When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the American Independence Day celebration in Lod in less than two weeks, it’s unlikely that he will be hemmed in by the crowd to the same extent as he was last Thursday at the Russia Day reception hosted in the magnificently renovated Sergei’s Courtyard in Jerusalem by Russian Ambassador-designate Anatoly Viktorov and his wife, Olga.
Viktorov, who is the seventh ambassador of the Russian Federation to be posted to Israel, is due to present his credentials to President Reuven Rivlin on July 2. Viktorov arrived in Israel almost immediately after the departure of his predecessor Alexander Shein, and last month presented his credentials to the Foreign Ministry’s Chief of Protocol Meron Reuben.
While this was the first Russian national day reception to be held in Jerusalem, Shein attended the grand opening in July last year of the renewed Sergei’s Courtyard in the Russian Compound.
Although Viktorov made a point of reiterating Russia’s recognition of west Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, the very fact that he was hosting his country’s national day there, at a site that is only a couple of hundred meters away from what used to be the border to the no-man’s-land area that separated Israel from Jordan, was interpreted by several people present, especially members of the diplomatic community, as a message that change is on the way.
Indeed, Viktorov referred several times in his address to the transformation in relations between Russia and Israel. In noting the presence of Netanyahu, Viktorov said: “Your Excellency, prime minister, let me suggest that your presence here today is a clear indicator of transformations in relations between Russia and Israel. Thank you for this remarkable act of respect, sending a very positive message.”
What’s interesting is that the game of political brinkmanship that has for decades been played between Moscow and Washington is still apparently going strong. America moved its embassy to Jerusalem, but Russia moved its Russia Day celebration there, and in the process brought scores of people from all over the country to the capital, including shipping and real estate magnate Moshe Mano, who has been Russia’s honorary consul in Haifa since 1995.
Something else that was different was that the ambassador gave a lengthy address in English, whereas most of his predecessors had spoken Russian and relied on an interpreter, even if they themselves were quite fluent in English.
Sergei’s Courtyard, originally the first Russian hostel for pilgrims in the Holy Land, had been used for several years by the Agriculture Ministry and the Society for the Protection of Nature.
During a visit to Russia in October 2008, then-prime minister Ehud Olmert, who is currently there as a FIFA World Cup spectator, announced Israel’s agreement to return the facility. This despite objections by Jerusalem’s then incoming and outgoing mayors Nir Barkat and Uri Lupolianski, and a petition to the High Court by concerned citizens who objected to the transfer.
But it was Netanyahu who, in the final analysis, during a visit to Moscow in 2011, finalized the transfer, which, as he said in his own speech, had been held up by Israeli bureaucracy. But when Russian President Vladimir Putin asked him to speed up the issue, Netanyahu did so, and was subsequently proud to tell Putin on one of his future visits to Moscow: “Here are the keys to Sergei Court.”
Netanyahu was fairly confident that last week’s Russia Day celebration was the first of many such festivities to be held in Jerusalem.
Never let it be said that Netanyahu is not a quick thinker in an embarrassing situation. Something went awry with the seating, and when Sara Netanyahu, who had lingered for a moment to take in her surroundings, reached the front row in which all the seats were already occupied, her husband quickly jumped to his feet, turned around and began pumping flesh with members of the eager crowd that was pushing forward. By the time he turned around again, the seating problem had been sorted out.
Given his recent trip to Russia to participate in Victory Day commemorating the Red Army’s victory over the Nazis, Netanyahu, was pleased to announce that Victory Day is now a national holiday in Israel. Catching sight of nonagenarian Red Army veteran Emil Zigel, who shows up at every Russian event in his Red Army uniform weighed down by medals and ribbons, Netanyahu hailed him as a true hero, from among those who defeated the Nazis. Netanyahu also mentioned that at least 400,000 Jews had fought in the Red Army.
Also sitting in the front row with the Netanyahus and the Russian dignitaries were ministers Sofa Landver, who is a permanent fixture at Russia Day celebrations, and Tzachi Hanegbi. Conspicuously absent was Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, who, with his wife Ella, caught up with the Netanyahus later in the evening at yet another event with Russian overtures – the 32nd birthday of businesswoman, socialite and philanthropist Odessa-born Nicol Raidman, who is married to Tashkent-born businessman Mikhail Chernoy, who is 34 years her senior, and with whom she has two children. Raidman, who owns a luxury clothing boutique in Tel Aviv’s State Square, has befriended Sara Netanyahu and supplies her with flattering outfits. The birthday party was held at the Hola Brasserie in the Dan Hotel complex, known in its previous incarnation as Rafael.
At Sergei’s Courtyard, a string and guitar duo with a wide-ranging repertoire that naturally included Russian folk songs played nearly all night, other than during the speeches. Guests wandered through the grounds, sitting on the numerous wooden and stone benches that are permanent fixtures in the romantic garden surrounds. There was also an interesting exhibition of prints of some of the multitude of perspectives of Moscow. Needless to say, there was a also a giant video screen showing the opening of the World Cup, which happened to coincide with the Russia Day festivities – or perhaps it wasn’t coincidence after all.
■ WHEN SOCCER icon Lionel Messi screwed up on the penalty kick in the World Cup game against Iceland, Liberman tweeted something to the effect that everyone saw how Messi had needed the canceled warm-up game in Jerusalem. Liberman’s tweet was widely reported in international media.
■ CURRENTLY AMONG the front-line runners for the chairmanship of the Jewish Agency, Michael Oren, deputy minister for public diplomacy in the Prime Minister’s Office, was the guest speaker at a Friday brunch organized by the Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel at the Inbal hotel, and attended by some 300 people.
The event was in honor of AACI’s immigrant absorption professionals Josie Arbel, Sheila Bauman, Miriam Green, Helen Har-Tal, Carole Kremer and Yanina Musnikow, who were enthusiastically cheered and applauded by the many people whom they have helped over the years.
The audience went absolutely wild over Oren, not just because he’s an eloquent and engaging speaker, but because he’s one of them – an American-born immigrant. He’s also a great success story. He first came to Israel as teenager to volunteer on a kibbutz. Then he came as a member of the American Maccabiah rowing team and won two gold medals. After that he returned to Israel as a lone soldier and served as a paratrooper in the First Lebanon War. After completing his army duty, he returned temporarily to the US to complete his university studies. Back in Israel, he participated in the Gaza disengagement, and during the Second Lebanon War served as an officer in the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit. He’s an author, academic, athlete, former secret envoy to Soviet Jewry, former ambassador to the US, politician, and more. In other words, under the present circumstances, if anyone can heal the rift between Israel and US Jewry, it’s Oren.
One of the reasons that he decided to be of service to the Jewish people was that his father, Lester, was an officer in the US Army and took part in the D-Day landing in Normandy. His father and his uncle Joe, who was also in the army, were among the American liberators of Nazi death camps and concentration camps. His father had taken photos, which every now and again he brought out for his children to see.
One of the more painful experiences for Oren as an Israeli public servant was to relinquish his American citizenship when it was announced that he would be appointed ambassador to the United States. Not only did friends at the American Embassy ask him if he knew what he was giving up, but they also punched a hole through his American passport. As part of the process of renouncing American citizenship, he had to write a declaration. What he wrote was that even though his American passport had been taken away from him, no one could take away his American values – the values of freedom and democracy. In fact, he told his very attentive audience, American values had informed and shaped his decision to be of service to the Jewish people.
Another American who had to relinquish his citizenship after becoming an Israeli public servant is Rabbi Dov Lipman, the former Yesh Atid MK, who had to renounce his American citizenship when he was elected to the Knesset. Lipman has announced the release of his book Coming Home: Living in the Land of Israel in Jewish Tradition and Thought, published by Gefen.
AACI brunch chairman Stuart Forman said afterward that he had made a mental list of all the things that could go wrong, and none of them eventuated. The fact that so many people turned up on a Friday morning indicated to him how necessary it is to have similar events every few months.
■ ON JULY 1, Austria will take over the presidency of the European Union. For Austrian ambassador Martin Weiss, that’s as good a reason as any for having a party. In that particular week, he will host a reception and concert at his residence.
■ LIKE HIS Austrian colleague, Kazakhstan Ambassador Doulat Kuanyshev thinks that any reason for a party is a good one. His country is not among those that moved or are moving their embassies to Jerusalem, but what it did was to move its capital from Almaty to Astana. To mark the 20th anniversary of Astana as the capital, Kuanyshev is next week hosting a reception to mark the occasion.
■ MANY HANDS make light work, but more so when they are the hands of peace. “The thread of alliance” is an unusual exhibition in more ways than one. Embroidery was one of those slowly disappearing arts, though this season it’s made a fashion comeback. There was a long period in which nearly every woman knew how to sew, to embroider, to knit, to crochet and even to weave. These were art forms that defied social differences.
Artist Daniela Psapadia has used them to defy political differences and hostilities. Her project “The thread of alliance” involved the creation of a tapestry, designed by her and embroidered by Israeli and Palestinian women of different cultures and religions, whom she coordinated, with the help of Sitam Fashion School of Rehovot and Michal Avissar Cohen.
The subject of the tapestry is a map of Mare Nostrum, the Mediterranean Sea, depicted through a graphic representation of the genes in the human blood, in DNA. The blood is a symbol of life. A drop of blood represents all humanity – different yet similar at the same time; equal, yet unique.
The project will be on display on Thursday June 21, at 5:30 p.m. in the Logos Room of the Pontifical Institute Notre Dame of Jerusalem Center.
■ POPULARITY CAN have very unfair consequences. One of the most popular and articulate speakers in the Jewish world and even beyond is Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, who during his most recent visit to Israel spoke at several institutions and events, the organizers of which all wanted publicity, and were certain that they would get it with a speaker of his caliber. Of course, they shouldn’t be punished simply because Sacks has the mental and physical energy to gravitate from place to place to deliver lectures or to participate in panel discussions. Not all can be appeased in this column, but here are a few extracts from what he said at Bar-Ilan University, the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology and Tzohar.
■ APROPOS THE World Cup, it’s hard to imagine how Sacks, an ardent soccer fan, was able to fulfill his speaking engagements during the games. A lifelong supporter of Britain’s Arsenal Football Club, Sacks likes to tell the story of an episode that happened more than 25 years ago.
George Carey, now Lord Carey, had just been elected archbishop of Canterbury, and Sacks had just been elected chief rabbi, when it was discovered that they had a common passion in that both were great Arsenal fans. They were invited to have their first ecumenical get-together at a midweek match in a VIP box at Highbury Stadium, which was then Arsenal’s home ground. Both agreed enthusiastically, and before the match, they went out onto the turf and presented a check to charity. The public address system announced their presence, and the ensuing buzz was that whichever way one played the theological wager, Arsenal had friends in high places. The crowd was confident that, under these circumstances, Arsenal could not possibly lose. That night, Arsenal suffered its worst home defeat in 60 years, losing 6-2 to Manchester United.
In a newspaper report the following day it was stated that if the archbishop of Canterbury and the chief rabbi between them couldn’t bring a win for Arsenal, did this not prove that God does not exist? Sacks replied, “To the contrary. It does proves that God does exist. It’s just that He supports Manchester United.”
ADDRESSING A packed auditorium of nearly 900 faculty, administration and students at BIU, Sacks delivered a wide-ranging lecture touching on several aspects of Jewish life.
If one asks people around the globe about the state of the Jewish world and the State of Israel, the answer is that antisemitism has returned, Israel is isolated, the Argentineans aren’t willing to play soccer with Israel, Diaspora Jewry is assimilating, and Israeli Jewry is secularizing, he said. “I call this the oy vey theory of Jewish identity. I kvetch, therefore I am.”
Countering such pessimism, Sacks said: “I venture to suggest that never before in our history have we had simultaneously independence and sovereignty in the State of Israel, and freedom and equality in the Diaspora. This sovereignty and independence and the whole miracle of the State of Israel means that the very context of Jewish thought has changed,” he declared. “This surely calls for a new and confident response by way of Jewish thought. Now is the time for a renaissance in Jewish thought,” he asserted. “Jewish thought has become practical in a way that it hasn’t been for 2,000 years. Jews are now in the game.”
Moving on to some of Israel’s technological advances, Sacks said that his personal favorite is Waze, “which has done more for shalom bayit (domestic harmony) than any other invention” because it has eliminated family arguments in the car about directions, he quipped. “We are the world’s satellite navigation system.”
■ THE RECIPIENT of an honorary doctorate from the Technion during the annual meeting of its board of governors, Sacks also participated in the Technion’s panel discussion on the relationship between science and religion, which also featured Nobel Prize laureate. Prof. Aaron Ciechanover and Prof. Karl Skorecki of the Rappaport Faculty of Medicine and director of medical and research development at Rambam Health Care Campus as moderator.
“For me, the question of God is completely irrelevant,” asserted Ciechanover, while nevertheless maintaining that Judaism is an important part of his identity. He also spoke of the limits of the scientific language and the need for a collaboration between science and religion. “Scientists need moral leaders to help them mediate between themselves and their audiences,” he stated, adding that they are unable to do so by themselves. Furthermore, scientists cannot “lift the burden of the implications of their own research” and therefore they need leaders like Rabbi Sacks.”
Sacks quoted Albert Einstein, who famously insisted, “Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.” Sacks added: “You need humility on both sides.”
Although clearly representing religion in the discussion, Sacks made it clear that he does not see any conflict between science and religion, especially with regard to the Jewish faith. “Judaism is open to science. God wants us to be a partner.”
To make the world a better place, Sacks continued, “religious leaders have to learn from scientists, since there is a vast ocean of truth we don’t understand.”
Both panelists addressed the issue of therapeutic vs eugenic scientific intervention. According to Sacks, “It is a mitzva to cure generic diseases, but intervening in evolution is highly problematic.” Although we shouldn’t try to improve on nature, he acknowledged that genetically modified crops are a blessing that save many lives, and are not a threat. In a nutshell, he believes “therapeutics – yes, eugenics – no.” He conceded however, that the border is fuzzy and that there is a real danger that scientists will “do it because they can, not because they should.” Ciechanover agreed that “there is a huge twilight zone between therapeutic and eugenic research,” and scientists shouldn’t and can’t answer these questions themselves. They should be careful not to cross the border in the name of academic freedom, he cautioned.
At the conclusion of the hour-long discussion, Sacks pronounced that “if you want to fear God, study science,” and Ciechanover asserted that “there is a great need for moral religious leaders.”
■ DURING HIS whirlwind of speaking engagements, Sacks also found time to pay tribute to Tzohar, the organization of Zionist Orthodox rabbis that seeks to bridge gaps between Orthodox and secular Jews. Speaking in Jerusalem, he characterized Tzohar as “instilling rabbinical grace and compassion on behalf of Israel and the Jewish people.”
The event, co-hosted by David and Sarah Sasson and Micol and Ronen Mevorah, highlighted the work of Tzohar’s Shorashim project, which performs forensic services – primarily in the former Soviet Union – to verify the identity of immigrants to Israel whose proof of Jewish lineage is being questioned. Without such proof, these individuals are unable to be recognized as halachic Jews in Israel and cannot be married to Jews under Israeli law.
Describing the work of Tzohar and Shorashim as “an unparalleled display of the sanctification of God’s name,” Sacks said that the organization is succeeding to “rewrite a part of our history which has gone missing.”
According to Tzohar’s founder and chairman, Rabbi David Stav, approximately 1.2 million people arrived in Israel over the past 30 years without written documentation of their Jewish ancestry. This is largely related to the fact that Jews in the former Soviet Union were married without a ketuba (halachic marriage certificate). Now acclimated in Israel, many of these mostly former Soviet citizens face a major challenge when they want to marry according to Jewish law and start Jewish families.
Stav said that about 800,000 people remain in this category, and they are often stymied by the rabbinate, which rejects their requests to be married in accordance with Halacha. “The result of this situation is that if we don’t succeed in our efforts to provide these people with a compassionate and professional response to this challenge, we will be left with two Israels, the Judaic Israel of halachically verifiable Jews and an Israeli society of people who view themselves as Jews but aren’t able to provide the legal proof to be classified by the state as such.”
Sacks confirmed the urgent nature of Shorashim’s work, saying it is the ultimate fulfillment of the Jewish commandment of hashavat aveida (returning of lost objects.) “Shorashim is literally giving people back that which was robbed of them by history – their very identities as Jews.”
The event also served to celebrate the recent marriage of Ivgeni and Alin, a young couple born in Ukraine but raised in Israel. They emotionally described how when they decided to marry, they feared going to the rabbinate, knowing they lacked the proper documentation, but they desperately wanted to start a family based on Jewish and halachic principles. Shorashim helped them secure the relevant paperwork – a process they said was performed with ultimate “compassion and love.”
Since its creation 12 years ago, Shorashim has successfully confirmed the Jewish identities of 40,000 individual cases. For every case verified, an average of five additional family members can usually be similarly verified as a result of the investigation. Once confirmed by Shorashim, the rabbinate accepts the verification. Shorashim receives funding from private donations as well as matching support from the Israeli government.