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A CHILD plays in the sensory therapy room at Beit Issie Shapiro. .(Photo by: Courtesy)
Editor's Notes: Israel will be judged by its treatment of the weak
By YAAKOV KATZ
07/19/2019
And on another note: “Netanyahu has never respected the professional diplomatic corps,” explained Anshel Pfeffer.
I spent most of last summer in New York City with my daughter, who in the aftermath of a long and complicated surgery, was in a wheelchair for about three months.

Needless to say, it opened my eyes. I was able to see – even if just for a few short months - what disabled people face daily, and how simple and mundane parts of life suddenly become not just complicated, but nearly impossible.

One day in particular I will not forget. We wanted to go to a cool, new ice cream place we had read about down in Chelsea. We decided to take the subway, the fastest way to cross town. What made it tricky was that only about 40 of the approximately 150 stations in all of Manhattan had elevators.

I thought I had planned the day perfectly. I did my research online as to which stations had elevators, and mapped out where to get on and off accordingly. Getting on the train was fine; but after getting off, lo and behold, there was no elevator to be found. When I re-read the MTA website, I realized I got off on the right street but wrong stop. I had to figure out a way to get my daughter in her wheelchair up a long stairwell. Thanks to a couple of good Samaritans, we safely climbed it.

I tell this story because, like many things in life, we need to experience something to understand it. I am thankfully not disabled and my daughter is thankfully no longer in need of support, but it did teach me a lesson – to be more aware and thoughtful of the challenges that the disabled face in Israel and around the world.

For this reason, I drove to Ra’anana on Sunday to meet with Jean Judes, the executive director of Beit Issie Shapiro (BIS), and Sasha Weiss-Trump, chair of the board. After 26 years at the institution, 13 of them as director, Judes is stepping down at the end of the month.

IF YOU don’t know of BIS, you should. It is one of Israel’s leading developers and providers of innovative therapies and state-of-the-art services for disabled children and adults, impacting about half a million people annually.

BIS is unique for another reason among the landscape of Israeli NGOs, due to its altruistic approach of sharing its therapeutic developments with other centers providing services to the disabled. One example I saw firsthand was an amazing room where they were helping kids with sensory processing challenges. The room was lined with soft white mats, large bubbly lamps, and pools of soft balls that can all be operated by computers or tablets, enabling therapists to tailor the different elements for a specific client.

BIS developed the room: Today, there are about 400 like it across the country – in hospitals, old-age homes, and health centers – and countless more around the world. “We want to make big social change,” explained Judes, originally from South Africa. “This is a place of innovation, then research, and then we scale to share around the world.”

This scaling includes developing therapies and technologies, and then sharing them with different centers and organizations across the globe – hydrotherapy, therapeutic methodologies and leadership skills for the disabled. But, I asked, if you develop unique therapies and then share them, how do you retain a competitive edge? “We keep on innovating,” answered Weiss-Trump.

For almost 40 years, BIS has been doing exactly that. A few years ago, it received status to serve as a consultant to the United Nation’s Economic and Social Council. It has changed nine laws in the Knesset and succeeded in getting the state to allocate almost half a billion shekels a year to the disability budget. Today, due to BIS’s lobbying efforts, a child requiring specialized rehabilitation and therapy in daycare should be able to find a spot in one of the 130 centers established across the country.

Mahatma Gandhi famously said that you can judge a nation’s greatness by the way it treats its weakest members. As you near the end of your career, I asked Judes, does Israel do enough for the disabled? “People used to be looked down on and were stuck at home or in institutions,” she said. “Thirty years later, there is much more tolerance, as well as recognition that people with disabilities have abilities.”

But, she stressed, this is only the beginning, as education needs to be more inclusive, teachers need more training, resources integrating disabled students into classrooms need expansion, employers should be more willing to hire disabled workers, and even taxi drivers need to stop refusing to take disabled passengers. “There are still a million barriers and a fortune of work that needs to be done,” she said.

Places like BIS give a sense of hope that those barriers will be overcome. Even in times that are challenging, the possibilities can be endless.

***

In 1981, Benjamin Netanyahu was appointed Deputy Chief of Mission (DCM) at Israel’s embassy in Washington. Moshe Arens, the first Likud member to become an ambassador to the US, had met and been impressed by Netanyahu, who at the time had just returned to Israel after working as an executive at an American furniture company.

Netanyahu – who became Israel’s longest-serving prime minister this week – dove straight into his new position. Arens wanted someone who could appear on Nightline and similar TV shows to defend the case for Israel. That skill set was more vital to the new ambassador than someone who could negotiate with the State Department.

That experience is often cited as the beginning of Netanyahu’s political and government career. But it also did something else. Being brought into the foreign service through a back door, it molded the way Netanyahu has perceived, thought of and worked with the Foreign Ministry throughout his nearly 14 years as Israel’s prime minister. In short, it made him look down on Israel’s diplomats with disdain.

“Netanyahu has never respected the professional diplomatic corps,” explained Anshel Pfeffer, author of Bibi: The Turbulent Life and Times of Benjamin Netanyahu. “He saw in them leftists and bureaucrats, and believed that diplomacy was much more about appearing in TV studios than patient negotiations in the corridors of the State Department or the United Nations.”

This is important to keep in mind when observing the slow, consistent erosion of Israel’s Foreign Ministry, most prominently over the last decade under Netanyahu. As our Diplomatic Correspondent Herb Keinon revealed in these pages this week, the Foreign Ministry does not have money to pay annual dues to a number of international organizations – and for the first time ever, has not paid its mandatory annual fees to the 47-member Council of Europe in Strasbourg or to the 43-member Union for the Mediterranean headquartered in Barcelona.

The deterioration of Israel’s Foreign Ministry is not new. Over the years, Netanyahu has broken apart the ministry and handed off departments, making them into ministries currying political favor. Some examples are the Diaspora Affairs Ministry and the Strategic Affairs Ministry. Both offices were established to deal with issues that used to be, and are meant to be, handled by the Foreign Ministry. Until a month ago, Israel had not had a full-time foreign minister for more than four years.

As we have seen over the last decade, Netanyahu is a talented diplomat. He is one of the world’s most influential leaders and has direct lines of communication with heads of state across the globe. One person, however, cannot deal with all of a nation’s diplomatic relations and challenges. Between promoting economic ties, combating BDS, or launching a PR campaign across college campuses, Israel needs to have a robust, capable, and effective foreign service.

This doesn’t mean that there are not legitimate changes in need of implementation: there are – the time for them to be made is now. Nevertheless, and however the September 17 election ends, it is an opportunity to rebuild and rehabilitate the Foreign Ministry. The art of diplomacy may be changing, but the need for diplomats – especially for a country with Israel’s growing challenges – has not altered and needs to be maintained constantly.
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