Social media posts by Australian Jews living in Israel and those down under were fast – almost to the point of being frenzied with joy – in posting the news that after six years, alleged pedophile former school principal Malka Leifer has been diagnosed as being psychologically fit to stand trial. The question remains whether there will be any further delay in her extradition.
Manny Waks, Australia’s best-known advocate for outing and convicting people who engage in the sexual abuse of children, was in court in Jerusalem on Tuesday to hear the verdict. Cracking down on sex abuse of minors has become a priority in Australia, and thus, the Australian media was particularly interested in quickly publishing the ruling of the Jerusalem District Court.
From his own experience as a sexually abused child, Waks, one of 17 siblings, formed a global support organization for victims of sexual abuse within the Jewish community. He was abused as a student in an Orthodox boys’ school in Melbourne, Australia. Leifer was the principal of an Orthodox girls’ school also in Melbourne, whose former students, three sisters Dassy Erlich, Nicole Meyer and Elly Sapper, sought to bring Leifer to justice and led the campaign. They were supported by Waks, Australian jurists and police as well as Australian politicians.
The long delay was embarrassing and cast a shadow over the otherwise excellent relations between the two countries. Newly appointed Construction and Housing Minister Yaakov Litzman, has been reported as having played a role in trying to prevent Leifer’s extradition, and has been questioned by police. Erlich has declared that Litzman should be facing criminal charges.
■ IN OTHER Australian-related news, an Australian-headquartered international not-for-profit organization, Project Rozana, has responded to an urgent call from the Palestinian Authority with delivery via air freight, of much-needed life-support, invasive ventilators since COVID-19 continues to threaten the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The ventilators were delivered to Ramallah last Thursday.
Project Rozana will also fund critical and comprehensive online and on-site training for Palestinian intensive care unit-based medical teams by specialists working at Haifa’s Rambam Hospital. This initiative has been endorsed by the Palestinian Authority and the Government of Israel in coordination with the World Health Organization. The Australian Government played a key role in facilitating Project Rozana access to the needed ventilators.
Despite the best efforts of local health authorities, the capacity of the Palestinian health system to cope with potential increases in caseload remains severely impaired by longstanding challenges and critical shortages, particularly in the Gaza Strip. Currently, 322 adult ventilators are available for 4.9 million Palestinians.
Established in Australia in 2013, Project Rozana is dedicated to building understanding between Israelis and Palestinians through health. Founder and chairman Ron Finkel AM, who is also the President of Hadassah Australia, said that Project Rozana had been approached directly by Palestinian Minister Foreign Affairs, Dr. Riad Malki with an urgent request for hospital-grade life-support invasive ventilators. Malki had stated that 20 were needed immediately and another 30 as soon as possible after that to prepare for the anticipated surge in COVID-19 infections.
“The Palestinian Authority is competing with better-resourced communities worldwide that are less constrained in their access to funds,” said Finkel.
“Our core mission is to empower the Palestinian health system,” he said.
As president of Hadassah Australia, Finkel has initiated a program to enable more members of Israel’s Ethiopian community to study medicine in order to have more locally trained and qualified doctors and nurses in Israel, while simultaneously boosting the image of the Ethiopian community in mainstream Israeli society.
A venture capitalist who is a former president of the World Union of Jewish Students, Finkel lived in Israel for several years and managed the now-defunct TWA office in Jerusalem.
■ WHOEVER FOLLOWS Yair Netanyahu, the prime minister’s elder son on Twitter, will have seen the video film he made of the appalling conditions in the private quarters of the Prime Minister’s Residence: water leaks, mold, cracks in the walls, as well as crawling insects. Some people say that since the Netanyahus live there, they should pay for the necessary repairs and renovations, whereas the Netanyahus contend that since this is an official residence, anything to do with its upkeep should be paid for by the State.
However, nothing can be done until Shlomit Barnea Farago, the legal counsel in the Prime Minister’s Office gives the green light, and so far, that has not happened.
■ MORE THAN a dozen years ago, when he was leader of the opposition, and campaigning to once again become prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu visited the old Jerusalem Post building in Romema to speak to the editorial staff.
Somehow the subject of the prime minister’s residence crept into the conversation and Netanyahu, whose academic qualifications include a B.Sc. in architecture from MIT, said it was a horrible house and that he really didn’t want to live in it.
The first prime minister to live there was Yitzhak Rabin whose wife Lea absolutely refused to live in the then woefully neglected premises that now serves as the Levi Eshkol Museum, but which then served as the Prime Minister’s Residence for Israel’s heads of government from David Ben Gurion to Golda Meir.
Even in 1974, when the Rabins moved into the house on the corner of Smolenskin Street and Balfour Road, the building was already old.
Known as Beit Aghion, it had originally been built in the second half of the 1930s for a wealthy Jewish-Greek merchant Edward Aghion who lived in Alexandria, Egypt.
In 1952, it was purchased by the Israel government to serve as the residence of the Foreign Minister. A little over two decades later, it became the official residence of the prime minister.
In February 2004, while waiting at the Elysee Palace for then-president Moshe Katsav and then-president Jacques Chirac to complete their working meeting, Israeli journalists who accompanied Katsav on his state visit to France, there wasn’t much to do other than to examine the carpet which was faded, worn out and made even shoddier by a few holes. And this was in the public area. It may have been decidedly worse in the president’s private quarters. Presumably similar conditions exist in presidential or prime ministerial residences in some other countries, with the prime minister of Israel, regardless of political affiliation, likewise enduring the discomforts.
■ THERE’S SOMETHING contagious in the air other than the novel coronavirus. People who went to school, college, university together or who may have been in a particular youth movement, but haven’t seen each other or spoken to each other for fifty years and more, are suddenly rediscovering each other – and not necessarily through class reunions. ZOOM is doing the trick and bringing together people from disparate parts of the world to one place without anyone having to leave home. Whether isolation gets one to thinking about people one used to know, or whether it’s simply wanting to touch base with one’s past before moving to an eternal future, or whether memories are jogged by looking at old photographs or Rolodex files is immaterial. What counts is that people are reaching out to each other and are actually able to converse. Case in point is Jerusalem-based former radio journalist Idele Ross, originally from Detroit, who last week got together with seven other former friends from Michigan State University.
Fred Freeman who initiated the ZOOM reunion, in 1970, together with three other guys rented an apartment where they lived during their senior year at MSU.
They were very good friends with four girls down the hall. In 1971, they all went their separate ways and had not seen each other since.
Coming together via ZOOM last week, the group included people from Orange County, California; Phoenix, Arizona; Denver, Colorado; Chicago, Illinois; Oakland County, Michigan; and Jerusalem.
After organizing the event, Freeman was a little apprehensive that after all this time, they might have nothing to say to each other, but two hours later, they were still talking and had plenty left to say.
Subsequent Facebook posts by some of them and by others who know one or more of them indicated that it had been a positive and uplifting experience: usual for people who share pleasant memories. Starting the conversation may be awkward; keeping it up is easy and finishing it is difficult. But the reconnect doesn’t have to end there.
■ IRAQI JEWS and their descendants around the world will commemorate the 79th anniversary of the Farhud on June 1, one of the worst pogroms in Middle Eastern history. Jews lived continuously in Iraq for more than two thousand years, and were so well integrated that prior to the Farhud, 40% of Baghdad’s population was Jewish.
For the most part, Jews lived well, but their idyll was shattered during Shavuot, 1941, by a pro-Nazi rampage which robbed Iraqi Jews of their security, sense of safety and stability. For them, this was a traumatic turnaround which triggered a mass Jewish exodus.
Joe Samuels, a survivor of the Farhud, who lives in America will share his story on Monday June 1, at 9 p.m.
Israel time on a webinar cohosted by JIMENA (Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa) and Harif, the Association of Jews from the Middle East and North Africa. Full details are available on the websites of both organizations.
Samuels, who was born in the Jewish Quarter of Baghdad’s old city, was 11 years old when he experienced the Farhud riots. He will share memories as well as insights from his new book By the Rivers of Babylon. Also participating in the Webinar will be Lily Shor, External Relations Director of Israel’s Babylonian Jewish Heritage Center in Or Yehuda. The moderator of the event will be Natalie Farahan, a founding member of JIMENA’s Los Angles Chapter, and of Iraqi descent.