Grapevine June 11, 2021: Global focus on antisemitism

Movers and shakers in Israeli society.

PRESIDENT REUVEN RIVLIN is received by a Romanian honor guard. (photo credit: MARK NEYMAN/GPO)
PRESIDENT REUVEN RIVLIN is received by a Romanian honor guard.
(photo credit: MARK NEYMAN/GPO)
Sweden’s Prime Minister Stefan Löfven has invited heads of state and government, researchers, experts and civil society representatives from some 50 countries to participate in the Malmö International Forum on Holocaust Remembrance and Combating Antisemitism, Remember ReAct. The forum is scheduled for October, 13-14, 2021. Its purpose is to jointly formulate and take concrete steps toward advancing Holocaust remembrance in efforts to fight antisemitism.
The forum was mentioned on Wednesday by both Swedish Ambassador Erik Ullenhag and Israel’s outgoing Environmental Protection Minister Gila Gamliel, at Sweden’s National Day reception hosted by Ullenhag and his wife, Maria.
In his address to the huge gathering on the lawn of the Swedish ambassadorial residence, Ullenhag started off in a humorous vein, noting for instance, when listing Swedish enterprises in Israel, that the IKEA store in Netanya is more crowded than the one in Stockholm.
Referring to the European Union, he said, “After centuries of war, instead of sending soldiers to battle, we send bureaucrats to boring meetings.” He would rather have a boring meeting than a war, he added.
Alluding to the sometimes problematic relationship between Sweden and Israel, Ullenhag, in recalling that Sweden had voted for the partition of Palestine at the UN General Assembly in November 1947, said, “Friends sometimes challenge each other.” He emphasized that Sweden and the European Union are pushing for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and are trying to bring about a sustainable peace
Just as Sweden stands up for Palestinian rights, he said, Sweden will always stand up for Israeli rights. (In October, 2014, Sweden became the first major EU member state to recognize a future state of Palestine. Cyprus and Malta had done so in 1988, but that was before they became members of the EU).
As for the Malmö Forum, at which the name of Swedish wartime diplomat Raoul Wallenberg who was stationed in Budapest is likely to be mentioned several times, Ullenhag regretted that for many years Sweden had not done enough to find out what happened to Wallenberg, who was last seen in January 1945 as he was taken away by soldiers of the Red Army. Ullenhag conceded that Israel had taken on that task much before Sweden. 
Wallenberg provided 650 protective passports for Jews who had some connection with Sweden, as well as safe houses, food and clothing for other Jews. In recent years, he has been acknowledged by Sweden as one of its great heroes, just as the once disgraced and disowned Chiune Sugihara, the Japanese vice consul in Lithuania who helped thousands of Jews flee from the Nazi tyranny, has posthumously been recognized as a hero by Japan.
In speaking of the Holocaust, Ullenhag said he could not imagine how ordinary men and women could engage in the atrocities perpetrated by the Nazis.
Gamliel praised Sweden for its initiative in implementing the forum, which was initially scheduled for last year, but postponed because of the pandemic. She also lauded Sweden for adopting the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of antisemitism, underscoring the importance of the IHRA definition.
Gamliel mentioned several areas of cooperation between Israel and Sweden, especially in the fields of innovation and technological development in which she said the two countries have a great deal in common. But there is potential for much more, she said, listing inter alia security, environment and medicine.
Another area in which Sweden and Israel are on the same page is climate change, which was noted by both Ullenhag and Gamliel.
■ THERE WAS also a sharp focus on rising antisemitism during President Reuven Rivlin’s state visit to Romania this week. He discussed it with his host Romanian President Klaus Iohannis, with Prime Minister Florin Citu, at the joint meeting of the Romanian Senate and Chamber of Deputies, and at his meeting with leaders of the Jewish community. He also laid a wreath at the Holocaust Memorial for Romanian Jews murdered in the Holocaust.
In 2005, the Romanian authorities undertook to build the monument at the recommendation of the International Commission on the Holocaust in Romania headed by Nobel Prize-laureate, Auschwitz survivor and best-selling author, Romanian-born Eli Wiesel.
The commission urged Romania to acknowledge responsibility for the murder on its territory of hundreds of thousands of Jews, Roma and Sinti.
■ WHEN ADDRESSING the joint houses of the Romanian Parliament on Wednesday, Rivlin began his remarks with the testimony of Romanian-born Holocaust survivor Aharon Appelfeld who had told of how his mother was murdered in the street and how he and his father were sent to the Czernowitz ghetto and from there to a labor camp. He spent the war alone in the woods and came to Israel at the age of 14, where he became one of the most important contemporary Hebrew authors. 
“Aharon Appelfeld is one of very many Romanian-Israelis, including poets, authors, rabbis, scientists, philosophers, religious leaders and statespeople,” said Rivlin. “But I chose to tell Appelfeld’s story because I felt it tells you something about us, about me, about the Jewish people. The Jewish people has a past that is not abstract. It is engraved in our flesh and we carry it with us wherever we go. We bear it on our bodies. We have good memories, and we have bad memories. We do not forget that the Baal Shem Tov (Rabbi Yisroel Ben Eliezer) and his hassidic movement were born here. Who can forget? And we do not forget the terrible times, when centuries-old Jewish life was cut short in a place it called home. Who can forget? Yet, we are not stuck in the past. We choose the present and the future. We choose life.”
What he neglected to say was that Yiddish Theater was also born in Romania, and that one of its veteran performers, Yaacov Bodo, is 90 years old and still going strong on the Israeli stage. Leah Koenig, the queen of the Israeli stage, is 91, and also still performing both in Hebrew and Yiddish. Though born in Lodz, Poland, she grew up in Bucharest and is a graduate of its National University of Arts. There is also a dispute about the origins of the Baal Shem Tov (“Master of the Good Name”). It was long believed that he was born in Poland, but recent research indicates he was born in Bukovina.
■ RIVLIN WAS accompanied to Romania by a top-notch business delegation. Diplomatic and business issues aside, the visit to Romania this week by President Rivlin also had a very personal aspect to it. Rivlin’s former senior adviser on foreign affairs, David Saranga, is Israel’s ambassador to Romania. The two had a very warm relationship during the period that Saranga was on loan to the president from the Foreign Ministry.
This is Saranga’s second posting to Romania. During a previous stint, he served as deputy chief of mission. He was delighted to be able to greet Rivlin when the president landed in Bucharest, and to escort him to his various meetings and events. The honor guard that welcomed Rivlin was much more impressive than those that greet official visitors to Israel. In most parts of Europe, honor guards wear eye-catching uniforms that look almost like period costumes. In Israel, the honor guard wears the regular army or navy uniform.
■ ACCORDING TO Readers’ Digest, laughter is the best medicine, so we’re indebted to Jerusalem-based reader Steven Sattler for drawing attention to the fact that someone who has given Jews a lot of laughs over the years this week celebrated his 90th birthday. This is Sattler’s verbatim reminder that Jackie Mason is still around:
“Jackie Mason, Born Yacov Moshe Maza; June 9, 1931.
Jackie Mason was raised on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, surrounded by rabbis.
His three brothers are rabbis. His father was a rabbi, and so were his grandfather, his great-grandfather and his great-great grandfather, and he was all set to follow in their footsteps, being ordained at the age of 25.
Three years later, he quit his synagogue to become a comedian because, as he says, ‘Someone in the family had to make a living.’
We won’t give him the traditional Jewish wish of till 120, because by the time he gets to that, it will be considered middle-aged.
Jewish longevity is improving all the time, and the day may come sooner than we realize when the average age will be equivalent to that of our biblical ancestors.”
■ THERE’S A changing of the guard at Jerusalem’s iconic King David Hotel. Jeremy Sheldon, who has previously worked at the Carlton Hotel in Tel Aviv as well as at the King David, has taken over from the affable Sheldon Ritz, who after approximately quarter of a century at the King David has moved on to new challenges elsewhere. There’s a lot of confusion in that one of the two has Sheldon as a first name and the other has Sheldon as a surname. But since it has become increasingly fashionable in Israel to address people by their first names, people will in all likelihood get used to Jeremy.