The most popular person at the cocktail reception on the eve of the 15th annual Jerusalem Conference organized by the Besheva communications group was US Ambassador David Friedman. Almost everyone was certain that Friedman was behind US President Donald Trump’s formal recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
Friedman insisted that the decision came from the commander in chief himself.
Friedman, who long before his appointment as ambassador was a familiar figure to many of the residents of the West Bank settlements, greeted many people in the room, including “Katzele, my friend of 20 years.” Katzele is former MK Ya’acov Katz, executive director of the board of Besheva, a former commando unit commander who was severely wounded in the Yom Kippur War, and one of the founders of the Beit El settlement.
The following day, at the opening session of the conference, President Reuven Rivlin also singled out Katzele and embraced him, saying that notwithstanding their differences, they are good friends.
The cocktail reception was a prelude to a concert by Yehoram Gaon, who was also one of the recipients of Besheva’s Jerusalem Prize. Friedman, who had to break away temporarily to keep an appointment with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, promised that he would be back, “because I’m the greatest fan in this room of Yehoram Gaon.”
Before leaving, Friedman said: “We have turned a page in our relations.” As Israel approaches its 70th anniversary of independence, he could not help but remember the 69th anniversary, he said. He had been master of ceremonies at the first Israel Independence Day celebration held at the White House.
Later, he was the first US ambassador to attend a Jerusalem Day ceremony in the Old City.
After that, Trump was the first US president to visit the Western Wall.
Head of the Federation of Local Authorities Haim Bibas, who is mayor of Modi’in, and Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat took time out from the international conference of mayors to attend the reception as a mark of respect for the status that the Jerusalem Conference has attained over the years. Also seen at the reception were former Shas leader Eli Yishai, Deputy Defense Minister Eli Ben-Dahan and Jerusalem mayoral candidate Moshe Leon.
True to his word, Friedman did return, and shook hands with Gaon while he was in the middle of a song. Gaon, who knows Friedman well, bent down from the stage to greet him.
Friedman sat in the front row and obviously enjoyed every minute of the performance, which lasted for almost three hours. Gaon was truly at his best, telling anecdotes here and there but mostly singing.
Regardless of how experienced or professional one is, for many entertainers, there’s almost always a moment of self-doubt, a fear that this time the audience will be cold and unappreciative. When Gaon first came on stage, it was as if he was measuring the temperature in the huge auditorium. It was warm, very warm.
The tri-generational audience loved him, and he loved them. He was also extremely gracious bringing on Ovadia Hamama to sing perennial favorite “Ana Bekoah,” joining in the chorus and in another religious song.
The audience went wild. Just before the presentation of the Jerusalem Prize, fellow singer Effi Netzer leaped on stage at the International Jerusalem Convention Center, embraced Gaon and reminded him that on that very stage in 1973, they had sung “Golani Sheli” to soldiers of the Golani Brigade.
Throughout the evening the audience sang along, cheered and whistled. Gaon remained upbeat throughout. It was hard to image that someone with so much bounce and energy is 78 years old and, but for the lateness of the hour, could have kept going indefinitely. Friedman was among those who surged forward to the stage at the end of the performance to once again shake Gaon’s hand.
■ WHILE RELIGIOUS Zionists are well represented in the army, academia and politics, “we still have to fight for acceptance of our values,” said Dudu Saada, chairman of the Besheva group, at the conference’s opening session on Monday at the capital’s Crowne Plaza hotel.
Jerusalem Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Moshe Amar sounded a more optimistic note as he remembered his student days at a yeshiva in Shlomi near the Lebanese border.
It 1967, he said, he had been riding in a multiple- hire taxi. One of the other passengers was Michael Suissa, who later became mayor of Shlomi, and another was a young man from Kibbutz Hanita.
Amar was 18 years old at the time. The kibbutznik asked what he did. Amar replied that he was a student. The kibbutznik automatically assumed that he was a university student and was surprised that any university in Israel would have a branch in Shlomi. Amar corrected that impression and said that he was a yeshiva student. The kibbutznik thought the yeshiva might be connected to a university, but Amar dissuaded him of that idea.
When the kibbutznik finally grasped the facts, he was all but horrified. “You can’t be studying stuff from the Middle Ages!” he exclaimed.
Amar again corrected him, saying that it was actually a few centuries back beyond the Middle Ages. The kibbutznik was dismayed that a fine young man who he described as “normal looking” should be wasting his time on that instead of doing something productive.
The pioneers who came to Israel from Europe, the kibbutznik said, rejected religion and threw it out. He was willing to bet that within 10 to 20 years, there would be no more Torah study in Israel. To which Amar retorted: “You’ll see, in 20 years there’ll be a synagogue at Kibbutz Hanita.”
The kibbutznik guffawed loudly. He thought it was a huge joke.
Amir forgot all about the incident till 22 years later when he was living in Bnei Brak. He had been called back to Shlomi to deliver a eulogy for David Danino, who had been Suissa’s predecessor as mayor.
After the service, Suissa took him aside and asked if he remembered the conversation with the kibbutznik. He didn’t, and Suissa had to keep prodding until the incident finally found its way back to Amar’s memory. At that point Suissa excitedly showed him a newspaper with an article about a synagogue that had been constructed at Hanita.
Today, said Amar, almost every kibbutz has a synagogue, or at least a place that has been set aside for worship, and most synagogues also have a kosher kitchen. Seventy years ago, no one would have believed that such a thing could be possible.
■ JEWISH MEAN time apparently has no boundaries. Netanyahu was out by more than a week at his annual New Year reception for foreign journalists and diplomats, but Barkat is out by a month and a half. On Thursday Barkat will host a New Year reception at the Jerusalem City Council Chamber for ambassadors and other members of the diplomatic corps as well as spiritual leaders of Jerusalem’s Jewish, Muslim and Christian communities. If he would wait another week, he could call it a pre-Purim party.
Friedman, who makes no secret of his love for Jerusalem, will be back in the holy city to once again meet up with Barkat. Other expected guests include Muhammad Masri, chairman of the Beit Hanina Community Council; Rabbi Aryeh Stern, Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Jerusalem; and Greek Orthodox Patriarch Theophilus III, who controls so much of Jerusalem’s real estate.
■ AMONG THE many Facebook greetings that popular Indian-born restaurateur Reena Pushkarna received over the weekend wishing her well for her birthday was one that suggested that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi had timed his visit to Jordan in order to be close to her for birthday. Pushkarna prepared the dinner that Modi ate at the Prime Minister’s Residence when Modi visited Israel last July. Pushkarna was also part of Netanyahu’s entourage when he visited India last month.
Following her return, Pushkarna was invited to join the advisory council of the Israel-Asia Center, along with Saul Singer, co-author of Start-up Nation, lawyer and former diplomat David Adelman, and Dr. Roger King, an adjunct professor of finance and founder of the Tanoto Center for Asian Family Business and Entrepreneurship Studies at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.
Pushkarna gave up celebrating her birthday several years ago, but this year on her birthday, by coincidence, she attended the bat mitzva of Daria Ofer – one of the five children of global businessman Idan Ofer, who lives in London and donates huge sums to various philanthropic causes – and got loads of birthday wishes. Ofer and his present and fourth wife, Batia, came to Israel to celebrate with Daria and asked that, in lieu of gifts, donations be forwarded to Make-A-Wish, in which Batia Ofer is very active in London.
Because she’s also an art collector and knows many artists and gallery owners, Batia was able to obtain works by some of England’s leading artists to be auctioned off for Make-A-Wish, which helps to make dreams come true for children with life-threatening illnesses. Make- A-Wish Israel helped to grant the wish of a little girl called Noga whose dream was to lead an expedition to Mount Kilimanjaro, which she did in January.
■ FORMER US ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro, who is still in the country as a Distinguished Visiting Fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies, was interviewed on Israel Radio’s Reshet Bet about how Washington would react to the weekend incident involving an Iranian drone.
He was also asked about the Twitter comment by Friedman who was outraged that Haaretz reporter Gideon Levy had referred to the Har Bracha (Blessed Mountain) settlement as “Har Klala” (Cursed Mountain). Friedman tweeted: “What has become of Haaretz? Four young children are sitting shiva for their murdered father, and this publication calls their community ‘mountain of curses.’ Have they no decency?” To which Haaretz publisher Amos Schocken, in support of Levy, responded: “Mr. Ambassador Gideon Levy is right. As long as the policy of Israel that your government and yourself support is obstructing peace process, practical annexation of the territories, perpetuating apartheid, fighting terror but willing to pay its price, there will be more shivas.”
Shapiro said that it was not his place to give points (or otherwise) to Friedman, but when pressed whether he had ever criticized an Israeli publication, he said that when reports misquoted him or president Barack Obama, he made sure to inform the particular media outlet of the error.
■ MEANWHILE SHAPIRO has been highly critical, via his Twitter account, of the failure by US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to include Israel in his tour of the Middle East.
Among the latest in a series of tweets to this effect, Shapiro wrote: “Here’s what I don’t understand: If Tillerson is so out of the loop on the Israeli-Palestinian and US-Israel issues that he won’t even stop in Israel on this trip, why would anyone think the Arab leaders would take him seriously when he seeks their help with the Palestinians?” Shapiro has also made some interesting comments about Russian President Vladimir Putin being authorized by Trump to deliver messages to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
■ MANY PEOPLE who are not qualified as members of the medical profession, but who take on health projects were thwarted by any number of factors that prevented them from realizing a childhood dream to become a doctor.
British Ambassador David Quarrey isn’t one of them. Quarrey never wanted to be doctor, but nonetheless he’s very excited about the Dangoor Health Initiative, a flagship program designed to streamline innovation in digital health into the UK and the National Health Service, and plans to make it his top priority in the year ahead.
“This will be one of the most important things I or the embassy will do all year,” he told some 150 guests at a reception that he hosted at his residence for philanthropists Judy and David Dangoor of the Exilarch’s Foundation; several members of Israel’s Iraqi community who share a common background with David Dangoor; the UK Israel Tech Hub, a team based at the British Embassy that works to source the best of Israeli innovation on behalf of British industry; IBM Alpha Zone accelerator, the first and only Israel-based IBM accelerator, as the delivery partner; and DigitalHealth.
London, which matches innovators with NHS needs, and supports them in navigating the UK health environment. “This will deliver Israeli innovation and technology for the good of the British people, because it is clear that the NHS needs to change and innovate,” said Quarrey.
Dangoor has made substantial contributions to a variety of projects in both the UK and Israel. Quarrey described him as “an extraordinary contributor to both countries.”
Dangoor said that he is particularly interested in health and proud to be involved in this new initiative. When his late father took the family out of Iraq in the 1960s, he said, they left with nothing. All their wealth remained behind. They found refuge and a wonderful warm welcome in the UK. Over the years they rebuilt their lives, and after 20 years in England decided that it was time to give back to the community.
Initially, Israel was not on the radar, said Dangoon, till he met Prof. Moshe Kaveh, who was then president of Bar-Ilan University.
In 2016, at a gathering of the Royal Society of Medicine, a chance meeting with someone who told him that his interest in healthcare could lead him to something much further brought him into contact with Quarrey a month later. He was caught up by Quarrey’s enthusiasm, aside from which his own working career had started with IBM, so he was very excited to be working with IBM again. Israel has a lot to give to the UK, he said.
Charlie Davie, managing director of Britain’s UCL Partners, noted that the project is not about an exciting new product or an exciting collaboration. The bottom line is about identifying the best innovation that can save lives. IBM Israel CTO Uri Hayik endorsed this sentiment and said that, today, innovation is needed in order to be relevant in a changing reality.
Among the guests of Iraqi background were former diplomat and politician Shlomo Hillel, who will celebrate his 95th birthday in April, and former ambassador Zvi Gabay, who was Israel’s first ambassador to Ireland.
■ CHINESE NEW Year, which is officially Friday, February 16, was celebrated in Israel last week with a twofold purpose. Aside from the festival itself, representatives of the Chinese Ministry of Culture were interested in introducing Israelis to the new China Cultural Center in Tel Aviv’s Ramat Hahayal neighborhood.
The center, in which the Chinese government has invested $20 million, is yet another example of China’s growing presence in Israel.
Aside from the hundreds of Chinese construction workers engaged in building projects throughout the country, and the purchase by Chinese investors of major Israeli companies such as Tnuva, Israelis will now have greater access to Chinese culture. The center, in addition to various events that it will host, will offer courses on Chinese language, painting, music, martial arts and cuisine.
Guests who attended the New Year reception were treated to a concert by Chinese and Israeli artists. In welcoming the guests, Chinese Ambassador Zhan Yongxin said: “We chose to present you with the music ensemble as music is a global language. This is a new bridge in Israel, one to unify and connect the two peoples and two cultures.”
Chinese cultural attaché Wan Ting said that the decision to establish a cultural center in Israel is part of China’s strategy for making Chinese culture available to all countries with which China has strategic, diplomatic, economic and cultural relations.
Among the guests were former ambassador to China Matan Vilna’i; Gili Drob Heistein, CEO of Israel Cyber Research Center; Dr. Danielle Gurevitch, head of Asia studies at Bar-Ilan University; and Orly Fromer, head of Israel-Asia relations at Tel Aviv University.
■ WHENEVER SHE has the time, Tel Aviv-based Canadian Ambassador Deborah Lyons likes to travel north to Metulla to watch young people from all over the north of the country play Canada’s national game of ice hockey.
It’s no secret that sport can be a unifying factor among people of different backgrounds.
Playing on the same team, they have a common denominator and a common purpose, and differences are put on the back burner as friendships develop.
Lyons who supports the Women Wage Peace movement, is delighted that Canada’s national sport brings together Jews, Christians, Muslims and others from all over the North, including Nazareth.
Last week, she invited all the girls who play hockey with the Canada-Israel Hockey School in Metulla for a dinner at her residence in Tel Aviv. Some of the girls practice up to four times a week in Metulla. The youngest of the guests celebrated her ninth birthday with the ambassador and members of her staff at the dinner at the residence, and the oldest, who is 18 and about to be drafted into the IDF, coaches the younger girls.
The school is generously funded by Canadian philanthropist Sidney Greenberg of Astral Media, which, for a considerable period of time, was one of Canada’s largest media companies.
One of the players, Liv Sharabi, presented Lyons with a hockey jersey bearing the ambassador’s name and the number “1,” which more or less makes her a member of the team.
■ IF HIS father, Abba Ahimeir, were alive today, he would be extremely proud of the fact that more than a million Jews from the former Soviet Union have migrated to Israel, former MK Yossi Ahimeir told Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, when he and his wife, Irena Nevzlin, visited Beit Abba, the Ramat Gan family home of Abba Ahimeir which has been turned into a mini museum to reflect his writings and political activities. Ahimeir said that his father would have been particularly proud that one of those immigrants was serving as speaker of the Knesset.
He showed Edelstein a 100-year-old photograph taken in Bobruisk, Belarus, of eight young Jewish men, four of whom supported the Bolshevik Revolution and four who identified with the Zionist Revolution. The eight had pledged to meet again in 10 or 20 years from the time the photograph was taken to reminisce and to see where fate had led them. One of the young men in the photo was wearing a uniform, and Edelstein inquired as to who he was. It just so happened that he was Kaddish Luz, who was the first speaker of the Knesset, a factor that Edelstein found very moving.
Conscious of the significance of Zionist history and its impact on the history of the state, especially during this 70th anniversary year, Edelstein said that it is important to pay more attention to facilities that are part of the nation’s heritage, such as Jabotinsky House, the Menachem Begin Heritage Center and Beit Abba.
■ AUSTRALIAN AMBASSADOR Chris Cannan paid a visit to Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya to meet Australian students taking part in an international program formulated by the executive and continuing education division together with the Adelson School of Entrepreneurship and the University of New South Wales. The 20 business administration students from Australia were participating in a four-week program at IDC for a hands-on experience on how Israeli start-ups work, and were focusing on five specific start-ups from the Merkspace community.
The ambassador attended the students’ final presentations and said: “The Australian government, which maintains excellent relations with Israel, wishes to combine new Australian start-ups with the Israeli ecosystem, hoping they return to Australia with improved products.
In the last few years, 16 Israeli companies settled in Australia and I’m sure there are more to come. From here, the Australian students will travel back to their homeland with new insights, ideas and relations, which will help them develop the Australian economy and strengthen the bond with the State of Israel.”
At the present time, 16 Israeli companies are listed on the Australian Securities Exchange, and more are on the way. Australian investors, aware of Israel’s developments in innovation, are eager to put their money into Israeli startups.