Grapevine May 5, 2021: Briefly united in sorrow

Movers and shakers in Israeli society.

PRESIDENT REUVEN RIVLIN lights memorial candles for Mount Meron victims on Friday. (photo credit: MARK NEYMAN/GPO)
PRESIDENT REUVEN RIVLIN lights memorial candles for Mount Meron victims on Friday.
(photo credit: MARK NEYMAN/GPO)
 Unfortunately, it takes a national tragedy to obliterate the differences between people. It is almost ironic that the government of the Zionist state declared a national day of mourning for victims of the Mount Meron tragedy, at least half of whom were from anti-Zionist families and movements, some rabidly so, and would not have appreciated the gesture.
But that aspect was ignored not only by fellow Jews, but by Galilee Muslims, Christians and Druze who opened their homes and community centers, offering rest and refreshments to families of the victims who might want to stop on their way to hospitals, the Institute of Forensic Medicine at Abu Kabir, and funerals.
Joint List chairman Ayman Odeh called on the nation to donate blood, and among more than 2,000 people who heeded his call was Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who last Friday went from Mount Meron to Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem to donate blood. For at least two weeks prior to the disaster, Magen David Adom had been running a blood donor campaign, but it took a catastrophe to elicit a mass response.
■ ISRAELI MEDIA carried dozens of moving photographs of what had happened, before, during and after the tragedy. One such photograph, which was perhaps most illustrative of the devastation, was on the front page of Haaretz on Sunday, and showed a lone haredi boy standing on the staircase where so many lives had been trampled to death. Personal objects which had not yet been swept up were strewn as the remaining evidence of the catastrophe that had taken place.
On Friday morning, President Reuven Rivlin lit 45 memorial candles, and individual candles were lit by people of every stripe, religious and nonreligious, in their homes, in synagogues, in public buildings, in the street, and on Mount Meron.
Veteran ZAKA volunteers said it was the worst tragedy since the Mount Carmel Forest Fire in 2010, which claimed 44 lives. There, too, a national calamity had cast animosities aside, and the international teams of firefighters included volunteers from the Palestinian Authority, who later, despite certain misgivings on their part, joined other firefighters at a reception cohosted by president Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Netanyahu, who wanted to express their thanks.
In response to the more recent disaster, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas was among world leaders who sent condolence messages to either Rivlin, Netanyahu or Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi. Messages also came from countries highly critical of Israel, as well as from countries that do not have diplomatic relations with Israel.
It wasn’t the number of casualties alone that influenced such an outpouring, but also the fact that the overwhelming majority of the dead where young people under the age of 30, including several minors and two sets of brothers from Jerusalem. There was also the realization that so many children were left fatherless, and that so many young women had become widows without any sense of closure.
It was even worse for the parents of young yeshiva students from abroad, who could not participate in the funerals of their sons, because they could not get to Israel in time. In haredi circles, the deceased must be buried as quickly as possible, and there was no way for parents or other family members to get to Israel in time, because so many of the funerals were held on Friday before the onset of the Sabbath. Had it been an ordinary weekday, the funerals could have been delayed by a few hours.
Two foreign casualties whose identities were known could not be buried on Friday or on Saturday night because the law demands that the deceased be identified by a first-degree relative. The families of the deceased could not be contacted, because it was still Shabbat in America.
■ IN HAREDI families, there is no physical contact between husband and wife in public, other than sitting next to each other in a car, a bus or a train. But at Jerusalem’s Shamgar funeral parlor on Friday, a blond-wigged woman rested her head on her husband’s shoulder and wept, and he put his arm around her in a tight embrace.
Israelis, regardless of their religious affiliations, are remarkable when it comes to accompanying the dead on their final journey. When a call went out on Friday for people to attend the funeral of Montreal hassidic singer Shraga Gestetner, who had specially come to Israel for Lag Ba’omer and had no immediate family in the country, at least 200 people responded. The same has happened in the past with lone soldiers killed in the line of duty. Even when parents and siblings flew in from abroad for the funeral, hundreds of strangers turned up.
■ WHAT WAS very obvious in radio and television reports and debates on the tragedy was how little so many of Israel’s secular reporters understand about haredi attitudes. While many religiously observant people likened the tragedy to that of the destruction of the First and Second Temples, and attributed it to the baseless hatred that has permeated the nation over the past two years, secularists focused more on who was to blame, and angrily raised their voices.
It seemed that Suleiman Maswadeh, the Arab reporter who covers Jerusalem affairs for KAN 11 and Reshet Bet, had a greater understanding of haredi attitudes than did his secular Jewish colleagues, and there was certainly more respect for the dead in the manner in which he reported the funerals and interviewed mourners.
However, he did not quite do his homework, because he reported that, due to the pandemic, there was no Lag Ba’omer festival in Meron last year. That’s not quite true. Several hundred haredim did sneak in, including MK Yisrael Eichler, a father of 14, who should have been an example both to his family and community, but used his Knesset immunity.
Relating to what happened this year, Eichler’s journalist brother Yaakov Eichler said that there was no way to prevent the public from ascending Mount Meron, because it was possible to enter on all sides.
Because there were so many people on the mountain, not everyone was aware of the fatal stampede, and many people kept singing and dancing, while frantic efforts were made by ZAKA, United Hatzalah, Magen David Adom and police to extricate victims and children in the crowd.
Shiezoli, a haredi communications company which specializes in recording mega events, and produces videos and clips of happenings in Israel’s religious entertainment industry, ran a 24-hour live relay of what was happening in Meron, which was still going strong with singing and dancing on Friday morning, even after it was generally known that the unspeakable had occurred. Even worse was the number of people who continued to make their way to Mount Meron on Friday, Sunday and Monday. 
■ DESPITE THE tragedy at Mount Meron, the traditional Holy Fire ceremony of the Eastern Orthodox churches was held at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem’s Old City on the following Saturday.
Last year’s ceremony took place in a very limited format in which the Foreign Ministry, the police, the Airports Authority, the National Security Council and several embassies carried out a complex operation in which senior diplomats, mostly ambassadors from Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Russia, Greece, Cyprus, Georgia, Belarus, Moldavia, Romania and Poland, received the fire in sealed containers and rushed in their cars to waiting planes at Ben-Gurion Airport to transport the fire to their respective countries.
This year, as last year, the service was led by Theophilos III, the Greek Orthodox patriarch of Jerusalem, but this time there were hundreds of worshipers present, few with masks, and most waving burning candles in a very confined space. Religion is important, no matter what denomination, but life is more important.
■ AT MIDNIGHT on Tuesday of this week, as was endlessly broadcast and published, Netanyahu’s mandate to form a government was set to end, in advance of which political pundits presented scenarios of what Rivlin might do in terms of extending the period in which Netanyahu could form a government; giving the mandate to Yair Lapid, Naftali Bennett, Gideon Sa’ar or possibly some other legislator; renewing consultations with political party delegations; or returning the mandate to the Knesset.
Rivlin did not sit around biting his nails and waiting for midnight on Tuesday. For whatever reason, this was the day on which, for the last time as president, he hosted an iftar dinner for leaders and public figures of Israel’s Arab communities.
■ BETTER LATE than never. Exactly a century after he saved a hundred Jews from almost certain death in the Jaffa riots of May 1-7, 1921, the heroism of British officer Maj. Lionel Jeune was honored in perpetuity with the unveiling of a memorial plaque in Jaffa Port, which will serve as a visual reminder of his valor.
The unveiling ceremony was attended by British Ambassador Neil Wigan, British defense attaché Jim Priest, Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai, Jewish Agency Chairman Isaac Herzog and former chief of the Israel Air Force Dan Tolkowsky.
Given the date, it was impossible to ignore the Meron tragedy, while simultaneously recalling the Jaffa riots, which also had several tragic results. “We’re here not just to remember the tragedy, but also to remember that something good happened that day, how the actions of one man in the middle of a tragedy can save the lives of many,” said Wigan.
■ THE HORRORS of Meron also intruded on the Polish national day festivities celebrating the anniversary of the Polish Constitution of May 3, 1791, which was the first constitution in Europe, and the second in the world after the US. May 2 is Polish National Flag Day, which was different this year at the Polish Embassy in Tel Aviv where, in solidarity with Israel, flags were lowered to half-mast. At the Udim residence of Polish Ambassador Marek Magierowski, guests were asked to stand for a minute’s silence in respect for the Meron victims, and the ambassador wished a speedy recovery to the injured.
Although there have been several diplomatic events over the past year, all were low-key with an extremely limited number of in-person participants. Most were Zoom events. The trilingual Polish reception was definitely a sign that things are getting back to normal, with hundreds of guests, including a large representation of the diplomatic community, mingling on the sprawling lawns.
Joining the Magierowskis in hosting the event were Polish defense attaché Col. Andrzej Stanek, acting director of the Polish Institute in Tel Aviv Katarzyna Dzierzawska and Piotr Kozlowski. Representing the government was Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz.
Among the many guests was Mordechai Palzur, 92, who was Israel’s first ambassador to Poland following the 1990 renewal of diplomatic relations, which were severed after the Six Day War. Palzur was warmly embraced by Magierowski, who in his speech expressed condolences to the Israeli nation.
Noting that Poland’s independence had been short-lived after the acceptance of the Constitution of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, which provided for a modern, liberal and innovative system, Magierowski said that today it would be defined as a start-up constitution. Unfortunately, it was lost in the wind of merciless history, he said. But it gave birth to the dream and vision of a free, strong and independent state, which Poland is now, on the map of Europe as a member of both the European Union and NATO, and Poland is also an economic powerhouse.
There are no political borders between Poland and Lithuania today, he said, and both countries have come a long way in being free and strong, as have the Jews in the State of Israel.
He regrets that some nations in Europe are still fighting for freedom, and looks forward to the day when they would all become friends and allies in a European Commonwealth.
Noting the size of the gathering, Steinitz, alluding to Israel’s success in combating COVID, declared that Israel is the only country in the world in which a gathering of such proportions could take place. A year ago, he said, it would have been impossible. He voiced the hope that very soon future Polish events in other countries would have a similarly large attendance.
In a pointed reference to the Polish Constitution, Steinitz said that it was time for Israel to have a constitution. Empathizing with what had befallen Poland soon after the acceptance of the constitution, Steinitz said that he is glad to see that Poland is today a vibrant democracy which has good relations with Israel. At the same time, he observed Poland and Israel can do much more to cement their relationship.
Careful not to say anything that might be misconstrued in relation to the Holocaust, Steinitz said that before the Second World War, Poland had been home to the largest Jewish community in Europe, numbering 3.5 million Jews. Ninety percent of the Jews of Poland were murdered by the Nazis, he continued, but there are still small Jewish communities all over Poland.
Steinitz praised the efforts of the Polish Embassy to bring young people from both countries together to learn about each other and to understand each other’s history and culture. As for nations still fighting for their freedom, Steinitz underscored that in the Middle East there are also countries fighting for independence and democracy. Emulating what Magierowski had said about Europe, Steinitz said “we want a democratic Middle East.”
Another feature of the event, as is almost always the case at Polish national day receptions, was the recognition of people who have contributed to the enhancement of relations between Poland and Israel. There were two recipients of honors: Amnon Bar Natan, principal of Metro-West High School in Ra’anana, which this is year celebrating its 30th anniversary, and Alon Goldman, chairman of the Association of Czestochowa Jews in Israel.
Bar Natan has for the past decade promoted student exchanges between the two countries, and received a medal from Poland’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs; and Goldman was recognized by Polish President Andrzej Duda and presented with the Golden Cross award in recognition of his volunteer activities in building bridges between Israel and Poland.
Goldman was somewhat less cautious than Steinitz in his reference to Holocaust history, stating that Israel-Poland relations stand in the shadow of the Holocaust. While noting the heroic deeds of some Poles in saving Jews, Goldman said in the same breath that “history is written by historians, not politicians.” He stated that it was a duty to talk about what happened during the Holocaust so that it does not happen again – not to Jews or to any other people. Such conversations should be without filters or prejudice, he said.
Usually at such receptions, the national anthems of Israel and the country celebrating a national day are not performed live. But that would be unthinkable for a country whose native sons included Frederic Chopin and Arthur Rubinstein. The two anthems were played on a grand piano placed on a low stage in the rear garden of the residence.
■ IT’S VERY nice when one former ambassador to Israel promotes the work of a predecessor. A tweet by Dan Shapiro highlights Martin Indyk’s book about former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger, Master of the Game, which is subtitled “Henry Kissinger and the Art of Middle East Diplomacy.” Kissinger, who will celebrate his 98th birthday on May 27, is still regarded as the go-to political guru, not only on matters of Middle East politics but also China.
Indyk was twice US ambassador to Israel. The founding director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Indyk was previously a volunteer on kibbutz during the Yom Kippur War. His first stint as US ambassador to Israel was from April 1995 to September 1997. His second stint was somewhat shorter, from January 2000 to July 2001.
■ ISRAEL’S MOST famous spy, Eli Cohen, and its intelligence minister have the same name. Though one was actively engaged in collecting intelligence, and paid with his life for doing so, the other is more theoretically involved in the collection and analysis of intelligence material. The minister and Nadia Cohen, the wife of the famed spy, will discuss the Mossad mission of the late Eli Cohen at the Social Space at Atarim Square in Tel Aviv, on Tuesday, May 18, which coincides with the 56th anniversary of his public execution in Damascus.
The Cohen family has long sought to have his remains returned to Israel for proper Jewish burial. Even though the Russians have tried to help in this regard, efforts to date have been futile.
The event, hosted by the Tel Aviv International Salon, will be in English. Doors will open at 7:30 p.m.. Reservations must be made in advance at
■ ALTHOUGH HIS name has been suggested as a candidate to succeed Rivlin as president, it is doubtful that veteran singer, actor, television and radio host, author and former deputy mayor of Jerusalem Yehoram Gaon will be competing for the position of No. 1 citizen.
At the time that his name was proposed, Gaon was reported as saying that he would agree to be a candidate, only if he was assured of a win. Since there are no guarantees in blind ballots, Gaon has not been active in drumming up support. It would appear that he would much rather be entertainer No. 1, particularly in an era of nostalgia in which veteran entertainers in many parts of the world are being given center stage.
Not that Gaon, 81, has ever been out of the limelight, but he is now in the process of preparing a concert with another veteran singer, Esther Ofarim, who will celebrate her 80th birthday next month. Ofarim, who for many years has lived in Germany, will return to Israel temporarily for the festive concert series of their top hits over the years. The two will appear at the Charles Bronfman Auditorium in Tel Aviv in August, to revive what was the soundtrack of the nation in a more nationally united era.
■ FORMER YESH Atid strongman Ofer Shelah, who discovered that once he split from Yair Lapid, his popularity diminished, and that his quest for political leadership was nothing more than an empty dream, was welcomed back to the world of sport with open arms.
A sports journalist before throwing his cap into the political ring, Shelah has returned to the Sports Channel as a commentator, and will cover major NBA games as well as the Olympic Games in Tokyo. Shelah first joined the Sports Channel in the 1990s, but left eight years ago, to try his hand at politics, where he excelled while No. 2 but failed dismally in his attempt to be No. 1. However, he is recognized as a top-notch sports commentator, and that apparently is his true calling.
■ JUST AS people living in Israel were itching to go abroad, so people living in other countries were itching to come to Israel. Among them was James Snyder, the former longtime director of the Israel Museum, who currently lives in New York but retains an apartment in Israel’s capital, to which he comes in his current capacity as executive chairman of the Jerusalem Foundation. After a 14-month absence, not of his making, Snyder is back in Jerusalem, where he will remain till June 2. Aside from attending to Jerusalem Foundation business, he has many friends with whom he wants to catch up.