Grapevine: Proud Jews and diplomats

Conference of Presidents hosts 3 Jewish envoys, Shlomo Riski talks to God in Yiddish, and Chinese embassy welcomes Year of the Rabbit.

Zhao Jun 248.88 (photo credit: Courtesy )
Zhao Jun 248.88
(photo credit: Courtesy )
ONE OF the panel discussions at the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations taking place this week in Jerusalem involved three ambassadors and a consul.
The latter was Yury Rudakov, political consul at the Russian Embassy, who was standing in for his boss, Ambassador Pyotr Stegny. Rudakov did not indicate whether he or Stegny had any connection to Judaism.
However the three ambassadors took great pains to emphasize their Jewish connections. Colombian Ambassador Isaac Gilinski is a former national and regional president of B’nai B’rith. He was also “very active in the Jewish community” in his country and in all of Latin America. He said he was proud as a Jew and as an ambassador to represent his country here. As far as he was aware, Colombia has no plans to follow the example of some other Latin American countries, and will not give unilateral recognition to a Palestinian state.
British Ambassador Matthew Gould said he had “enormous pride” in being the first Jew to serve as his country’s ambassador here. “I unashamedly want Israel to be safe, to be secure and to be respected throughout the world,” he said. Moreover, he represents a country that is friendly to Israel and “will not compromise on Israel’s security and legitimacy.” His primary duty, he said, was not to wag a finger and say what’s good for Israel. His primary duty was “to listen and try to understand why Israel feels so insecure and what we can do about it.”
Romanian Ambassador Edward Iosiper, taking his cue from Gilinski, noted that he too was a member of B’nai B’rith, was proud that Romania had been the first country in that part of Europe to be visited by the Presidents Conference and had been the only Soviet bloc country that had not severed relations with Israel in 1967. This year will mark 63 years of uninterrupted diplomatic relations, he said. He also reminded his audience of Romania’s “historic contribution” to the visit by Egyptian president Anwar Sadat, and declared that Romania has a good track record for supporting peace in the Middle East.
Not to be outdone, Rudakov corrected a general misconception about which state was the first to recognize Israel. It was the Soviet Union, which did so before the US, he said. He regretted that diplomatic relations had been broken in 1967, but noted that with the collapse of the Soviet Union, more than a million Russian-speaking Jews had come to Israel. Russia shares the country’s security concerns, he said, and Israel and Russia support each other at the UN. There are sometimes different approaches to problems, he acknowledged, saying that Russia is in favor of dialogue in every sphere. “It’s the only way to find common ground.”
When asked why their countries do not recognize Jerusalem as the capital, there was consensus that when peace comes, they will. Rudakov quipped that it would do away with the traffic problems they frequently encountered when coming to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv
■ WHILE PRIME Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman were bickering over who will represent us at the UN, former ambassador to the UN Gavriela Shalev was sharing some of her experiences with members of the Lions of Judah, a Jewish worldwide philanthropic sisterhood that works to empower women and girls here by supporting projects that provide tools for self-realization and leadership.
Local members donate a minimum of NIS 5,000 a year toward such projects. With some 140 participants from many parts of the country, the meeting was held at the residence of US Ambassador James Cunningham. Guests were warmly welcomed by his wife Leslie, who has a contagious feel-good attitude to life.
It was not the first time that she had opened the residence to the Lions of Judah, but this time she had a special reason. The Cunninghams had twice been posted to the UN, so she knew exactly what challenges had confronted Shalev. “The role of an Israel ambassador to the UN is like none other,” said Cunningham.
There had not been an announcement as to the identity of Shalev’s successor – Foreign Ministry veteran and current ambassador to the UK Ron Prosor – at the time of the gathering. Acting Ambassador Meron Reuben, Shalev said, is a very nice and pleasant man, but unable to be as effective as he would like because he had not presented credentials to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
Noting that heads of missions to the UN are not known as ambassadors but as permanent representatives, Shalev said that only Israel could create such an oxymoron as a temporary permanent representative. The meeting also coincided with the birthday of Lions of Judah chair Dale Ophir, who was pleasantly surprised when embassy staff brought out a cake replete with candles and sparklers.
■ EVERYONE HAS their own way of talking to God. Efrat Chief Rabbi Shlomo Riskin always talks to Him in Yiddish. The reason: That’s what his maternal grandmother Chaya Beila did. Speaking at the Jerusalem Great Synagogue at the launch of his new book Listening to God, Riskin said his grandmother had been one of the most important influences in his life. He vividly remembered her standing in front of the Shabbat candles on Friday nights and for 25 minutes talking to God about every member of her family and telling Him in an intimate fashion about whatever came to her mind. “When I speak to God, I speak to him in Yiddish, because that’s how I heard God-talk from my grandmother,” he said.
He is also convinced that God talks back, but that not everyone is prepared to hear Him. Stressing the need for communication between people of all creeds, Riskin noted that all people are created in the image of the divine. “God speaks first and foremost through people,” he said. “If we are only open to what people are saying, hear them, understand them and love them, we will hear God.”
■ MINISTERS AND MKs travel all over the country to participate in conferences, seminars, project launches, concerts, theater performances, sporting events, family celebrations of prominent personalities and diplomatic receptions. But Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for the Development of the Negev and the Galilee Silvan Shalom never has to travel by car when invited to the residence of the Italian ambassador. He lives only a few doors away, within very easy walking distance. Over the years, he’s paid neighborly visits in his various ministerial capacities, and when he was foreign minister, he also delivered an address at an Italian National Day celebration.
Tomorrow, however, he will be there as the guest of honor. Ambassador Luigi Mattiolo will present him with the order of the Grande Ufficiale on behalf of the president of the Republic of Italy.
■ CHINESE AMBASSADOR Zhao Jun ushered in the Year of the Rabbit at a gala reception that he hosted last Thursday at his residence in Kfar Shmaryahu. The Year of the Rabbit, according to ancient Chinese tradition, is characterized by abundance, fertility and success. The affable ambassador has made many friends since presenting his credentials nearly four years ago, and there is always a large turnout of members of the diplomatic community, business people, cultural and entertainment personalities – and of course politicians. Also present was Ambassador to China Amos Nadai who specially flew in for the occasion which was also used to mark the 19th anniversary of diplomatic ties.
Among the first of the guests to arrive was business tycoon Nochi Dankner, who has a huge business deal under way with China, which is negotiating to buy Makhteshim Agan Industries. Koor Industries owns around 47 percent of Makhteshim Agan and IDB Holding Corporation, of which Dankner is chairman, has the controlling interest in Koor. The deal is worth well in excess of $2 billion.
A charming host, Zhao waxed lyrical on the significance of relations between the two countries and their cooperation on a number of projects. Nadai endorsed his remarks and spoke of the work being done by the embassy in Beijing to enhance the relationship.
Zhao likes to create a balance at his events and arranges for performances by both Israeli and Chinese entertainers. Composer, conductor and pianist Gil Shohat delighted the guests with a sensitive Chopin recital. Acclaimed singer Ha Hui, whom Zhao has brought here on previous occasions, as always included in her repertoire her favorite Hebrew song, Naomi Shemer’s haunting “Eucalyptus Grove.” Shohat did the accompaniment. Ha Hui is one of her country’s key cultural ambassadors. As part of the ongoing Chinese New Year celebrations, the Chinese Shaolin Martial Arts Group will present performances in Tel Aviv, Beersheba, Karmiel and Jerusalem.
■ INDIAN RESTAURATEUR and television personality Reena Pushkarna, who more or less introduced Indian cuisine to the country and is a walking advertisement for Indian fashion, may soon be turning her hand to baby food. No, she’s not going to start producing it under her brand name. But she is going to start preparing it in Singapore some time in May when she becomes a first time grandmother of twin girls – a slightly belated birthday present from her daughter and son-in-law Sarina and Raj Sundarson.
Pushkarna, who celebrated her 52nd birthday last Thursday, is also a twin. Her twin sister, who lives in the US, is no less excited than she is about the coming additions to the family, and is already planning gifts for the babies. Pushkarna, who was in Singapore last month and teamed up with Michelin three-star chef Guy Savoy in creating unique French-Indian fusion food for some of the many celebrities who attended the Bollywood Zee Cine awards, anticipates that she’s going to be on a frequent Tel Aviv-Singapore commute both professionally and as a doting grandmother. Meanwhile, her daughter who has an important public relations job at the spectacular Marina Bay Sands complex that is owned by Sheldon Adelson, continues to work despite her radically protruding tummy.
■ WHILE THERE are political movements on every university campus, it is rare for a university to team up with any one political party, although there are heads of academic institutions and senior figures within them who came with political baggage. Yuli Tamir, for instance, who heads the Shenkar Academy of Engineering and Design, was a Labor Party minister. Hebrew University president Menahem Ben-Sasson left academia to go into politics and served as a Kadima MK. When he failed to gain a seat in the 2009 elections, he returned to the university.
Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya founder Uriel Reichman was a founder of Shinui and later joined Kadima, winning a Knesset seat in the November 2005 elections, but resigned a few months later when prime minister Ariel Sharon failed to give him the Education portfolio.
He then returned to IDC, whose staff members include Amnon Rubinstein, who served in several ministerial posts before returning to academia.
But Ben-Gurion University of the Negev president Rivka Carmi did not come from politics to academia, though she may very well follow the example of her predecessor, Avishay Braverman, who went from academia into politics and until recently was a Labor minister responsible for minorities. Carmi is teaming up with Kadima head Tzipi Livni for a February 20 conference at BGU on “Women at the Focal Point of the Decision-Making Process.” Livni will deliver both the opening and closing addresses, while Carmi will open the conference by welcoming participants including a few men, among them attorney Dov Weissglas who was Sharon’s bureau chief.
■ FEBRUARY 11 is a very propitious date – not only because it marked the end of the Mubarak era in Egypt, hopefully paving the way for democracy. It was also the date on which Natan Sharansky, the most famous of all Jewish dissidents, was released from the Soviet gulag in 1986, heralding the eventual aliya of more than a million Jews from the former Soviet Union. It was also the date in 1990 on which Nelson Mandela was released from prison after 27 years of incarceration, which set the ball rolling for the end of South Africa’s apartheid regime, and his election as president in 1994.
Sharansky had celebrated his 38th birthday only three weeks prior to his release of which he had no real inkling.
He knew something was going on because of the improvement in his conditions, but he didn’t know what, certainly not that freedom would be his birthday gift, something that he owed not only to a relentless campaign by his wife Avital, but also to US president Ronald Reagan, who applied extreme pressure on Russia to let him go within the framework of a prisoner exchange.
Since then (not necessarily in chronological order), Sharansky became a father and grandfather, the leader of a political party, a speaker on the world stage, a bestselling author, an MK and minister, the head of an academic institute, the chairman of the board of a museum and chairman of the Jewish Agency. Last week, as a slightly belated birthday gift for his 63rd birthday, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman named him in his short list choice for ambassador to the UN. Sharansky’s response was “thanks but no thanks.”
■ AS FOR Dore Gold, who was on Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s short list of candidates for the UN position, even if he had been appointed to the post he held from 1997 to 1999, he would have been back in Jerusalem on June 6 because he has been selected as this year’s recipient of the Guardian of Zion Award presented annually by Bar-Ilan University’s Ingeborg Rennert Center for Jerusalem Studies. Gold has written extensively about Jerusalem and diplomacy, he talks about Jerusalem and he heads the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.
■ RAMAT HASHARON has one, Rishon Lezion has one – and soon Jerusalem will have one? What is that special something? It’s called Cinema City. Last week entrepreneurs Moshe and Leon Edery, owners of the Lineo Cinemas, received a permit from the city council to build a 15-screen complex near the National Precinct, which is quite close to the western entrance to the city.
Lineo Cinemas is also building a huge cinema plus theme park entertainment outlet in Haifa. Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, who has been promoting increased cultural and entertainment activity in the capital, was very happy to sign the building permit. Lineo Cinemas expects to invest NIS 120 million in the project. It will be just a matter of time before something similar happens in Beersheba.
■ SINGER, ACTOR and current affairs commentator Yehoram Gaon, who spent 10 years as an unsalaried member of the Jerusalem city council, on his radio program last Friday referred to the number of mayors suspected of corruption, and said that it was not easy to be a mayor or a member of a city council because of all the wining and dining from everyone who wanted something from the municipality. Gaon was pleased to report that he had declined such invitations, and figured out that had he accepted them, he would weigh many times his current weight.
He then a told a story of someone who was looking for the home of a certain mayor and each person he asked made some insulting remark about the man. Eventually when he caught up with the mayor at his home, he asked him how was business. The mayor replied that as far as income was concerned, he wasn’t doing so great, but the honor that he received was worth the inconvenience.
Obviously he hadn’t encountered those of his constituents who had nothing good to say about him.
“Who in his right mind,” queried Gaon, “would want to be a public servant?”