Grapevine February 3, 20201: A gracious rival

Movers and shakers in Israeli society.

ISRAEL’S AMBASSADOR to Romania, David Saranga. (photo credit: Courtesy)
ISRAEL’S AMBASSADOR to Romania, David Saranga.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
 It never hurts to be gracious. Omer Bar Lev scored high in the Labor Party primaries on Monday and is second on its list for the Knesset elections, unless he has to move back a slot to make way for the leader of another party who may run with Labor in the elections. Interviewed by Aryeh Golan on Israel Radio’s Reshet Bet on Tuesday, Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz congratulated both Bar Lev and Labor leader Merav Michaeli, saying that Labor is a very important party.
Steinitz can afford to be gracious, as he actually started his own political career on the left of the political spectrum as a member of Peace Now. Along with Avraham Burg, who stayed on the political Left, he was wounded in an anti-government rally in Jerusalem on February 10, 1983, when right-wing extremist Yona Avrushmi threw a grenade into the crowd, wounding Steinmetz and Burg as well as seven others, and killing peace activist Emil Grunzweig. Avrushmi’s sentence to life imprisonment was commuted to 27 years by president Ezer Weizman, and he was released on parole in January 2011.
Although Avrushmi no longer attends anti-government demonstrations, his mindset has remained unchanged. In a Channel 12 interview last year he called anti-government protesters “germs” and said that there are young men who know what to do. Police later opened investigations against him for incitement.
While interviewing Steinitz on several issues, Golan kept hammering a question about whether there was a reserved slot on the Likud list for Orly Levy-Abecassis, and whether she would be a minister. Steinitz managed to keep evading a reply.
■ GOLAN, WHO in his younger years was a political reporter, reminded Bar Lev, a second-generation MK, that his father, the late Haim Bar-Lev, had been forced to move down a slot on the Labor list to make room for Yitzhak Rabin. But that had been in Labor’s glory days of 47 seats in the Knesset.
Labor scored even higher in the December 1973 elections, when the Labor Alignment won 51 seats and Likud 39. The National Religious Party won 10 seats, and the United Torah Front five seats. Shas and Yisrael Beytenu had not yet been established, and although there was an Arab party represented in the Knesset, it was not a joint list, and the representation was nowhere near as large as it is today.
■ ON THE evening prior to the Labor primaries, there was a panel discussion with seven of the 62 candidates contesting for Knesset seats. This was somewhat unfair in that only seven had an opportunity to be introduced to voters via Zoom, and included three of those who are among the top six on the list – Bar Lev, Efrat Rayten and Gilad Kariv.
There were technical difficulties with Zoom which resulted in the program starting more than a half hour later than scheduled. More than a thousand participants registered for Zoom, and others who tried to register were advised that the event was being streamed on Facebook.
Among those who patiently waited for the technical problem to be resolved was former prime minister and former Labor Party chairman Ehud Barak. Unfortunately, not everyone was patient, and the panel discussion was not exactly inspiring, so the numbers gradually dwindled to below 300.
Truthfully, it was very difficult for voters to choose, because there were so many high-caliber candidates, especially as there were representatives of so many different sectors of society – civil rights, Arabs, Druze, Russian and American immigrants, Ethiopian Jewry, senior citizens and more. Most of the female candidates were also lawyers.
Law has become a very popular profession among women, emphasized perhaps by the fact that two successive presidents of the Supreme Court have been women, and a woman is also heading the National Labor Court, and is not the first to do so.
Campaigning for some of the Labor candidates were former Labor MKs Eitan Cabel, Yuli Tamir and Colette Avital, who have each discovered that there is life after the Knesset.
Kariv, who has waged a long battle to separate religion from state, said in the panel discussion that if he does win a Knesset seat, he will work toward reducing the power of the rabbinate over people’s lives. There is presently a ridiculous situation in Israel whereby mixed marriages between people of different faiths and same sex marriages are not approved by the rabbinate but are accepted for registration by the Interior Ministry, thus giving partners in such marriages the same civil rights as partners in a rabbinically approved marriage. However, more often than not, couples that cannot or opt not to be married by a rabbi (or a member of the clergy of their faith) have to go overseas to get married, and their marriage documents are then registered with the Interior Ministry.
Toward the end of last year, the Population and Immigration Authority of the Interior Ministry recognized three civil weddings performed via Zoom in the American state of Utah for Israeli citizens who remained in Israel for the long-distance ceremonies which were also watched by relatives and friends in Israel and abroad. Interior Minister and Shas leader Arye Deri was furious and said that he would fight against recognition of such marriages in the future. However, he may not have the legal authority to prevent them from being recognized.
If Kariv has his way, Israelis may not have to turn to Utah or fly abroad once Ben-Gurion Airport resumes full operations, because civil marriage may become a legal option in Israel. If and when it does, in a country as perverse as Israel, a lot of people who today might decide on a civil wedding will prefer a more traditional wedding with a rabbi, a bridal canopy and the breaking of a glass to a chorus of “Mazal tov!”
■ IN ITS ongoing campaign for gender equality, the Israel Women’s Network was thrilled last week to be able to offer congratulations to two women who have put an additional crack in the political glass ceiling. Although there have been female heads of political parties, such as Golda Meir, who not only headed Labor but was Israel’s first woman prime minister; Shulamit Aloni, who was the founder of Ratz and later Meretz; Tzipi Livni, who headed Kadima and later Hatnua; Shelly Yacimovich, who headed Labor; and Zehava Gal-On and Tamar Zandberg, who headed Meretz, none of the religious parties had previously been headed by a woman, till the advent of Hagit Moshe; and Labor seemed destined for oblivion till Merav Michaeli became its new leader.
Although women have always served in the Knesset, they have never risen beyond 25% of the mandates – a record achieved in the 23rd Knesset in which there were 30 female MKs out of a total of 120 MKs. The lowest number of women representatives was in the 12th Knesset, in which there were only seven women. Over the past 70-plus years, there has been only one female Knesset speaker, Dalia Itzik.
■ AUSTRALIAN AMBASSADOR Paul Griffiths tweeted a press release from the Victorian state government headlined “Global innovator Elbit to establish Melbourne Center – premier of Victoria.” It appears that the government of Premier Daniel Andrews has signed an agreement with Elbit Systems of Australia “to establish a Center of Excellence for Human and Machine Teaming in Melbourne that will drive the research, development and commercialization of defense technologies.” The release goes on to state: “As one of the world’s leading global defense innovators, the investment by the Australian subsidiary of Israeli global conglomerate Elbit will bolster the state’s defense chain capability and create local jobs.”
Elbit Systems of Australia currently employs around 250 people across the country, including 80 military veterans, with plans to recruit six engineers for the new center in Melbourne.
The Elbit parent company, headquartered in Haifa, is chaired by Haifa-born Michael Federmann, who also heads the Dan Hotels chain. Last week Elbit Systems announced that it had been awarded a $172 million contract to supply light tanks to a country in Asia and the Pacific over a three-year period. Also in January, Elbit’s UK subsidiary won a $137m. contract to supply the future Target Acquisition Solution for soldiers in the British Army.
Federmann usually shies away from publicity, and when there is any, it usually refers to his business or philanthropic activities, but does not refer to his military career, when he served under Barak in the General Staff Reconnaissance Unit of the IDF.
■ FOREIGN MINISTER Gabi Ashkenazi called Yangon this week to speak to Ronen Gilor, Israel’s ambassador to Myanmar, to ensure that all embassy staff and their families were safe and well. It was not only the coronavirus that concerned him but also the current unrest in Myanmar following the elections, whose results the army claimed to be fraudulent, after which it promptly mounted a coup and seized power. Elected officials, including pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, whose party won by a landslide, were arrested.
Gilor is arguably the right man in the right place at the right time. He has a degree in conflict resolution, and his previous position in the Foreign Ministry was that of director of the Department for Human Rights. Gilor told Ashkenazi that there was a lot of tension in the air and it was reflected on the faces of the population, but that everyone at the embassy was fine.
■ IT WAS to be expected that heads of foreign diplomatic missions stationed in Israel would participate in the International Holocaust Remembrance Day event organized by the Protocol Department of the Foreign Ministry, but even though IHRD was initiated by the United Nations, it was not certain that all ambassadors serving elsewhere in the world would participate, even if their countries are members of the UN.
Among those who did was Larisa Miculet, Moldova’s ambassador to Ireland, who from January 2006 to December 2009 served as her country’s ambassador to Israel, and still corresponds with friends whom she made here. Miculet posted on Facebook a photograph of herself with the “We Remember” placard.
Miculet had more to remember than the Holocaust. Kishinev, which is today the largest city in Moldova, was in 1903 the scene of a massacre that became known as the Kishinev pogrom. At least 49 Jews were killed, and hundreds of Jewish homes and stores were ruined and looted. A second pogrom two years later began as a protest against the tsar, but very quickly turned into an assault against the Jews.
Of course, no generation should be held responsible for the sins of its ancestors, but it does have a responsibility to acknowledge and to remember, so as to ensure that such sins are not repeated.
■ OTHER THAN in matters related to ritual slaughter, Israel’s main foreign foci these days are not in Europe, which is perhaps why an honor accorded to David Saranga, Israel’s ambassador to Romania, was barely reported, if at all, in the Israeli media.
Saranga was last week the recipient of the Mihnea Constantinescu award for excellence in diplomacy. Symbolically, it was conferred on him on International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Constantinescu, who was a close and true friend of Israel, worked tirelessly for the adoption of the definition of antisemitism by the International Task Force to Commemorate the Holocaust. The definition of antisemitism was adopted by IHRA during the Romanian presidency of the Task Force.
Saranga, who is a former adviser to President Reuven Rivlin, said that the award was not only a personal recognition, but one for the State of Israel and his wonderful team in the embassy, for all that it has invested in enhancing bilateral relations during a particularly difficult year. Without his team, he said, he would never have been considered worthy of the award.
■ DIPLOMATS WHO are Jewish and who head foreign missions in Israel almost always return to visit after completing their postings. Some come on vacation and to spend time with friends they made here, as well as with relatives living in Israel, and some come in various official capacities but manage to combine business with pleasure.
Former US ambassador David Friedman has several reasons to return. Aside from having close family and many friends and acquaintances in Israel, Friedman has been named as the first-ever recipient of an honorary doctorate from Ariel University, whose president Prof. Yehuda Doron lauded the acknowledgment by Friedman and the American government “that research and discovery benefit all people, regardless of location, faith or practice.”
Ariel University, despite its commendable academic track record, had a hard time gaining recognition from the Council for Higher Education for no reason other than its location across the so-called Green Line. It faced further opposition when Naftali Bennett, as education minister, pushed for the creation of a school of medicine at Ariel. Even though Israel suffers from an acute shortage of trained and qualified medical personnel, Bennett faced considerable opposition from council members.
Fortunately, the late Sheldon Adelson, whose wife Miri is an internationally respected physician who understands the need for more doctors and nurses, decided to pay for the establishment of a school of medicine at Ariel University and attended the launch ceremony in August 2018.
He would be pleased to know that Tel Aviv University’s Sackler Faculty of Medicine has signed an agreement with Ariel University, whereby students from Ariel University’s Adelson School of Medicine will be able to study in hospitals affiliated with TAU. This will ensure that Sackler’s high standards will be maintained by a new crop of medical practitioners.
Friedman barely had time to think about the honor that is being bestowed on him when he was nominated for an even greater honor by internationally famed lawyer Alan Dershowitz, who believes that Friedman is deserving of a Nobel Peace Prize.
In the letter that he wrote nominating Friedman, along with Jared Kushner, the son-in-law of former US president Donald Trump; Avi Berkowitz, who was Trump’s special representative for international negotiations; and former Israel ambassador to the US Ron Dermer, Dershowitz recommended them for the effort they put into conceiving and cementing the Abraham Accords.
Curiously, the leaders of all the countries involved were omitted from the nomination, whereas it was the other way around in 1994, when Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres and Yasser Arafat were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize despite the fact that much of the work in securing the Oslo Accords was done by Yossi Beilin, Yair Hirschfeld, Ron Pundak, Uri Savir, Ahmed Qurei and Terje Rod-Larsen as the principal architects and negotiators of the Oslo Accords.
Although the Oslo Accords failed, there was some attempt to implement them, but US president Barak Obama received a cart-before-the-horse Nobel Peace Prize in 2009 for his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples. He was considered worthy of the prize more in line with his vision than his deeds.
Former Nobel Peace Prize secretary Geir Lundestad, writing in his memoir, Secretary of Peace, noted that even Obama himself had been surprised.
“No Nobel Peace Prize ever elicited more attention than the 2009 prize to Barack Obama,” wrote Lundestad. “Even many of Obama’s supporters believed that the prize was a mistake,” he continued. “In that sense the committee didn’t achieve what it had hoped for.”
■ THE MIFAL HAPAYIS national lottery will celebrate its 70th anniversary in August. Meanwhile, it is celebrating the 20th anniversary of the prestigious Sapir Prize for Literature of Israel, which is part of its cultural initiatives. The prize is named in memory of the late Pinchas Sapir, who inter alia was one of Israel’s finance ministers. It was first awarded in 2000. Mifal Hapayis this week announced the finalists for the Sapir Prize for 2020. They are:
Sami Bardugo, author of Donkey; Yosef Bar Yosef for his book Father, Son, Grandma Dina; Roee Chen for his book Souls; Gai Ad for her book Vikki Victoria; and Yakov Z. Mayer for his book Nehemia.
■ A RETIRED rabbi and avid historian who more than once in a long career has made history, has done so again, by being the first Jew to receive the highest honor that Australia can bestow in the 2021 Australia Day honors last week.
Rabbi John Levi, who was the first Australian-born rabbi to be ordained, was also among the founders of the King David Jewish School, which is affiliated with the Victorian Union of Progressive Judaism and currently caters to approximately 800 students, from preschool to 12th grade. The students come from the full range of Jewish diversity.
Levi was one of approximately 30 Jewish honorees in a variety of categories, including community service, medicine, science, the arts, education and industry. Levi’s extraordinary curriculum vitae includes several presidential and other executive roles in various organizations and institutions, including the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, the World Union for Progressive Judaism and the Liberal Rabbinical Association of Australia and New Zealand. He was also the founder of the Progressive Jewish Congregations of Adelaide (Australia), Wellington (New Zealand) and Hong Kong. Active in interfaith work, Levi was the founder and copresident of the Council of Christians and Jews (Victoria).
Another Australian-born rabbi who was also among the Australia Day honorees, is Rabbi Mordechai Gutnick, a Chabadnik, who was ordained in New York in 1972. Although he grew up in Melbourne where his late father was a prominent rabbi, Gutnick, at the behest of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, returned to Sydney to serve as the rabbi of the Strathfield and District Hebrew Congregation. During that period, he also served as a judge on the Sydney Rabbinical Court, and was active in the field of kashrut supervision. In 1982, he moved back to Melbourne, where he was appointed rabbi of the North Eastern Jewish Center in Doncaster, where he served for 14 years, before moving closer to the center of Jewish life in Melbourne, taking up a position as rabbi of the Elsternwick Jewish community. In 2003, he returned to the synagogue of his childhood, the Elwood Talmud Torah Hebrew Congregation, of which his father had been the long-standing and highly popular spiritual leader. He is currently the senior judge of the restructured Melbourne Rabbinical Court. Like his father, Gutnick served as a military chaplain in the Australian Army with the rank of captain. In 2014, he was elected president of the Rabbinical Council of Victoria.
His youngest brother, Rabbi Moshe Gutnick, who lives in Sydney, is currently the president of the Rabbinical Council of Australia and New Zealand.
Their middle brother is Rabbi Joseph Gutnick, a Melbourne-based businessman and philanthropist who is generally known as “Diamond Joe,” having taken the advice of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, the late Menachem Mendel Schneerson, to go into the Australian desert and mine for gold and diamonds.
In Israel, Joseph Gutnick is best known for having bankrolled Benjamin Netanyahu’s 1996 election campaign with the slogan “Netanyahu is good for the Jews.” There is also another younger Gutnick brother, Rabbi Avraham Gutnick. The two older sisters of the Gutnick brothers each married rabbis.
Levi, is not the only member of his family to make history. His great-grandfather, Nathaniel Levi, who was born in Liverpool, England, in 1830, arrived in Australia in 1854, and was subsequently the first Jew to be elected to the Victorian state parliament. He was very active in the Jewish community, and twice served as president of the Melbourne Hebrew Congregation, which was Orthodox.
Reform or Progressive Judaism did not really take hold in Australia till after the Second World War. Among the descendants of Jews who arrived in Australia with the First Fleet, most were assimilated, but were ready to accept Judaism light. Nowadays, it is no longer light, but quite in depth, thanks to John Levi, and also boasts a Zionist youth movement – Netzer.
■ WHY WOULD the students at Jerusalem’s Ma’aleh School of Television, Film and Arts invite students at the Hebrew University-Hadassah Medical School to watch their Zoom program on February 7? The answer is simple. The guest in the Ma’aleh series of “Meet the Masters” will be David Shore, the screenwriter of the popular television series House, which is set in a hospital, and which for its episode titled “Three Stories” won an Emmy Award for Outstanding Writing. In this particular episode, which will be screened during the Zoom program, Dr. House gives a lecture to medical students.
The screening will precede a conversation between Shore and American-born writer and director Omri Levy, who is Ma’aleh’s academic director. Incidentally, Shore has two brothers living in Israel, who will undoubtedly be watching the program as well.