Grapevine February 10, 2021: An immense responsibility

Movers and shakers in Israeli society.

THEODOR HERZL, on the balcony of the Three Kings Hotel in Basel in 1898, during the First Zionist Congress. (photo credit: GPO)
THEODOR HERZL, on the balcony of the Three Kings Hotel in Basel in 1898, during the First Zionist Congress.
(photo credit: GPO)
 “It is with a sense of honor and awe that I rise to open the Constituent Assembly of the State of Israel, the first Jewish assembly of our day, in Jerusalem, the eternal city,” said Chaim Weizmann, Israel’s first president, on February 14, 1949. The Assembly took place in the Jewish Agency building in the room that now bears Weizmann’s name.
“At this great moment in the history of our people, we give thanks and praise to the God of Israel, by whose grace we have been privileged to see redemption, after generations of suffering and misery.
“This occasion is the outcome of the tremendous reawakening of our national consciousness during the last few decades,” he continued. “It began approximately 70 years ago, when the best among us, the unknown and nameless leaders of that generation, arose to fulfill the age-old dream of the return to Zion and the revival of national existence.”
Toward the conclusion of his address Weizmann said: “Knesset members, I congratulate you on your first meeting. Remember that the eyes of the whole Jewish world are upon you, and that the yearning and prayers of past generations accompany you. May we all be worthy of this great moment and this immense responsibility.”
Presuming that a coalition can be formed in the near aftermath of the March 23 legislative elections, that same latter statement will apply to the 120 elected representatives of the nation.
In a pre-anniversary broadcast on Israel Radio’s Reshet Bet anchored by historian Yitzhak Noy, with the participation of former Knesset speaker Shevach Weiss, historian Mordechai Naor and veteran journalist Yaakov Ahimeir, who in a very long career as both a local and foreign correspondent covered the British Parliament, the US Congress and the Knesset, Ahimeir said that the present Knesset has sunk to the lowest depths. He deplored the vulgarity of language and the ongoing hateful insults.
Naor said that after seven decades, it’s high time for the Knesset to agree on a Constitution.
Weiss, aware of the public’s lack of confidence in the institutions of the state, nonetheless urged everyone who has voting rights to go out and vote. Ahimeir suggested that, considering that a survey by the Israel Democracy Institute indicated that only 30% of the public has confidence in the Knesset, there is an urgent need for electoral reform so that legislators would be elected on a regional basis and would be responsible to the people in their electorate. In this way he, said, legislators would develop a closer relationship with the public.
Progress is, of course, part of the problem. In the days when the Knesset was located in the Frumin building in the heart of Jerusalem, MKs coming and going would be stopped in the street by passersby and asked for their autographs. Many of the MKs did not have cars in those days. Those who resided in Jerusalem, often lived within walking distance of what was then the Knesset, and others relied on public transport. Today the Knesset in Givat Ram is in neither a commercial nor a residential area, which means that unless members of the public have a special reason for entering the building or demonstrating outside it, it stands like an ivory tower.
The former Knesset building on Jerusalem’s King George Street has been designated as the Knesset Museum, the grand opening of which had been scheduled for early 2019 to coincide with the Knesset’s milestone anniversary. But the building is still in a state of disrepair due to the lack of funding. Meanwhile, the photo fence surrounding the building has occasional changes, so the public does at least get to see who was who in the Knesset 60 and 70 years ago.
Incidentally, it would be interesting to know if there was a particular reason for selecting February 14 for the convening of the first Knesset. Just over half a century earlier, on February 14, 1896, Zionist visionary Theodor Herzl published Der Judenstaat (The Jewish State), which was an important stepping-stone on the path to the creation of the State of Israel.
■ THERE IS another important Gregorian calendar date to remember in February – the 12th of the month, which is not only the 79th birthday of former prime minister and defense minister Ehud Barak, but also the 79th anniversary of the murder of Stern Group leader Avraham Stern, code-named Yair.
The Stern Group was the most militant of the Jewish underground resistance movements that fought against the British. Although each of these clandestine movements had the same goal, they did not have the same methods or principles, and there was not much love lost between them. They knew of each other and about each other, and on occasion betrayed each other. Stern was the victim of such a betrayal.
In a prerecorded message marking the anniversary of Stern’s death, President Reuven Rivlin said: “The Jewish people has already paid a heavy price in the past for baseless hatred. It is liable to erode the Jewish and democratic state, and we must take care to ensure that it does not, to take care and sound a warning.
“The extraordinary character of Yair and his struggle for Israel’s freedom cannot be denied or obscured by anyone. The hatred that led to Yair being turned in, resulting in his death, takes new forms and shapes today. It is expressed in different places and in various ways, but the principle has hardly changed. It is a blinding hatred that hides what we share and casts the good in poor light. Unfortunately, even in these days of the pandemic when we are mourning our dead, that hatred is raising its head,” Rivlin observed.
“Yair fought for the path of the people that we need to follow – not to neglect the public space, to continue to fight for Israel’s liberty, to continue to fight for what this country is, through its society,” Rivlin continued.
■ THERE IS a vast difference between saying that individual Poles cooperated with the Nazis, and stating that there was Polish complicity with the Nazis. Polish Ambassador Marek Magierowski has on occasion admitted to the former, but emphatically denies the latter, noting that Poland was occupied by the Nazis, and that Polish resistance forces fought against the Nazis and in many cases helped Jews to escape from ghettos and forced labor camps. Close to 7,000 Poles have been recognized by Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations. There were actually a lot more, but the details provided by Jews whom they rescued were insufficient to satisfy the qualifications demanded by Yad Vashem.
It’s true that antisemitism was rife in Poland for centuries, and that at around Easter time, Jews were often the victims of blood libels. But many Poles who had not been well disposed toward Jews before the war opted to help them during the war, rather than to aid and abet the Nazis.
Two Polish historians, Barbara Engelking and Jan Grabowski, were put on trial in Warsaw for violating a 2018 law dictating that accusations against the Polish nation of collusion with the Nazis in the execution of their atrocities is a criminal offense. They are not the first or the last researchers to cite instances in which individual Poles, or groups of Poles, slaughtered Jews. There is certainly enough evidence to suggest that there is more than a grain of truth in such accusations. But that does not mean that the Polish nation as a whole cooperated with the Nazis, and it is important for this distinction to be made.
Nonetheless, the trial of Engelking and Grabowski drew international attention and protest. Strong statements were released by Yad Vashem and the Council of the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities. The latter expressed its profound concern over the libel suit against the two historians, stating: “Any attempt to constrain academic discourse by extraneous means, such as political or legal pressures, is unacceptable. It threatens severely to impinge upon academic freedom in general and, specifically, upon efforts to probe the period of the Holocaust and to present a full, credible and balanced depiction of the terrible events of that period.”
Colette Avital, who chairs the Center of Organizations of Holocaust Survivors in Israel, wrote in similar vein to Magierowski and also expressed concern at the eruption of antisemitic messages posted on the websites of the two historians.
In reply, Magierowski told her that he would hope that if his grandfather, who to the best of his knowledge had been a decent person, was falsely accused of such a horrendous act, he would hope that he would have some legal recourse to clear his name. He assured Avital that the trial is not meant to hamper research, and added that he shared her concern about the eruption of antisemitic comments. But in order to illustrate the fact that Jews do not have a monopoly as victims of verbal hatred and incitement, he included some of the disgusting remarks that are often made about Poles, and suggested that racism has to be fought on every front.
■ DESPITE DIPLOMATIC and religious tensions between Poles and Jews, it’s not all negative. Alon Goldman, chairman of the Association of Czestochowa Jews in Israel, enthuses about Windows of Hope, a joint educational and artistic project initiated by the Galicia Jewish Museum in Krakow, Poland, and Israel’s Education Ministry, in which 10 high schools for the arts participate, five from Israel and five from Poland.
For three months, teachers and students from Israel and Poland dialogued together, with the starting point being a common relationship to a specific emotion – hope, fear, love, courage, longing, and others.
Exploring these feelings together, and the discussions that took place in the process, enabled all concerned to understand their common and complex history, and at the same time encouraged them to look with fresh hope to the future.
The project resulted from a collaborative initiative between Riki Mendel of the ministry and Jacob Nowskowski, director of the museum. Discussions between the various students inspired works of art which are on view at the museum in Krakow.
A special part of the project, by students from Czestochowa and Jerusalem, was a tribute to Czestochowa-born sculptor Samuel Willenberg, one of the leaders of the Treblinka revolt and one of the last survivors of Treblinka. Willenberg, who after his escape from Treblinka fought with the Polish resistance, designed the Czestochowa monument to the victims of the Holocaust, and was a frequent visitor to the city of his birth. He died in February 2016 and is buried in the Udim Cemetery, which is located not far from the official residence of the Polish ambassador.
■ SOME EUROPEAN countries still have difficulty in coming to terms with those chapters in their history that are marked by racism, persecution, atrocities and murder. Jews were not the only victims. So were gypsies, homosexuals, people with physical and/or mental disabilities and minorities in general.
Germany, which triggered much of this cruelty and hatred for the other, has become a model for coming to terms with its past, and today the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of Nazis are exploring their family histories and, though ashamed of the truth, are not running away from it. They question how ordinary, decent people could develop bestial habits and, after the war, go back to a decent lifestyle. They worry as to whether they have inherited any bestial qualities, and many have come to Israel with volunteer groups to work with Holocaust survivors by way of atonement.
On Thursday, February 11, the Israel Council on Foreign Relations will host an online lecture by Prof. Gunther Jikeli of Indiana University’s Institute for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism, who will speak on Germany as a model for coming to terms with the past. The event, at 6 p.m. Israel time, 5 p.m. Berlin time and 11 a.m. New York time, will be moderated by David Witzthum, visiting research fellow at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Registration is available on ICFR’s Facebook page.
■ LAST SUNDAY’s Grapevine included the names of some of the people from English-speaking countries who have distinguished themselves as Israeli diplomats. Of course, several names were inadvertently omitted, among them Michael Comay (South Africa), Bruce Kashdan and Arthur Lenk (US), D.J. Schneeweiss (Australia), David Kimche and Alan Baker (UK) and Neville Lamdan (Scotland). Doubtless, there are more, and if anyone cares to remind us, such names will be included in future columns.
■ ONE OF the tragedies in Israel is the lack of respect for history, with the notable exceptions of the electronic and print media, which have special programs and publish articles and even supplements related to historic events. But real estate developers, with the blessings of local mayors and despite the efforts of the Council for the Conservation of Heritage Sites in Israel, continue to demolish historic buildings and even monuments.
In a different example of he who pays the piper calls the tune, Irina Nevzlin, who chairs the board of Beit Hatfutsot – The Museum of the Jewish People, will dispense with the two Hebrew words in the title because they do not conform with her vision of what the museum should be. In an interview with Debra Nussbaum Cohen of Jewish Insider, Nevzlin said that the museum will soon drop the “Beit Hatfutsot” (Diaspora House) part of the name because it is “offensive and outdated.” Ignoring the fact that a lot of Jews are quite happy to identify themselves as Diaspora Jews, she asked “Do you want to be a Diaspora Jew or part of the Jewish people?”
But more important than the name is remembering the genesis of the museum. Anyone who Googles “The Museum of the Jewish People” may learn a lot about what it has to offer, but very little about its history. Whoever doesn’t know a few important key words will learn that the museum opened in 1978 thanks to the vision of Nahum Goldmann, president of the World Jewish Congress 1954-1977, and that in 2005 the Knesset passed the Beit Hatfutsot Law which defines Beit Hatfutsot as “the National Center for Jewish communities in Israel and around the world.” But without further Googling, no one will know the names of the other three founders: distinguished poet, Holocaust survivor and partisan resistance leader Abba Kovner; Jasaja Weinberg, who was the museum’s first director; and Meir Weisgal, who was its first president.
Relating to the background of the museum, which focused on the history of Diaspora Jewry, culminating with aliyah, or immigration, to Israel, Nevzlin told Nussbaum Cohen: “The story that was told was outdated. I’m all for continuity. When the museum was conceived in the 1950s to open in the 1970s, it was [telling] a different story. The idea behind it was to keep the memory of the Diaspora, and [then] we come to Israel” with everyone making aliyah, she said. “In 2006 the reality was that half of the Jews lived outside of Israel and didn’t plan to change that.”
Nevzlin led the $100 million fundraising campaign enabling the total transformation of the museum, which is located on the campus of Tel Aviv University. Almost everything about the museum – from the concept to its exhibits, from its floor space to technology and appearance – has changed. The core exhibition, conceived and created by Kovner, closed in October 2017.
The new name of the museum will be unveiled on February 21, at an event honoring Nevzlin and her father, Leonid Nevzlin, a prominent philanthropist, who saved the museum from closure when there was not enough state funding available to keep it open.
The new name will not honor any museum donor, but that’s par for the course with museums in Israel. When the late mega philanthropist Sammy Ofer was willing to donate $20m. toward the construction of a new wing at the Tel Aviv Museum on condition that his name and that of his wife, Aviva, were added to the title of the museum, the Tel Aviv Municipality agreed, but the museum’s board of management did not, so Ofer withdrew the offer, and published an announcement in Haaretz under the headline “Excuse me for wanting to donate.”
■ OFER’S GRANDSON Gil has been in the news lately, as international society writers speculate over whether he is romantically involved with model Sofia Richie, the daughter of singer-song writer Lionel Richie. Gil is the son of billionaire Idan Ofer, who in recent years has spent most of his time in London.
Although Idan Ofer’s business interests are largely in shipping, he also has an 85% stake in the ownership of the Portuguese soccer club FC Famalicão, as well as 32% of the Spanish soccer club Atlético Madrid. Gil Ofer is a Harvard graduate with a BA in economics and sociology, and is currently enrolled in a master’s program at the London Business School, where he studies in a building named for his grandfather in appreciation of a $30m. donation to the school by Idan Ofer.
■ IT APPEARS that in politics, unless party representatives specifically declare an intent, the absence of a declaration is tantamount to an admission to something they did not necessarily say.
A case in point in the growing animosity between Naftali Bennett’s Yamina and Gideon Sa’ar’s New Hope is the false accusation made against former justice minister Ayelet Shaked in New Hope’s campaign advertising, in which it states that in a recent Channel 12 interview, Shaked said that Yamina does not rule out sitting in a government headed by Benjamin Netanyahu.
According to a report in Haaretz, Shaked did not say that, and Yamina duly lodged a complaint with the Central Elections Committee, whose chairman, Judge Uzi Vogelman, after examining a clip of the interview, ruled that even though Shaked did not make the remark attributed to her, it was difficult to prove that there had been a deliberate attempt to mislead the voters.
To bolster its defense, New Hope brought examples of other statements by Shaked and her Yamina colleagues, in which they had not pointedly said that they would not sit with Netanyahu. While Yamina sought to prove that New Hope had lied, Vogelman ruled that, based on the election propaganda law, it was merely an election-time error.
Bennett, when appearing on radio or television, is repeatedly asked whether he would sit in a Netanyahu-led government, and he invariably skirts the issue. He has learned from Blue and White’s and Labor’s experiences not to make false promises. It’s much easier to live by the principle of “If you can’t beat them, join them.”
■ AMERICAN CHRISTIAN broadcaster, Laurie Cardoza-Moore, the founder and president of Proclaiming Justice to the Nations, is a leading advocate for Israel and the Jewish people. She warned that the ethnic studies model curriculum being considered for adoption in California in March for the state’s school system of more than six million students “literally erases the positive contributions of Jews from history.” Of equal concern, she said, is the curriculum’s direct singling out of Jews as enjoying racial privilege.
“Sitting in their classroom, Jewish students are potentially a double target. First, because they are Jewish and considered part of white privilege, and secondly, as Jews, they are perceived as purported villains through their association with Israel,” she stated, adding: “Anti-Zionism is built into these studies to the extent that, if approved, it would present students with a picture that demonizes Israel as an apartheid settler-colonialist Nazi state.”
There are in the range of half a million Jews living in California, which, due to high taxes, massive unemployment and more than 44,000 deaths from coronavirus, is rapidly losing its popularity as a place to call home, and is experiencing a huge exodus. A spike in antisemitism will doubtless cause many Jews to be included among those who leave the Sunshine State.
■ MANY PEOPLE are impatient for Israel’s travel restrictions to be lifted and, following the visit this week by Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, are cheered by his stating that once travel restrictions are lifted, Israelis will be able to enter Greece without additional restrictions. Israel’s best known Graecophile, radio broadcaster Yaron Enosh, is just itching to go, and will probably be on the first flight.
■ EVIL KNOWS no limits. An elderly couple living near Kfar Saba received a telephone call from an unlisted number informing them that they had been in the company of someone with severe coronavirus, and that it was incumbent on them, in accordance with Health Ministry regulations, to immediately go for a checkup. Though both had received a double inoculation, as good citizens they did as they were instructed. When they returned home, they saw that they had been burgled, and realized that the phone call had been a ploy to get them out of the house. Aside from the mess that had been created, and the feeling of helplessness, whatever money had been in the house was gone. A neighbor’s security cameras show the thief entering the house minutes after the owners had left.
The moral of the story is not to trust anyone who calls from an unlisted number. Ask the name of the caller. Check the information received during the call, and call a relative, friend or neighbor to house-sit while you are gone, just in case your caller is a thief.