Grapevine November 6, 2020: The long arm of coincidence

Movers and shakers in Israeli society.

PRESIDENT REUVEN Rivlin stands next to Swedish Ambassador Erik Ullenhag and his wife, who is dressed in Swedish national costume. (photo credit: AMOS BEN-GERSHOM/GPO)
PRESIDENT REUVEN Rivlin stands next to Swedish Ambassador Erik Ullenhag and his wife, who is dressed in Swedish national costume.
(photo credit: AMOS BEN-GERSHOM/GPO)
Coincidence has a very long and strange arm. The arrival in Israel of Malawian Foreign Minister Eisenhower Mkaka on the eve of the US elections would obviously make some people think of America’s 34th president, Dwight D. Eisenhower, after whom the visiting foreign minister was presumably named. During his visit, Mkaka announced that his country was planning to open an embassy in Jerusalem, a diplomatic move sparked by US President Donald Trump, who is standing for reelection.
Trump’s decision to move the US Embassy to Jerusalem was in part in the nature of where the US goes, others will follow.
On the eve of the US elections of 1956, Republican Dwight Eisenhower was also standing for reelection. He was then somewhat less interested in his political future than in what was happening in the Middle East. Eisenhower, who had been the commanding general of US forces in Europe during World War Two and is often credited with having planned the D-Day victory, was worried that yet another world war was on the immediate horizon, resulting from the invasion of Egypt by Israeli, French and British Forces. The fighting was over control of the Suez Canal, and Eisenhower was worried that any escalation in hostilities would cause the Soviet Union to join the fray and send in troops to fight shoulder-to-shoulder with their Egyptian counterparts.
The upshot of that, in Eisenhower’s view, would evolve into a full-scale war.
Fortunately, he conceived a peace initiative that was acceptable to all sides, and was thus able to avert what might have been a Third World War.
Mkaka’s Israeli counterpart, Gabi Ashkenazi, like Eisenhower, is a retired general who as chief of staff commanded all the Israeli armed forces, and after putting away his uniform, changed his mode of dress to a suit and tie, went out into the world of business, and from there to the political arena. It may be Ashkenazi rather than his party leader Benny Gantz who will one day be prime minister.
■ INTERNATIONAL MARCH of the Living president Phyllis Greenberg Heideman and March of the Living world chair Shmuel Rosenman have launched a Kristallnacht program that will take place on November 9 to mark the anniversary of the horrific prelude to the Holocaust.
On November 9 and 10, 1938, Jews of Germany experienced a two-day pogrom during which the Nazis burned more than 1,400 synagogues and Jewish institutions across Germany. “The Night of Broken Glass” was a critical moment in the chain of atrocities that led to the Holocaust.
This year, the March of the Living will mark Kristallnacht with a message of unity and hope through an international campaign titled “Let There Be Light.” Individuals, institutions and houses of worship worldwide are invited to keep their lights on during the night of November 9 as a symbol of solidarity and mutual commitment in the battle against antisemitism, racism, hatred and intolerance.
In a joint statement, Heideman and Rosenman declared, “We must use our voices to tell the world that attacks on Jews and non-Jews alike, whether on the basis of religion, race, color or creed, are inexcusable. In the days when synagogues and holy places for various religions are attacked on a regular basis, it is our duty to speak out loudly and clearly.”
Salomon Korn, head of the Jewish Community of Frankfurt am Main in Germany, said, “Antisemitism and racism threaten our society as a whole. They endanger our values and our democracy. Together, we want to send a signal against the increase of antisemitism and hate speech all over the world. We want to raise awareness against growing discrimination and intolerance, and bring the light of humanity in these difficult times.”
As part of this virtual initiative, people of all religions and backgrounds are invited to write personal messages of hope in their own words on the campaign website.
The main synagogue in Frankfurt (one of the few that was not destroyed on Kristallnacht) will be illuminated, as will other places of religious significance throughout the world. Prayers from the virtual campaign will be projected on the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem.
Against the backdrop of rising antisemitism and racism – including hate attacks in France and Austria – and the shadow of COVID-19, these expressions of optimism and unity will help illuminate the world against darkness and hatred, say the initiators of the campaign.
■ IN A separate Holocaust-related initiative, the German Bundestag decided last week that a memorial site for the Polish victims of World War II and the German occupation of Poland will be created in Berlin.
This will be the only World War Two memorial in Berlin dedicated to a single nation, though it will be interesting to see if the memorial will somehow distinguish between Polish citizens per se and Polish Jews.
In the parliamentary debate on the memorial, some speakers recalled that the German occupation of Poland was “unique in its cruelty” and that not a single Wehrmacht soldier, SS member or police officer had been convicted by a German court for war crimes committed in Poland.
Poland’s Foreign Minister Zbigniew Rau, commenting on the decision of the Bundestag, said it was “a long-awaited step in the right direction.”
■ THE WORLD Jewish Congress has chosen the anniversary of Kristallnacht for the presentation of its highest honor – the prestigious Theodor Herzl Award – to António Guterres, the ninth and current secretary-general of the United Nations. WJC President Ronald Lauder will also present the Teddy Kollek Award for the Advancement of Jewish Culture to Zubin Mehta, musical director emeritus of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. The gala event, which will be livestreamed at 6 p.m. EST, will include a tribute by former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger.
■ ALTHOUGH AUSTRALIAN Ambassador Paul Griffiths and Defense Attaché Col. Brandon Wood hosted a Zoom event marking the 103rd anniversary of the Battle of Beersheba, in which Australian and New Zealand mounted troops set a new course for the development of the region, they also felt it necessary to go to Beersheba on the actual anniversary of the battle and hold a small service there for soldiers who paid the supreme sacrifice and did not return home.
At the Zoom event, which included the first virtual screening of Ride Like an ANZAC, Second Secretary Patrick Mayoh spoke of his grandfather’s service in the region during the Second World War.
More than 120 people took time out on Wednesday of last week to participate in the Zoom event. “It was a great way to commemorate the Battle of Beersheba and honor the legacy of the ANZACs,” said Griffiths.
■ LAST WEEK, the Ethiopian Embassy hosted a webinar on the quest for equitable shares of the Nile water. The speakers were Prof. Haggai Erlich, whose topic was “From Aswan to Renaissance,” and Dr. Ofir Haivry, who presented “A Regional Initiative for Water Cooperation.’
This week, following a virtual meeting of the ministers of water affairs of Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan, further discussions were held under the guidance of South Africa’s Ministry of International Relations and Cooperation.
Given Israel’s expertise in water management, it would not be surprising if unofficial discussions will also be held with Israeli experts in the not-too-distant future.
■ EVERYONE HAS their priorities, and while the world was waiting with bated breath on Wednesday for the results of the US elections, and in Israel many people also remembered that it was the 25th anniversary according to the Gregorian calendar of the assassination of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, for Jean Luc Bodson of Belgium, Feruza Makmudova of Uzbekistan, Erik Ullenhag of Sweden, Kare Reider Aas of Norway, and Aivars Groza of Latvia, it was an important personal day. Each is a new ambassador to Israel, and in individual ceremonies on Wednesday, each presented credentials to President Reuven Rivlin.
During the COVID-19 era, most events at the President’s Residence have been held on the large patio outside the main reception hall. However, the cumulonimbus clouds that dominated the Jerusalem skies heralded heavy rain, (which did not eventuate in the morning), and the presentation ceremonies were held indoors.
A substantially reduced military honor guard assembled outside as a mark of respect for each of the ambassadors as they arrived, but the police brass band plus two drummers came inside to herald each arrival and to play the national anthems of each country, followed by “Hatikva.”
Under usual circumstances, when the band is outside, it can be heard more than a block away. Within the confines of the hall, the sound was deafening.
In conversing with five diplomats, it was impossible for Rivlin to avoid at least a passing mention of the American presidential elections, and like most Israeli public figures, simply noted the bipartisan support that Israel has received over the years from the US. This was confirmed by Reider Aas, who spent seven years in the US, and lost no time in tweeting after his meeting with Rivlin what an honor it had been to present credentials and to discuss mutual interests, furthering of bilateral relations, fighting antisemitism and finding a global response to COVID-19.
The tweet was accompanied by photographs taken by the ambassador’s wife, who like her Swedish counterpart, had come attired in national costume. It is quite common for Asian and African male and female members of the diplomatic community to wear their national dress on formal occasions, but extremely rare for members of the European diplomatic community to do so. Apparently, this is a new Scandinavian custom.