Grapevine March 3, 2021: It did not rain on his parade

Movers and shakers in Israeli society.

AMBASSADOR AKIVA TOR, with two US Army officers, reading the megillah. (photo credit: Courtesy)
AMBASSADOR AKIVA TOR, with two US Army officers, reading the megillah.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
 Inclement weather when he arrived at the King David Jerusalem Hotel, where he was greeted by general manager Tamir Kobrin, did not affect the warmth of the greeting that United Arab Emirates Ambassador Mohamed Mahmoud Fateh Ali Al Khaja received at both the Foreign Ministry and the President’s Residence on Monday, after arriving in the country by private plane to present his credentials and to search for suitable premises for an embassy and for an ambassadorial residence.
Khaja leapfrogged over other ambassadors-designate who had arrived in the country before him. The general rule is that with the exception of nonresident ambassadors whose arrival is anyway arranged well in advance, ambassadors present their credentials in accordance with the chronological order of their arrival in the country.
The usual presentation ceremony, though open to the press, is closed to the public, and over the past year has also been closed to the press in accordance with Health Ministry instructions.
But this time, the ceremony was broadcast live on President Reuven Rivlin’s YouTube channel, though at its peak it was watched by only 84 people.
Traditionally, the president welcomes the ambassador and they have a chat that may last for 15-30 minutes, but neither the president nor the ambassador then delivers statements to the press. That honor is reserved for foreign heads of state who are on official visits.
In this case, however, both Rivlin and Khaja made statements to the press, which were subsequently disseminated through the Government Press Office.
National anthems are par for the course for IDF and police bands, but the IDF band added to its repertoire on Monday by playing the anthem of the UAE as the ambassador, arriving from the King David hotel, entered the presidential compound.
For Oded Nahari, the IDF chief of protocol and ceremonies who has commanded scores of military honor guards in Israel and abroad, this was a particularly significant occasion, and he made doubly sure that the soldiers were all properly attired and synchronized.
It was also the first time that the flag of the United Arab Emirates was hoisted on the presidential flagpole, although not the first time that it was displayed in the lobby of the King David, where delegations from the UAE have stayed in recent months.
Notwithstanding the threat of rain, which happily held off, Khaja was given the full red-carpet treatment at the President’s Residence. Saluted by Nahari, he was led along the path to the military honor guard, to which he bowed before proceeding to the main hall. As he stood in the doorway, waiting to enter, an aide presented him with a ruby red box with a gold crest containing his letter of credence.
This, like other aspects of the event, was a departure from the norm, because letters of credence usually come in large cream-colored envelopes.
Rivlin was much more effusive than usual in greeting the ambassador. There was no doubt that it was an emotional occasion for Rivlin, who, after making his opening remarks in Arabic, said how much his late father, Prof. Yosef Yoel Rivlin, who translated the Koran, loved the Arabic language, and how he and his Christian and Muslim Arab friends loved to study together.
Rivlin also repeated the mantra that has characterized his presidency from day one, that Jews and Arabs are not doomed to share the same territory, but are destined to do so.
Meanwhile, in New York on Monday, Former US secretary of state Mike Pompeo, who was the recipient of the inaugural Global Leadership Award by the Combat Antisemitism Movement at its initial annual summit, said that the Abraham Accords between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco represented a paradigm shift in Middle East policy.
“For decades and decades,” he continued, there was a central understanding. If you cannot resolve, once and for all and in its totality, the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, you can’t advance peace, you can’t advance stability.... That was just all wrong.”
Pompeo characterized the Abraham Accords as a “historic understanding that will change the face of the globe for decades and decades to come.”
Asked whether additional countries will join the process, he replied: “I don’t think there will be just one; I think there will be many more. I hope that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia can find its way to join the Abraham Accords. I know that many inside that country want that to take place. But there are other nations, too, that can join... Muslim nations, not just in the Middle East but places like Indonesia as well.”
■ THE PRESENT era will be remembered not only for the devastation and the horrendous death toll caused by the pandemic, but also for a return to roots – religious, cultural, national and even political.
In the Jewish world, young people are suddenly eager to learn Yiddish, Ladino and Judeo-Arabic, as spoken by grandparents and great-grandparents.
Jews and non-Jews who are descended from the Jews of Spain and Portugal who were expelled in the 15th and 16th centuries, and who can prove the relationship, can obtain Spanish and Portuguese citizenship, and there have been thousands of applications for each.
After trying all the new culinary trends, many people during lockdown went back in time to revive the recipes on which they grew up in their mothers’ and grandmothers’ kitchens. The list goes on.
Columbia School of Journalism alumnus Raphael Ahren, who grew up in Europe and lives in Jerusalem, started his Israeli career in journalism at Haaretz, then moved to the Times of Israel, where he was the diplomatic correspondent for 10 years. In December he announced that he would leave to take on a new role as press and information officer for the European Union Delegation to Israel.
When taking his leave from the TOI, he said that as someone who grew up in Europe and today lives in Jerusalem, he places great importance on EU-Israel relations and looks forward to helping, via his new capacity, to strengthen them.
During the decade that he spent with TOI, Ahren covered several elections, wars and peace deals and traveled the world from Bogota to Manama, and from DC to Baku. Much as he loved his former job, and was aware that there were many more adventures and travels ahead if he stayed, he felt the time had come to move on – or possibly to move back to his cultural comfort zone.
■ ISRAELIS LIVING in Australia or anywhere else in the world other than Israel do not have voting rights in the March 23 elections unless they are overseas in service to the state, but many of the down under Israelis will be at Optus Stadium in Perth, Western Australia, or glued to a social media platform for the annual United Israel Appeal gala launch featuring former Australian prime minister John Howard, who has been to Israel on several occasions, and is one of the best friends that Israel or the Australian Jewish community ever had.
A member of parliament for 33 years, he is the second-longest-serving prime minister of the island continent, holding office from March 1996 to November 2007. He has been widely recognized as one of the world leaders most supportive of Israel in the last 30 years. In April 2000 he was awarded an honorary doctorate by Bar-Ilan University.
■ WHILE THERE has been an undeniable breakthrough in social interaction between Israeli Jews, Israeli Arabs and Palestinians living in areas controlled by Israel, the only real contact that the overwhelming majority of Israeli Jews have with Israeli and Palestinian Arabs is in hospitals, where Arab doctors and nurses appear to be increasingly visible; on building sites; in certain shopping areas; in factory plants and on public transport. But they seldom, if ever, go to each other’s homes or socialize in the same circles.
But, as is usually the case in most countries, the minority knows much more about the customs and traditions of the majority, than the majority knows of the minority. For instance, many Diaspora Jews can sing all the lyrics of Christmas carols.
In a bid to make the Israel’s majority more aware of the minority, Breaking the Silence, together with B’Tselem and Haaretz, is hosting an online conference at 4 p.m. on Wednesday, March 3, on the Haaretz website and Facebook page with Arab and Jewish participation. The Jews range all the way from ultra-left to right to haredi (ultra-Orthodox) and include politicians Merav Michaeli and Nitzan Horowitz, whose parties have Arab as well as Jewish members.
Also among the Jewish political figures participating are Oded Revivi, who heads the Efrat Council, and Barak Cohen, the chairman of the Democratic Party. The haredi is journalist Israel Frey, who works for Democrat TV. Among the other Jews is Efrat Yardai, who chairs the Association of Ethiopian Jews.
Arab politicians who are participating are Joint List MKs Ayman Odeh and Aida Touma-Sliman along with lawyer Dr. Hassan Jabareen, the CEO of Adalah, the Arab civil rights organization, and Jamil Qasas, the Palestinian coordinator of Combatants for Peace.
Conference participants will probe whether there really is democracy in Israel. Too often, Jews and Arabs think of each other in negative terms. Jews tend to be suspicious of Arabs and are inclined to believe that every Arab is a potential terrorist. Arabs who come from families that lived here long before the creation of the State of Israel see Jews as occupiers who sequestered their lands. If each side could get past its negative perspectives and look for the positive in the other, there might be a chance to finally resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But first there has to be an understanding of the other and an end to discriminatory practices.
Whether one agrees or not, listening to the speakers, will be a worthwhile learning experience.
■ THE TEL Aviv International Salon, which tries to give English-speaking young professionals the tools with which to decide for which party to cast their votes on Election Day, invites representatives of all parties for either online or in-person events.
On Wednesday, March 3, at 8 p.m., the speaker will be Naftali Bennett, head of the Yamina Party, and coming up next week, on Tuesday, March 9, is Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who heads the Likud Party.
■ AFTER A very long hiatus in which most culture, leisure and sporting facilities were out of bounds to the general public, fitness freaks were finally permitted to work out and get back in shape at their favorite gyms and fitness clubs.
Keren Shtevy, the CEO of the Holmes Place network of fitness clubs, visited the set at Holmes Place in Givat Shmuel for the photo shoot for an advertising campaign based on the popular song “There are no more clubs” by up-and-coming singer Eden Hason.
In the commercial, the lyrics get a new twist, and the public is informed that clubs are open again and that they are invited to come to their nearest Holmes Place and follow Hason’s example. Hason is currently considered to be one of the most promising young singers in Israel.
■ NEVER HAS the need to separate religion from state been more obvious than in the current controversy over the Israeli citizenship rights of Conservative and Reform converts to Judaism.
People who have lived in Israel long enough, will remember the quickie conversions of basketball players selected for Israeli national teams. In most cases, they did not adhere to Jewish religious laws, nor did they have any intention of doing so, and in hindsight, one wonders if they even underwent circumcision. What makes them better Jews than Conservative and Reform converts who genuinely embrace their Jewish identities, go regularly to synagogue services, adhere to the dietary laws and, to a large extent, observe the Sabbath?
Arye Deri, Ya’acov Litzman and Moshe Gafni are threatening to withdraw from their agreement with Netanyahu unless the court ruling on converts is abrogated. Do they realize how many lives have been ruined and how much pain has been caused over refusal to accept that Judaism is a pluralistic faith?
■ ALL FAITHS in which religious teachings condemn homosexuality as an abomination have the dilemma of deciding how to treat members of the LGBT community. After all, in terms of religious practice, everyone to some extent does their own thing, deciding on which issues to be stringent, and on which to be lax. Believe it or not, there are also ultra-Orthodox people who are gay. Some keep it a lifelong secret. Others prefer to be honest, hoping to find a partner who is equally honest. But nonetheless, it still poses a problem in synagogues and churches.
On Wednesday, the Christian publication Israel Today is hosting Rabbi Aviad Friedman, an Orthodox rabbi, who together with his wife, Hanna, founded Yachad (Together), a liberal Orthodox community in Tel Aviv that welcomes all of God’s children, including members of the LGBT community.
Friedman, who is also a businessman, has a very impressive and varied curriculum vitae. He served as a personal adviser to prime minister Ariel Sharon. He is formerly the director-general of the Diaspora Affairs Ministry and served as senior adviser in the Foreign and Immigrant Absorption ministries.
As a businessman, he invests in technological start-ups and takes on executive positions in those companies. He has also been involved in media and was deputy CEO of Maariv. In the talk that he will give to Israel Today members, he will talk about his relationship with Israel’s LGBT community.
■ THE NAME of Haifa-born Ben-Gurion University alumnus Tal Zaks should be more familiar to Israelis than it actually is. Zaks is the chief medical officer of Moderna, which at around the same time as Pfizer developed an anti-Covid vaccine. After six years as CMO, Zaks recently announced that he will be leaving Moderna in September to embark on the next chapter in his career, though he did not spell out what that may be.
Meanwhile, he is expected to return briefly to Israel in May for the annual meeting of Bar-Ilan University’s board of trustees, during which he will be conferred with an honorary doctorate on Sunday, May, 30.
■ IMPORTANT ANNIVERSARIES take place every year, but with changing times, norms and values, there is a tendency to overlook some of them.
On February 25, scholars of the history of the Soviet Union marked the 65th anniversary of the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in Moscow, at which Nikita Khrushchev, in a closed late-night session, had denounced some of Stalin’s crimes in the course of a four-hour speech.
Just as the gist of closed meetings of the Israeli government leak out to the press and the public, there was a similar leak in Soviet Russia. Once the word was out, foreign media and intelligence services were eager to obtain the written text of Khrushchev’s speech, which had been prepared in numbered copies labeled “Top Secret” and distributed to party leaders, as well as to those in Soviet bloc countries.
Polish-born journalist Viktor Spielman, who changed his identifiably Jewish surname to Grayevsky in order to avoid persecution and discrimination, became the hero of the story of Khrushchev’s speech.
In April 1956, Grayevsky visited a girlfriend at the Warsaw headquarters of the Polish branch of the Central Committee of the Communist Party. He noticed a thick red folder on her desk, flicked through it, and saw that it was the much-sought-after text of Khrushchev’s speech. He persuaded his girlfriend to let him borrow it, and she agreed to let him take it away for an hour or two. He took it home to read it properly and, as a devoted party member, was shocked by its contents.
On the way back to his girlfriend’s office, he stopped at the Israel Embassy to share the information with his friend Yaakov Barmor, who worked for the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency). Barmor read the speech, after which Grayevsky returned it to his girlfriend, thankful that neither of them had been caught.
After Grayevsky left his office, Barmor immediately headed for the airport and flew to Vienna to deliver the text, which he had copied, to Amos Manor, the head of the Shin Bet, who subsequently showed it to David Ben-Gurion. It was then sent to the CIA, which, after authenticating it, gave it to The New York Times for publication.
Grayevsky, though a loyal Communist, was also a Zionist. His parents and sister had migrated to Israel, and he visited them there in the early 1950s.
After the publication of the Khrushchev speech, Grayevsky decided to migrate to Israel, learned to speak Hebrew fluently and worked for both the Foreign Ministry and Israel Radio, where he was head of the foreign language department.
It did not take the Soviets long to discover that a Communist was working in two places where he had access to sensitive information. They set out to recruit him. Grayevsky was hesitant at first, but when he informed the Shin Bet that he had been plied with vodka by a Soviet spy recruiter, the Shin Bet told him to go ahead. When Grayevsky asked what information he could give the Soviets, he was told that the Shin Bet would supply what he needed and that some of this information would be so important to the Soviets that they would be grateful to receive it. And so began Viktor Grayevsky’s life as a double agent, a role that he filled for 14 years.
According to his biographer, Michael Bar-Zohar, who is also Ben-Gurion’s official biographer, Grayevsky, who died in October 2007 at the age of 82, was probably the only double agent in the world who received awards from both sides in recognition of the value of his work.
■ REGULAR READERS of this column know that an effort is being made to compile lists of Knesset members and heads of Israeli diplomatic missions abroad who were born in English-speaking countries, or are the offspring of parents from English-speaking countries. The latest addition to the list is Akiva Tor, originally from Cleveland, Ohio, who recently took up his post as Israel’s ambassador to the Republic of Korea.
Tor, a graduate of the Harvard University Kennedy School of Government, who for several years headed the Foreign Ministry’s Bureau for World Jewish Affairs and World Religions, posted on his Twitter and Facebook accounts how pleased he was on Purim to be reading the megillah with the Jewish US military personnel at Camp Humphreys, a US Army garrison in South Korea.
The Jewish community came out in force, he wrote, the 8th Army Band played “Hatikvah” and “Jerusalem of Gold,” the Christian chaplains all showed up in support of the Jewish community’s Purim celebrations, and IDF attaché to Korea Col. Yariv Ben Ezra and US Army Chaplain Daniel Kamzan helped with the megillah reading and the booing of Haman.