Grapevine November 25, 2020: Family ties

Movers and shakers in Israeli society.

A new line of wines in the Psagot winery was named after US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
A new line of wines in the Psagot winery was named after US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
It has been previously mentioned in this column that due to airport lockdowns in Israel and elsewhere, President Reuven Rivlin missed out on several scheduled trips abroad. One such trip was to Lithuania, from where his family came to Jerusalem in 1809.
Rivlin is fond of telling the story that his forebears were followers of Elijah ben Solomon Zalman, better known as the Vilna Gaon, who had declared that the Messiah would come in the Jewish calendar year Taf Kuf Ayin, which in itself is an acronym for “blow and was interpreted as sounding the ram’s horn – the shofar – to hail the coming of the Messiah. Rivlin continues the tale by saying that it was untenable that the Messiah should come to Jerusalem and the Rivlins would not be there to greet him.
They’re still waiting, but meanwhile Rivlin was supposed to be in Vilnius in April to join in celebrating the 300th anniversary of the birth of the Vilna Gaon.
That didn’t work out either, due to the pandemic. The Lithuanian authorities, together with the Lithuanian Jewish community, had spent well over a year organizing events in connection with this anniversary, but in the final analysis, on the actual date of the anniversary, Lithuanian Jewish community chairwoman Faina Kukliansky, Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius and Israeli Ambassador Yossef Levy attended a symbolic memorial service at what is believed to be the Vilna Gaon’s final resting place.
In February 2019, it was widely reported that Lithuania had refused Israel’s request to have the remains of the Vilna Gaon transferred to Jerusalem. That is quite understandable, as the Vilna Gaon State Museum of Jewish History is a major tourist attraction, which also receives donations from Lithuanian expatriates and their descendants. In addition, there are numerous international conferences and symposia related to the Vilna Gaon. A Zoom conference of this nature was held in Poland last week with the cooperation of the Lithuanian government and parliament.
As Lithuania had declared 2020 to be the year of the Vilna Gaon, it was still not too late for Rivlin to host an event marking the special anniversary of his birth.
Aside from anything else, he’s distantly related to the Vilna Gaon. According to genealogist Chaim Freedman, who is an eighth-generation direct descendant of the Vilna Gaon, the Rivlins are direct descendants of the Vilna Gaon’s great uncle – a brother of his grandfather.
Although there are claims that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is also somehow related to the Vilna Gaon, Freedman, who has spent decades researching the many branches of the Vilna Gaon’s family tree, says that he has not yet found a link. The closest he has been able to establish a connection is the Milikovsky family tree, which goes back several generations. (Milikovsky was the surname of Netanyahu’s father before he changed it.) One of the first entries is a note written in Yiddish, stating that this person was a cousin of the Vilna Gaon, but there is no further information
However, Freedman has a genetic matrix of some 40 people who are related to the Vilna Gaon, who apparently have a genetic match with Netanyahu’s brother Ido, who unfortunately is not prepared to allow Freedman access to his database so that Freedman can check all the matches – this despite the possibility that they might be distant cousins to each other.
As he was unable to go to Lithuania, Rivlin is hosting an event in honor of the Vilna Gaon on Thursday, November 26, at 12 noon. The event will be attended by Lithuanian Ambassador Lina Antanaviciene, who will present Rivlin with a medal minted for the Year of the Vilna Gaon, sent by Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda, to whom Rivlin spoke by phone in April, saying the 300th anniversary was a historic event not only for Lithuania but for the Rivlin family.
■ NOVEMBER APPEARS to be a medal month for Rivlin. Last week he received the Scholar-Statesman Medal from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, which celebrates outstanding leaders who, through their public service and professional achievements, exemplify the idea that sound scholarship and a discerning knowledge of history are essential to wise and effective policy and the advancement of peace and security in the Middle East.
Curiously, although Shimon Peres addressed the Washington Institute on several occasions, he was not among the Israeli recipients of its medal. The first Israeli was Natan Sharansky in 2011, followed by Michael Oren and Itamar Rabinovich in 2014, Ehud Barak in 2015, and Dore Gold, Dan Gillerman and Ron Prosor in 2017.
Although Peres missed out on the Washington Institute medal, his many honors included the Nobel Prize, America’s Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Congressional Gold Medal, and he also had an honorary knighthood from Britain, plus the French Legion of Honor.
He received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from president Barack Obama in 2012, and the following year conferred Israel’s Medal of Distinction on Obama.
He was not the first Israeli to receive the Medal of Freedom. Here again, Sharansky was the first in the field, receiving the medal from President George W. Bush in 2006.
While Jews have consistently been among the recipients of the Medal of Freedom during the terms of every president from John F. Kennedy to Donald Trump, the only other Israeli to receive this prestigious award was Miriam Adelson, who received it in 2018.
The largest number of presidential medals – 123 – were awarded during the terms of Obama, and the lowest – 16 – during the term of Trump.
■ SOME OF Trump’s Jewish supporters will have an opportunity to wish him well on Wednesday, December 9, when he hosts a late afternoon Hanukkah party at the White House. Every US president since George W. Bush, who established the tradition in 2001, has hosted a Hanukkah reception for American Jewish politicians, heads of Jewish organizations, yeshiva deans and principals of Jewish day schools.
Given the fact that Trump has not observed social distancing and has hosted events at which not only scores but hundreds of people were present, the Hanukkah reception will in all probability follow suit and not be subject to the restrictions generally imposed on social gatherings.
■ NEWS OF Israeli expatriates, more often than not, comes from the United States. One of the most famous Israeli expats in Europe – in France, to be precise – is celebrated fashion designer Alber Elbaz, who is a graduate of Shenkar College, with which he has maintained contact during his many years abroad, and which he unfailingly visits on return trips to Israel.
The Moroccan-born Elbaz, who grew up in Israel, was the creative director for Lanvin from 2001 to 2015, after having previously worked for internationally renowned couture companies Guy Laroche and Yves Saint Laurent.
Lanvin had lost much of its prestige when Elbaz came on the scene. He is credited with reviving the brand and causing it to soar to new heights. He is also a popular figure in French fashion circles due to his pleasant personality. For all that, he was dismissed in 2015 by the company’s majority shareholder, Wang Shaw-lan.
While keeping his finger in the fashion pie by giving master classes in fashion schools around the world, studying the latest technologies that are being used in fashion houses, designing an occasional one-of-a-kind couture creation for a famous personality, as well as one of the costumes worn by Natalie Portman in A Tale of Love and Darkness, and some shoe and bag designs for Tods, an Italian company, Elbaz, 59, spent the past five years in introspection, trying to work out what he really wants to do with the rest of his life.
He missed being in a studio and realized that, sooner or later, he would have to work his way back into his favorite environment.
That time has come, and in partnership with the Swiss luxury group Compagnie Financier Richemont, with which he joined forces last year, he is launching a company, AZ Factory, which is due to debut in January. Elbaz made the announcement at the end of October, and has since elaborated by saying that AZ will focus on “developing solutions for women of our times.”
The January launch will coincide with Couture Week in Paris, which means that whoever shows up at Lanvin will also show up at AZ to view and review Elbaz’s new burst of creativity.
■ IN THE aftermath of the Sunday night visit to Saudi Arabia by Netanyahu and Mossad chief Yossi Cohen for a meeting with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Esty Perez Ben-Ami in her lunchtime current affairs program on Israel Radio’s Reshet Bet, interviewed former Mossad chief Danny Yatom, who was chief security adviser to prime ministers Yitzhak Rabin and Barak, and who today chairs the Forum of Secret Service Veterans.
Yatom was perfectly candid about secret operations that are no longer classified. Sometimes there were intricate travel arrangements, which meant switching from a plane to a boat and vice versa. The plane was usually a private plane so that it would not be easily recognized, to divert any suspicion as to who the passengers might be, in addition to which the passengers were often disguised.
On one particular secret operation, in which Israelis were scheduled to meet with Syrian representatives in Washington, the Israelis were warned that if a single word was leaked in advance, the meeting would be called off. Everyone in the Israeli delegation was disguised in various ways with wigs, dark glasses, body padding and more. Barak, with a wig and attired in a dress, looked so much like his mother, Esther Brog, that everyone else cracked up with laughter. When the group members arrived in Washington, they were met by Rabinovich, who was then Israel’s ambassador. When he saw Barak, Yatom recalled, he started to laugh and couldn’t stop.
■ INASMUCH AS people are getting weary of Zoom events, they do have their benefits in that people don’t have to go out in inclement weather, nor do they have to make small talk at social gatherings; and if it’s a lecture that they find unappealing, they don’t have to sit through it because they’re too embarrassed to walk out.
On a more positive note, the Israel, Britain and the Commonwealth Association, which annually has a meeting at the residence of the British ambassador, had more than double the usual attendance this year because several diplomats participated in the Zoom event, as did many people from the UK and elsewhere.
In fact, because more than 200 people registered, only IBCA chairwoman Brenda Katten, British Ambassador Neil Wigan and founding editor of the Times of Israel David Horovitz, who was previously editor of The Jerusalem Post and The Jerusalem Report, were seen on screen. What all three have in common is that they come from London.
The meeting took off on a hiccup, due to slight technological problems which resurfaced at the end, but happily during the interesting conversation between Wigan and Horovitz, the technology worked perfectly. The British are natural masters of the understatement, regardless of where they might be geographically, and judging by their facial expressions, Wigan and Horovitz each recognized this in the other.
Their wide-ranging interchange included rising antisemitism in Britain’s Labour Party and on university campuses; Wigan’s fondness for Israel and the changes in the country since he previously served here 15 years ago; his Israeli wife; the UK remaining Israel’s third-largest trading partner after the US and China, even after the finalization of Brexit; the way Britain votes in international forums; the actual role of an ambassador and how much influence, if any, an ambassador has on foreign policy; and where Britain stands with regard to the Palestinians, the two-state solution, the status of Jerusalem, and bilateral cooperation on security.
Concerning antisemitism, Wigan said that national and local authorities are taking the matter seriously, so much so that Jews feel safe, and able to walk in the street proudly as Jews. Wigan, who had spoken to the Union of Jewish students before taking up his post, acknowledged that Jewish students feel uncomfortable in some universities.
He enjoys being an ambassador, he said, because it gives him entry to so many places that he might otherwise not get to see, let alone enter.
Katten apologized that circumstances prevented everyone getting together for a cup of British tea. She had hoped that the annual brunch in the last week of December would not be a virtual affair, but that hope has been dashed, and once again regular attendees will miss out on live socializing. However, in view of the fact that it appears that a fourth election is on the way, she is very excited that the guest speaker at the virtual brunch will be Gil Hoffman, the Post’s chief political correspondent, who will be able to share the hottest political news.
■ MOST AMBASSADORS speak at least two or three languages, if not more. Some languages that are rooted in Latin or German are easier than others for Europeans and people from English-language countries, and likewise people who come from countries where Slav languages are spoken can quickly pick up on other Slav languages. But when it comes to truly esoteric languages, learning to speak them can be a daunting challenge.
Polish ambassador Marek Magierowski congratulated his colleague Krysztof Buzalski, the Polish ambassador to Tanzania, who, he tweeted, is the first ambassador in the diplomatic corps to receive a state certificate confirming his fluency in Swahili. Apparently, Buzalski’s talent for linguistics was so unusual and therefore so newsworthy that the awarding of the diploma ceremony was covered by state and commercial television and by local Tanzanian newspapers.
In the dim and distant past, when Australia had a quasi White Australia policy which essentially sought to restrict the migration of non-Europeans to Australia, one of the means of denying entry to undesirables was to give them a language test – and not necessarily in English. One of the languages in which such tests were given was Swahili. Even though today’s Australia boasts a multiracial, multicultural society, language tests are still given to would-be immigrants for a variety of purposes.
■ ALTHOUGH THEY have met individually with a number of ambassadors over the past few weeks, outgoing Chief of State Protocol Meron Reuben and his successor, Gil Haskel, were feted last Thursday in a Zoom gathering of the foreign diplomatic corps, which came together to bid farewell to Reuben before he leaves for his new post in the United States, and to welcome Haskel and wish them both well.
■ MANY TEENAGERS are fed up with being educated via Zoom, but students at the Israeli School for Young Diplomats, which is run under the auspices of the Israeli Center for Young Leadership (ICYL), were happy to sit in front of their computers this week to listen to UAE businessman Thani al-Shirawi talk about normalization and cooperation between his country and Israel. Eloquent and erudite, Shirawi, who has been interviewed by various Israeli media outlets, held the youngsters aged 16-18 in thrall as he spoke of why his country has chosen to make peace with Israel, and how together they can create a future of progress and prosperity for the inhabitants of both countries.
Sounding very much like a Middle Eastern Herzl, Shirawi told the 153 students who participated in the Zoom program that, as far as he is aware, the UAE is the only country in the world that has a minister for tolerance and happiness.
As for normalization and peace, Shirawi said that it is important to put a vision into practice, “but a vision must have a plan. If not, the vision will turn into a nightmare,” he said, emphasizing that “the plan must be measurable.”
As an example, he cited the Emirates airline, which started out in 1985 with a single plane. Today, it has the largest fleet in the Middle East, because the plan was to keep increasing gradually.
With regard to Israel, Shirawi said: “For too long we were adversaries, and it didn’t work. This is the time to give peace a chance and to become friends. When you negotiate with friends, it is very easy. This will be a peace that other countries will envy or follow. When you measure the dream and focus on it, every dream will be possible.”
Given the time frame of the event, not all the students who wanted to ask questions were able to do so, and without any prompting, Shirawi told them that if they had questions, they should forward them to ICYL, which in turn would forward them to him, and he would be happy to answer all of them.
In addition, in response to a question about student exchanges between the UAE and Israel, he said he thinks they are very important so that young people in each country could learn how the other lives. He even suggested that they spend a year in each other’s universities.
Asked about investing in Israel, he said that he greatly admires what Israel had accomplished as the Start-Up Nation. “You have been able to achieve things which we couldn’t,” he said. Personally, he is interested in investing in Israeli water technology.
To another question as to whether the UAE wants to take a leadership role in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Shirawi replied : “The point is not who’s right and who’s wrong. You need a mediator for dialogue.” He is of the opinion that if the Palestinians agree to normalize relations with Israel, it will lead to greater prosperity for both.
Having obviously enjoyed his online meeting with young diplomats, Shirawi made it clear that he does not want it to be a onetime event. He wants to meet them again and again.
Retired ambassador Yitzhak Eldan, who heads the School for Young Diplomats, stated that it is important to be able to speak face-to-face, with open hearts and open minds. As an outcome of new development in the region, he said, the School for Young Diplomats is now introducing a course on the UAE. “We want to know more about your fantastic country, which we are eager to visit.” He also offered advance congratulations on the UAE’s national day, which is on December 2, and noted that next year will be a jubilee year when the UAE celebrates its 50th anniversary.
Other participants in the event included Noam Katz, the deputy director-general for media and public affairs at the Foreign Ministry, and Hila and Snir Dolev the founders of ICYL.
■ THE RA’ANANA Municipality has made additional land available for the expansion of Benji’s House, named in memory of London-born Maj. Benji Hillman, who was killed while on active duty in Lebanon in 2006, less than a month after his wedding. Hillman’s first cousin Saul Rurka, a social and hi-tech entrepreneur, decided that the most fitting memorial for Hillman was to build a facility for lone soldiers. Expansion became necessary as needs increased. The Ra’anana Municipality, which has always been supportive of the project, which became operational in 2013, understood the urgency of the request, as a result of which Benji’s House, which currently has 87 rooms for lone soldiers, will now have 93 additional rooms, bringing the total to 180 rooms. Rurka immediately launched a fundraising campaign for the construction of the additional wing, and has so far received in excess of $5 million.
■ PRIOR TO their expulsion in the wake of the establishment of the State of Israel, 800,000 Jews lived in Arab states, says Geoffrey Hanson, the president of the Center for the Study of Jewish Egyptian Heritage. November 30 has long been designated as a day of remembrance and mourning for lives once led in Egypt, Libya, Morocco, Syria, Yemen, Lebanon, Iraq, Tunis and Iran. Due to coronavirus restrictions, attendance at the annual memorial service will be limited to one representative from each of these countries. The representatives will gather for afternoon prayers at the Ohel Shimon synagogue in Ramat Gan.
■ OUTGOING US Secretary of State Pompeo received what promises to be a long-term conversation piece when he visited Psagot Wineries last week. Among the wines served and on display was a private label red blend called – you guessed it – Psagot Pompeo. It’s a fairly safe bet to say that Pompeo will uncork a bottle whenever he has guests for dinner.
Winemaker Yaakov Berg felt that Pompeo deserved to be honored as the first high-ranking American official to visit a West Bank settlement, which prior to the Trump administration was considered to be disputed or “occupied” territory. The logos on the label include one that states “Made in legality.” It will be interesting to see whether the Biden administration will deconstruct whatever was constructed by the Trump administration with regard to Israel; or whether Psagot wines will be served at state dinners, if and when Biden pays an official visit to Israel.
[email protected]