Grapevine, September 2, 2020: The New Middle East

The movers and shakers of Israeli society

Jared Kushner at the Western Wall, August 30, 2020 (photo credit: MATTY STERN / US EMBASSY JERUSALEM)
Jared Kushner at the Western Wall, August 30, 2020
The fourth anniversary of the death of statesman and visionary Shimon Peres will be marked this month. It was also in September, years earlier, that his book The New Middle East was published, and it was in that same year, in September 1993, that prime minister Yitzhak Rabin stood on the lawn of the White House with PLO leader Yasser Arafat, and the two pledged, in the presence of president Bill Clinton, that they would work together with the aim of bringing about peace in the Middle East.
Unfortunately, that has not yet eventuated, but there has been a historic improvement in Israel’s relations with the Arab world, and part of what Peres envisaged in his book with regard to peace, prosperity and cooperation on different levels has come true. Peres predicted then that it would happen within 20 years.
Well, there is still much work to be done in that direction, and it is ironic that the credit for what has been achieved belongs to Peres’s nemesis Benjamin Netanyahu and, to a large extent, to White House Senior Advisor Jared Kushner and Mossad chief Yossi Cohen. The thumbnail entries in future history books will probably omit the names of Kushner and Cohen and list only the signatories to diplomatic agreements between Israel and various Arab countries, but researchers will always dig deeper and, if no one pulls the plug on digital technology, give proper credit where it is due.
Kushner, following his meeting with Netanyahu this week, said of his involvement in the peace agreement between Israel and the UAE: “To have played a role in its creation, I say, as the grandson of two Holocaust survivors, it means more to me and my family than I can ever express.”
It is very telling that Kushner, who was raised in a Modern Orthodox family, went to pray at the Western Wall on Sunday evening. Doffing the suit that he had worn earlier in the day, he wore casual blue pants and a gray T-shirt. His mask matched his pants. It was not his first visit to the Western Wall, but on previous occasions the visit had been more formal. Coincidentally, Kushner’s visit to the Western Wall took place on the 123rd anniversary of the first Zionist Congress, which was held in Basel, Switzerland, from August 29 to 31, 1897.
■ APROPOS PERES, Yona Bartal, who was deputy director at the President’s Residence while Peres was in office, and was his right hand and confidante for more than two decades, has been elected president of the Commercial and Industrial Club. The vivacious and ageless Bartal, who was among the Peres loyalists who followed him to the Peres Center for Peace and Innovation after he completed his presidential tenure, is the founder and executive director of the Peres Circle at the Peres Center.
The Commercial and Industrial Club is one of the oldest ongoing clubs in Israel, and was founded a decade prior to the establishment of the state. It is associated with various chambers of commerce, the Manufacturers Association, the Israel Export Institute and with honorary consuls representing global business interests in Israel.
For Bartal, whose work with Peres earned her many international and local parliamentary, political and economic connections, this is an opportunity to come full circle and realize yet another of Peres’s dreams, which was to establish a mentorship program in all fields of business, while simultaneously promoting technological and scientific education along with business entrepreneurship
■ DIPLOMATIC DEVELOPMENTS often take a long time, and just as a lot of people involved in the current history of diplomatic relations between Israel and Arab states will be overlooked by political historians, so will the people who initiated these developments and worked under the radar for years to bring them to fruition.
One such person is Ambassador to Germany Jeremy Issacharoff, who arguably knows a lot more about the background to these developments than does Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi, whom he welcomed last week in Berlin, when Ashkenazi took his first overseas trip in his current role.
Way back in 1994, when Issacharoff was serving the Israel Embassy in Washington and was responsible for strategic issues, he became the first Israeli diplomat to meet with an Emirati representative. In an interview last week with Der Spiegel, Issacharoff recalled that a Washington consultant had come to him and said that the UAE was interested in purchasing US defense equipment, and wanted to know if Israel would have a problem with that. Issacharoff’s reply had been that if the Emiratis were interested in how Israel sees this, he would be more than happy to meet with them and begin a dialogue, so that they could better understand each other instead of receiving messages through a third party. Soon after, Issacharoff met with his Emirati counterpart, Jamal al-Suwaidi, an academic who had established a government-supported think tank in Abu Dhabi which he called the Emirates Center for Strategic Studies and Research. Suwaidi was also a high-ranking adviser to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed. Issacharoff and Suwaidi met several times in Washington and actually became friends, as stereotyped images of each other faded away. They remained in contact after they left Washington. Their talks resulted in Israel having a discreet presence in the UAE.
In 2005, Issacharoff returned to Washington as deputy chief of the Israel mission and later met with UAE Ambassador Yousef Al Otaiba. The UAE shared Israel’s concerns about the Iranian nuclear program and the threats voiced by Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, which led to further meetings that also included US Middle East adviser Dennis Ross and ambassador Sallai Meridor.
With hindsight, Issacharoff believes that the fact that Israel did not object to the UAE receiving F-16 planes from the US helped to open a diplomatic door of trust and a more sustained dialogue, coupled with converging interests, which led to the Abraham Accords.
■ THE APPOINTMENT of a new head of Yad Vashem to succeed Avner Shalev, who has retired, should be free of politics. While Effi Eitam, a former minister and IDF brigadier-general, is the grandson of Jews murdered in the Holocaust, at a time when Holocaust survivors are in the deep twilight of their lives, it is important to have an internationally recognized Holocaust researcher at the head of Yad Vashem and other Holocaust memorial museums around the world.
One such person is Prof. Havi Dreifuss, a historian of the Holocaust in Eastern Europe at the department of Jewish history at Tel Aviv University. Dreifuss also worked at Yad Vashem during her studies at the Hebrew University, and since November 2010 heads the Center for Research on the Holocaust in Poland at Yad Vashem’s International Institute for Holocaust Research. Her own research deals with various aspects of everyday life during the Holocaust, including: the relationship between Jews and Poles, religious life in the shadow of the Holocaust, and Jewish existence in the face of extermination. She is also a member of the International Auschwitz Council.
■ LIKE FATHER, like son. Shaul Meridor, former head of the Budget Department at the Finance Ministry (and nephew of the above-mentioned Sallai Meridor), this week tendered his resignation. Meridor worked at ministry for 20 years. In 1997, his father, Dan Meridor, who was then the finance minister, also tendered his resignation. In both cases, the prime minister was Netanyahu, with whose fiscal policies both father and son were in disagreement. But the younger Meridor resigned more because of the policies of Finance Minister Israel Katz, who has systematically ignored his advice and who has publicly humiliated him, whereas Dan Meridor resigned because he believed that there was a campaign to remove him from the cabinet – and he jumped before he was pushed.
The campaign, as far as the senior Meridor was aware, was being led by Avigdor Liberman, who was then the director-general of the Prime Minister’s Office. These days, Liberman is more intent on removing Netanyahu.
■ A LITTLE more cooperation and a little less competition in a Zoom era would not go astray when event organizers are catering to more or less the same audiences. It has already been mentioned in this column that a large sector of the public will have trouble choosing between Docaviv and the Israel Festival, which both open on September 3.
To add to their frustration is the opening on the same date of the Israeli Poets Festival, in which various prose writers and literary critics will be engaged in conversation with or about some of the nation’s great poets. What should be of particular interest to members of Israel’s Iraqi community and their descendants will be a conversation between Iraqi-born novelist Eli Amir and Iraqi-born poet Ronny Someck.
Immigrants from all countries of Jewish dispersion have made valuable contributions to Israel in every field of endeavor, despite obstacles that have frequently been placed in the paths of people who were non-Ashkenazi and dark of complexion. Yet for all that, every immigrant community, without exception, can boast high achievers in various professions.
As far as Iraq goes, the self-appointed national upholder of Iraqi heritage has been Iraqi-born storyteller, author singer, actor and director Yossi Alfi, who is best known for his Sukkot storytelling festival in which he has literally hundreds of people who share professional or national backgrounds telling stories about their families, jobs and any number of other common aspects. Alfi is usually the master of ceremonies for these programs, which are conducted as back-to-back marathons, and are recorded and replayed over and over on radio and television. Somehow, regardless of what the topic may be, Alfi manages to sneak in something related to Iraq.
Prior to the Farhud, a vicious pogrom carried out against Iraqi Jews in June 1941, the Jewish community of Iraq was by and large affluent, well-educated and influential. It also boasted wonderful poets, as did Iraq in general along with neighboring Muslim states, where it was customary for every tribe to have its poet laureate.
Like immigrants all over the world, the Iraqi immigrants to Israel wanted to become part of the mainstream population and, in line with David Ben-Gurion’s melting pot policy, sacrificed much of their cultural traditions, as did immigrants from other countries. Their poets disappeared into oblivion.
Amir and Someck want to revive the works of great Iraqi Jewish poets – especially those who came to Israel – and to make them more widely known.
Arguably the most illustrious of Iraqi-born Israelis is Shlomo Hillel, whose curriculum vitae includes kibbutznik, Mossad agent, diplomat, politician, Knesset speaker, government minister, world chairman of United Israel Appeal and author. Hillel organized the secret airlift of Iraqi Jews to Israel.
Some other Israelis of Iraqi background include: Shas mentor and former Sephardi chief Rabbi Ovadia Yosef; former Mossad agent and government minister Mordechai Ben-Porat, one of the founders of the Babylon Heritage Center; billionaire businessman and former MK Shlomo Eliahu; writer Sami Michael; kabbalist Rabbi Yitzhak Kaduri; government minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer; former Meretz MK Ran Cohen; former health minister Shoshana Arbeli-Almozlino; former Knesset speaker Dalia Itzik, whose parents were Iraqi; former justice minister Ayelet Shaked, whose paternal grandmother was from Iraq; veteran military reporter Carmela Menashe, who is of Iraqi parentage; and hotelier David Fattal, who is also of Iraqi parentage.
■ KAN 11’s rising star and political affairs reporter Michael Shemesh, who has quite a few scoops under his belt, was the subject last weekend of a regular Friday supplement feature in Haaretz in which the subject is usually shown in an enlarged, bare-shouldered head shot which is surrounded by several well- spaced paragraphs in which the subject reveals something of his or her background.
Shemesh, 23, was not bare-shouldered. He wore the undershirt traditionally worn by religiously observant Jewish males. The son of the head of a kollel, he was born in Bnei Brak and is one of 12 siblings. He is married to Avishag, and they have a one-year-old son, Itamar. They live in the Jerusalem outer suburb of Givat Ze’ev.
Shemesh’s brothers and brothers-in-law are all immersed in Torah studies, but even as an adolescent in yeshiva, his mind was somewhere else, and he used to secretly listen to news and current affairs programs through earphones plugged into a tiny radio. The earphones and the radio were his companions at home as well.
His urge to become a journalist was sparked at the funeral of Rabbi Yosef. Looking at the huge phalanx of reporters from the general media who covered the funeral, he did not see a single Sephardi haredi (ultra-Orthodox) face. It amazed him, and he decided that he would personally make up for the lacuna so that future events involving members of the Sephardi Torah-observant community would be covered by someone who understood them.
As far as he is aware, he was the first Sephardi haredi to do his military service at Army Radio. There were people from the National-Religious camp before him, but not haredim. Before doing his mandatory army service, he worked at a religious radio station, and following his discharge from the army, he joined KAN 11, where he seems destined for a very long career.
■ IT’S DOUBTFUL whether President Reuven Rivlin, when launching his flagship project of closing rifts between the different sectors of Israel’s population, envisaged something like the demonstrations taking place all over the country and in Jerusalem in particular, with Israelis of different stripes coming together in groups to protest on behalf of their individual causes.
Last Saturday night in Jerusalem, the thousands of demonstrators were joined by Breslov Hassidim, including a number of children, who sang and danced, to the annoyance of police. One cute little boy, who was pushed out of the way by police, momentarily lost his balance, but quickly regained it and moved back into the fray, dancing all the while. Singing and dancing are part of the Breslov lifestyle, and young Breslov boys can frequently be seen dancing on the roof of a large van to the sound of recorded music blaring from the inside.
On September 2, KAN 11 will launch a three-part weekly series on Breslov Hassidim of whose existence the general public has in recent weeks become more aware, due to the controversy regarding the annual Rosh Hashanah pilgrimage to Uman in Ukraine.
One doesn’t have to be a Breslov Hassid or even religiously observant to join the Uman festival, because in a sense it’s a kosher Woodstock, basically without women, although a few women have been known to attend. There’s also a separate women’s pilgrimage to Uman.
Among the people appearing in the series, which is directed by Eyal Datz, who is not religious, are rabbis, academics and well-known entertainers such as Shuli Rand, Itay Turgeman and Eviatar Banai. Breslov, with its belief that the spontaneous expression of emotions can heal the soul, has become a powerful force in the hassidic world, with the majority of those who live in Israel residing in Jerusalem.
■ AMONG THE ambassadors who have recently completed or are in the process of completing their tenures is dean of the diplomatic corps Hennadii Nadolenko, who has served as ambassador of Ukraine since June 2010.
Traditionally, the dean is the ambassador who has spent the longest period in the host country. This involves additional budgeting for his diplomatic mission, and therefore not every country is willing for its ambassador to accept the title and the honors that go with it. However, Ukraine was interested in enhancing its diplomatic status and image, and therefore gave the green light to the popular Nadolenko, for whom Israel was the seat of his first ambassadorial posting. He is also the first ambassador of Ukraine to be named dean of the diplomatic corps in Israel.
In just over a decade in this country, he has had relations with two presidents, having presented his credentials to Peres; he has worked closely with three Foreign Ministry chiefs of protocol: Yitzhak Eldan, who retired and promptly founded the Ambassadors’ Club of Israel and became head of the School for Young Diplomats at the Tel Aviv-headquartered Israel Center for Young Leaders; Talya Lador-Fresher, who was appointed ambassador to Austria; and present incumbent Meron Reuben, who at the end of this year will take up the post of consul-general in Boston. Nadolenko has worked with four foreign ministers – Liberman twice, Netanyahu, Katz and Ashkenazi. He has also witnessed five Knesset elections, but throughout all this, there has been only one prime minister.
In coming weeks and months Israel will be welcoming new ambassadors of Ukraine, Cyprus, Latvia, Australia and the Philippines, to list but a few. The past six months have not been easy for the diplomatic community both in Israel and abroad, and the overall situation has created new realities in the nature of their work.
■ JWIRE, THE Australian Jewish digital news service, reports that the Triguboff Institute, which operates the Maslul project, and Nativ, the liaison bureau of the Prime Minister’s Office, recently reached a strategic cooperation agreement concerning activities in post-Soviet states.
The Triguboff Institute will become the key point of contact at Israel-operated centers in all matters related to Jewish heritage, history and religion, with particular emphasis for potential immigrants who are not halachically Jewish but are eligible immigrants under the Law of Return. Within the context of the agreement, the Triguboff Institute is expanding its activities from four centers, currently operated jointly with the Jewish Agency, to 10 additional Bayit Yisrael centers, which are adjuncts to Israeli consular offices throughout the former Soviet republics, and which will conduct long-distance learning classes in Judaism.
Maslul, a program to help prospective immigrants begin converting to Judaism before they immigrate to Israel, was launched by the Harry A. Triguboff Foundation in the Gaslitska Synagogue in Kiev, Ukraine, in October 2015.
The foundation, established by Australian billionaire philanthropist Harry Triguboff, works in close coordination with Nativ, the agency, Tzohar, Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund, United Jewish Appeal and Jewish community leaders in the various republics, to give those people with inadequate Jewish DNA the opportunity to reclaim their Jewish heritage if they so desire. In Israel, the foundation provides conversion classes for immigrants who have already been accepted under the Law of Return, and are serving in the IDF, but whose Jewish identity is not recognized by the Chief Rabbinate.
■ IT’S INTERESTING that Israel’s first cycling team in the Tour de France entered under the name of Start-Up Nation, which is the title of a best-selling book coauthored by Dan Senor and Saul Singer and released for publication in November 2009.
Singer, a former Jerusalem Post columnist and op-ed editor, is an avid cyclist himself, and once threw out an already copyedited op-ed by the writer of this column, who objected to bicycle riders on the pavement – and still does.
The situation today is much worse than it was a decade ago. There are many more bicycle and motorcycle riders – and both have taken over the pavement. Only last week an elderly man and his young granddaughter rounded a corner on the pavement of a busy Jerusalem intersection, when they were almost run down by a motorcyclist who didn’t even slow down to apologize. Bicyclists ride on the pavement in both directions, and a pedestrian who might move slightly to the side when walking is in danger of being run down from behind by a bicyclist whose reflexes are not fast enough to swerve in time. Motorcyclists who change direction frequently mount the pavement in order to do a U-turn, without any consideration for toddlers walking slightly ahead of a parent or grandparent, or for an elderly person moving with the help of a walker.
In several other countries, it is illegal to ride bicycles and motorcycles on the pavement. Why not Israel?
■ CONGRATULATIONS ARE in order to Tel Aviv-born violin virtuoso Itzhak Perlman, who over the years has proved that talent, love and perseverance conquer all. Perlman, who was stricken with polio at the age of four, did not allow it to interfere with his love for music, his studies in music or the development of his musical talent. On his Facebook page this week, he wrote: “I’m not thinking 75. When I pick up the violin and I start playing, I say to myself: Oh, 75 is pretty good. Things are still working.”