Grapevine February 11, 2020: Not fair play

Movers and shakers in Israeli society.

INDIAN AMBASSADOR Sanjeev Singla at the Malida festival at Jerusalem’s Bible Lands Museum on Monday. (photo credit: RIKI RACHMAN)
INDIAN AMBASSADOR Sanjeev Singla at the Malida festival at Jerusalem’s Bible Lands Museum on Monday.
(photo credit: RIKI RACHMAN)
There’s a certain injustice, not to mention disrespect, in using social media to direct malice against the president of the state. There are civilized and courteous ways of disagreeing with the No. 1 citizen of the state without being downright insulting. But Israelis have a tendency for calling a spade a shovel, and using the most vulgar terminology against people they dislike or with whom they disagree.
Many people on the far Right of the political spectrum believe that Reuven Rivlin, a former Likud MK and speaker of the Knesset, has moved to the Left since becoming president, and they’ve spewed unfettered hatred against him. That’s very sad, because if there’s one specific goal that Rivlin has aimed for in his presidency, it’s to mend the rifts in Israeli society and to unite all the “tribes.”
Danny Atar, world chairman of Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund, alluded to this on Monday, when he brought scores of young people from diverse backgrounds to the President’s Residence on Tu Bishvat. Relating to their diversity in socioeconomic terms, religion, ethnicity, abilities and disabilities, Atar said that given the extent of the rifts in Israeli society, there is no better place than the President’s Residence, which is a citadel of national unity, to bring such a diverse group together.
■ AMONG THE semiofficial holidays celebrated in Israel are Mimouna, which is held immediately after Passover and was introduced by immigrants from Morocco; Seharane, introduced by Kurdish Jews in celebration of the beginning of spring; and Sigd, which is observed by Jews from Ethiopia celebrating the yearning of their return to Jerusalem. Indian Jews living in Israel now want to have the Malida ceremony recognized as a national holiday in Israel.
A campaign for such recognition was initiated in 2018 by Golan Cherikar Shrikar and Shimrit Levi of HaDor HaChadash (The New Generation) of Indians in Israel. Malida is held several times a year in celebration of life-cycle events, but most notably on Tu Bishvat, the New Year for Trees, in that it also symbolizes a new beginning for Indian Jews.
Tradition has it that the pioneers of India’s Jewish community arrived there on Tu Bishvat in 175 BCE. Their ship sank off the coast of India, causing the deaths of nearly all those on board. Only seven men and seven women survived. As the story goes, they were greatly distressed until the Prophet Elijah appeared to them and promised that their progeny would return to the Land of Israel. Until then, the 14 survivors and their descendants would be integrated into the Indian subcontinent. Since then, Indian Jews have reminded themselves of this by holding Malida ceremonies, which are conducted in a manner similar to a Tu Bishvat Seder, with the singing of praises of Elijah to a tune very different from that sung by Ashkenazi Jews.
This past Monday evening, Indian Ambassador Sanjeev Singla joined members of the Indian community at Jerusalem’s Bible Lands Museum for the Malida celebration. He was both curious and excited because this was his first-ever Malida experience. He commended the New Generation initiative as well as the work of Heli Barakat Tabibi, director of the Hebrew Calendar project that will hopefully serve to incorporate Malida among Israel’s national festivals.
In addition to seasonal fruits that are eaten at Malida, there is also a legendary pastry made of dried fruit, and a dry mixture of flattened rice, grated coconut, sugar, saffron and cardamom and decorated with fresh fruit. This is what was offered to Elijah by the Bene Israel, who particularly revere him, and this is what the many participants ate on Monday night, plus small cakes filled with a mix of potatoes and chickpeas. The platter at the head table was also decorated with fragrant flowers, as is the custom in India.
Despite the cold of Jerusalem, several women present wore saris and other traditional Indian attire, and some of the men wore beautifully embroidered jeweled tunics.
Prior to the festive celebration, individual groups gathered in different parts of the museum to learn about the history of the Bene Israel, the importance of Elijah, and other subjects related to Indian Jewry.
Out of respect for the religious aspect of Malida, Singla arrived with a large blue kippah on his head. He was proud of the fact that in pluralistic India, Jews as such never faced persecution. They assimilated into Indian culture while maintaining their own traditions, and the majority eventually migrated to Israel, where today, he said, there are approximately 83,000 Jews of Indian background coming from four different communities – namely, Bene Israel, Cochin, Iraqi and Bene Menashe.
The impetus for creating national awareness of Malida came from the wealth of stories told by parents and grandparents about Jewish life in India, and the realization that this history would be completely forgotten if something was not done to preserve it.
Aside from the fact that people came to Jerusalem from all over Israel to touch base with their roots, it was announced that Malida was being celebrated in 70 synagogues across the country. Malida was also celebrated in India by Israel Ambassador Ron Malka and the whole Israel Embassy team.
■ IMMEDIATELY FOLLOWING the Tokyo Olympic Games, which take place from July 24 to August 9, will be the Paralympic Games, in which Israel does much better than it does in the Olympics. The Paralympic Games will take place from August 25 to September 6, and the Israeli delegation will be sponsored by El Al, which will fly the athletes, coaches and managers to Tokyo.
The sponsorship agreement was signed in the offices of the Israel Paralympic Committee, with the participation of El Al’s top management, headed by CEO Gonen Usishkin, and the executive of the Israel Paralympic Committee, headed by its chairman, Dr. Shuki Dekel, and its CEO, Nissim Sasportas. Also present were several members of the Paralympic team, including rowing champions Moran Samuel, Simona Goren and Julia Chernoy, and kayaking champion Pascal Berkowitz.
The composition of the team has not yet been finalized. So far there are 18 members, but it is anticipated that the number will increase to 30, which is the size of the team that competed in Brazil in 2016.
■ IT’S DOUBTFUL that Yair Lapid will put any tricky questions to Blue and White wannabe prime minister Benny Gantz when the two of them get together on Monday, February 17, for a public tête-à-têt. After all, Lapid is No. 2 in Blue and White, and with the Knesset elections scheduled for March 2, the last thing he wants to do is to cast Gantz in a bad light.
The two will be meeting under the auspices of the Tel Aviv Salon for young professionals, and the venue at Hangar 11 at Tel Aviv Port is a whole lot larger than is usually the case for Tel Aviv Salon events. The conversation between the two politicians will be in English, and a Q and A with members of the audience will follow. The doors open at 7 p.m., and the best part is that it’s free of charge.
Perhaps this time around, the two politicos will actually outline their party’s policy and will stop repeating ad nauseam that someone who has been indicted cannot serve as prime minister. In other words, tell your audience what you plan to do, and not what you think Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu can’t or shouldn’t do. Every eligible voter knows about the indictment. Constant repetition is simply an insult to the intelligence of the electorate.
■ THE ADVERTISING department of KAN radio, in promoting its own interests, often has a commercial in which the director of a company is given instructions to mount a campaign from today to tomorrow, and has reached the conclusion that the best way to do so is via the radio.
But radio is good for much more than products and services marketing. It’s also an important vehicle for bringing cases of injustice or worthy causes to public attention and to get people in high places to act.
Case in point is that of Hodaya Monsongo, 24, who suffers from a variety of health issues, in addition to which she is intellectually challenged. She was arrested in Peru on suspicion of drug smuggling and, according to her family, has experienced cruel treatment and has for several months been confined in the most primitive of conditions.
When members of her family turned to Israel’s powers-that-be, to try to get Hodaya released, they hit a brick wall. But when they turned to Keren Neubach on Israel Radio’s Reshet Bet, they got a very willing ear.
Neubach specializes in defending the weakest elements of society, and through her morning program on Reshet Bet has succeeded in getting people released from mental institutions or having the conditions of their confinement improved. When such cases are broadcast often enough (and she broadcasts them more than once), action often follows, as in the case of Hodaya, whose story was aired more or less concurrently with that of Naama Issachar. It then came to the attention of Rivlin, who wrote to President Martin Alberto Vizcarra of Peru, to request clemency on Hodaya’s behalf, after which she became the new cause célèbre.
Let’s not forget that we still have two known Israelis in captivity in Gaza, as well as the remains of two fallen IDF soldiers, plus numerous Israelis in prisons elsewhere in the world.
Last week Joint List leader Ayman Odeh was also interviewed on Reshet Bet, not by Neubach but by Eran Zinger, the station’s expert on Arab affairs. Odeh, who has been to Turkey to try to secure the release of some of the Israeli Arabs who are imprisoned there, told of a young man who was stopped in the street by a plainclothes policeman who demanded to see his passport. The Israeli doesn’t understand Turkish, and did not know what was his interlocutor wanted of him. When the policeman laid an arm on him, he thought he was being attacked by his presumed assailant and ran. The policeman ran after him and caught him. So far, none of the arguments in the young man’s defense have found a sympathetic ear in Turkey.
Odeh is angry that when Israeli Arabs get arrested unjustly or for something petty, they don’t receive the same kind of attention as Naama Issachar, who was pardoned by Russian President Vladimir Putin, and who returned to Israel on Netanyahu’s plane. No one in Israel’s Arab community can envisage a similar situation vis-à-vis any Israeli Arab who has been given an unjustly severe sentence for either no crime or a very petty crime.
Apropos the prime minister bringing Issachar home on his plane, before her release, half the country was willing to turn the world upside down in order to bring her home, but once she actually did come, people started to question why she was sufficiently important to merit a seat on the prime minister’s plane.
One wonders whom Netanyahu will rescue next. Haaretz had a delightful cartoon on the subject, depicting Sara Netanyahu asking her husband where they are going next. His reply: to Japan to rescue the “hijacked” Israelis who are quarantined on the Diamond Princess luxury cruise ship.
At the time of going to press, none of the Israelis had been diagnosed with coronavirus, but the Japanese are not taking chances and are providing them with all they need during the time that they will have to remain on board.
Chabad in Japan is also looking after their welfare by proving kosher food and all the necessities for observing Shabbat and having proper Shabbat meals. As a matter of fact, Chabad offers Shabbat dinners and kosher meals all week long from Chana’s Place, a glatt kosher restaurant under the supervision of Rabbi Mendi Sudakevich, Chabad rabbi of Japan. Chabad rabbis also operate elsewhere in Japan. Rabbi Shmuel Vishedsky can be found at the Jewish Community Center in Kobe, Rabbi David Posner in Kyoto and, Rabbi Shalom Vaisfiche in Takayama.
■ THERE WERE numerous obituaries in the international media and in most Israeli newspapers for iconic Jewish-American actor Kirk Douglas, who died last week at age 103. A lot can be packed into a life as long as that, and most of those obituaries that did not reprint wire services each contained some piece of information about Douglas that did not appear in other obituaries.
Among the more common pieces of information about his life was the fact that he and his wife Anne gave so much to charitable causes, especially to those in Israel. Tel Aviv Mayor and chairman of the Tel Aviv Foundation Ron Huladai placed a death notice in Haaretz in which he described Douglas as “a dear friend and supporter of the State of Israel and the city of Tel Aviv-Jaffa.”
■ PEOPLE’S INTERESTS are not always influenced by their past or present environments. Case in point is Prof. Zhang Jian of the China Foreign Affairs University in Beijing, who is an expert on China-Russian relations. During a stint in Israel as the guest of Ben-Gurion University’s Research Institute, which brings Chinese faculty to Israel to study Israel and Zionism, Zhang became interested in immigration from the former Soviet Union and the integration of former Soviet citizens into Israeli society and politics. No one was better equipped to tell him about this than Israel’s most famous immigrant from the USSR, Natan Sharansky, who very soon after his arrival in Israel formed a political party, served in the Knesset and the government and was subsequently chairman of the Jewish Agency.
Prof. Paula Kabolo, who is the director of the BGU training program for Chinese faculty, whose participants are helped to prepare a course about Israel which they teach on their return to China, arranged for Zhang to meet with Sharansky.
The two had a long discussion on the history and consequences of Russian aliyah. Zhang speaks Russian, and the beginning of their conversation was indeed in Russian, but then the two switched to English, which is yet another language that they have in common.
■ FOLLOWING REVELATIONS about historical inaccuracies in videos shown at Yad Vashem during the recent conference about remembering the Holocaust and fighting antisemitism, many people are questioning so-called historical facts. History is, after all, like beauty in the eye of the beholder. One has only to look at newspapers or digital publications in which several field reporters who have all been present at the same event write about it from their own individual perspectives. There are certain near-identical elements to be found in each report, but in other respects they are all different from one another.
Veteran Haaretz reporter Ofer Aderet, who writes on various Jewish issues but primarily on those that are Holocaust related, has been trying for years to have the file on the murder of Israel (Rudolf) Kastner, the grandfather of MK Merav Michaeli, declassified.
So have several other people, including historian Dr. Nadav Kaplan, a former combat navigation officer, who fully understands the importance of security. Nonetheless, he cannot fathom why, after 63 years, the Kastner file remains sealed. When he approached the State Archives, he failed in his quest. When he asked the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) whether he could see the file, he met with a firm refusal.
His remaining option was to petition the High Court of Justice, which in a mostly closed-door hearing examined most of the Shin Bet’s arguments for keeping the file classified, but was not convinced and this week gave the Shin Bet 60 days in which to come up with something more plausible.
Kastner, who was murdered near the entrance to his home in Tel Aviv on March 4, 1957, was severely wounded and died in the hospital on March 15. His family believes that more than one person was involved in the assassination, and there have also been suggestions that Kastner did not die of his wounds, but of suffocation when someone entered the hospital and pushed a pillow down on his face. In fact, Kaplan managed to get hold of a laboratory assistant who worked at the hospital at that time and confirmed that Kastner did not die of his wounds, but died of suffocation following a physical struggle.
This is not the first time that the case has come before the court. In the past the Shin Bet claimed that to unseal the file would jeopardize its security operations and would also cause embarrassment to the government. Kaplan has said that he’s not interested in the names of people still living. But he does want to know all that is in the file about Kastner himself.
Kastner was a very controversial figure. An influential member of the Jewish Aid and Rescue Committee in Hungary, he saved more Jews than even industrialist Oskar Schindler, who was named as Righteous among the Nations for saving 1,200 Jews he employed in his munitions plant. Kastner is believed to have saved 1,670 Jews, several of whom were members of his own family. He was able to do this by negotiating with the notorious Adolf Eichmann, and after the war testified on behalf of Nazi war criminals, thereby saving them from the gallows. There is no explanation for the latter, and there is no one left to ask, though it’s possible that the explanation is contained in the Kastner file.
Two years prior to Kastner’s death the Jerusalem District Court, headed by Benjamin Halevi, ruled that Kastner had collaborated with the Nazis, was indirectly responsible for the deaths of many Hungarian Jews and had “sold his soul to the devil.” Ten months after his death, Kastner was exonerated by the Supreme Court, but that was of little comfort to his family.
While the Shin Bet itself has published details of the murder investigation, it has not published anything about Kastner that was not previously public knowledge.
Zeev Eckstein, the person who shot at Kastner but did not actually kill him, was charged with murder along with two associates, Yosef Menes and Dan Shemer, who had been leading Lehi fighters. All three were initially charged with murder and crimes of terrorism. Menkes and Shemer admitted to terrorism, but not to murder. Menkes even claimed that the assassination was a Shin Bet operation, but the court found Menkes guilty of persuading Eckstein to kill Kastner and of giving him the gun with which to do so. All three men received life sentences, but at the intervention of Mossad and Shin Bet chief Isser Harel, were pardoned and released from prison in 1963.
In 2014, Eckstein published a book about the case, in which he said that there was another figure, in addition to Shemer and Menkes, but did not know who it was. After his third shot, he wrote, there was another shot. Eckstein had missed with his first shot, but the other assailant, who had come to make sure that Kastner did not survive, had succeeded in hitting the target even in the dark of night. That person was never found.
Kastner’s daughter, Zsuzsi, told reporters and police investigators that she believed that the mysterious shooter was a Shin Bet agent who had been sent by a senior Shin Bet official who wanted to avenge the fact that his family had not been saved by Kastner.
Insofar as Israel was concerned, the Kastner affair began in 1952 when Malchiel Gruenwald, a Jerusalem hotelier, started a campaign against the silence of pre-state leaders during the Holocaust. For whatever reason, Gruenwald singled out Kastner, accused him of collaborating with the Nazis, concealing the existence of the death camps from Hungarian Jews and testifying on behalf of war criminals at the Nuremberg trials.
In 1952, Kastner was the spokesman for trade and industry minister Dov Yosef. Haim Cohen, who was then attorney-general, decided to sue Gruenwald for libel against Kastner, which in a sense was tantamount to libel against the state, but the case backfired and, instead of being the accuser, Kastner became the accused.
The story becomes even more complicated due to Eckstein’s change in ideology. He had been a Shin Bet agent, whose members were by and large fairly left-wing. He had been told to keep an eye on certain right-wing personalities, one of whom had a profound influence on him. When asked by reporters to name him, Eckstein declined, but acknowledged that his relationship with his right-wing mentor influenced his agreement to assassinate Kastner. With hindsight, he said, he should have refused.
There have been conspiracy theories related to Kastner, including the possibility that the government ordered his execution because he knew too much. Perhaps in two months’ time, the public will be a lot better informed.
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