Grapevine: Reform Zionists care about Israel

This week's social news.

Israeli flag. (photo credit: REUTERS)
Israeli flag.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
‘We are all a part of a people, of a nation, and we all have a stake in Israel’s future” wrote Rabbi Josh Weinberg, the president of the Association of Reform Zionists of America, on its website. Weinberg was among several American Jewish leaders who reacted angrily to the ill-chosen remarks of Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely, who they say denigrated American Jews and who inter alia implied that they live the good life without the worries experienced by Israel, and their youth don’t go to the army or the Marines.
Hotovely seemed to have forgotten that when Deputy Minister and former ambassador to the US Michael Oren initially came to Israel from the United States, it was to serve as a lone soldier in the Israel Defense Forces. She’s also forgotten the Americans who came to serve in the IDF and paid the supreme sacrifice. Weinberg is also among the Americans who came to serve in the IDF and even did a stint in its Spokesperson’s Unit.
Hotovely is not enamored with Reform Jews, despite the fact that the ARZA website makes it clear that “modern Zionism encompasses our values of democracy, pluralism and equality. The love of Israel demands honesty and a commitment to the continuation of building a morally exceptional society.” The Americans whom Hotovely insulted not only give their blessing to sons and daughters who want to serve in the IDF, but are thrilled when their offspring are included among the 120 outstanding soldiers at Independence Day ceremonies, and come to Israel to witness them being honored at the President’s Residence.
Aside from that, where would Israel be without the commitment of American Jews of all streams of Judaism? Hotovely should take a look at the plaques at Hadassah-University Medical Center and other hospitals, universities, Yad Vashem and numerous projects throughout the country. American Jews have poured hundreds of billions of dollars into Israel’s development since before the establishment of the state. Hotovely obviously didn’t think twice about biting the hand that fed her.
■ AS FOR service in the army, even the American-born great-grandson of a soldier who fought in the army of the Third Reich is currently a medic in the IDF. Jake Scholl’s great-grandfather Frederich Scholl was a Nazi soldier who was killed in action in Poland when fighting the Russians. He was 30 years old at the time of his death. His seven-year-old son also grew up to be an army man, and, after mandatory service in the German Army for three years, migrated to the US with his wife and served for 20 years in the American army, until reaching retirement age. Jake’s father, Mario Herbert Scholl, also joined the US Army, so it came as no surprise that Jake also wanted to be a soldier.
But there was a difference. Jake’s mother is Jewish, which makes him Jewish according to Halacha, though until a couple of years back he knew very little about Judaism until he came on a Birthright trip and learned a lot in a short time. He initially thought of enlisting in the American army, but after Birthright, decided it would be more meaningful to enlist in the IDF.
When on leave, he lives in Jerusalem’s German Colony. He has his family’s blessing and support, and his close relatives paid a first-time visit to Israel to see him. They loved it here, he said, and are looking forward to coming again. Meanwhile, Jake found romance in Jerusalem’s Mahaneh Yehuda Market, and is engaged to an immigrant from Brazil who lives in Modi’in but is studying at the Hebrew University, he told Liat Bachrach of Kol Ha’ir, the local supplement of Haaretz. He doesn’t know yet whether he will remain in Israel or return to the US. Meanwhile, he has only good things to say about Jerusalem.
When Bachrach asked him about the advantages of Jerusalem, he replied that lone soldiers are permitted to study free of charge at university, and they also receive lots of invitations for Sabbath meals. And the disadvantage? He finds Jerusalem somewhat too crowded, “but you learn to live with that.”
■ WHILE PRESIDENT Reuven Rivlin and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are trying to mend fences with Diaspora Jewry and find a viable solution to make the Western Wall accessible to all streams of Judaism, including those who want to hold egalitarian services, true tolerance can be seen at the Modern Orthodox Hazvi Yisrael Synagogue in Jerusalem’s Talbiyeh neighborhood, where both Rivlin and Netanyahu have on several occasions attended services. Oded Feldman, the congregation’s president, photographed a pious Muslim at prayer beneath the pergola of the synagogue, and on the basis of one God, three faiths, left him in peace to continue his devotion to the Creator.
■ NOT EVERY cloud has a silver lining, but the cloud hanging over Rivlin appears to have one, in that for all the vicious verbal attacks against him, there were messages of support from across the political spectrum, even to the extent of a pro-Rivlin demonstration outside the President’s Residence on Friday, prompting Nechama Rivlin to come out into the street to express appreciation to the demonstrators.
Most of the people who resented that Rivlin had not pardoned the “Hebron shooter,” Elor Azaria, failed to see the full picture. Azaria had already been given a relatively light sentence for manslaughter by a military court. The terrorist he shot was already wounded and neutralized, and Azaria was a Johnny-come-lately to the scene. The chief of staff had already lightened the sentence. To pardon him would send the wrong message about Israel’s values and sense of justice to the world. If Israel wants to be a light unto the nations, it has to be a light unto itself first. What Rivlin did was to ensure that the light was not extinguished.
Disagreement is legitimate. Rivlin said as much himself. But disagreement should be expressed in a logical and civilized manner devoid of violence and incitement. That Netanyahu has joined in a petition asking Rivlin to consider adds to his popularity in pro-Azaria circles, but the prime minister also knows that by the time another appeal is lodged with the President’s Office, Azaria will probably be out of prison.
Rivlin has been criticized in this column for failing to continue with the Medal of Distinction initiated by his predecessor Shimon Peres. As the medal honors people who are not necessarily Israelis, it would help, in the effort to bridge the rift between Israel and Diaspora Jewry, if its scope were broadened so that six Israelis and six non-Israelis, including non-Jews, would be honored at the same time, in recognition of service to the State of Israel and to humanity.
Among the non-Jews on whom the medal was conferred by Peres were German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Italian president Giorgio Napolitano, US president Barack Obama, conductor Zubin Mehta and diplomat and liaison for Israel’s minorities Kamal Mansour.
On Sunday of this week, Prof. Manfred Gerstenfeld, in an op-ed article in The Jerusalem Post, suggested that Rivlin had been remiss in not continuing with the annual presidential conferences that had also been initiated by Peres. Perhaps because he’s an intellectual, Gerstenfeld preferred something more modest, yet more highbrow than the Peres conferences, which in fact held something for everyone, including overflow sessions with sexologist Dr. Ruth Westheimer. Gerstenfeld preferred to omit the Jewish world sessions, in which the same old issues were rehashed.
But the fact is that the issues need to rehashed, but perhaps with certain guidelines set down well in advance. As Rivlin himself has said, Israelis and Diaspora Jews need to learn to know one another, and this can best be done through constructive dialogue. The beauty of the presidential conferences was in respect to their size, because it enabled more people from more countries to network with one another and to discover mutual areas of interest. To narrow down the conference would partially defeat its purpose.
The organizer of these conferences, and the person who deserves the most credit for their success, is lawyer and former cabinet secretary Israel Maimon, who is currently president and CEO of the Development Corporation for Israel Bonds. In his own words, Facing Tomorrow, as the presidential conference was called, was “the biggest, most important conference in Israel – a celebration of the mind attracting thousands of participants from all over the world.” Maimon is in an even better position now than he was then to approach some of the brightest minds in the Jewish world and beyond, to come as speakers to such a conference, should Rivlin decide to revive it. Now that he’s resident in New York, Maimon can meet face-to-face with many potential speakers.
It would certainly be worthwhile to try to revive the presidential conference in Israel’s 70th anniversary year, and perhaps to do so when there is a mega Birthright mission in Israel, so that more young people who are discovering their roots will get a closer yet broader feeling of Jewish community. The real challenge is to persuade the president.
■ IN 2009 Bernardo Griever, the ambassador of Uruguay, presented his credentials to president Shimon Peres. He did so in fluent Hebrew, stating that all his life he had been saying “Next Year in Jerusalem,” and finally it had happened. Needless to say, Griever is Jewish. He’s also a graduate of a Montevideo Jewish Day School, where he learned to speak Hebrew. His wife, Karen, and their sons, Daniel and Alejandro, also speak Hebrew. Griever has family living in Israel, and his half brother Irim, a resident of Tel Aviv, was with him when he presented his credentials.
On Wednesday morning Griever will again present credentials in Jerusalem – this time to Rivlin, and this time it will be even more symbolic than it was the first time, because it will be exactly the 70th anniversary of the United Nations resolution on the partition of Palestine, which six months later led to the proclamation of the independent State of Israel. Uruguay was among the countries that voted in favor, as did most of the countries of Latin America.
Uruguay was also a member country of the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine, which toured the country and also visited some neighboring countries as well as displaced persons camps in Europe, and after three months of intensive activity recommended the termination of the British Mandate and independence at the earliest practicable date, with the proviso that the sacred character of all holy places be preserved, and that such places be accessible to Christian, Jewish and Muslim pilgrims. Uruguay was among the first countries to recognize Israel in 1948 and was also one of the countries that, on May 11, 1949, voted in favor of Israel being accepted as a member state of the UN.
Sweden, whose ambassador is also presenting credentials Wednesday, likewise voted in favor, and was among the 33 that voted in favor of the partition of Palestine.
■ PORTUGAL’S NEW ambassador, Joao-Bernardo Weinstein, is also a member of the tribe, and bearing in mind that on December 5, 1496, King Manuel of Portugal signed a decree for the expulsion of Jews and Muslims, to take effect the following year, there is some significance in the fact that Weinstein is presenting his credentials 520 years after the actual expulsion, 70 years after the UN vote paved the way for the reestablishment of a Jewish state, and a little over two years after Portugal announced that it would restore citizenship to people who could prove descent from the expelled Jews.
Actually, Jews began returning to Portugal in small numbers in the 19th century, and in 1904 built a synagogue in Lisbon – the first in some 400 years. Ironically, Portugal became a haven for Jews fleeing the Holocaust, and Portuguese Jews and non-Jews were involved in rescue operations. In 1987, president Mario Soares asked forgiveness from Portugal’s Jewish communities for the iniquities of the Inquisition.
■ ON MARCH 17, 1996, the Knesset passed a law setting up a National Authority for Yiddish Culture and another National Authority for Ladino Culture. Yiddish was for centuries the lingua franca of Ashkenazi Jews of European background, and Ladino the lingua franca of Jews from North Africa, Bulgaria, Greece, Turkey and South America, who could trace their lineage to the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492.
Yitzhak Navon, Israel’s fifth president, headed the Ladino authority until the time of his death in November 2015, while the Yiddish authority had a number of chairmen, none of whom lasted for very long.
Among the prominent figures of the Yiddish stage is actress and Israel Prize laureate Lea Koenig, who performs in both Yiddish and Hebrew – more so in Hebrew these days. At age 87 (her birthday is on November 30) she is currently appearing in five Habimah productions, and is preparing to play the title role in King Lear.
Coincidentally, both Koenig and Navon were honored on Monday night of this week. Koenig was given a life achievement award by the Yiddish authority at a festive ceremony at the Einav Center in Tel Aviv. This was a particular triumph for Koenig, who, when she went for her first audition at Habimah in 1962, made the near fatal error of reciting a monologue in Yiddish. That mistake almost put paid to her career. Today, Yiddish theater flourishes in Israel.
Also on Monday night at the World Center for North African Jewish Heritage in Jerusalem, Navon was being posthumously honored with the launch of a book, Meditation Diary (Hebrew), that he actually wrote by hand when he and prime minister David Ben-Gurion went to Burma in December 1961 to confer with premier U Nu and to study meditation. In 1955, Nu was the first foreign leader to visit Israel, and relations between the two countries have been warm ever since. During the two weeks that Ben-Gurion and Navon spent in Burma, Navon wrote down all his experiences, his doubts and his thoughts – and because he was such a linguistic perfectionist, he wrote in classical Hebrew. Following his death two years ago, his family decided to publish the diary in book form.
The launch on Monday night took place in the same venue where Navon’s autobiography, All the Way (Hebrew), was launched in June 2015. Navon was very ill at the time, but with the cooperation of Prof. Jonathan Halevy, the director of Shaare Zedek Medical Center, he was brought in a wheelchair to the event and was greatly moved by the numerous platitudes that he received, including those of Reuven Rivlin, who sat beside him.
It was very important to Navon’s wife Miri Shafir Navon that the second book launch be held in the same place. “We thought, in June 2015, that it was a book launch, but it was actually a farewell party,” she said, her voice breaking with tears. In conjunction with the launch, Shafir Navon, who is also an artist, held an exhibition of her works, which told the story of her life with Navon. Rivlin was there again, as were many of the people who had come from Haifa, Herzliya, Kfar Shmaryahu, Tel Aviv and, of course, Jerusalem two-and-a-half years ago.
If someone had asked Navon’s daughter, Naama, to describe her father in one word, she would have said “teacher,” said Rivlin. If she’d been asked to describe him in two words, she would have said “teacher and scholar.” That would have been an exact description said Rivlin. “Navon was a teacher to all of us, and he was a scholar for all of his life. More than that, he taught us to be students in character and way of life.” Rivlin described the new/old book as “splendid” and one of the most unique examples of literature that he’d ever come across. Of Navon himself, Rivlin said that he was a very special individual who had made a significant contribution to society, and he spoke truth “when it was more than just a word.”
Characterizing Navon as “an authentic Jerusalemite,” Rivlin observed that even in Burma, he was homesick for the hummus at Rahmo’s. Rivlin also mentioned Navon’s enduring concern for the well-being of his fellow Israelis. Rivlin, who frequently refers to the many generations that his own family has lived in Jerusalem, in paying tribute to Navon, called himself a new immigrant by comparison, because the Navons came to Jerusalem more than 200 years before the Rivlins.
Master of ceremonies was veteran radio broadcaster Shmuel Shai, a close family friend of the Navons, who will be interviewing Shafir-Navon at a Saturday morning cultural meeting at the Mandel Cultural Center in Jaffa on December 9. Among those present was Myanmar Ambassador Maung Maung Lynn, who made available a documentary on Ben-Gurion and Navon’s visit to Burma as well as a documentary on Myanmar culture. The evening included lectures and a demonstration of meditation that included golden-voiced singer Avigail Amster singing Buddhist songs of meditation.
■ ACCOMPANIED BY Philippines Ambassador Neal Imperial and a delegation that included Office of the Undersecretary of Migrant Workers Affairs executive director Raul Dado and chief of staff Errol Leones, and Philippines Department of Foreign Affairs Undersecretary for Migrant Workers Affairs Sarah Lou Y. Arriola met last week in Jerusalem with Hotovely to discuss developments in 60 years of bilateral relations.
The meeting focused on the proposed Philippine-Israeli Bilateral Labor Agreement and negotiations that are currently under way. The signed agreement would serve as a pilot agreement for the succeeding negotiations with other countries that send caregivers to Israel, such as Nepal, Sri Lanka, and India. Arriola expressed appreciation to Israel for the labor laws that protect the rights of Filipino workers and said that the Duterte administration has made overseas Filipinos the forefront of its foreign policy. The undersecretary also reported on the successful Philippine hosting of the ASEAN Summit in Manila, where the landmark document ASEAN Consensus on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Migrant Workers was signed.
■ AFTER YEARS of being the angels behind numerous Israeli film productions, and then distributing the films in question, brothers Leon and Moshe Edery, who are the proprietors of Cinema City and United King, are taking their contribution to Israel’s film industry a step further by offering incentives and encouragement to the next generation of filmmakers, while simultaneously honoring their deceased parents, Avraham and Clara Edery, in whose names they have established a scholarship foundation. The Edery brothers, who are the largest investors in Israeli cinema, are providing scholarships for first degree graduates of the School of Communications at Netanya Academic College. Scholarships were awarded for the first time last week in the college’s cinema auditorium, which the siblings dedicated some 18 months ago in memory of their parents and their brother Hillel.
At that time, Prof. Zvi Arad, the president of the college, awarded the Edery brothers honorary fellowships. On this occasion, the brothers celebrated the completion of an important documentary, Conflict and the Saving of Life (Hebrew), about Iyad Abu Zakika, 57, an ambulance driver from Baka al-Gharbiya, who for 15 years has volunteered with Magen David Adom and filled a variety of positions, ranging from administering first aid to rapid response in emergency situations. Abu Zakika was this year one of the recipients of the President’s Prize for Volunteerism. The scholarships were given to the five students engaged in the production who collectively represent the religious, secular and Arab sectors of Israeli society and prove that coexistence is possible even in the face of the many disputes they had when making the film.
Among the many well-known figures who attended the ceremony was Construction Minister Yoav Gallant, a personal friend of the Edery brothers, who surprised them since they thought he would be busy with political issues currently facing the government. They, in turn, surprised him by asking him to speak. Gallant stated that he didn’t have a prepared speech, but said that in politics one learns to speak extemporaneously. The great thing about the Edery brothers, he said, is that they love what they’re doing, and it’s a wonderful thing to love your work.