The recipient of many honorifics, awards and prizes over the years, including the Israel Prize, Rabbi Israel Meir Lau this week added another string to his bow when conferred with the prestigious Guardian of Zion Award, which he said was the only one he really deserved.

Presented annually since 1997 by the Ingeborg Rennert Center for Jerusalem Studies at Bar-Ilan University, the award inaugurated by Ingeborg and Ira Rennert has been awarded to a series of Jewish and non-Jewish personalities who by word and deed have demonstrated their responsibility to, and love of, Zion.

Unlike his predecessors, Lau, the most internationally known of child Holocaust survivors, a former chief rabbi of Israel and of Tel Aviv, confounded organizers of the event by not having a prepared speech. Every recipient of the Guardian of Zion Award delivers a Distinguished Rennert Lecture. Lau, a spontaneous speaker and a master storyteller, differed from his predecessors in that he spoke in Hebrew, and that he spoke without notes. He was given 25 minutes for his address, but spoke for more than an hour, which few people sitting around the tables in the packed double dining room of the King David Hotel actually noticed.

Lau, as always, was so riveting that his audience looked at him instead of their watches.

The Rennerts, whom Lau has known for some 40 years, are extraordinarily generous donors to many causes in Israel and also own a home in Jerusalem. Through them, said Lau before embarking on his theme, which was “From Shoah to Revival,” he had discovered places in Israel that were previously unknown to him. They established so many ritual baths and synagogues, and donated so many Torah scrolls to small, peripheral communities to which Lau had been asked to officiate at dedication ceremonies, that they virtually opened the map of Israel for him.

The Lau family was very well represented at the event, though not all of his 61 grandchildren were in attendance. Those who did come were all friendly, knowledgeable and had inherited their grandfather’s almost mischievous sense of humor.

They said that they had lost count of the number of great-grandchildren in the family. All in all it’s a fantastic achievement for someone who came to the Land of Israel as an eight-year-old boy with his 19-year-old brother, the sole survivors of their family.

Lau spoke of some of the things that bother him – the fact that when you ask the average Israeli child about Ma’ariv, he tells you that it’s a newspaper; seldom is he aware that it’s the name of the evening prayer.

Lau is even more concerned about the resurgence of brutal antisemitism around the world, and cited a recent example in Melbourne where a brother and sister walking down a main street in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood were physically attacked during Shavuot.

The incident reminded Lau of when he had been to Melbourne some three decades earlier. He and a Chabad lawyer, each of them wearing black hats and frock coats, were walking down the street when a car with two well-dressed men stopped alongside them. “Jews!” they jeered, and then asked whether they’d paid the bill for the gas they used in the gas chambers.

Lau and his companion gazed at each other, dumbfounded. The incident prompted the lawyer to come on aliya. He now lives in Jerusalem.

Lau warned against ignoring the dangers of antisemitism. “We have to see it for what it is,” he said.

Over the years, Lau has received several offers to become the chief rabbi of Jewish communities in various European countries. His invariable response has been that he didn’t leave Europe in order to return.

There are several things that bother Lau in addition to the antisemitism which is today so pervasive in Europe. One is the attitude of secular parents who object to the fact that on the eve of a Jewish holiday, a rabbi enters the school in which their children are pupils, to tell the youngsters about the meaning of the holiday. He recalled that many years ago he had taught Bible at the Brenner School, “and they accepted me for what I am.” There was equal acceptance of the teacher who taught Talmud. All that seems to have changed.

Another area of concern, which has been characteristic of Israel since the very beginnings of the state, said Lau, is the divisiveness, the fragmentation.

For the first Knesset election, when there were only 600,000 Jews in the country, there were 21 political parties, he said. “We are incapable of living together. We have to keep dividing into more and more special interest groups.”

Following his release from Buchenwald concentration camp, Lau and many other Jewish children were sent to a sanitarium for child Holocaust survivors in France. There they were looked after by a Polish Jewish woman from Lodz by the name of Mintz, and for the first time in years ate three meals a day.

One day Mintz told them all to go out to the lawn at precisely 4 p.m.

because some French dignitaries were coming with gifts and each gift bore the name of the child for whom it was intended.

“When did any of us last receive a gift?” asked Lau in retrospect. “And the gifts had our names on them.

Before that we had just been numbers – dehumanized.”

But one boy who was older than the others stood up and said that none of them would go out to be photographed with the French dignitaries.

“Where were they when our parents and siblings were being murdered?” he asked.

Not long afterward, a Holocaust survivor by the name of Leibovich, whom Mintz had known in Lodz, came to visit the sanitarium. He was a textile manufacturer before the war, and his non-Jewish manager continued to operate the factory even to the extent of producing Nazi uniforms.

But he was an honest man, and placed the earnings in Leibovich’s bank account, which increased significantly during Leibovich’s captivity.

Leibovich had lost his wife and children during the Holocaust and wasn’t interested in keeping the money for himself. He wanted to use it on behalf of children orphaned by the Holocaust. When he saw them, he burst into tears, crying out in Yiddish “Children! Children!” The youngsters, none of whom had wept in years, suddenly found themselves weeping with him, sobbing uncontrollably with pent-up emotions.

The boy who had raised the protest about being photographed with the French dignitaries thanked Leibovich for enabling them to cry.

The young boy had seen his father murdered before his eyes and had contained his tears so as not to give the Gestapo the satisfaction of seeing him break down. He had seen his mother die of starvation, and again he had controlled his tears. He had begun to think he was inhuman, until he was finally able to release his feelings and to weep.

“Whoever knows how to weep knows how to laugh,” he said.

Another boy, Aaron Landsberg, wrote a poem based on the Prophet Ezekiel’s Vision of the Valley of Dry Bones, with which he drew a parallel to the survivors of the Holocaust.

Lau, though only eight at the time, was greatly impressed by the depth of this poem and carried it with him in his mind.

During the First Intifada, Lau was at Hadassah Medical Center in Jerusalem, comforting families, visiting victims of terrorism and consulting with physicians. He stood with doctors in a cluster in the corridor, when someone asked if they would move so he could pass. The group dispersed to different sides of the corridor. The man walked past, looked back and said “Rabbi Lau?” It was Aaron Landsberg.

He was the chief accountant at the hospital. He had fought in the War of Independence, and afterward had wanted to save lives, but didn’t have sufficient financial resources for medical studies. But he had always been good with figures, so he studied accountancy, and after getting a job as a clerk, went to night school so as to matriculate, and completed his studies in accountancy. Even though he wasn’t a doctor, he was working at Hadassah.

■ ON APRIL 26, South Africa’s Ambassador to Israel Sisa Ngombane hosted a Freedom Day reception at his residence in Ramat Gan.

A few days later, in his capacity as dean of the African group of ambassadors to Israel, he issued an invitation for an African Unity Day reception that was also scheduled to be held at his residence. But then came the call to come home in the wake of incidents on the Gaza border. At the time, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa said that Ngombane had not been recalled, but had merely been asked to come home for briefings. A South African expatriate who called Ngombane’s office early this week was assured that there was no change as far as the reception was concerned, but two days later, a change of venue notice went out informing invitees that the event will now be held at the Kfar Shmaryahu residence of Nigerian Ambassador Enoch Pear Duchi.

Telfed, the Israeli branch of the South African Zionist Federation, is understandably upset about what now appears to be Ngombane’s recall, and has labeled it “a misguided decision.”

Telfed chairwoman Batya Shmukler noted that over the years Telfed has enjoyed good relations with South African government representatives in Israel, which she said has led to cordial discourse.

“We maintain that a lasting peace can be achieved only through dialogue and engagement. We believe that it is counterproductive to recall Ambassador Ngombane,” she declared, and urged the South African government “to reconsider this unwise decision.”

■ FEW THINGS are more thought provoking than when intellectuals get together for a conversation that can be easily understood by the general public. That’s what happened this week at the Begin Heritage Center in Jerusalem when Deputy Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office Michael Oren, historian and Jerusalem Post columnist Gil Troy and political scientist, lecturer and author Einat Wilf joined forces to discuss the meaning of Zionism in our times.

Troy had been charged by the Jewish Publication Society with expanding issues raised nearly 60 years ago by eminent scholar and Jewish leader Arthur Hertzberg, who was on familiar terms with all the Zionist who’s who of his generation. Hertzberg had grappled with finding a common denominator for the many variables in Jewish pluralism. Troy included in his book writings of scholars who have made their mark in recent years.

Several of them were at the Begin Center for the Israel launch of The Zionist Ideas: Visions for the Jewish Homeland – Then, Now, Tomorrow.

Begin Center executive director Herzl Makov, a fifth-generation Israeli, was gratified to see that the book contains three essays on Begin.

Referring to Begin’s values, Makov mentioned freedom of expression, which he said Begin promoted especially among people with whom he disagreed. Troy, commenting on the panoply of diverse opinions in the book, sees Zionism as an ongoing dialogue.

Wilf, an avowed atheist, who sees Zionism as a form of Jewish empowerment, admitted that she does on occasion use the Jewish religious narrative when talking to non-Jews.

Oren, who 45 years earlier, had been a student of Hertzberg, recalled sitting in his class and waiting, and waiting, and waiting for Hertzberg to make an appearance. Eventually, when he did, it was to say that he’d been on the phone with Golda Meir or with Nahum Goldmann.

Hertzberg’s book was a very hard act to follow, Oren acknowledged, but he is of the opinion that Troy’s book “surpasses it” and shows that “Zionism is alive, thriving, vital and multidimensional.”

The recipient of many honorifics, awards and prizes over the years, including the Israel Prize, Rabbi Israel Meir Lau this week added another string to his bow when conferred with the prestigious Guardian of Zion Award, which he said was the only one he really deserved.

Presented annually since 1997 by the Ingeborg Rennert Center for Jerusalem Studies at Bar-Ilan University, the award inaugurated by Ingeborg and Ira Rennert has been awarded to a series of Jewish and non-Jewish personalities who by word and deed have demonstrated their responsibility to, and love of, Zion.

Unlike his predecessors, Lau, the most internationally known of child Holocaust survivors, a former chief rabbi of Israel and of Tel Aviv, confounded organizers of the event by not having a prepared speech. Every recipient of the Guardian of Zion Award delivers a Distinguished Rennert Lecture. Lau, a spontaneous speaker and a master storyteller, differed from his predecessors in that he spoke in Hebrew, and that he spoke without notes. He was given 25 minutes for his address, but spoke for more than an hour, which few people sitting around the tables in the packed double dining room of the King David Hotel actually noticed.

Lau, as always, was so riveting that his audience looked at him instead of their watches.

The Rennerts, whom Lau has known for some 40 years, are extraordinarily generous donors to many causes in Israel and also own a home in Jerusalem. Through them, said Lau before embarking on his theme, which was “From Shoah to Revival,” he had discovered places in Israel that were previously unknown to him. They established so many ritual baths and synagogues, and donated so many Torah scrolls to small, peripheral communities to which Lau had been asked to officiate at dedication ceremonies, that they virtually opened the map of Israel for him.

The Lau family was very well represented at the event, though not all of his 61 grandchildren were in attendance. Those who did come were all friendly, knowledgeable and had inherited their grandfather’s almost mischievous sense of humor.

They said that they had lost count of the number of great-grandchildren in the family. All in all it’s a fantastic achievement for someone who came to the Land of Israel as an eight-yearold boy with his 19-year-old brother, the sole survivors of their family.

Lau spoke of some of the things that bother him – the fact that when you ask the average Israeli child about Ma’ariv, he tells you that it’s a newspaper; seldom is he aware that it’s the name of the evening prayer.

Lau is even more concerned about the resurgence of brutal antisemitism around the world, and cited a recent example in Melbourne where a brother and sister walking down a main street in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood were physically attacked during Shavuot.

The incident reminded Lau of when he had been to Melbourne some three decades earlier. He and a Chabad lawyer, each of them wearing black hats and frock coats, were walking down the street when a car with two well-dressed men stopped alongside them. “Jews!” they jeered, and then asked whether they’d paid the bill for the gas they used in the gas chambers.

Lau and his companion gazed at each other, dumbfounded. The incident prompted the lawyer to come on aliya. He now lives in Jerusalem.

Lau warned against ignoring the dangers of antisemitism. “We have to see it for what it is,” he said.

Over the years, Lau has received several offers to become the chief rabbi of Jewish communities in various European countries. His invariable response has been that he didn’t leave Europe in order to return.

There are several things that bother Lau in addition to the antisemitism which is today so pervasive in Europe. One is the attitude of secular parents who object to the fact that on the eve of a Jewish holiday, a rabbi enters the school in which their children are pupils, to tell the youngsters about the meaning of the holiday. He recalled that many years ago he had taught Bible at the Brenner School, “and they accepted me for what I am.” There was equal acceptance of the teacher who taught Talmud. All that seems to have changed.

Another area of concern, which has been characteristic of Israel since the very beginnings of the state, said Lau, is the divisiveness, the fragmentation.

For the first Knesset election, when there were only 600,000 Jews in the country, there were 21 political parties, he said. “We are incapable of living together. We have to keep dividing into more and more special interest groups.”

Following his release from Buchenwald concentration camp, Lau and many other Jewish children were sent to a sanitarium for child Holocaust survivors in France. There they were looked after by a Polish Jewish woman from Lodz by the name of Mintz, and for the first time in years ate three meals a day.

One day Mintz told them all to go out to the lawn at precisely 4 p.m.

because some French dignitaries were coming with gifts and each gift bore the name of the child for whom it was intended.

“When did any of us last receive a gift?” asked Lau in retrospect. “And the gifts had our names on them.

Before that we had just been numbers – dehumanized.”

But one boy who was older than the others stood up and said that none of them would go out to be photographed with the French dignitaries.

“Where were they when our parents and siblings were being murdered?” he asked.

Not long afterward, a Holocaust survivor by the name of Leibovich, whom Mintz had known in Lodz, came to visit the sanitarium. He was a textile manufacturer before the war, and his non-Jewish manager continued to operate the factory even to the extent of producing Nazi uniforms.

But he was an honest man, and placed the earnings in Leibovich’s bank account, which increased significantly during Leibovich’s captivity.

Leibovich had lost his wife and children during the Holocaust and wasn’t interested in keeping the money for himself. He wanted to use it on behalf of children orphaned by the Holocaust. When he saw them, he burst into tears, crying out in Yiddish “Children! Children!” The youngsters, none of whom had wept in years, suddenly found themselves weeping with him, sobbing uncontrollably with pent-up emotions.

The boy who had raised the protest about being photographed with the French dignitaries thanked Leibovich for enabling them to cry.

The young boy had seen his father murdered before his eyes and had contained his tears so as not to give the Gestapo the satisfaction of seeing him break down. He had seen his mother die of starvation, and again he had controlled his tears. He had begun to think he was inhuman, until he was finally able to release his feelings and to weep.

“Whoever knows how to weep knows how to laugh,” he said.

Another boy, Aaron Landsberg, wrote a poem based on the Prophet Ezekiel’s Vision of the Valley of Dry Bones, with which he drew a parallel to the survivors of the Holocaust.

Lau, though only eight at the time, was greatly impressed by the depth of this poem and carried it with him in his mind.

During the First Intifada, Lau was at Hadassah Medical Center in Jerusalem, comforting families, visiting victims of terrorism and consulting with physicians. He stood with doctors in a cluster in the corridor, when someone asked if they would move so he could pass. The group dispersed to different sides of the corridor. The man walked past, looked back and said “Rabbi Lau?” It was Aaron Landsberg.

He was the chief accountant at the hospital. He had fought in the War of Independence, and afterward had wanted to save lives, but didn’t have sufficient financial resources for medical studies. But he had always been good with figures, so he studied accountancy, and after getting a job as a clerk, went to night school so as to matriculate, and completed his studies in accountancy. Even though he wasn’t a doctor, he was working at Hadassah.

■ ON APRIL 26, South Africa’s Ambassador to Israel Sisa Ngombane hosted a Freedom Day reception at his residence in Ramat Gan.

A few days later, in his capacity as dean of the African group of ambassadors to Israel, he issued an invitation for an African Unity Day reception that was also scheduled to be held at his residence. But then came the call to come home in the wake of incidents on the Gaza border. At the time, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa said that Ngombane had not been recalled, but had merely been asked to come home for briefings. A South African expatriate who called Ngombane’s office early this week was assured that there was no change as far as the reception was concerned, but two days later, a change of venue notice went out informing invitees that the event will now be held at the Kfar Shmaryahu residence of Nigerian Ambassador Enoch Pear Duchi.

Telfed, the Israeli branch of the South African Zionist Federation, is understandably upset about what now appears to be Ngombane’s recall, and has labeled it “a misguided decision.”

Telfed chairwoman Batya Shmukler noted that over the years Telfed has enjoyed good relations with South African government representatives in Israel, which she said has led to cordial discourse.

“We maintain that a lasting peace can be achieved only through dialogue and engagement. We believe that it is counterproductive to recall Ambassador Ngombane,” she declared, and urged the South African government “to reconsider this unwise decision.”

■ FEW THINGS are more thought provoking than when intellectuals get together for a conversation that can be easily understood by the general public. That’s what happened this week at the Begin Heritage Center in Jerusalem when Deputy Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office Michael Oren, historian and Jerusalem Post columnist Gil Troy and political scientist, lecturer and author Einat Wilf joined forces to discuss the meaning of Zionism in our times.

Troy had been charged by the Jewish Publication Society with expanding issues raised nearly 60 years ago by eminent scholar and Jewish leader Arthur Hertzberg, who was on familiar terms with all the Zionist who’s who of his generation. Hertzberg had grappled with finding a common denominator for the many variables in Jewish pluralism. Troy included in his book writings of scholars who have made their mark in recent years.

Several of them were at the Begin Center for the Israel launch of The Zionist Ideas: Visions for the Jewish Homeland – Then, Now, Tomorrow.

Begin Center executive director Herzl Makov, a fifth-generation Israeli, was gratified to see that the book contains three essays on Begin.

Referring to Begin’s values, Makov mentioned freedom of expression, which he said Begin promoted especially among people with whom he disagreed. Troy, commenting on the panoply of diverse opinions in the book, sees Zionism as an ongoing dialogue.

Wilf, an avowed atheist, who sees Zionism as a form of Jewish empowerment, admitted that she does on occasion use the Jewish religious narrative when talking to non-Jews.

Oren, who 45 years earlier, had been a student of Hertzberg, recalled sitting in his class and waiting, and waiting, and waiting for Hertzberg to make an appearance. Eventually, when he did, it was to say that he’d been on the phone with Golda Meir or with Nahum Goldmann.

Hertzberg’s book was a very hard act to follow, Oren acknowledged, but he is of the opinion that Troy’s book “surpasses it” and shows that “Zionism is alive, thriving, vital and multidimensional.”

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