Grapevine February 13, 2021: Bibicracy – a political syndrome

Movers and shakers in Israeli society

Mordechai Ben-Porat and Shlomo Hillel (photo credit: FRITZ COHEN/GPO)
Mordechai Ben-Porat and Shlomo Hillel
(photo credit: FRITZ COHEN/GPO)
Excuses, excuses. After mounting a campaign against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the previous Knesset elections and then breaking faith with his voters by joining a Netanyahu-led government on the excuse that he was doing so to help overcome the coronavirus crisis, Blue and White leader Benny Gantz is now ignoring the advice of past and present members of Knesset who are urging him to step down gracefully before the March 23 elections and also bow out of the election campaign. Gantz, who took over as acting justice minister when Avi Nissenkorn resigned, refuses to step down on the grounds that he is concerned about what may happen to the Justice Ministry if he goes. 
It is becoming increasingly difficult for him to live up to the Mr. Nice Guy image he had before he entered the political arena. He is so frequently under attack by interviewers and political commentators that, on occasion, he just can’t help losing his cool. On the other hand, although he occasionally rants about Netanyahu, he refuses to blame him for the coronavirus death toll. No one is to blame, he says. There was simply not enough information on which to know how to act, and people did their best under the circumstances. Despite forecasts that at most his party will win four mandates, Gantz seems to believe that his party will be an influential factor after the next elections, while most political pundits see Naftali Bennett as the political leader who will determine the next political balance.
DEGEL HATORAH leader Moshe Gafni has stated openly that his party will recommend to President Reuven Rivlin that Netanyahu should once again be tasked with forming a government. Asked the invariable question in a Reshet Bet interview whether Netanyahu being on trial for a series of corruption charges does not bother him, Gafni admitted it did, adding that there are a few other things about Netanyahu that displease him. However, he added, at the same time there is no one in politics today who can achieve what Netanyahu is capable of achieving. Urged several times in the course of the interview to list the other things that displease him, Gafni declined in an example of the religious prohibition against lashon hara, literally bad-mouthing another person.
■ CONTROVERSIAL KNESSET candidate Itamar Ben-Gvir, whose ultra-right-wing views disturb some of the members of Likud, is now in great demand as an interviewee because of the rumors of promises that Netanyahu allegedly made to him. The Netanyahu-Ben-Gvir alliance could be fake news, which has mushroomed on the rumor mill, or it may contain a grain of truth. Either way, no one will know Ben-Gvir’s political fate until after the elections, unless there is a falling out between Ben-Gvir’s Otzma Yehudit Party and the Religious-Zionist Party headed by Bezalel Smotrich.
Although Netanyahu has stated on Channel 20 that Ben-Gvir will not be part of a Likud-led government, the ever-jovial Ben-Gvir takes anything that Netanyahu says with a grain of salt, as he lists former political figures to whom Netanyahu made promises, noting that nearly all of them have fallen by the wayside. In other words, Ben-Gvir, a lawyer by profession, has no expectations of Netanyahu, but will support him regardless, in order to guarantee a right-wing government.
■ OBITUARIES FOR Shlomo Hillel, who died last week and played such an important role in the founding and development of the state, focused largely on his work in facilitating the mass migration of Iraqi Jews in the early years of the state. Prize-winning author and former civil servant Eli Amir, who like Hillel was born in Baghdad, and who was a great admirer and personal friend of Hillel’s, notes that inasmuch as he deserved all the kudos he received, the saga of Iraqi migration to Israel is incomplete without the inclusion of Mordechai Ben-Porat, who was just as much involved. Ben-Porat, who was also born in Baghdad and who is now 97, also had an illustrious career. The eldest of 11 siblings, he migrated to the Land of Israel in 1945, joined the Hagana, fought in the War of Independence, returned to Iraq to organize the exit of Iraqi Jews, then came back to Israel, where in 1955 he was elected to head the Or Yehuda Municipal Council. 
Ten years later, Ben-Porat was elected to the Knesset on the Rafi list, which was then headed by David Ben-Gurion. He was reelected in 1961 on the Labor Alignment list, after which he served for three years as deputy secretary-general of the Labor Party. He was again reelected to the Knesset in 1973, but left the party in March, 1977 to stand as an independent in the May1977 elections, in which he lost his Knesset seat. He subsequently worked with the Jewish Agency in efforts to get Jews out of Iran. 
Ben-Porat was back in the Knesset in 1981 as a member of the Telem Party, and a year later was appointed minister without portfolio. In June 1983, he split from Telem and founded the Movement for the Renewal of Social Zionism, but remained in the cabinet until January 1984. He was not reelected that year, and in 1988 he crossed the political floor and joined Likud. In 1973, together with Shlomo Hillel and five other people of Iraqi background, Ben-Porat founded the Babylonian Jewry Heritage Center which grew into the Museum of Babylonian Jewry, and was officially opened as such in 1988. Iraqi-born Israeli writer Eli Amir is a member of the museum’s board of trustees.
■ PHILANTHROPIC FAMILIES such as the Rothschilds, the Montefiores and the Sieff, Sacher and Marks families who were related to each other were among those who supported the Zionist cause well before the establishment of the State of Israel. The Sieffs, in particular, were active in many fields. Israel Sieff was an ardent Zionist, and a good friend of Chaim Weizmann, and in 1918, as a member of the Zionist Commission, accompanied Weizmann on a visit to what was then Palestine.
When Sieff was a school boy in Manchester, one of his best friends was Simon Marks, who was the son of Michael Marks, the co-founder of Marks & Spencer. The two boys eventually entered the firm, married each other’s sisters, and remained lifelong friends and colleagues, building up M&S to a household name all over England and beyond. 
In 1910, Israel Sieff married Rebecca Marks, who in 1918, together with Vera Weizmann and Romana Goodman, founded the Ladies Committee of the British Zionist Federation, which evolved into the Federation of Zionist Women that subsequently become the Women’s International Zionist Organization, and that today is headquartered in Israel and active in 36 countries. 
The Ziv Medical Center in Safed is named for Rebecca Sief, and the Weizmann Institute in Rehovot owes its existence to a tragedy in the Sieff family, when Daniel, one of their four children who had wanted to be a scientist, died at the age of 17. Together with other relatives, they endowed the Daniel Sieff Research Institute in Rehovot in 1934. It was later renamed the Weizmann Institute.
On Tuesday, March 16, at 7:30 p.m., under the auspices of the Israel branch of the Jewish Historical Society of England, Sarah Meron and Micaela Ziv, granddaughters of Israel and Rebecca Sieff, will participate in a Zoom program in which they will talk about the Sieff and Marks families and their involvement with the Zionist enterprise before and after statehood.
Advance registration is required at Everyone registering, will receive email confirmation with information about joining the meeting
■ A TOURIST site in the Golan Heights was last week dedicated to the memory of Israel’s man in Damascus, super-spy Eli Cohen, who was executed by the Syrians in May 1965, after his cover was blown. Despite many attempts to find his grave and have his remains transferred to Israel, his wife, Nadia Cohen, children and brother have not known closure. They have been waiting in hope for more than half a century. In July 2018, the Mossad recovered the watch that had been worn by Cohen until the day of his capture. The watch had been part of his fake Arab identity as well as part of his operational image. 
A few months prior to its recovery, the intelligence agency informed Nadia Cohen that they had tracked it down. An elderly woman had kept it, and her grandchildren were interested in selling it. The Mossad bought it, and DNA testing proved that it had belonged to Eli Cohen. While there are streets and institutions in Israel that have been named for Eli Cohen, nothing is geographically closer to Syria than the Eli Cohen tourist site in the Golan Heights, which his family finds very moving.
The loss of a loved one is painful regardless of the circumstances of the loss. It is even more painful when the body of a loved one lost in battle or in other service to the state is not returned, and mourners have no place to visit to pay their respects.
While the anguish of the families of soldiers Oron Shaul and Hadar Goldin, who were killed in Gaza in 2014 while fighting in Operation Protective Edge, is understandable, particularly as Hamas refuses to return their remains or to reveal any information about them, the constant attacks on the government and on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu by Goldin’s parents are out of place and play into the hands of Israel’s enemies. 
Ehud Olmert also suffered similar rebukes before a prisoner exchange resulted in the long-awaited return to Israel of two dead soldiers: First Sgt. Ehud Goldwasser and St.-Sgt. Eldad Regev, who had been captured by Hezbollah in a cross-border raid in July 2006. Their bodies were returned in July 2008 in exchange for 199 live prisoners. Regardless of the government in power, Israel always does everything possible to bring home soldiers missing in action, be they dead or alive. A perfect example is the ongoing search for IAF combat navigator Lt.-Col. Ron Arad, who disappeared in October 1986 during a mission to attack PLO targets in Lebanon, and whose fate remains unknown.
The Goldins have advocated withholding COVID-19 vaccinations from Gaza in exchange for the two missing soldiers. This kind of collective punishment goes against the grain of human rights. While it might be a great bargaining chip, it is wrong to hold the lives of an entire population at bay in return for two bodies.