Grapevine: The darkness before the dawn

A roundup of happenings in the past week.

PRESIDENT REUVEN RIVLIN with Rafik Halabi (seated, at Rivlin’s left) and other Druze leaders (photo credit: MARK NEYMAN / GPO)
PRESIDENT REUVEN RIVLIN with Rafik Halabi (seated, at Rivlin’s left) and other Druze leaders
(photo credit: MARK NEYMAN / GPO)
The enactment of the Nation-State Law may well prove to be the darkness before the dawn. Not only have prominent members of the Druze and Arab sectors voiced their feelings of not belonging, but Jewish Israelis across most of the political spectrum have voiced their shame at the injustice that has been perpetrated against a large swath of the population. To those who know their history, it is a grim reminder of the former status of Jews in most of the countries of their dispersion – people who, for no reason other than that they were of a different faith, were humiliated, reviled and denied equal rights.
On the other hand, there are many people on the right of the political spectrum who are true democrats and who believe that the law, which contains no reference to equality for all sectors of the population, is discriminatory, and are joining in the Druze and Arab protests.
It is irrelevant how often the prime minister or members of the coalition repeat that there is nothing discriminatory in the text and cite the prominent positions in the army, in medical centers, in academia and elsewhere that are occupied by Arabs, Bedouin and Druze. The absence of an equality clause gives all minorities a sense of inequality.
Leading figures in these communities who have voiced their frustrations over the wording of the legislation have also noted the support they have received from prominent Jewish figures such as President Reuven Rivlin, former defense minister Moshe Arens, MK Bennie Begin and many others who are less well known. Former justice minister Dan Meridor, who like Rivlin, Arens, and Begin has deep-rooted Likud credentials, said in a radio interview that this legislation should never have seen the light of day.
Arens, who writes a regular op-ed column in Haaretz, wrote that he hoped “the judges of the Supreme Court will acknowledge the injustice that the Jewish Nation-State Law has perpetrated against Israel’s Druze,” adding that the Knesset should acknowledge its mistake in passing the law and should do what needs to be done to amend it.
Daliat al-Carmel Mayor Rafik Halabi posted on his Facebook page that he was moved to tears when Israel Air Force Col. (res.) Yoram Eilan came to his home together with Dr. Ada Gansach, founder of Inspirations in Practice to apologize and ask forgiveness for the injustice done to the Druze community. Halabi pledged to continue with the struggle for equality and was among Druze leaders who met this week with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and with Rivlin. A mega demonstration for equality for all citizens, including the LGBT community, will be held in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square on August 4.
Kan 11 permitted veteran news reporter Riyad Ali to give full vent to his anguish at being demoted to what he calls a second-class citizen. The Nation-State Law, he said, signifies the end of his Israeli dream. It’s no longer a matter of everyone being Israeli – but of being Jews or non-Jews. Recordings of the monologue were repeated several times on radio and television, and sections of it were repeated by other Druze, Bedouin and Arabs in interviews on radio and TV.
Hassan Hassan, a retired brigadier general who made history by being the first member of the Druze community to be appointed a military aide to the president of Israel, is also part of the struggle for the amendment of the Nation-State Law. Hassan was appointed by Shimon Peres, and continued for two years with Rivlin. Hassan’s father-in-law, Kamal Mansour, was for 40 years adviser on minorities to seven presidents of Israel, beginning with Zalman Shazar and concluding with Peres.
Zionist Union MK Zouheir Bahloul, a Muslim Arab who speaks Hebrew better than most Israeli Jews, who last Saturday announced his resignation, claimed that the Knesset does not in reality represent the will of the people and is transitioning from democracy to dictatorship.
Meretz MK Esawi Frej, who is also Arab, understands why Bahloul resigned. The law smells of persuasion into voluntary exile, and disqualifies Arabs from mainstream society, he said in a radio interview. “There’s a sense that we don’t belong here.” He was heartened, however, by the large number of Jews who have spoken out against the law, saying that it is undemocratic.
Actually, even though the Druze by and large are extremely loyal citizens of Israel, and Ayoub Kara is not the first Druze to hold a ministerial position, the paucity of Druze and Arabs in the upper echelons of Israeli society, other than in the army, as far as the Druze are concerned, indicates that their feeling of not belonging is not without reason. Salah Tarif was a minister without portfolio, Zeidan Atashi was consul-general in New York City, but how many other Druze can one count on such levels?
The late Ali Yahya, who died in 2014 at age 66, was a talented and popular Arab educator who was appointed ambassador to Finland in 1995, serving till 1999, and in 2006 he was appointed ambassador to Greece. He was the only Arab to serve as an Israeli ambassador, but was not the only Arab diplomat.
Rasha Atamny, a Muslim woman, was appointed first secretary to the Israel Embassy in Ankara in 2017. Some years prior to that, Rania Joubran, a Christian Arab, who is the daughter of former Supreme Court Justice Salim Joubran, some seven years ago completed a cadet’s training course at the Foreign Ministry, and even though she had documents to prove that she was a Foreign Ministry employee, she was subjected to humiliating questioning and intensive baggage inspection when traveling abroad and returning; and until the Foreign Ministry representative at the airport verified that she was indeed who she said she was, security personnel refused to believe her, even after she produced her father’s business card.
The generation of Jews that experienced acute antisemitism and was subject to quota systems that determined whether they could be admitted to universities or could pursue certain careers is dying out. The resurgence of antisemitism in Europe and the United States should serve as a reminder to Jews in Israel to treat minorities as they would want to be treated in other countries of the world. Salim Joubran has also joined the chorus against the Nation-State Law, saying that it is a bad piece of legislation. He is also opposed to the Surrogacy Law.
■ IN 1821 famed German playwright, journalist and poet Heinrich Heine, who was born Jewish but converted to Christianity, wrote: “Where they burn books they will in the end also burn people.” In 1938, the Nazis burned books and synagogues, and through much of the early 1940s they also burned people – most of them Jews.
In September 1951, Konrad Adenauer, the first postwar chancellor of Germany, told the Bundestag that in its relations with the State of Israel and the Jewish people, it is the German people’s noblest duty to reintroduce and rekindle the spirit of true humanity. In March 2001, former German chancellor Helmut Kohl inaugurated the Konrad Adenauer Conference Center at Jerusalem’s Mishkenot Sha’ananim as an extension to the guest house that was once an alms house, but for more than 40 years has served as a creative retreat for writers, poets, painters, sculptors and musicians. Thus, it was more than fitting for the annual Sami Rohr prizes for Jewish literature, coupled with the Sami Rohr literary conference, to be held at the center, which was the first Jewish neighborhood to be built by Sir Moses Montefiore outside the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem.
The annual get-together of mainly American and Israeli literati of Anglo-American backgrounds is held in Israel on alternate years, and in the United States on other alternate years. This was actually the first time that this prestigious literary event was held at Mishkenot, said Mishkenot Sha’ananim director-general Moti Schwartz. Next year it will be held in New York.
Carolyn Starman Hessel, the dynamic director of the Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature, which is administered by the Jewish Book Council, welcomed this year’s winners to the Sami Rohr community.
Rohr, who was born in Germany, from which he had to escape during the Nazi regime, was a most generous philanthropist and a voracious cross-cultural reader who loved Jewish literature, both fact and fiction. For his 80th birthday, his three children and their families established the Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish literature, which is one of the most financially rewarding prizes for emerging and outstanding Jewish writers whose work is of Jewish interest.
This year’s winners were interviewed in a panel discussion with Rabbi David Wolpe, who made the point that the prize honors not only the books but the people who wrote them. He personally had found all five to be terrific people. The nominations were made by an independent committee, which searches for new Jewish-themed literature.
The winner of the $100,000 first prize for her book If All the Seas Were Ink was American-born Ilana Kurshan, originally from Long Island, who now lives in Jerusalem and studies Talmud on a daily basis, finding parallels in her own life with the Talmudic text. George Rohr, the son of Sami Rohr, read an excerpt from her work before presenting her with the prize.
His sister Evelyn Rohr Katz presented the prize known as the Choice Award to runner-up Sara Hirschhorn for her book, City on a Hilltop, in which she writes about Americans who came to Israel and joined the settler movement. Born in America, she has until recently lectured at Oxford University, and in the fall will be a visiting assistant professor in Israel studies at Northwestern University in the US.
The third Rohr sibling, Lillian Rohr Tabacinic, presented prizes to three writers who have become Rohr Fellows: Yair Mintzker for his book The Many Deaths of Jew Suss, Shari Rubin for Jews on the Frontier, which tells the story of Jews who moved away from the east coast, and Chanan Tigay for his book, The Lost Book of Moses, which tells the story of a dealer in antiquities who claims to have found the world’s oldest Bible. All three writers live in the United States, though Mintzker and Tigay were both born in Jerusalem.
Since the inauguration of the Sami Rohr prize in 2007, all the works that were nominated were written in English. Starman Hessel announced that, as of next year, works in Hebrew that have been translated into English will also be considered.
■ ISRAELI VISITORS to Tirana, the capital of Albania, may do a double take when they see a statue featuring the likeness of ninth president Shimon Peres, who as foreign minister in 1994 was the first Israeli leader to visit Albania. The statue was the brainchild of Israel’s deputy chief of mission in Albania, Yuvale Fischer, at whose initiative a Shimon Peres Square in Tirana, to serve as a reminder of the special relationship between Albanians and Israelis, was inaugurated last week, replete with statue.
Although Albania is a Muslim country, it is one of the very few countries in the world where, during the Holocaust, not only did the Jews find shelter but the people refused to give up their Jews and told the Nazis that they could have their gold but not their Jews. Moreover, they also sheltered Jews from neighboring countries. Albania’s Prime Minister Edi Rama likes to boast that Albania is the only country in Europe that had more Jews after the war than before the war. The humane gesture was reciprocated in 1999, when Israel provided shelter for Albanian refugees from the Kosovo war.
Fischer, who completes his term in Albania on August 22, was particularly keen to have the project that he dreamed of completed before he leaves, and was able to realize his dream thanks to the wealth of cooperation that he received from Tirana Mayor Erion Veliaj and his staff, as well as the staff of the Israel Embassy. Representing the Peres family at the inauguration was Yoni Peres, one of the three Peres siblings.
The timing was just perfect, as Shimon Peres was born on August 2, and the second anniversary of his death will be commemorated in early September, in accordance with the Hebrew calendar.
An Albanian-Israeli Friendship Center is due to open in Tirana, Rama announced at the AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington last March. The center, to be designed by world-renowned Jewish architect Daniel Libeskind, will highlight the Albanian rescue of Jews. A photo exhibition to this effect was shown at Yad Vashem in November 2007. Rama would like to see in Jerusalem a center that is a twin to the one that is being planned in Tirana.
At the dedication of Shimon Peres Square, Yoni Peres recalled not only his father’s visit to Albania in 1994, three years after the establishment of diplomatic relations between Albania and Israel, but also the visit to Israel in 2011 by prime minister Sali Berisha and the subsequent visit by Rama in 2011, when he met Shimon Peres at the Peres Center for Peace in Jaffa. Yoni Peres noted that Fischer had begun negotiations for the square some 18 months ago, with the support of Ambassador Boaz Rodkin and the cooperation of Veliaj.
Peres said that he found Albania to be safe, beautiful and friendly, and recommended it as a destination worth visiting.
■ ORTHODOX FILM director Eliran Malka brought his personal rabbi to the premiere of his debut feature film The Unorthodox, which opened the Jerusalem International Film Festival. Mindful that not everyone associated with a movie or a project of any kind gets his due credit, the rabbi praised everyone involved, saying that without them there would be no production.
■ NETANYAHU WOULD do well to bone up on his Spanish over the next few days, considering how many Latin American leaders he will meet both formally and informally after arriving in Colombia for the August 7 inauguration of President-elect Ivan Duque Marquez, who during his election campaign indicated that he was in favor of moving his country’s embassy to Jerusalem.
It’s interesting that the last two embassies to leave Jerusalem were Latin American, and Latin Americans are among the first to return, though credit has to be given to US President Donald Trump for making the initial move. Bets are on as to how many heads of other Latin American countries will announce in Bogota next week that they to are giving serious consideration to the idea of moving their embassies to Jerusalem.
■ FORMER AMBASSADORS to Japan Moshe Ben-Yaacov, Nahum Eshkol, and Ruth Kahanoff were among the many guests who last Thursday attended the farewell reception of Koji Tomita on completion of his term as Japan’s ambassador. Also present were outgoing Governor of the Bank of Israel Karnit Flug, Zeev Weiss of the Israel-Japan Chamber of Commerce, and Arie Kutz and Roni Nir of the Israel-Japan Friendship Society. With customary humor, Tomita announced that even though he is leaving, his chef is staying. “I know you would miss him more than me.”
He had three messages to leave with the people of Israel.
“First, I love the Israeli people, and meeting the people here is the most precious souvenir I bring back home.
“Second, I admire Israel as a nation. My optimism for the future of this country is unbounded.
“Third and finally, I hope Israel will find its place it deserves in the region, and Japan can and will play a bridging role in the efforts to fulfill this aspiration.”
Tomita described his successor, Koichi Aiboshi, as “one of the most distinguished diplomats in the Japanese Foreign Service” and is proud to claim him as a friend.
Tomita thanked each of his guests “for making my time here an enjoyable, memorable and profoundly rewarding experience,” thanked embassy staff for their support, and his family for enduring the two-and-a-half-year separation. His parting words were: “Lehitraot and sayonara.”
■ EXACTLY A month after receiving the credentials of five new ambassadors, Rivlin will receive another batch of credentials on Thursday, this time from ambassadors Said Rustamov of Uzbekistan, Rodrigo Fernandez Gaete of Chile; Marek Magierowski of Poland; Wol Mayer Ariec of South Sudan, and Eros Gasperoni of San Marino. According to the Protocol Department of the Foreign Ministry, there are still more to come.
■ THE SHOW must go on is the watchword of every thespian. What this means in essence is that regardless of how anything happening offstage may affect the personal life of any member of the production, what is supposed to happen onstage takes priority. Thus celebrated Israeli actor Sasson Gabai, who is currently appearing in the Broadway stage version of The Band’s Visit in the role that he played on film some years ago, was unable to come to Israel from New York this week to attend the funeral of his older brother, retired diplomat Zvi Gabay, who inter alia had the honor of serving as Israel’s first resident ambassador to Ireland, a post he took up in January 1996.
Gabay was also among the first of Israeli diplomats to serve in Cairo – a natural choice, considering that Arabic was his mother tongue. Among his other positions was that of Foreign Ministry deputy director-general for Asia and the Pacific. Gabay was also a prolific writer of op-eds and blogs that were published in newspapers and magazines around the world as well as in online publications. Although he had been involved with the rights of Jewish refugees from Arab countries in his various Foreign Service capacities, he became even more so following his retirement, and was a tireless advocate prior to his death last weekend. He was also a member of the Board of Trustees of the Heritage Center of Babylonian Jews, and a familiar face at events related to Iraq, Ireland, Australia and Japan. In 2014, he published his autobiography From Baghdad to the pathways of diplomacy: A Personal History, which traces his journey from the city of his birth to his integration in Israel, his time on kibbutz and in the army, and his decision to serve Israel in civilian life as well. Anecdotes about all the countries in which he had served, his passions for tennis and Arabic poetry, and much more all combine to capture the reader’s ongoing attention.
When he died a few days ago at age 80, his family did not place a death notice in the media. But the word spread quickly among his former colleagues and members of Israel’s Iraqi community, and the funeral at the Hayarkon Hessed Cemetery was well attended, though undoubtedly more people would have come had they known. Sasson Gabai, who was unable to attend due to his Broadway commitments, was represented by his son, to whom he had sent a moving handwritten letter, which was read out at the funeral. In it he wrote that he had composed the letter while in his dressing room with tears flowing down his face. He had wept unashamedly in his grief for his brother, but then, aware of his obligations, had dried his tears and had walked out on stage to play his part.
■ AS AN experienced radio and television broadcaster prior to entering the political arena, Zionist Union MK Shelly Yacimovich, who is also a former head of the Labor Party, is definitely au fait with the manner in which interviews should be conducted. Her own method was very laid back. She allowed her interviewees space in which to air their opinions or explanations, and gently helped them to fall into traps of their own making.
Interviewed on Sunday on Israel Radio’s Reshet Bet by former colleague Ran Binyamini together with Yigal Guetta, Yacimovich found herself in the position of not being able to finish a sentence because Binyamini argued with her every step of the way. Finally fed up with his rude interruptions, she told him that if he wanted to interview her, he could do her the courtesy of allowing her to finish the sentence uninterrupted – and if not, she was quite happy to call it quits. A somewhat subdued Binyamini could not risk that kind of humiliation and the flurry of media reports that would undoubtedly follow. So he quietly moved back and allowed Yacimovich to have her say.
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