Grapevine November 4, 2020: Back to normal?

Movers and shakers in Israeli society.

INDIAN AMBASSADOR Sanjeev Singla with Meron Reuben, the outgoing chief of state protocol. (photo credit: STEVE LINDE)
INDIAN AMBASSADOR Sanjeev Singla with Meron Reuben, the outgoing chief of state protocol.
(photo credit: STEVE LINDE)
Things are normalizing – certainly in the realm of diplomacy, with Foreign Ministry staff already busy last week in welcoming Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio, who met with his Israeli counterpart, Gabi Ashkenazi, and with President Reuven Rivlin, and welcoming this week Romanian Prime Minister Ludovic Orban, who met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and with Rivlin.
In his conversation with Di Maio, Rivlin lamented recent terrorist attacks in France, saying: “Our hearts go out to the people of France, who are dealing with dreadful terrorist attacks.
“The attempt to foment war between religions is inconceivable. There is no war between Christianity and Islam, or between Judaism and Islam, and we must be sure that no one is allowed to make that happen. Terrorism and hatred are spreading like a plague across the world, and we must do what we can to stop them.”
■ ON WEDNESDAY, November 4, Rivlin is scheduled to receive the credentials of five new ambassadors. It will be the last time that State Protocol Chief Meron Reuben introduces new ambassadors to the president before taking up his new post as consul-general in Boston. The new envoys are Jean-Luc Bodson of Belgium, Feruza Makhmudova of Uzbekistan, Erik Ullenhag of Sweden, Kare Reidar Aas of Norway and Alvars Groza of Latvia
Next week Reuben’s successor, Gil Haskel, will introduce the ambassadors of Malta, Australia, Cyprus and Guatemala.
The Protocol Department at the Foreign Ministry is planning yet another such ceremony for December or January for ambassadors from the Philippines, China, Ukraine, Ecuador, Portugal, Brazil and the Dominican Republic.
■ INDIAN AMBASSADOR Sanjeev Singla hosted a small, candlelit farewell dinner on Saturday evening for Reuben in the garden of the Indian residence in Herzliya Pituah. Haskel and former ambassador to Jordan Einat Schlein were also among the guests. In September 2015 Schlein made history as Israel’s first woman ambassador to an Arab country, when she presented her credentials to King Abdullah of Jordan.
The multicourse Indian menu was mainly vegetarian because the ambassador is vegetarian, but for nonvegetarian guests there were also chicken and fish.
The first two items on the menu were apricot tikki, which are potato croquettes stuffed with apricots and accompanied by a tangy liqueur, followed by bhelpuri, a savory snack made from puffed rice sprinkled with tamarind sauce. Both items were so spicy that some guests felt as though their mouths were on fire, which no amount of water could quench. But then came the rather bland utthapam, comprising thick rice flour pancakes served with coconut chutney, which miraculously provided instant relief.
Also on the menu, were malai kofta dumplings made of figs and cheese in a creamy onion and tomato gravy; pahadi aloo – baby potatoes tossed in whole coriander and other Indian spices; dahi bhalla – lentil dumplings in yogurt lightly sprinkled with sweet chutney; jeera rice, namely basmati rice, with cumin; plus Indian breads.
The dessert, called kheer, was a rice pudding made with milk and enhanced with fruit, which raised the question as to whether the British colonialists had influenced Indian cuisine, or whether the British, after leaving India, took with them some of India’s culinary delights.
Table talk at the dinner focused primarily on efforts to find an anti-COVID vaccine and on the American elections. There were also some interesting anecdotes about what happens when not everything goes according to plans or protocol. Among the various previous posts held by Singla is that of deputy chief of protocol in India’s Ministry of External Affairs, so he and Reuben were able to swap stories of the unexpected.
Although the Protocol Department still has an important role to play, especially because it has a lot of information that is not necessarily accessible via social media, protocol is becoming vastly different in the 21st century from what it was in the 19th and 20th centuries, Reuben commented. Today every ambassador has a laptop and a cellular phone and can contact anyone they want whenever they want without going through the Protocol Department of the host country.
Nonetheless, there are things that the Protocol Department does that depend on human contact and cannot be emulated by electronic devices. Reuben said that he greatly enjoyed the five years that he had spent as chief of protocol and is confident that Haskel will find the posting equally enjoyable.
■ ISRAELIS AND Jews in different parts of the world are this week commemorating the milestone anniversaries of the political assassinations of two vastly different Israeli leaders whose influence continues long after their deaths. Prime minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated after a peace rally on November 4, 1995, and Kach leader and founder of the Jewish Defense League Meir Kahane was assassinated on November 5, 1990, following a lecture he gave to mainly Orthodox Jews at the Marriott hotel in Manhattan, New York.
Kahane, who advocated the expulsion of Arabs from Israel, was seen as an antidemocratic, racist crackpot, and was arrested many times for his incitement and actions. After his death, his followers multiplied many times over, and today include young people who were not yet born or were babes in arms at the time of his demise.
To mark the 30th anniversary of his assassination, his followers – whose best-known figures are Baruch Marzel, Benzion Gopstein, Itamar Ben-Gvir and Michael Ben-Ari are hosting an online memorial on Thursday, November 5, at 8 p.m. on 30y.co.il
Events related to Rabin began last week and have continued this week.
■ DURING RABIN memorial events, the word “democracy” resurfaced again and again, and was the topic in the Israel Democracy Institute’s Yaron Ezrahi memorial conference on Reimagining Democracy.
Relating to the current crisis between the three branches of government, Rivlin, who was among a prestigious group of speakers, declared: “Today, more than ever, Israeli democracy needs a Basic Law: The Constitution.” Rivlin also distinguished between criticism and incitement, saying: “Not all criticism of the judicial system is incitement. Not all criticism of the government is incitement. And not all criticism of the Knesset is an attack on the foundations of democracy. It is important that criticism should be constructive, of the kind that creates discourse and does not twist arms, because criticism that seeks to intimidate will eventually, heaven forbid, weaken the three authorities and harm Israeli democracy.”
■ THE LONDON-based Jewish News reports that just ahead of his 91st birthday on November 22, the much honored and decorated Polish-born Holocaust survivor and British weightlifting champion, Sir Ben Helfgott, received the Pride of Britain Award in recognition of five decades of tireless work in passing on the lessons of the Nazi era and fighting on behalf of those who lived through the Holocaust.
Helfgott, who survived Buchenwald and Theresienstadt, arrived as a war orphan in Britain at age 15. Eleven years later, he captained the British weightlifting team at the 1956 Olympics. He has been active in helping the 700 other child Holocaust survivors who came to Britain, and has made it his mission in life to ensure that British schoolchildren learn about the Holocaust and the evils of war.
■ SEVERAL MEMORIAL concerts have marked the 26th anniversary of the passing of the Singing Rabbi, Shlomo Carlebach, who left such a lasting impression on the Jewish world. For Carlebach fans who may have missed the earlier concerts over the past week, there is still a chance, on Wednesday, November 4, at 8 p.m., at a virtual event that can be seen and heard on the Facebook of the Jewish Culture Division of the Ra’anana Municipality.
Cohosting “Carlebach the Man and the Soul” is Higher Education Minister Ze’ev Elkin, who previously joined the Jerusalem Municipality in hosting a similar event that was broadcast on Arutz 7 last Monday. Elkin seems to have forgotten that he is no longer Jerusalem affairs minister. On the other hand, it’s possible that Rabbi Rafi Peretz, who now holds that position, was not interested in cosponsoring a Carlebach concert.
Elkin will deliver greetings, as will Mayor Chaim Broyde, along with Haim Goldman, a member of the Ra’anana City Council, and Rabbi Itiel Bar Levy, who holds the city’s Jewish culture portfolio.
In addition to the music provided by Yonatan Razel and the Katz Family, anecdotes about Carlebach and his teachings will be shared by Rabbi Chaim Shein and Naama Menussi, a teacher of hassidic interpretation of the Torah.
■ WITH THE resumption of commercial flights abroad, travel agencies have begun placing large advertisements in the Hebrew newspapers, with the main focus on package deals to Dubai and Abu Dhabi.
But it’s not only travel agencies that are promoting tourism. According to Mahesh Gunawardana, the first secretary at the Embassy of Sri Lanka, the Sri Lanka Tourism Promotion Bureau will, from November 4 to 13, launch online livestreaming programs to highlight the country’s many attractions, with a view to engaging the interest of potential travelers through virtual tours of the main National Parks of Sri Lanka, such as Minneriya, Kaudulla, Udawalawe and Yala; plus a “couch safari.”
■ AIRPORT CLOSURES notwithstanding, new immigrants and volunteers have continued to arrive in Israel during the pandemic. More than a thousand young Jews from the former Soviet Union, Caribbean, France, England, US, Canada and South Africa came to Israel under the aegis of The Israel Experience and, after spending two weeks in strict isolation, have been released to engage in diverse volunteer activities. They arrived alone, having decided that, during their gap year, it is more productive to do something meaningful in Israel than to spend time at home doing nothing because of lockdown.
Some of the volunteers have begun teaching English, while others are assisting farmers during a crisis in harvesting, sorting and packing of agricultural produce. Some are also working in emergency health services, aiding the effort to fight coronavirus
One volunteer, Eliana Horvath, 25, from Vancouver, Canada, is a Masa Israel teaching fellow who has been in Israel since late August. She is teaching English to students in grades four to six.
“Despite the risks that came along with moving across the world during a pandemic, I felt as though there was no better time,” she said. “With students already struggling with at-home learning and lost hours from the classroom, I wanted to seize the opportunity and contribute to Israeli society in the best way I can – using my native English to educate.”
During isolation, Horvath was initially nervous about having to spend 14 days with three strangers, but it turned out to be a unique and rewarding start to Israeli life. Sometimes it was challenging to be strictly confined to quarters, but the four had nightly and Shabbat meals together and even started their own blog. Despite each of them going in different directions following their release from isolation, they have maintained a strong bond of friendship.
Horvath immediately volunteered with the Bat Yam Municipality, helping to prepare Rosh Hashanah meals for needy families. She also spent a day volunteering with Magen David Adom in preparing coronavirus test kits. Her group managed to prepare more than 5,000 kits. “It was a meaningful experience I will never forget,” she says.
California’s loss is Israel’s gain. Because of COVID-19, Tia Gary, 20, decided to drop out of college and to make aliyah. “I understood that the Zoom sessions weren’t for me and decided to move and enroll in the IDF.” She has already completed her medical checkups and is now awaiting her assignment.
Meanwhile, she completed a first aid course which MDA offers through the Israel Experience program for youth from overseas. The 10-day course took place at the Rabin Hostel in Jerusalem, after which participants were assigned to MDA ambulances across the country for periods of 4-5 weeks.
Yahli Schwartz, 20, who is likewise from California, also took part in the course. Part of her childhood was spent in Israel. “When I was young, we left the country and went from place to place but never forgot where we came from. I study political science, but with the coronavirus and the Zoom I felt I had to do something for my soul. I got on a plane and here I am. Soon I will be saving Israeli lives and that to me is very exciting.”
The MDA overseas program allowed 32 teens from around the world, most of them Jewish, to come to Israel. One of the participants, Barj Hegopian, a 21-year-old premed student from California, made great efforts to be included. “It brought me back to my family here in Israel,” he said.
Hegopian, who is of Armenian background, almost cried when speaking of the war taking place between Azerbaijan and Armenia. “The Armenian population has lots of criticism towards Israel’s decision to sell weapons to the Azeri’s. My family is taking part in the protests against the government’s policy,” he explains. “With that being said, I was taught that even when I’m down I must lend a helping hand. I am excited to help and save Israeli lives, all of whom are my brothers.”
■ THE ANNUAL Los Angeles gala of the Simon Wiesenthal Center is always a big deal, with almost as many Hollywood celebrities in attendance as are present for the Oscars. The 40th anniversary gala, like so many other high-society events this year, was a virtual affair in which the Simon Wiesenthal Center and Museum of Tolerance last week honored Amal and George Clooney with the 2020 Humanitarian Award.
Hosted by Jeffrey Katzenberg and SWC founder and dean Rabbi Marvin Hier, who is a two-time Academy Award winner, the event was one in which honors were also conferred on Dame Louise Ellman DBE for her decades-long commitment to fighting antisemitism in the United Kingdom; and Francesco Lotoro and Grazia Tiritiello, husband and wife musicologists from Italy, who have devoted their careers to collecting, preserving and performing the works of Jewish musicians who were in Nazi captivity. There was also a posthumous award for Douglas Miguel Rodriguez from Ecuador, who was killed while trying to protect others from terrorists who stormed a Jersey City kosher supermarket where he worked.
Through the Center’s Moriah Films division, George Clooney also developed an indirect connection with Israel as the narrator of the Academy Award-winning film Never Stop Dreaming: The Life and Legacy of Shimon Peres, which was acquired as a Netflix original and should be streaming sometime this year.
SWC has for years been reaching out to leaders of Arab countries, and its leadership has held meetings with the UAE crown prince and the king of Bahrain, with five missions to the UAE and Bahrain plus a UAE national day hosted last year at the Museum of Tolerance.
Earlier this year, a SWC delegation to the Vatican was addressed by Pope Francis, who spoke of fighting antisemitism and hatred.
■ ALTHOUGH JEWS in Arab lands have by and large suffered harassment, persecution and sequestration since the establishment of the State of Israel, and in some cases long before the state came into being, it wasn’t all bad, and it wasn’t always bad. Many people who as children were expelled or who fled from Arab lands heard stories from their parents about how good life had been in certain places, and of the friendly relations they had with their Arab neighbors.
With normalization gradually coming to the region, there will be a lot of tourism to Arab countries that Israelis were previously unable to visit – although several Arab countries were visited mostly incognito by Moshe Dayan, Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres. Some countries, such as Morocco, were visited openly by Rabin.
Aside from personal Jewish property that was confiscated in Arab countries, there is also a lot of Jewish community property, the ownership or custodianship of which must be settled in any future normalization or peace agreement. There is considerable community property in Egypt, where there are not enough Jews for a minyan (prayer quorum).
Among the people concerned about what will happen to that property is 90-year-old Geoffrey Hanson, the president of the Center for Jewish Egyptian Heritage Studies. In the mid-1950s, Hanson was resident manager of the Mediterrannee-Romance Hotel in Alexandria. He also served as cantor of the famed Eliyahu Hanavi Synagogue on Nabi Daniel Street, which was recently restored by the Egyptian government.
In October 1956, in response to the invasion of the Suez Canal by Britain, France and Israel, president Gamal Abdel Nasser instituted a policy of abolishing civil liberties and stripping undesirables of Egyptian citizenship. As it was, there were many second-, third- and fourth-generation Egyptians who were descendants of foreign forebears who had never been granted Egyptian citizenship. There were also mass arrests for no reason. Many white-collar professionals were barred from working in their respective fields. Some 500 Jewish businesses were seized by the government, Jewish bank accounts were confiscated and many Jews were dismissed from their jobs.
In the late-night predawn period of November 1-2, 1956, Hanson received a 2 a.m. wake-up call. He was asked to come downstairs for an emergency. He was used to such requests, but was surprised when reaching the reception desk to find two policemen waiting for him. They asked him to follow them to the local police station for an inquiry.
Hanson did not suspect that anything was amiss. As the hotel was located not far from King Farouk’s palace, he presumed that he was called to make preparations for some official guest, as had frequently been the case till then. The hotel had often been frequented by the king himself as well as by government ministers and other important people.
But this visit to the police station was different from any other. As a British citizen and a Jew, he was placed under arrest. He was taken to the local cinema near the railway station where he found 200 other people who had been arrested. Some were friends of his.
In the morning, they were taken on open trucks to the railway station and from there by train to Cairo. What was usually a three-hour journey took six hours because the train kept stopping at various stations for a changing of guards. To add insult to injury, the arrested passengers, who had previously traveled in style, were put in third-class compartments with hard wooden seats. Since their arrest, they had been without food or drink or sanitary conditions.
From the Cairo railway station, they again boarded open trucks and were taken to the Jewish school which had been transformed into a dormitory. Exhausted, they fell asleep and in the morning were given a halva sandwich. They had been without food for 36 hours.
They spent eight days in these conditions, receiving a solitary sandwich of white cheese or halva each day, not knowing what their fate would be. They were under heavy guard and not permitted to go outside.
After eight days they were divided into groups in accordance with their separate nationalities. Most foreign nationals were permitted to leave.
The remaining 80 or so prisoners were required to provide full details of their family and financial status. They were then put on buses, which they mistakenly thought were taking them home to Alexandria. After a couple of hours they realized that they had been nursing false hopes and began to panic. When the buses eventually stopped at 1 a.m. the passengers found themselves in the Barrages City Prison, where they were told they would have to wait until the Swiss authorities could make arrangements for their deportation as enemy aliens. Hanson remembers the Barrages prison as “a real Alcatraz.” All their questions to prison officials yielded no information.
On the 22nd day of their captivity, Swiss representatives arrived, and under heavy guard escorted six people to the airport. This exercise was repeated every week for several weeks till one day Hanson found himself on his own.
He requested a meeting with the warden, to whom he explained how he felt being left alone and also told him about his work as a hotel manager. He did a little name-dropping about guests who had stayed at the hotel, including those of high-ranking army officers. The warden was suitably impressed, and the conditions in Hanson’s cell improved.
Soon after, he was taken out of the cell at 3 a.m. and driven to the airport. A few days later, he was in England. He subsequently made his home in Ramat Gan in Israel.
After the establishment of diplomatic relations between Israel and Egypt, he was denied a visa many times but eventually was able to revisit the haunts of his beloved Alexandria, where his heart remains, despite the many years that he has lived in Israel.
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