Grapevine, September 9, 2020: Happy birthday, Mr. president

Movers and shakers in Israeli society.

President Reuven Rivlin is seen among flowers in the Emek Hefer region. (photo credit: MARK NEYMAN/GPO)
President Reuven Rivlin is seen among flowers in the Emek Hefer region.
(photo credit: MARK NEYMAN/GPO)
Congratulations are in order to President Reuven Rivlin on the Gregorian calendar date of his 81st birthday. Rivlin was born on September 9, but prefers to celebrate on the Hebrew calendar date, which is 25 Elul, so well-wishers won’t be late if they send birthday greetings next week instead of this.
Wednesday will be a regular workday for the president, who inter alia will participate in a Calcalist-hosted online conference on getting the furloughed and the unemployed back to work.
Among other well-known people born in September are actor Chaim Topol, who celebrates his 85th birthday on September 9; broadcaster Haim Yavin, who turns 88 on September 10; United Hatzalah founder Eli Beer, who will be 47 on September 13; singer and radio host Kobi Oz, who will be 51 on September 17; Jewish Agency Chairman Isaac Herzog, who will mark a milestone on September 22 when he turns 60; KAN 11 political reporter Michael Shemesh, who will turn 24 on September 22; and former prime minister Ehud Olmert, who will turn 75 on September 30.
Through his lawyer Ram Caspi, Olmert has asked Rivlin to expunge his criminal record. Whether Rivlin will accede to this request and give Olmert a 75th birthday gift remains to be seen.
■ ALTHOUGH CONSIDERABLE publicity was given to Orthodox Union kashrut supervision during the historic visit to the United Arab Emirates by Israeli and American delegations, the fact of the matter is that the OU has been kashering kitchens in the Arab world for close to three decades.
When Dan Kurtzer, who is an Orthodox Jew, was appointed US ambassador to Egypt in 1997, the OU kashered the kitchen in the American residence, and this deference to Jewish religious practice was widely publicized in the Arab press as well as in Jewish newspapers around the world.
Kurtzer served in that position till 2001, when he was appointed ambassador to Israel, a post he held till 2005. He had previously served as a junior diplomat in Cairo in 1981. Immediately following his first stint in Egypt, Kurtzer was posted to Israel, where he served from 1982 to 1986. Following his ambassadorship to Israel, he left the Foreign Service in 2006 and became an academic, occupying the chair in Middle East policy studies at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.
■ NO HEAD of any city, state or country has found an easy means of managing the pandemic. No matter what measures may be taken in an effort to ensure the maintenance of public health, there is always going to be an element of the population that rebels, and that rebellion could spark a fresh wave of infection. That has been more or less the case in most countries.
When Israelis accuse the prime minister or Prof. Ronni Gamzu of mismanagement of the crisis, the critics choose to overlook the frequency with which warnings about social distancing are ignored. It’s not just the weddings, or the crowded classrooms in some yeshivot, or the hordes that gather at demonstrations around the country. It’s all of these things and more.
In Australia’s state of Victoria, where lockdown has been extended and the international airport remains closed, there are also accusations of mismanagement. Sky News Australia reported that David Limbrick, a Liberal Democrat Party member of the Victorian Legislative Council, stated that the extension of Victoria’s lockdowns shows that the state of Victoria’s government “is totally incapable of coming up with solutions that are compatible with a free society.” If that sounds reminiscent of Israel, there are similar echoes around the globe, and the incapacity of governments is largely due to those sectors of the population that refuse to follow the rules.
■ “IT’S A hard place to leave,” Australia’s outgoing ambassador to Israel, Chris Cannan, told some 30 guests at the farewell party he hosted last Thursday at the Australian residence prior to his return to Canberra on Tuesday night. Due to current limitations on air travel, Cannan did not take any of the regular routes from Israel to Australia, but flew home via San Francisco.
One of the reasons that he felt so comfortable in Israel was that Israelis are just as casual as Australians. An example of the casual Australian attitude was when Cannan bumped into one of the guests on a nearby highway, when taking his dog for a walk half an hour before the party was due to start.
Given the Health Ministry’s restrictions on the number of people permitted to congregate in any one place at the same time, Cannan had difficulty in formulating his invitation list, and admitted that he had probably insulted a lot of people who would have wanted to attend. But in the final analysis, he based his decision on what he called “IsraOz” people – mainly Australian expats – who are engaged in strengthening the Israel-Australia relationship, and admitted that it was the first event he had hosted in which he knew absolutely everyone and didn’t have to be introduced to anyone.
The event was very much like an Australian reunion in that nearly everyone knew everyone else, even though most had not seen each other since January, when they attended a reception at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem in honor of Australian Governor-General David Hurley. Some saw each other again at Purim, but then came the Passover lockdown. A few who are connected with the Nippers lifesaving club also met at the beach.
So Cannan’s farewell was an opportunity for Nathan Cherny, Lisa Segelov, Yaron Wacksman, Ittay Fleischer, Manny Waks, Danny Hakim, Peter Adler, Harvey and Loretta Belik, Shalom Norman, Rachel Risby Raz, Amanda Joske, Paul Israel, Arsen Ostrovsky, Greg Masel and several others to get together again.
It was nice and easy to be an Australian ambassador in Israel, said Cannan, as he reviewed the long history between Australians and the people of the Land of Israel, which goes back more than a century. It also helps that Israelis know that Australia is Israel’s friend on a bipartisan level, Cannan noted, adding that this is borne out by the high-level exchanges of visitors in recent years. Former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull, while still in office, visited Israel, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Australia. A month after Hurley was in Jerusalem, he welcomed Rivlin in Canberra.
Moreover, there’s a strong Australian presence in Israel, which includes a military attaché, a trade office in Jerusalem, the Australian Landing Pad in Tel Aviv, the ANZAC Museum in Beersheba, along with numerous other projects. There’s also cyber and defense cooperation between the two countries, and, before the pandemic, Australian business delegations came to Israel with increasing frequency.
Asked what he particularly liked about Israel and what he will miss, Cannan replied: “The chutzpah, the belief that anything is possible; the can-do attitude, the cultural buzz, the Tel Aviv beaches, the sense of history in Jerusalem and the vibrancy of the people.”
Almost every ambassador to Israel declares at the point of departure that he or she will come back, and many of them do. In Cannan’s case, there’s a particular likelihood because he wants to keep a promise to his twin sons, Alex and Nicholas.
Cannan’s former wife, who is also a diplomat, was serving in Brussels while he was serving in Israel. The boys lived with her but came to Israel in the summer vacation period to be with their father, and occasionally came at other times as well. They loved being in Israel and were supposed to come during this past summer, but due to airport closures resulting from COVID-19 restrictions, they were unable to come. Cannan plans to bring them to Israel once travel freedom is restored.
The boys’ mother has completed her tenure in Belgium and will be back in Canberra at approximately the same time as Cannan. Their homes are some five minutes’ drive apart, so Cannan will be able to spend much more time with his sons than he could before.
In his new role, he will be in charge of digital and public diplomacy.
He had very positive things to say about his successor, whose name he did not disclose, because the appointment has not been officially announced by Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, despite the fact that the new ambassador is due to arrive in Israel on September 23. Cannan’s own appointment was announced two months prior to his arrival. Although the identity of the new ambassador has been known to the writer of this column for some weeks, there could be a last-minute change, so until it becomes official, the name will not be published.
■ ANOTHER DIPLOMATIC farewell was taking place on the same evening at the gracious Tel Aviv home of Sarah Alalouf, who is the honorary consul of Latvia. Alalouf and some 25 of the closest friends that Latvia Ambassador Elita Gavele made in Israel were in attendance to bid her a reluctant goodbye.
For Gavele, who managed to charm everyone she met in Israel with her warm, smiling personality, it was a highly emotional event. With tears in her eyes, she spoke of how much joy she had derived from her tenure in Israel, and commended Alalouf, whom she called “my sister,” for all the help she had given her and for the important work she had done, during the four years of Gavele’s posting. Gavele was also lavish in her praise of the Ambassadors’ Club of Israel for all that it does to make foreign diplomats feel welcome, and to help when they have problems.
Gavele presented Latvian certificates of appreciation to Alalouf, Ambassadors’ Club president Yitzhak Eldan, and to the club’s CEO, Itzik Kamilan. In similar vein, Eldan presented her with a silver shofar, which was inscribed with the words “To Ambassador Elita Gavele, the Shofarwoman of Latvia in Israel.” Eliahu Valk, the chairman of the Association of Latvian Jews in Israel, presented Gavele with a first copy of the booklet containing the brief biographies of 40 well-known Israelis of Latvian background.
Gavele is returning to Latvia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, where she will head the unit responsible for Latvian expatriates.
■ THE KNESSET’S loss is Israel’s gain. Ambassadors, deputy chiefs of mission, chargés d’affaires, as well as cultural and economic attachés spent much of Monday in Jerusalem under the auspices of the Ambassadors’ Club. Their first stop was at the exhibition marking the 500th anniversary of the death of Leonardo da Vinci at Jerusalem’s First Station, where they were greeted by Lior Shapiro and Itamar Taragan, who heads the First Station’s marketing team. Taragan was very proud of the fact that so much of the original station built in 1892 remains intact.
Because the variety of activities and attractions at the First Station is an incentive for the whole of the city’s human mosaic as well as for visitors from out of town and overseas, the management of the First Station is planning a major international event for next Passover, where it will have an all-nations tent in which every country with which Israel has diplomatic relations will be represented, in addition to which separate areas will be provided on a roster system for each country, to guarantee that each will have equal opportunity to promote its culture and its tourism sites.
Even though the Leonardo exhibition has been on view for several weeks, Fabio Ruggirello, the director of the Italian Cultural Institute, admitted that he had not seen it before. The exhibition includes reproductions of some of Leonardo’s inventions that were light years ahead of his time, and of course there’s a gallery with copies of some of his most famous paintings. Almost everyone wanted to be photographed alongside the Mona Lisa, and there was a group shot alongside The Last Supper.
For Marieke Monroy, the deputy head of mission at the Embassy of the Netherlands, the outing could not have come at a better time. After serving in the same position in Lisbon, she arrived in Israel three weeks ago, and had not previously had a chance to visit Jerusalem.
From the First Station, the group continued to the nearby headquarters of Jerusalem Venture Partners (JVP), which was established in 1993 by Erel Margalit, who had previously worked with mayor Teddy Kollek and Uzi Wexler, with whom he founded the Jerusalem Economic Development Authority.
The Bauhaus-style campus was originally the mint of the British Mandate authorities, and the spacious grounds, in addition to hi-tech get-togethers, are also used for social and cultural events and a mix of all three.
Some eight years ago, Margalit decided to throw his hat into the political ring and was elected to the Knesset on a Labor Party ticket. In April 2017, Margalit, who had been campaigning for some months, announced that he would challenge then-chairman Herzog for the party leadership. Margalit, who had entered politics with the aim of replacing Netanyahu as prime minister, failed miserably within his own party, and realized that if he couldn’t wrest the leadership from Herzog, his chances of beating Bibi at the polls were singularly hopeless. In October 2017, he resigned from the Knesset and returned to doing what he knows best, which is bringing about social, educational and economic change.
The kibbutz-born and raised Margalit is a riveting speaker in English even more than he is in Hebrew, and he held his audience spellbound as he spoke about projects around the country, in America and in Europe.
Before Margalit showed up, there were also some excellent warm-up speeches by Pnina Ben Ami, JVP’s head of marketing, and Guy Pross, who is JVP’s head of investor relations, who were each good at capturing interest and obviously enthusiastic about being part of JVP, but it was Margalit who had his guests scribbling notes as he rattled off numbers, projects and his approach to starting a new company.
Rwandan Ambassador Joseph Rutabana was particularly interested in learning about food technology and agrotechnology, as was a diplomat from the Embassy of the Republic of Congo, to which Margalit admitted that, as yet, not enough is being done in this realm with Africa.
Colombian Ambassador Margarita Eliana Manjarrez Herrera, who brought along her daughter as a 20th birthday treat, said that she is relatively new in the country, and hadn’t come across any concise literature to help her in directing Colombian business delegations and entrepreneurs to Israeli venture capitalists. Margalit immediately agreed to take this into consideration.
Margalit is a strong believer in encouraging innovation and entrepreneurship at an early age, particularly among children from economically underprivileged neighborhoods. By giving them the chance to prove themselves and shine, it changes not only the future of the child, but that of the family, the community and ultimately the city and country.
Junior innovation hubs are led by young volunteers from privileged backgrounds, who defer their army service for a year in order to be part of the project. “We get 500 applications a year, but we take only 15,” said Margalit. “If innovation can change families, it can change an entire country,” he insisted.
Margalit attributed a large part of JVP’s success to its ability to listen and to discern what the other side wants and needs, and then to determine how this information can be translated into economic development. Had there been an opportunity, the diplomats would have been happy to sit there all day and listen to Margalit, who spoke without notes but with conviction and passion, punctuating his speech with dramatic hand movements.
Among the ambassadors who attended were Rumiana Bachvarova of Bulgaria, Igor Mauks of the Slovak Republic, Waruna Wilpatha of Sri Lanka, Anjan Shakya of Nepal and Emanuele Giaufret of the European Union, as well as diplomats from Guatemala, Lithuania and Panama.
■ ISRAELIS LONG ago learned that their political, cultural, military and business idols have feet of clay, although there is a tendency, especially when the icons are deceased, to overlook their foibles and focus on the great things they did for Israel. But it’s not fair to posterity to show only the positive side of these heroes of history. After all, they were mere mortals, and mortals have flaws.
In his biography of David Ben-Gurion, A State at Any Cost, historian Tom Segev paints a warts-and-all portrait. We learn that Ben-Gurion was a lousy husband and a not particularly attentive father. In fact, his indifference to Paula was such that she would invent ailments and check herself into the hospital just to get his attention. He was also something of a womanizer, whose affairs were not confined to a single time or country.
Much the same can be said of Chaim Weizmann, who was Israel’s first president. When he fell in love with his wife, Vera, he was engaged to someone else. His affection for Vera quickly dissipated, and their marriage remained one of convenience. Though often at loggerheads with Ben-Gurion, Weizmann was very much like him in some respects. He had numerous extramarital affairs and was indifferent to his wife and their two sons. He hated living in the Land of Israel and yearned to go back to England.
All this emerges in the third and final volume of the biography of Weizmann by Prof. Motti Golani of Tel Aviv University and Prof. Jehuda Reinharz of Brandeis University. A lengthy book review by Ofer Aderet was the cover story last Friday in the Haaretz weekend supplement, and, together with photographs, took up more than six pages.
Bearing in mind that the review was in Hebrew, which has a much shorter sentence structure than English, this was still a hefty amount of space. In English, it would have taken at least 10 pages. How often do we see a book review of that length?
Admittedly, Aderet spiced it up a bit by interviewing the two authors and adding some of their remarks, but most of his observations are taken directly from the book. It seems that although no single person did more than Weizmann to bring about the establishment of the State of Israel, as a human being he was a nasty piece of work. A selfish, egotistical human being, who suffered from a wealth of physical and mental illnesses, he was also a hypochondriac, whose intake of medications may have also contributed to his being a manic depressive with frequent mood swings.
He had a certain disdain, not only for his wife and sons, but also for his mother and siblings. His mother, Rachel Leah, and his siblings Feivel, Chaya, Gita, Fruma, Mina, Hilik and Moshe, who moved from Russia to the Land of Israel, complained that Chaim, who was living the good life in England, was not doing enough to help them. His response was: “I’m tired of altruism.” So estranged was he from his family, that when his sister Mina, one of the first female physicians in Israel, died at the age of 35, Weizmann did not allow the notice of her death to disrupt his plans for the day, nor did he later join his blood relatives in mourning Mina.
Why is it necessary to show this totally dark side of the man whose persistent discussions with Arthur James Balfour resulted in what became known as the Balfour Declaration? Possibly because the opposite is happening today. We are so busy denigrating our leaders that we refuse to see any of the positive things they have done. To acknowledge their achievements is perceived by many as a sign of collective weakness. Extraordinary accomplishments do not wipe out the negatives in anyone’s character or behavior, but it behooves all of us to remember that there are many sides to every human being. If we forget, all we have to do is look in the mirror.
■ FOR ITS upcoming conference titled “Israel in an era of crises – where do we go from here?” IDC Herzliya’s Institute for Policy and Strategy has a session on “US-Israel Relations in a Changing Reality,” with a number of related subtopics. The list of speakers in this session includes neither Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi nor former foreign ministers such as Israel Katz and Avigdor Liberman. Stranger still is the omission of any former Israel ambassador to the US. Itamar Rabinovich, Zalman Shoval, Danny Ayalon, Sallai Meridor and Michael Oren are all still around. Surely, at least one of them was worthy of inclusion, especially as former US ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro has been included.
■ ONE OF the ironies of life is that Ivanka Trump and her sister-in-law supermodel Karlie Kloss, who is married to Joshua Kushner, both love Shabbat, whereas so many people who were born Jewish desecrate Shabbat.
The two sisters-in-law, who converted to Judaism in order to marry their respective husbands, differ politically, and Kloss is openly supporting Joe Biden. What this means, in essence, is that whoever wins the presidential race, members of the Kushner family will still be welcome in the White House.