelis are two films featuring the late Samuel Willenberg, the Czestochowa- born hero of the Treblinka Revolt. Willenberg, who died in February 2016 and is buried in the Udim Cemetery near Netanya, was a well-known sculptor who designed the Holocaust monument in his native Czestochowa, and whose work can also be seen at the President’s Residence.
Together with his wife, Ada, a survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto, he frequently returned to Poland, where he was treated with great respect and honor, and where he was given several prestigious awards. The films in which he is featured are Samuel and The Last Witness.
A fellow survivor from Czestochowa, American Jewish philanthropist Sigmund Rolat, is the key figure in It’s not a Fairytale, in which he takes the viewer back to wartime Czestochowa. Rolat has been a leading supporter of Jewish culture in Poland, not only in Czestochowa, where he also supports other cultural ventures, but also of the annual Krakow Jewish Festival and the Museum of the History of Polis Jews, which is located in Warsaw on the site of the Warsaw Ghetto.
■ ANOTHER FILM of interest to Israelis is Hiding Like Animals, which features Holocaust survivor Stefania Siton, who returned to Poland to show her daughters the Warsaw Zoo, where her family was hidden during the war. At the zoo, she met Teresa, the zookeeper’s daughter, and toured the basement she once called home.
■ THE CONFLICT in Colombia between the government and the FARC Marxist rebels did not run for as long as that of Israel and the Palestinians, but it was nevertheless the longest ongoing conflict in Latin America. Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, swore, when he first came into office, that making peace would be one of his priorities.
He not only signed a complicated peace deal with FARC rebel leader Rodrigo “Timochenko” Londono Echeverri in November 2016, but that agreement is also being implemented. It came as no surprise that, in light of his efforts, Santos was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
Opposition leader Isaac Herzog, who together with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was invited to the World Economic Forum in Davos, happened to meet Santos while he was there.
Going to Davos is an important experience, he says, because it demonstrates to Israelis that “we’re not the most important people in the world, but we are highly respected in the world.”
Herzog was pleased that Netanyahu was so well received in Davos, but he was also pleased that he had been given the opportunity to let others attending hear yet another voice from Israel.
He was able to speak not only as leader of the opposition, he said, but also as a former minister of welfare and as an ordinary Israeli politician. Not only political but also economic and academic leaders came together in Davos, he said. At one of the sessions he sat next to a woman from the Amazon whose tribe had been almost wiped out.
All in all there were some 400 sessions. No one could attend them all, though Herzog did manage a couple of dozen and found that people were interested in the strength and standards of Israel’s opposition, how well it anticipates it will do in the next election, and where it thinks the peace process is going.
Herzog was quite candid on the latter issue, suggesting that both Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas could learn from Santos, who Herzog says “has shown true leadership.” As far as Herzog is concerned, neither Netanyahu nor Abbas have shown sufficient leadership in the quest for peace.
■ WHATEVER CULTURE and Sport Minister Miri Regev is planning for Israel’s 70th anniversary could well be overwhelmed by the collective events surrounding it that are being organized by numerous organizations and individuals.
One can only imagine at this stage how many 70th anniversary books in any number of languages will be launched over the next six months. Some will deal with the general history of Israel. Some will focus on politics, others on economics, others on the founding fathers and subsequent heroes, and others still on Israel’s accomplishments in medicine, science and hi-tech.
Israel means different things to different people. It can’t possibly mean the same to a second-generation Israeli as it does to a Holocaust survivor or to someone who came from Ethiopia after waiting for more than 10 years to be reunited with close relatives already living in Israel.
One of the many books that will be launched in coming months is Yaniv Magal’s 70 Faces of the State (Hebrew), in which he interviews personalities from different spheres of society and across the political spectrum, among them veteran Israelis and immigrants.
Magal, who is a journalist with Globes, the financial newspaper, where he has been working for 12 years, interviewed people such as Reuven Rivlin, Benjamin Netanyahu, Moshe Ya’alon, Dan Shechtman, Yair Lapid, Meir Shalev, Naftali Bennett, Idan Raichel, A.B. Yehoshua, Avi Gabbay, Yochi Brandes, Yuval Banai, Shelly Yacimovich, Avshalom Kor, Aharon Barak, Mickey Berkowitz, Ram Oren, Yuli Edelstein, Yoaz Hendel, Arik Zeevi, Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, Matti Caspi, Avi Nimni, Ze’ev Nechama, Evgenia Dodina, Malka Puterkovsky, Ofer Shelah, Yaron London, Yona Elian, Rabbi Benny Lau, Lia Shaham and Shai Agassi.
Magal’s conversation with Rivlin focused on the changing of the guard at the President’s Residence.
When Rivlin arrived, the walls and the bookshelves were bare. His immediate predecessor, Peres, had already packed up his extensive library and had taken all his photographs off the shelves and the walls. Rivlin had, of course, brought his own books and photographs from the Knesset, including portraits of Theodor Herzl and Ze’ev Jabotinsky.
When Peres came to visit him, he looked around and said: “I see a photograph of Jabotinsky, and I understand that you are one of his disciples, but aren’t you also going to put up a photograph of Ben-Gurion?” To which Rivlin replied: “First of all, as someone who identifies with the opponents of Ben-Gurion and not with his disciples, I can nonetheless admire him for his tremendous courage in deciding to establish the state when he did. I don’t know if there was another Israeli leader who would have made a decision like that. But Ben-Gurion has been here alone for 64 years.
Give Jabotinsky a few months, and then I’ll put up Ben-Gurion.”
A few months later, Peres came again and looked at the wall.
Rivlin understood what Peres was thinking and promised: “Ben-Gurion will be here tomorrow – not because you are here now, but because it was already arranged.”
“Then I’ll come again tomorrow,” responded Peres. As soon as he left, Rivlin telephoned celebrated photographer David Rubinger and asked him to urgently deliver a photograph of Ben-Gurion. Rubinger did as requested, and Peres, when he came the following day, was somewhat surprised when he saw that the photo of Ben-Gurion was beneath the one of Jabotinsky.
“Why isn’t it the other way around?” he asked. “Because the one of Jabotinsky is more personal, and the one of Ben-Gurion is wider, so it looks better this way,” replied Rivlin.
■ JERUSALEM POST Knesset reporter Lahav Harkov tweeted some interesting Knesset trivia this week, noting that when Ya’alon resigned from the Knesset in 2016, it was the first time since 1969 that there had been no former IDF chiefs of staff among the legislature. All former chiefs of staff who became legislators also became ministers, and two of them – Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Barak – also became prime ministers.
Both also served as defense ministers, as did former chiefs of staff Moshe Dayan, Shaul Mofaz and Ya’alon. Other ministerial portfolios were held by Haim Bar- Lev, Mordechai Gur, Rafael Eitan and Amnon Lipkin-Shahak. The IDF’s second chief of staff, Yigael Yadin, was deputy prime minister, but did not hold a ministerial portfolio.
Construction Minister Yoav Galant had been tapped to become the 20th chief of staff, but was charged with appropriating public land, a factor that nixed his chances of being appointed to the top slot in the army. He was later cleared, but it was too late for him to become chief of staff.
The lacuna left by Ya’alon’s resignation may be filled in the next Knesset election. Ya’alon intends to run again, and two former chiefs of staff, Gabi Ashkenazi and Benny Gantz, who will have completed their cooling-off periods by the next election, are being seriously wooed by various political parties, but neither has yet decided whether he will run for Knesset, nor has either indicated which party appeals to him most.
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