Grapevine November 11, 2020: November, a significant month

Movers and shakers in Israeli society.

PRESIDENT REUVEN RIVLIN, Culture and Sport Minister Chili Tropper (center) and British Ambassador Neil Wigan at an antiquities display. (photo credit: KOBI GIDEON/FLASH90)
PRESIDENT REUVEN RIVLIN, Culture and Sport Minister Chili Tropper (center) and British Ambassador Neil Wigan at an antiquities display.
(photo credit: KOBI GIDEON/FLASH90)
Aside from the American presidential elections, November is a significant month in Israel, beginning with the anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, followed soon after by the Gregorian calendar anniversary of the assassination of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, then that of Kach leader Meir Kahane, and memorial anniversaries for presidents Chaim Weizmann and Yitzhak Navon. Weizmann was also born in November, as were his immediate successors Yitzhak Ben-Zvi and Zalman Shazar, who were both born on November 24.
This week, Jews around the world, as well as many non-Jews, commemorated Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass, when Jewish places of worship and Jewish business enterprises in Germany and Austria were viciously attacked, in many cases destroyed. It was followed immediately on November 11 by the anniversary of Armistice Day, signifying the end of the First World War, in which Jewish soldiers fought on both sides. Some were awarded Germany’s Iron Cross for bravery, while others received Britain’s Victoria Cross for valor.
Israel’s Ethiopian community will on November 16 celebrate the Sigd, signifying the community’s attachment to Zion, while honoring the memories of those who died in the trek across the desert. For American expats in Israel, there’s also the commemoration of the assassination of president John F. Kennedy, which ironically is followed by Thanksgiving, and only a few days later, on November 29, all Israelis have reason to give thanks on the anniversary of the United Nations resolution on the partition of Palestine, which led six months later to the proclamation of the sovereign State of Israel.
■ MAJOR MEDIA outlets across America and several in other countries were quick to run a news item portraying Jared Kushner as a heartless landlord. Kushner, who was heavily involved in the White House response to coronavirus, and is therefore aware of the economic effect of the pandemic, is part owner of Westminster Management, an apartment company which has sent hundreds of eviction notices to tenants whose rent is overdue as a result of losing their sources of income during the pandemic. The eviction notices were sent during the election campaign of Kushner’s father-in-law, President Donald Trump, and may have contributed in part to his defeat.
While President-elect Joe Biden has been extremely gracious in victory, Trump has not been gracious in defeat. But Israel, in congratulating Biden, should not forget what it owes to Trump, and should make this point from time to time in the coming months.
In a sense, Trump was his own worst enemy. His loss in Arizona, which was traditionally a Republican stronghold, can be attributed to the mockery he made of the late senator John McCain, a Vietnam veteran and a former longtime prisoner of war. Trump was so cruel in his attitude to McCain that when the latter died, his family requested that Trump not attend the funeral, but did not object to the attendance of Ivanka Trump and Kushner. Former US presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama were there with their wives, which added emphasis to Trump’s absence.
It is to the credit of both President Reuven Rivlin and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that, after Biden’s victory became irrefutable, they did not neglect to thank Trump for his friendship to Israel, which had been so historically expressed, and which will have long-range effects.
■ ALTHOUGH IT was frequently stated in the campaign that Biden is a friend of Israel, there have been attempts by some people in the Trump camp to create the impression that Biden would not be good for Israel, though his record proves otherwise. In an interview with Shalom TV in April 2007, Biden said: “I am a Zionist. You don’t have to be a Jew to be a Zionist.”
He reiterated this in 2010, when laying a wreath at Herzl’s grave. Yitzhak Eldan, who was chief of state protocol at the time, recalls that a week later, Brazil’s president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who only six months earlier had hosted president Shimon Peres in Brasilia, had refused to visit Herzl’s grave, and instead laid a wreath on the grave of Yasser Arafat in Ramallah. In all fairness however, Lula said: “I dream of an independent and free Palestine living in peace in the Middle East. I believe the Palestinians and Israelis are going to share the land of their forefathers.”
During Biden’s visit, Eli Yishai, who was then interior minister, approved the construction of several thousand housing units across the Green Line without first informing Prime Minister Netanyahu, who had explicitly asked that there be no surprises while Biden was in Israel.
Although there was a certain hostility between president Obama and Netanyahu, Biden was on hand to soothe ruffled feathers, while making no secret of the fact that there were many issues on which he and Netanyahu did not see eye to eye. Speaking in Washington at Israel’s 67th Independence Day celebrations in 2015, Biden said: “Everybody knows I love Israel.”
■ THE REAL winner in the US presidential elections was Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, who is credited with having revived Hebrew as an everyday spoken language. Israeli radio and television anchors were frantically interviewing Hebrew-speakers about what was happening election-wise in the states and cities in which they lived, and while some of the interviewees were Israeli expats, there were a lot of people with distinctive American accents answering questions in Hebrew and giving their takes on the situation.
Anyone who listens to the midweek radio program The Israel Connection hosted by Elihu Ben-Onn would hardly be surprised. The call-in program, which Ben-Onn initiated in 1999, has callers from all over the world – not all of them Jewish. Their level of Hebrew ranges from faltering to totally fluent. The latter are often Israeli expats, some of whom have been living abroad for 40 and more years, but make a point of listening to Israeli radio and watching Israeli television programs. Modern technology gives them the best of both worlds.
■ A COMMON anomaly among many declared atheists is when they want something badly enough, they talk to the God in whom they do not believe and often make a pledge in the event that what they ask for becomes a reality.
That’s what happened with former Labor MK and current Israel Radio Reshet Bet broadcaster Shelly Yacimovich, who insists that she’s not a believer but nonetheless asked God not to permit Trump to win the election. Her pledge, in the event that this would happen, was to light Sabbath candles, something the totally secular Yacimovich never does. In the second half of last week almost everyone she met gave her Sabbath candles, and some people delivered or sent them to her home. And yes, she did light them, but subsequently announced that this was a onetime concession.
■ SPEAKING AT the Rabin memorial event in Rabin Square last Saturday night, Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid declared: “We are here today because Yitzhak Rabin left us a simple will – to safeguard our country. We will defend our country from those who try to destroy it from the outside and those who try to destroy it from the inside.... They will not tell us what is Left and what is Right. They will not tell us who is a Zionist. They will not tell us how to be Jewish.”
Singer Miri Mesika gave Communal Strengthening Minister Orly Levy-Abecassis a dressing down in relation to her refusal to speak at a Rabin memorial on the grounds Rabin’s legacy is not her legacy.
As has happened every year since she sang to Rabin on the night of the assassination, “Shir Le’shalom” (Song to Peace) was sung by Miri Aloni.
■ NOBEL PRIZE literature laureate Albert Camus was born on November 7, 1913. Referring to this in her weekly cultural program on Reshet Bet, Iris Lavie quoted a letter that Camus had written to his teacher Louis Germain after receiving the prestigious prize. Camus came from a very poor home, and if Germain had not recognized his intelligence and encouraged him to read and to exercise his talent for writing, it is doubtful that Camus would have been able to accomplish much in life. In his affectionate letter to Germain, Camus acknowledged that he owed his success to his teacher, and therefore the honors that he earned belonged equally to Germain.
Lavie commented that the letter illustrates the importance of a teacher in the life of a student. Although she didn’t say so, she obviously chose to highlight the relationship between Camus and his teacher against the backdrop of the struggle in which Israeli teachers are currently engaged.
■ ON THE subject of literature, Israel has lost several of its literary giants in recent years, among them Yehoshua Kenaz, Aharon Appelfeld, Amos Oz, Avraham Sutzkever. Haim Gouri, Aharon Megged, Haim Hefer, Dvora Omer, Amos Kenan, Natan Yonatan and most recently Natan Zach.
However, new poets are emerging all the time, and are being encouraged by the annual Gardner Simon Prize for Hebrew Poetry in memory of Nechama Rivlin. The contest is jointly conducted by the President’s Office and that of the administrator-general. The NIS 50,000 prize can be awarded to one poet or split among two or three or more. The closing date for entries is December 1. Entries in a sealed envelope can be delivered to the President’s Office in Jerusalem from Sunday to Thursday between 7 a.m. and 5 p.m. or sent by registered mail. Full details are available on the website of the administrator-general.
English-language poets can enter competitions run by the Voices Israel Group of Poets in English, which recently awarded prizes in its first Bar Sagi Young Poets Prize Competition, perpetuating the memory of a talented young poet, Bar Sagi, who died at the age of 15. Her grandparents Denise and Anthony Joseph sponsored the competition to encourage other young talented poets.
Young and veteran poets from all over Israel and overseas attended the awards ceremony on Zoom. Wendy Dickstein, who coordinated the competition, praised the quality of the winning poems. “We just did not know what to expect in this first year,” she said, thanking the judges and the Voices team that had worked together.
The first prize went to Ester Belokurov,18, from Rehovot, for her poem “Fading Childhood.” Second prize, for “Doors of Life,” was won by Yaara Heller, 12, from Petah Tikva, and third prize went to Haya Moukouri, 17, of Ashdod for “Guide to the Traveler.” An honorary mention was awarded to Liraz Eliszda, 16, of Ramat Hasharon, for the biographical poem of her father’s aliyah from Iran “Finally at Home.”
The winning poets read their poems in perfect English and encouraged students aged 12-19 to enter the next competition, which will run from November 15 to January 15. Submissions should be sent to [email protected] Details of entry are on the website www.Voicesisrael.com/bar-sagi-prize. For further information contact Susan Bell: [email protected]
■ WELL OVER half a century after David Ben-Gurion more or less outlawed Yiddish in Israel, what was once the most common language of the Jews of Europe and those who emigrated to America, Canada, England, South Africa and Australia is receiving a boost from, of all places, the Knesset.
Last week, a Yiddish lobby was launched in the Knesset, at the urging of Dr. Dov Ber Kotlerman, who holds the chair of Yiddish culture and hassidism at Bar-Ilan University, and Yiddishpiel founder Shmuel Atzmon, who at age 91 is still actively promoting the preservation of Yiddish as a language of the Jewish people. The two want the government to take responsibility for preserving Yiddish as a national language, and ultimately for Israel to become the world center for Yiddish activity.
The two met with Likud MKs Tali Ploskov and Uzi Dayan to ask them to head the lobby within the Knesset, where there are quite a few Yiddish-speakers, including Shas leader Arye Deri, who was educated in the Ashkenazi Hebron Yeshiva.
Plaskov and Dayan both heard Yiddish in their respective childhoods, and have a nostalgic feel for it. The two hosted a Zoom meeting in the Knesset’s Sprinzak Hall where, other participants via Zoom included Dr. Abraham Lichtenbaum, director of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in Buenos Aires; Jean Hessel, Yiddish adviser to the Language Council of Sweden; Dr. Ghilad Zuckerman, chairman of endangered languages at the University of Adelaide, Australia; and Anna Fishman Gonshor, a retired McGill University faculty lecturer in Yiddish studies, representing American Yiddishists.
Kotlerman advocated that the Israeli government should be doing more to support the Yiddish language and culture, using the European Charter for Regional and Minority Languages – a treaty signed in 1992 to protect and promote historical regional and minority languages in Europe – as an example worth emulating.
That charter, which includes Yiddish as one of its languages, was ratified by The Netherlands, Romania, Poland, Bosnia-Herzegovina and notably Sweden, which has done more than all the others to support Yiddish-language initiatives, including publishing children’s books and producing cartoons and music videos in Yiddish.
Kotlerman wants Israel to be at least as pro-Yiddish as Sweden, if not more so. It does not make sense for Israel to ignore the importance of Yiddish, if Sweden recognizes Yiddish as an official minority language. His vision is to partner all Yiddish institutions around the globe with those in Israel.
Hessel explained how Sweden supports Yiddish and the other official minority languages by providing financial assistance, advice, glossaries and by giving the members of minority-language communities the right to have their children educated in their ancestral mother tongue.
By way of conveying the need for public support of the Yiddish language and culture in Israel, Kotlerman and Atzmon chose a Yiddish translation of a poem by Israeli poet Haim Hefer, which Atzmon read aloud to the group. The poem, “Beyad halashon” (Through This Language), begins as a lament about Hitler’s unspeakable crimes, but transitions to an outcry against God and finally a confession for the sins that many Israeli institutions and individuals carried out against the language and culture of their East European ancestors:
“And what about us? How we mocked and belittled her,
How we, either willingly or unwillingly, suppressed her beauty and sealed up her mouth
How we, amid our hollow pride and snobbery, Sabra-style,
Demanded that even memorial plaques be inscribed in Hebrew.”
Atzmon expressed his joy in witnessing, after so many years, a growing interest among members of the Knesset in promoting Yiddish culture, adding: “Az me lebt, derlebt men!” (If you live long enough, you may live to see your dream realized).
Lichtenbaum praised the MKs for taking up a cause that has meant so much to Yiddish cultural activists round the world, and tearfully recited the Sheheheyanu blessing, which is recited when celebrating a new experience or special occasion.
Gonshor described the rapidly growing popularity of Yiddish classes in the American Jewish community, as evidenced by the Workers Circle courses which now attract almost 1,000 students a year, as well as The Forward’s YouTube series “Yiddish Word of the Day,” which, since its launch in April, has been viewed 350,000 times.
As so many people are seeking ways to connect to the Yiddish language, it’s essential that the Israeli government support Yiddish-language initiatives, not only in Israel but in the Diaspora as well, she said.
Afterward, Atzmon remarked that although a government agency for Yiddish was set up years ago, it serves only Israelis, and not those Jews in the Diaspora who are interested in the preservation of Yiddish.
A Holocaust survivor, Atzmon said: “Think about it – Yad Vashem isn’t an institution just for people who live in Israel, but for everyone. An Israeli Yiddish agency needs to be like the Yad Vashem for Yiddish literature throughout the world.”
■ THE DECISION to bury alongside their Jewish comrades in arms non-Jewish IDF soldiers who fell in the line of duty was welcomed by Alex Rif, who is a social activist, who inter alia promotes Russian culture among immigrants and offspring of immigrants from the former Soviet Union.
On her Facebook page Rif notes that the non-Jewish graves will be 20 cm. lower than the Jewish graves, and there will be hedge growth between the non-Jewish and the Jewish graves. She also notes that till now, non-Jewish soldiers buried on Mount Herzl were buried in a separate section, close to the leaders of the nation. There is no sign to indicate that these are the graves of non-Jewish soldiers, but nonetheless they are separate, she writes. This separation has been painful to the loved ones of the deceased soldiers who fought shoulder to shoulder with their Jewish comrades and often ate out of the same mess kit.
But one has to wonder which is more demoralizing – the previous system, in which no visible distinction is made, or the new policy in which it will be obvious to every visitor, who is Jewish, and who is not.
The issue of burial plots was raised seven years ago by Yesh Atid MK and former IDF major-general Elazar Stern, who happens to be Orthodox but who believes that no distinction should made between soldiers who paid the supreme sacrifice. It finally gained approval last week, though certain Orthodox rabbis have raised objections.
The interesting thing is that Jewish soldiers who served in Commonwealth armies in the region and are buried in Commonwealth War Graves cemeteries in Israel alongside non-Jewish soldiers have apparently not come to the attention of the rabbinate, or if they have, they have been ignored – possibly because religious interference might have caused a series of diplomatic incidents.
■ THIS IS a very diplomatic week for President Rivlin, who on Monday hosted British Ambassador Neil Wigan at the 100th anniversary of the Antiquities Authority, which was founded as the Archaeological Council by British high commissioner Sir Herbert Samuel. Then he hosted Japanese ambassador Koichi Aiboshi, who was joining in the celebration of the 60th anniversary of Haifa’s Tikotin Museum of Japanese Art, and in the evening Rivlin hosted German and Austrian ambassadors Dr. Susanne Wasum-Rainer and Dr. Hannah Liko, respectively, at the commemoration of Kristallnacht. On Wednesday Rivlin was due to receive the credentials of new ambassadors from Malta, Australia, Guatemala Cyprus and Turkmenistan, and on Thursday he is scheduled to meet with Bulgarian Foreign Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Ekaterina Zakharieva.
■ WHAT IS the Iranian connection of Tel Aviv University alumni? Some are graduates of the university’s Center for Iranian Studies, but perhaps of greater interest is the fact that Omri Shenhar and Moshe Zonder, who are graduates of TAUs Steve Tisch School of Film and Television, are the scriptwriters of the internationally acclaimed television spy series Tehran purchased by Apple TV.
The two appeared on a well-attended Zoom program together with Dr. Liora Hendelman, director of TAU’s Alliance Center for Iranian Studies, and Prof. Eran Neuman, dean of TAU’s David and Yolanda Katz Faculty of the Arts.
There is a generation gap between Shenhar and Zonder, and several of their co-alumni were interested in hearing about their individual experiences as students, and about how they overcame the generation gap in working together.
Zonder, a co–creator of Tehran, who is the older of the two, said that his first year at university was one of the most meaningful years of his life.
When Hendelman asked about what the two liked most about working together on the series, Shenhar replied that it was deciding on the characters – who was the good guy, who was the bad guy, with which does either writer identify. Zonder said that he enjoyed writing the script for Faraz Kamali, the senior Iranian Intelligence officer played by Shaun Toub, while Shenhar added that through the character of the heroine, the Mossad computer hacker played by Niv Sultan, the two of them learned about Iran, and it is fascinating to do so through the eyes of a modern woman.
Zonder said that the great challenge was to try to avoid mistakes based on ignorance, when creating the Iranian characters. For this reason, they engaged in two years of research before writing the script. Shenhar said that they met people who were familiar with Iran from within, and heard the most remarkable stories, some of which they brought to the screen.
As for reactions, Zonder said that they had received favorable reactions from viewers from around the world, but the ones that moved them most were from the second generation of Iranian Jewish families in Israel. Men and women in their 30s and 40s who had come to the country as children, or who were born in Israel, had been ashamed of Persian family traditions and of the Persian accents of their parents, but after watching the series, their feelings were transformed from shame to pride.
Shenhar had been afraid that people with preconceived notions would not want to watch the series, but was happily surprised by its popularity. He realized that its appeal lies not only in the plot but in the fact that it poses universal questions of identity, nationalism, immigration, severing of roots and the cost of doing so.
Zonder, Shenhar and Tehran cocreator Dana Eden wanted to produce a second series, and are bursting with ideas but are not yet ready to share them. 
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