Iran nuclear talks show progress, Western diplomat says


Nuclear talks between Iran and world powers this week were more constructive and positive than in the past, but Iran's willingness to negotiate seriously will not become clear until an April meeting, a senior Western diplomat said on Thursday.

The diplomat was more upbeat about the talks in Kazakhstan than other Western officials have been, suggesting there could be a chance of diplomatic progress in the long standoff over Iran's nuclear activities.

“This was more constructive and more positive than previous meetings because they were really focusing on the proposal on the table,” said the diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Iran's Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi struck an upbeat note about the talks, saying they had reached “a turning point” this week and suggesting a breakthrough was within reach.

“I call it a milestone. It is a turning point in the negotiations,” Salehi told Austrian broadcaster ORF during a visit to Vienna for a United Nations conference.

“We are heading for goals that will be satisfactory for both sides. I am very optimistic and hopeful,” he said, according to a German translation of remarks he made in English.

Years of on-off talks between Iran and the six powers have produced no breakthrough in the dispute over the nuclear program, which Iran says is peaceful but that Western powers suspect is aimed at developing a nuclear bomb capability.

Iran has faced tightening international sanctions over its nuclear program and Israel has strongly hinted it might attack Iran if diplomacy and sanctions fail.

At the latest talks, the six powers offered modest sanctions relief in return for Iran curbing its most sensitive nuclear work.

“We show a way into the easing of sanctions. We don't give away the crown jewels in the first step,” the diplomat said.

The two sides agreed to hold expert-level talks in Istanbul on March 18 to discuss the powers' proposals, and to return to Almaty for political discussions on April 5-6.

STEP-BY-STEP

The March meeting will be a chance for experts to explain in detail what the six powers' offer means, the senior Western diplomat said, adding that the April meeting would be key.

“This will be the important meeting. We'll see if they are willing to engage seriously on the package,” the diplomat said.

Western officials said the six powers' offer included easing a ban on trade in gold and other precious metals and relaxation of an import embargo on Iranian petrochemical products.

In exchange, a senior U.S. official said, Iran would among other things have to suspend uranium enrichment to a fissile concentration of 20 percent at its Fordow underground facility and “constrain the ability to quickly resume operations there”.

The U.S. official did not term what was being asked of Iran as a “shutdown” of the plant, as Western diplomats had said in previous meetings with Iran last year.

The senior Western diplomat denied the six powers had softened their position on Fordow, but conceded: “We may have softened our terminology.”

The diplomat sketched out a step-by-step approach, saying the six powers' proposals offered Iran the prospect of further steps in return for Iranian actions beyond a first confidence-building step. “There has to be a clear sequencing,” the diplomat said, without giving details.

Iran's chief nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili said on Wednesday the six powers had tried to “get closer to our viewpoint”, which he said was positive.

Editing by Roger Atwood

Morocco evacuates Israeli diplomat


Pro-Palestinian protests forced the evacuation of an Israeli diplomat from Morocco.

David Saranga, Israel’s senior liaison to the European Parliament, traveled from Brussels to Rabat over the weekend for an international conference of lawmakers. But the event was overshadowed by a mass pro-Palestinian rally organized by Islamists opposed to Morocco’s monarchy, which has fostered low-key ties established with the Jewish state in 1994.

As tens of thousands of protesters converged on the parliament building in Rabat, Saranga was evacuated under guard Sunday out of concern he could be targeted for attack.

“There was a never-ending stream of people, with Palestinian flags in one hand and, in the other, Israeli flags with swastikas instead of Stars of David,” Saranga told Israel’s Army Radio in a telephone interview Monday.

Islamist leader Hassan Bennajeh said Sunday’s march came ahead of the annual Land Day demonstrations by Israeli Arabs against Jerusalem’s policies.

“Everybody knows that the Moroccan regime supports normalization with Israel and has helped thousands of Moroccan Jews to migrate to and populate Israel,” Bennajeh said, according to Reuters.

Diplomat challenges U.S. Jewish views on France


Francois Zimeray, France’s ambassador-at-large for human rights, was in Los Angeles recently, and during a two-hour breakfast of croissants and assorted fruits, shared two observations:

First, though Israel has real enemies in the world, it also has a lot of friends, and not everybody wants to put down the Jewish state.

Second, while there are anti-Semites in France, France is not an anti-Semitic country.

Neither of these statements appears particularly controversial, but, he said, given the mail he regularly receives from American and other Jews, he is either blind or indifferent to the dangers facing both Jews and Israel.

Zimeray got an early start in politics. At 27, he became France’s youngest mayor at 27, and then a youthful member of the Chamber of Deputies on the Socialist Party ticket.

In 1999, he was elected to the European Parliament, where, to the annoyance of his party colleagues, he pushed for an investigation into how the Palestinian Authority spent the monies afforded it by the European Union.

Now 50 and looking like a casting director’s pick to portray a suave French career diplomat, Zimeray has been serving as his nation’s human rights envoy for seven years.

He travels constantly and covers a lot of bases. His jurisdiction includes general human rights, women’s rights, Holocaust issues and anti-Semitism, areas that are assigned to four different officials by the United States.

Before coming to the West Coast, Zimeray had spent considerable time in Myanmar (formerly known as Burma), where the reigning junta seems to be easing its pressure on the political opposition.

A regular item on his agenda is the
Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and during regular visits to the Middle East, he tries to persuade both parties to “put yourself in the shoes of the other side,” admittedly a challenging political exercise.

Speaking personally, rather than as a government official, Zimeray said he believes most Israelis, regardless of ideology, hold three interconnected viewpoints: The world doesn’t understand us; the world doesn’t like us; and nothing we can do will change these attitudes.

Zimeray speculates that Israelis’ perceptions are rooted in a survivor mentality, believing they are on their own and cannot rely on outside friends.

Whatever the causes, and even granting some validity to Israel’s fears, Zimeray believes that such views are counter-productive and that the Jewish state indeed has more friends than it realizes.

If one of Zimeray’s jobs is to assure Israel that it does not stand alone and that France is fully committed to the Jewish state’s survival, another is to allay Arab suspicions of Israel.

One Paris-based program toward that end is the international Aladdin Project. Working through French embassies and consulates, Aladdin staffers translate and distribute in Arab countries the writings of such authors as Primo Levi and Anne Frank, invite Muslim religious leaders to visit
Auschwitz, and “counter the Arab perception that the Shoah didn’t happen,” Zimeray said.

The French diplomat attributes part of his concern for human rights to his Jewish family background. “We were not religious, but we were infused early on with the concept of tikkun olam” [healing the world] and were taught that “indifference is a crime without forgiveness,” he said.

Among the critical letters and e-mail Zimeray receives, anti-Semitism in France is perhaps even more of a cultural hot-button issue than the Middle East conflict.

Given the emotions surrounding this topic, Zimeray scheduled two days in Los Angeles on his way to a conference in San Francisco, specifically to talk to the Jewish media here.

Our conversation on this topic ranged from the century-old Alfred Dreyfus affair, in which a French-Jewish military officer was framed on a treason charge, to the collaborationist Vichy regime of World War II, and to present-day France with its large Muslim immigrant population.

France, Zimeray said, has a Jewish population of some 600,000, which is about the same as metropolitan Los Angeles. While Zimeray acknowledged “anti-Semitism has not disappeared,” he added that this “is only part of the story.”

Not unlike changes in American society over the past half century, anti-Semitism no longer gets a free pass and is no longer accepted as the social norm in France, Zimeray argued.

“Anti-Semitism is condemned by our courts, our education on the Holocaust is exemplary, and society in general gives no indulgence to anti-Semitism,” the French diplomat said.

While anti-Jewish attacks by young Muslims are a reality, the majority of the Muslim community has two goals — integration into French society and peace in the Middle East, Zimeray noted.

On balance, he believes that “France is one of the less-anti-Semitic countries in the world,” and his conclusion is backed by Shimon Samuels, who heads the European Office of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

Samuels, on a flight between Iraq and Moscow, e-mailed that compared to the United Kingdom, Spain, Italy and even Germany, “anti-Semitic discourse is much lower in France.”

Nevertheless, Samuels noted the rise of anti-Jewish violence by “black African alienated youth” under Iranian influence, and boycott brigades trashing the kosher shelves of supermarkets.

There have also been a number of high-profile incidents, among them the 1980 bombing of the rue Copernic Reform synagogue in Paris, which killed four pedestrians. The killing led to the creation of the Jewish Community Protective Service by CRIF, the Representative Council of French Jewish Institutions.

The most notorious case since was the 2006 torture-murder of Ilan Halimi, a young French Jew of Moroccan descent, by a self-styled “Gang of Barbarians.” The young thugs, mainly children of African Muslim immigrants, were motivated by both anti-Semitism and a hoped-for large ransom.

According to statistics by the Protective Service over the last decade, anti-Semitic incidents in France peaked in 2004, during the fighting in Gaza. During that year, there were 974 incidents. From this high, the figure has been dropping from year to year, reaching a low of 466 in 2010, the last year for which figures are available. Of this number, 36 percent consisted of graffiti scrawlings, 24 percent of verbal threats or menacing behavior, 12 percent physical violence, and one homicide attempt.

Even with the decline, and factoring in different population sizes, the 2010 rate of anti-Semitic incidents in France was roughly double that of the United States.

Hungary, Sweden launch Raoul Wallenberg Year


Ceremonies in Budapest inaugurated Raoul Wallenberg Year, a series of events marking the centennial of the birth of the Swedish diplomat who saved tens of thousands of Jews during the Holocaust.

Hungarian Foreign Minister Janos Martonyi, Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt and Israeli Cabinet minister Yossi Peled opened observances in Budapest on Tuesday, the anniversary of the day in 1945 that Wallenberg was last seen after being arrested by the Soviet Red Army. Holocaust survivors and members of Wallenberg’s family also attended the ceremony at the National Museum.

Hungary, as well as Sweden, will mark Wallenberg Year with exhibitions, conferences, concerts and other commemorative events, including the issuing of stamps in both countries.

Wallenberg, a neutral Swedish diplomat in Budapest after the German occupation in 1944, issued Swedish travel documents – known as “Wallenberg passports” – to at least 20,000 Jews and also set up more than 30 safe houses for Jews. Other neutral diplomats collaborated in the effort.

The details of Wallenberg’s fate have remained a mystery. He disappeared while being escorted out of Hungary toward the Soviet Union. The Soviets claimed that he died of a heart attack in 1957, but other evidence indicates that he was killed in Lubyanka prison or that he may have lived years longer.

The stated goals of Hungary’s Wallenberg Year include “moving closer to clarifying Wallenberg’s fate,” as well as commemoration of Holocaust victims and their rescuers, education about human rights and minority issues, and “exposing the crimes of National Socialism and Communism.”

As one, D.C. insiders speaking up for ousted Israeli diplomat


Washington’s fractious Middle East policy community is speaking in one voice in support of Danny Arbell, an Israeli diplomat widely admired for his capacity for listening.

Arbell made headlines in Israel last month when the Foreign Ministry removed him from his post as the Israeli embassy’s deputy chief of mission, allegedly for a leak to a reporter 2 1/2 years ago.

The news took aback a community—left to right, Jewish and non-Jewish, within the Israeli Embassy and within the Obama administration—that has valued Arbell for his soft-spoken openness.

“He’s highly respected by people on the left and the right,” said Steve Rosen, the former foreign policy chief for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee who says he has known Arbell for decades. “He’s got credibility with all ideological camps, and he’s very discreet.”

Arbell’s job as deputy chief of mission, or DCM, made him the right-hand man to the U.S. ambassador, Michael Oren. It’s one of the most demanding behind-the-scenes jobs for a diplomat. The DCM manages the embassy’s operations day to day and lays the groundwork in the diplomatic and political communities to make sure the ambassador’s dealings and appearances run smoothly.

Arbell, 46, brought a wealth of experience in Israel’s most sensitive diplomatic sphere, its relations with the United States, when he assumed the post in August 2009, arriving in Washington with his wife and four children. He had served previously in Washington as chief of staff to two Israeli ambassadors, Itamar Rabinovitch and Eliahu Ben-Elissar, during the 1990s. Prior to becoming DCM, Arbell ran the U.S. desk at the Foreign Ministry.

It was in his most recent post that Arbell allegedly made the leak that got him into trouble in the spring of 2009. The content of the leak is not known, but those close to Arbell insist it was merely a confirmation of news that a reporter had from another source.

It was a time when the nascent Obama and Netanyahu administrations were warily circling one another, and Haaretz reported that the leak had to do with Iran strategy—and that the Obama administration, outraged at the leak, pressed for consequences. Another diplomat, Alon Bar, reportedly was cleared recently in the case.

Arbell flew to Israel and acknowledged the leak. Now his career is in jeopardy

“He would have been better off telling them to talk to his lawyers,” said Yitzhak Ben-Horin, a veteran Washington correspondent for Ynet, the online version of Yediot Achronot. “But because he is an honest diplomat and an honest man, he found himself in a situation challenging his integrity and coming back to Israel in the midst of the school year.”

In fact, it is not yet clear whether Arbell will be required to return immediately to Israel; officials reportedly are considering allowing him to stay in Washington for the school year in another capacity. His children attend the nondenominational Jewish Primary Day School of the Nation’s Capital.

Arbell’s Jewish sensibility endeared him to American Jewish religious leaders, a relationship that at times has been fraught for other diplomats who often are more rooted in Israeli secularism.

Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt of Congregation B’nai Tzedek, a Conservative synagogue in suburban Potomac, Md., recalled that Arbell and his wife hosted a Chanukah celebration last year at their home for a number of DCMs of other embassies, and that Arbell asked Weinblatt to prepare a short Torah discussion geared toward non-Jewish listeners.

“That’s a sensitivity and appreciation of the Jewish connection,” Weinblatt said.

Those who know Arbell find the current affair baffling in light of his reputation for discretion.

“When we were sitting and talking, he would listen mostly—and didn’t give me an inch!” Ben-Horin said.

Natasha Mozgovoya, the Washington correspondent for Haaretz, said that Arbell might be the victim of an Israeli government that is growing more insular and closed off. She alluded to the Foreign Ministry’s investigations of leaks and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s rough treatment of diplomats from countries that are in disputes with Israel.

“Transparency is probably not one of the current Israeli government’s priorities, and some of the recent tactics dealing with diplomats—not only Israeli, I must mention—should be of concern for the public,” Mozgovoya said in an e-mail.

Arbell’s interlocutors said that he smoothly traversed both sides of an Obama-Netanyahu relationship that otherwise has known tensions.

“He has the respect of people he works with both at the embassy and in the administration,” said Jess Hordes, until recently the director of the Anti-Defamation League’s Washington office and still a consultant to the group. “He was a soft spoken but professional advocate, knowledgeable about Israel’s situation and able to in his own quiet way explain its position.”

Steve Rabinowitz, a top publicist who represents a number of Jewish community organizations, including left-of-center groups such as J Street, said that Arbell’s talent was in making any interlocutor comfortable.

“He is always at the table, he talks very comfortably and freely between Jerusalem and Washington,” Rabinowitz said. “He is liked and respected so much by both sides.”

Arbell, who often observed Oren from the back of the room—and who greeted even the most anonymous of guests with a smile and a handshake—was modest except perhaps for his pride in being able to establish relationships with all comers. His office walls featured photos of him speaking amiably with Republicans and Democrats, as well as Likud, Labor and Kadima politicians.

Arbell’s predicament earned on-the-record sympathy from the Israeli establishment.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak told Israel Radio that he knew Arbell dating back to the mid-1990s, when Barak was the foreign minister in the government of Shimon Peres.

“I don’t know the details of this affair that Lieberman is dealing with, but I do know Dan Arbell,” he said. “I must say from my contacts with him, he is a talented man and an experienced diplomat.”

Israeli insiders said Arbell was well liked at the embassy; he had an open-door policy and was always sensitive to personal issues.

“Everyone who had the slightest interaction with him could see that this guy was a real mensch,” said one Israeli official.

Egypt is not withdrawing Israel envoy, diplomat says


Egypt is not preparing to withdraw its ambassador to Israel, an Egyptian diplomat said on Tuesday, playing down an earlier threat to bring home the envoy in protest at the killing of five Egyptian security personnel near the Israeli border.

The deaths, which Egypt blamed on Israel, sparked the deepest crisis in their relations since the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak in February and four days of angry protests near the Israeli embassy in Cairo.

Egypt’s cabinet posted an online statement on Saturday—which it then withdrew—saying the killing of the Egyptians was a breach of Egypt’s 1979 peace treaty with Israel and it would withdraw its envoy in protest.

Low-key talks followed, with expressions of regret from Israel over the Egyptian deaths and meetings with top U.S. and United Nations diplomats.

By Tuesday, Egypt’s threat appeared to have been dropped.

“There are currently no procedures being taken to withdraw the Egyptian ambassador in Israel,” the Egyptian diplomat told Reuters, asking not to be named. He declined to comment further.

An Egyptian cabinet official said, on condition of anonymity, that recalling the ambassador would depend on the Jewish state’s cooperation in a joint investigation of the deaths that Egypt has demanded, and when it would start.

The killings followed an attack near Israel’s Red Sea resort of Eilat on Thursday by armed militants that left eight Israelis dead. Israel said the gunmen were Palestinians from Gaza who went through the Egyptian Sinai before crossing into Israel.

Israel said it was looking into what happened, but its national security adviser said no joint investigation was planned—instead, both sides would share results of their separate inquiries.

“I don’t think there will be a joint investigation in the sense that both sides will sit in front of those officers (involved in the incident),” Yaakov Amidror told Israeli Army Radio.

“But we will carry out our own detailed investigation. They will carry out their own detailed investigation, and we will sit together with the results of the investigations,” he added.

Egypt recalled its ambassador from Israel in 1982 after Israel invaded Lebanon and in 2000 after heavy Israeli shelling of the Gaza Strip.

SINAI RAIDS HALTED

The generals ruling Egypt since Mubarak’s overthrow in a popular uprising are anxious to appease a newly-assertive public among whom resentment of Israel runs deep.

The spat has highlighted a dilemma for the military council, which is trying to show it respects public opinion more than Mubarak, while avoiding a major stand-off with its neighbour.

The army refused to comment on the Israeli security adviser’s statement that no joint investigation was planned.

Egypt’s state news agency MENA cited a report by U.N. peace keepers on the border with Israel saying that Israeli troops had crossed into Egyptian Sinai by land to pursue the gunmen and then fired at Egyptian border guards, killing five and prompting Egyptian forces to clash with them.

The report said the peace keepers examined the boundary where the clashes took place and “recorded two violations by Israeli troops: crossing the border into Egyptian territory and firing bullets at the Egyptian side of the border,” MENA said.

North Sinai security officers said on Tuesday they had halted a security sweep in Sinai to root out armed groups whose numbers there have grown amid the security vacuum left by the uprising against Mubarak.

“We have caught a number of suspects who have carried out armed attacks in Sinai and bombed gas pipelines, but after the border incident many escaped to Halal mountain and we suspect they planted mines to prevent security forces from tracing them,” a security source said.

Israel accuses Egypt’s interim rulers of losing control over the isolated desert peninsula. Egypt rejects the charges, saying Israel is blaming Egypt for its own security failings.

Amidror, who previously headed the research division of the Israeli Military Intelligence, added that “Islamic Jihad concentrations” were in Northern Sinai and that Israel was keen for Egypt to “exert its sovereignty in Sinai more effectively”.

The number of troops Egypt can deploy in the Sinai is limited under the 1979 peace treaty, which followed four wars with Israel since 1948.

Additional reporting by Yusri Mohamed in Ismailia and Jeffrey Heller in Jerusalem

Diplomat’s removal not due to threats, State Dept. says


The U.S. State Department denied that the removal of one of its diplomats from Bahrain was due to threats.

Ludovic Hood, a human rights officer, left Bahrain on May 26 following two months of threats, including Internet photos of Hood’s wife and information on where he and his family lived, McClatchy Newspapers reported Tuesday.

An online post referred to Hood as “a person of Jewish origin” and another referenced his “Jewish wife.” Hood is not believed to be Jewish, although his wife is, according to McClatchy.

Despite reports, Harry Edwards, a press officer at the State Department, said Hood’s departure and return to Washington had been in the works for several months and was not due to the threats.

“Ludovic Hood’s departure from Bahrain was routine,” Edwards said. “He was not recalled to Washington, his posting was approved here more than six months ago as part of a normal assignment.”

No. 1 goal for new consul — telling L.A. ‘what Israel is’


Yaakov Dayan, the new Israeli consul general for the Southwestern states, has just moved into his high-rise office on Wilshire Boulevard.

The walls are bare and pockmarked with nail holes, but leaning against a chair are the first two pictures to go up. One is a head drawing of David Ben-Gurion, surrounded by the signatures of the state’s founding fathers and mothers, affixed to Israel’s 1948 Declaration of Independence.

The second is a childish drawing on cheap paper from a Muslim refugee girl in Kosovo, decorated with hearts to convey her gratitude to Dayan and Israel.

During Dayan’s 13 years as a career diplomat, including sensitive negotiations with Palestinians, Jordanians and Syrians; service in Athens and Washington, and as top aide to foreign ministers, ranging from Shimon Peres, Benjamin Netanyahu and Ariel Sharon up to the present Tzipi Livni, the Kosovo experience stands out.

In the spring of 1999, masses of refugees were fleeing the “cleansing” of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo by Serbian forces. One day, while on a brief vacation inside Israel, Dayan got a call to leave immediately as second in command of a massive Israeli relief mission to the embattled region.

“I left on a plane with 80 Israeli soldiers, nurses and relief workers, and two days later, we had set up camp for 20,000 refugees, planted a huge Israeli flag and organized an airlift involving 16 Israeli planes,” Dayan recalls.

“This effort made a huge impression on the refugees and on myself,” he adds. “I couldn’t help thinking that 60 years earlier, my people had been refugees, too.”

Dayan, 41, cuts a fine figure of a diplomat. Leading-man handsome, 6-feet-2, he is lean to skinny, weighing 155 pounds, the same weight as during his army service 22 years ago.

“Good genes,” he says, but he does work out on the tennis and basketball courts, when time permits.

One of the first decisions he had to make as consul general was to decide which first name to print on his business card. It’s “Yaakov” on his birth certificate in Tel Aviv, but while serving in Washington, he went as “Jacob,” and he is likely to do the same here.

Actually, among friends, colleagues and the Israeli media, he is universally addressed as “Yaki.” Unfortunately, this is pronounced as “yucky,” and he has decided to forgo the nickname when dealing with Americans.

Unrelated to the Moshe Dayan family, he owes his surname to his Lithuanian-born father, who, as a boy during World War II, saw his own father killed by Lithuanian fascists. The boy escaped and joined the Russian army. Later, he met and married the consul general’s mother, who was born in Warsaw and spent the war years in a Soviet gulag.

Dayan’s own marriage to Galit represents the Israeli melting pot in action, he observes. Her father came to Israel from Morocco, her mother from Algeria and her own accomplishments are impressive. She holds a doctorate in Egyptology from Hebrew University, a degree in organizational development from Georgetown University and does consulting for high-tech companies and financial institutions.

The Dayans have three children, Daphne, 14; Tal, 11; and Itay, 4, all attending Jewish schools in Los Angeles.

As a career foreign service officer, Dayan is strictly neutral on the Israeli political scene but notes that he comes from a secular-Zionist background.

Since meeting his wife and her Sephardic family, he has become more involved in religion, which “is now an inseparable part of our life,” he says. The family celebrated Daphne’s bat mitzvah at a Conservative synagogue on Mount Scopus.

In Israel’s Foreign Ministry, career officials actively compete for desirable appointments, and when it came to Dayan’s turn, he requested appointment as either ambassador to Turkey or consul general in Los Angeles.

Granted our pleasant weather, Dayan was asked why would an ambitious young diplomat, who had been deeply involved in some of the most crucial negotiations affecting his country’s future, opt for a post devoid of far-reaching policy decisions?

In the past, The Journal has put the same question to Los Angeles-based diplomats from other countries, and, as Dayan’s answer confirmed, Angelenos may be underestimating their own importance in foreign eyes.

“Our presence here is the seventh-largest Israeli mission in the world,” he says. “Southern California and the Southwestern states wield great economic power and technological know-how, are home to an influential Jewish community and the concentration of Israelis is the largest in the Diaspora.”

From his Los Angeles headquarters, Dayan directs a staff of 60 and has just added the position of police liaison.

“I admit that it was very challenging to deal with hardcore strategic issues, and I still have the virus in my blood,” he says. “But there is a different kind of excitement in serving here, and the potential is completely different.”

During their initial meeting, he told staff members that they were lucky to work among such a loving outside community but also warned them not to take United States’ support for granted.

Dayan has set himself three immediate goals. One is to build on Israel’s 60th anniversary celebrations next year to educate, or re-educate, the Jewish and general communities as “to what Israel is.”

“Most people under 55 don’t even know about the Six-Day War in 1967,” he observes. “Few realize that every American interacts, from dawn to dusk, with Israeli technological contributions, from cellphones and computers to medical advances.

“Even among Jews, not all know or care about Israel, and many have just drifted away,” he adds. “We need to open a dialogue with them, and if that leads to arguments, that’s fine.”

A second priority is “to raise awareness of the danger posed by a nuclear-armed Iran, not just to Israel, but to neighboring Arab states and the Western world.”

He believes that diplomatic and other pressures on Iran can have an effect.

Former Jewish Agency head tapped as Israel’s next ambassador to U.S.


One of Sallai Meridor’s first acts as chairman-elect of the Jewish Agency for Israel was to deliver relief to a Muslim country, Albania.

The delivery of food and medicine to refugees from the Kosovo crisis in April 1999 was a first for the organization best known for rescuing Jews — and was a sign that the scion of one of Israel’s founding families had a perpetual yearning for a wider diplomatic role.

A little more than a year after Meridor shocked the Jewish world by quitting the agency before his term ended, telling friends he hankered for a diplomatic role, his wish is about to come true: Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni nominated him on Oct. 4 to be Israel’s next ambassador to Washington.

The one sentence statement from the Prime Minister’s Office simply said Olmert and Livni “decided that Mr. Sallai Meridor will be appointed as Israel’s ambassador to Washington in place of Danny Ayalon, who is completing his four-year term.”

Meridor, 51, still faces confirmation by the Cabinet and must be cleared by the Foreign Ministry’s legal team. But with Livni and Olmert in agreement — and they are at odds on just about everything else recently — his appointment is a sure thing.

Sources said he is set to start in January.

Meridor’s appointment comes at a critical time. The U.S.-Israel relationship has arguably never been stronger, but the path to Israeli-Palestinian peace that both countries had embraced has been crumbling amid chaos among the Palestinians and growing regional threats from Iran and Iraq.

It also comes after Olmert’s political fortunes were severely hampered by the damage Israel suffered this summer during its war with Hezbollah on the Israel-Lebanon border. The Israeli prime minister is hoping to revive talks with the Palestinians.

Traditionally, Israel’s ambassador to Washington goes beyond the role of intermediary between Jerusalem and Washington, with the ambassador often involved in helping to set Israeli policy.

Meridor had already been seen as a shoo-in because of his decades-old friendship with Olmert.
Both men are “princes” of the Likud Party establishment who have moderated their hawkish views. Olmert now leads the centrist Kadima Party, which broke away from the Likud last year.

That friendship is probably the critical element explaining Meridor’s appointment, according to Jewish leaders who have known both men for decades.

“The most important thing for an ambassador to the United States is to have the confidence of the prime minister, and they go back many years,” said Abraham Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League.

Meridor also has a reputation for integrity, rolling back the Jewish Agency’s notoriety for patronage during his 1999-2005 term, and cutting its expenses.

The Jewish Agency, involved in the rescue and absorption of Jewish immigrants to Israel as well as Jewish education around the world, is the primary overseas recipient of North American federation funds.

As head of the agency, he pushed for the accelerated immigration of the Falash Mura community from Ethiopia, and the establishing of MASA — a program to bring thousands of Diaspora youth to Israel for long-term study and visits. He advocated aliyah from Western countries and established a partnership with Nefesh B’Nefesh, which helped boost immigration to Israel from North America and most recently, England.

He is well-known — and praised by American Jewish officials of both political and philanthropic organizations.

Sallai has a tremendous intellect and the capacity to multitask at the highest level of detail,” said Jay Sarver, the chairman of the agency’s budget and finance committee. “He has a deep, deep Jewish identity and neshama, and a deep belief in Zionist action.”

Stephen Hoffman, the president of the Jewish Community Federation of Cleveland and the former president of the United Jewish Communities, worked closely with him during his term at the agency.

“He is a good listener and he is articulate in English as well as Hebrew,” Hoffman said. “He thinks strategically and looks at a lot of different angles, is cautious and gathers a lot of opinions before he makes a move.”

Friends say that the more recent role at the helm of the Jewish Agency obscures his talents as a diplomat. As an adviser to Moshe Arens, who served as foreign minister and defense minister in the late 1980s and early 1990s, he cultivated a friendship with James Baker. That was exceptional because Baker, the secretary of state to the first President Bush, was not known for friendly relations with Israel.

Dennis Ross, the veteran peace negotiator and diplomat, worked for Baker at the time. Meridor knows how to explain Israel’s needs, he knows how to work effectively with American administrations, he knows how to see the big picture,” Ross said. “Israel could not have made a better choice.

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the pro-Israel lobby, said they looked forward to working with someone with solid Washington experience.

“He is a highly effective advocate, is well-acquainted with the ways of Washington, D.C., and will surely bring his considerable talents to bear in his new post,” said AIPAC spokesman Josh Block.

Meridor has often straddled two worlds – as a West Bank settler who lives in Kfar Adumim, a settlement near Jericho likely to be dismantled in the withdrawals that Olmert has advocated.
His dual majors at Hebrew University were in the history of Islamic peoples and the history of the Jews. He speaks Arabic.

“Sallai has the ability to take people, to appeal to people from the right and the left and make people feel comfortable whether he agrees with their opinions or not,” said Morton Klein, the president of the Zionist Organization of America, who admires Meridor despite their disagreements on last year’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. “In this kind of job, that’s an important trait.”

Klein noted Meridor’s profound affection for the whole biblical land of Israel, including the West Bank and Gaza.

Israeli Diplomats Reach Out to L.A. Iranian Media


Representatives from Southern California-based Persian-language satellite radio stations and television shows attended a special press conference on Aug. 28, held for them at Los Angeles’ Israeli consulate, the first public interaction between the Israeli government and local Persian-language media in more than 25 years.

The local Iranian media outlets are owned and operated by expatriate Iranian Muslims, and the gathering was a move by the consulate to reach out directly to the people of Iran.

“I received feedback from a lot of channels in the Iranian media for interviews, so I saw the desire by them to understand what we think and we believe, so we setup this event specifically to address their questions,” said Israeli Consul General Ehud Danoch.

Local Persian Jewish activists were instrumental in helping to connect the Iranian media with the consulate for the press conference, as many Persian Jews still share common cultural and linguistic ties with other Iranian groups in Southern California.

“This is indeed something that has never been done before in this city where there is a community of Iranian and a center of Iranian media outside of Iran,” said George Haroonian, a Persian Jewish activist who helped organize the press conference with the consulate.

“We need to be the connector between the people of Israel and people of Iran,” Haroonian said.

During the nearly two-hour press conference, Danoch responded to reporters’ questions about the aftermath of the war with Hezbollah and addressed the Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s repeated calls for Israel’s destruction.

“The most important message for us to get across is that the government of Israel and Israelis have nothing against the Iranian people or Islam,” Danoch said. “But we will not tolerate the extremist expressions of that president of Iran”.

Since the collapse in 1979 of the regime of the late shah of Iran, many Iranian Muslim politicians and Western-educated professionals have been among the large groups of Iranians in the United States and, particularly, Los Angeles. During the past two decades, these communities have established media outlets in Southern California that oppose the current government in Iran, and regularly broadcast news and political commentary to Iran through satellite radio and television, as well as via the internet, much of it in an attempt to help bring down the regime there.

Southern California’s Iranian Muslim media has also frequently voiced criticism of Israel, as well, and the consulate’s outreach at this event was an attempt to counter that. On the part of the Iranian media, this was one more way to take a jab at the regime.

“This is an important event for us because we don’t want our viewers to receive one-sided bias news from the media in Iran and get brainwashed — we must show the other side,” said Afshin Gorgin, a reporter for the Iranian news program on the Voice of America satellite television. “Here they get to see and hear the views of the other side directly from a representative of Israel”.

Members of the Iranian media in attendance said the press conference was later broadcast in its entirety into Iran, which has a population of nearly 70 million, many of whom said they oppose their government’s support of terrorist organizations like Hezbollah, but are afraid to express their views.

“I receive phone calls from listeners in Iran, and they say we do not have a problem with Israel, and we do not have border disputes with Israel,” said Siavash Azari, a news commentator on KRSI, a Beverly Hills-based satellite radio station that broadcasts daily into Iran.

The Iranian Muslim media stepped up interest in issues concerning Israel when, late last year, Iranian President Ahmadinejad called Israel a “disgraceful blot” that should be “wiped off the map.” In response, they condemned Ahmadinejad and organized a pro-Israel rally in Westwood, which drew nearly 2,000 Iranians from various religions.

“We spoke out against him because his words were utterly absurd for anyone to say, and we would have spoken out against such statements if they were made by any other leader,” said Reza Fazeli, a news commentator for the satellite television station Pars TV.

Earlier this month, Israeli Deputy Consul General Yaron Gamburg was also interviewed by Hossien Hejazi, an Iranian news commentator at KIRN-AM. 670, a Persian-language radio station based in Hollywood.

In January, when Ahmadinejad denied the existence of the Holocaust, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, working with Iranian Jewish leaders, invited Iranian journalists to tour the Museum of Tolerance in an effort to educate them about the Holocaust so that they could send information back to Iran on the topic.

The January event, as well as the recent press conference, seem to be having the desired effect of opening up dialogue. At the conference, Danoch offered to make himself available for interviews and said the consulate would help to get their message across to the people of Iran in any way possible.

France Honors Quiet Diplomacy of Rabbi


Quiet diplomacy rarely makes headlines, but one example of the art received public recognition this month when France bestowed one of its highest honors on Rabbi Gary Greenebaum.

In conferring the National Order of Merit, France’s second highest civilian award, on the Western regional director of the American Jewish Committee (AJC), the French ambassador to the United States praised Greenebaum as “a man of dialogue.”

Greenebaum earned the compliment for his below-the-radar efforts over the past five years, at a time when attacks on French Jews and synagogues kept escalating and were met with seeming indifference by the government in Paris. The most infamous recent incident was the kidnapping, torture and murder of 23-year-old Ilan Halimi, who died in February.

In the wake of anti-Semitic incidents and hate crimes, outraged American Jewish organizations have issued the usual protests and denunciations, but Greenebaum took a quieter approach, characteristic of his organization.

The AJC, which was founded 100 years ago in response to pogroms in czarist Russia, considers foreign relations its special niche, earning it the unofficial title of “State Department of the Jewish People.”

Long before the Halimi incident, “I started meeting frequently with the then-French consul general in Los Angeles, Jean-Luc Sibiude,” recalled Greenebaum in an interview. “The official French line at the time was that the attacks were the work of a few thugs, who just happened to beat up Jews, and that there was no anti-Semitism in France.”

Over a number of “forthright but positive” sessions, Greenebaum politely asserted that France needed to face up to its home-grown anti-Semitism.

Greenebaum thinks he made progress, he said, but “we did it quietly, without grandstanding. We always kept in mind that France has the largest Jewish community in Europe, and the third largest in the world, and that what counted was the long-range relationship.”

Sibiude apparently was impressed, and three years ago, he told Greenebaum that he wanted to nominate him for the Order of Merit.

Last year, when new Consul General Phillippe Larrieu took over, the relationship with Greenebaum continued. A few weeks ago, the French diplomat informed the AJC director that the award had been approved by the French president and invited him to a reception at his residence.

At the April 2 event, 150 invited guests from the local French, Jewish and interfaith communities applauded as French Ambassador Jean-David Levitte inducted Greenebaum as an officer in the French National Order of Merit. In making the presentation, Levitte referred to Greenebaum as “a man of dialogue” and praised him for strengthening pluralism around the world.

In accepting the honor, Greenebaum cited the long history of Jews in France. He also referred to a number of recent anti-Semitic incidents in France, saying that the country is presently “caught in a period of cultural upheaval” but predicted that “long-term, France will overcome its difficulties.”

As a special fillip to the occasion, the ambassador, who is Jewish, recalled that his own father had worked for the AJC in Paris for more than 30 years.

The Order of Merit was established by President Charles de Gaulle in 1963 to recognize “distinguished merit” and is rarely bestowed on foreigners.

Greenebaum savored the occasion, but it was back to work the following day.

“There are 34 other foreign consulates in Los Angeles with which we have to stay in touch,” he said.

 

One Tough Room


As a Los Angeles Unified School District teacher of world issues for seniors in Los Angeles, I began yesterday’s class by playing a taped interview of Michael Moore talking about his movie, “Fahrenheit 9/11.” I had suggested that the class go see the film, so we could discuss it.

Tillie seemed particularly interested, nodding her head up and down as she listened, so I thought I’d start with her.

“Tillie, dear, what do you think?”

“She can’t hear you,” said the woman next to her. “She’s deaf!”

“Then what did you think?”

“I ain’t saying. I don’t have to say.”

“Anyone else?”

“Excellent!” Fred said.

“OK. And…?” I asked, hoping for a more lively discussion.

“That’s it. I liked it. Period,” he said, with finality.

A hand goes up. “Yes, dear?”

“It left me disheartened,”

“OK. Can you say more?”

“I’ve said enough.”

Great — 10 minutes gone, one hour and 50 to go. I changed the subject. “Where’s Margaret today?”

“She’s in the hospital.”

“Why?”

“She fell down yesterday and broke her hip.” I changed the subject again. “Where’s Matilda?”

“She died.”

“She died? She was here last week! When did she die?”

“Two days ago.”

“So what are you telling me? She won’t be coming back?”

“Not unless she’s a Buddhist.”

I change the subject again. “Who has some good news for us?”

Ethel raises her hand.

“Yes, dear?”

“A man comes up to me yesterday, sits at my lunch table; I can tell he’s a goy and he says, ‘You’re Jewish, right?’ I says to him, ‘I don’t like you either, go to hell, I spit on you.'”

I try to use this as a discussion point. “Well, all right, that’s a nice thing to do…what could she have said to this gentleman, instead?”

Silence.

“So?” Ethel demanded. “What should I have said to him?”

“Well, you might have asked why he felt that way, you know, open a dialogue, maybe make a new friend?”

“With that goy?” sputters The Diplomat. “To hell with him!”

The woman next to Ethel raises her hand. “Can I ask a question?”

“Please!”

“What’s the problem with the Palestinians?”

Ethel answers: “I spit on the Palestinians! I am a Jew!”

“Yes, Ethel, we know that,” I say, “and I’m a Jew myself, but don’t you think we need to find a way to live together?”

“They blow themselves up!”

“Yes, darling, but that’s because they watch too much television.”

“Who watches television?”

“He said we should watch television?”

“No, I didn’t. That’s just a joke gone awry.”

“Rye bread? It’s dinner time?”

“No Fred, not yet,” I say. “I was just saying, what about the Palestinians who are doctors, lawyers and merchants and just want to raise their families and live in peace?”

“Lawyers are the problem!”

“Shut up, Murray! The teacher’s talking!”

“Actually, we’re all supposed to be talking here about world issues and I’m doing all the talking….”

“That’s what you get paid for!”

Suddenly, the distinct sound of snoring.

“What’s with Mary here?” I ask. Mary is asleep in her chair, her head thrown back, her mouth wide open, snoring.

“She takes Darvicet for her arthritis,” says Olga. Apparently Darvicet eases Mary’s pain but knocks her out. I have a microphone in my hand because half the seniors are hard of hearing so I put the mike by Mary’s mouth and from the public address system now comes the rumbling of Mary’s snoring. Two old wiseguys wink at me and giggle. One old gal’s mouth drops open in horror. The rest are oblivious.

Quality shtick. One tough room. Oy.

“Look, I’ve been talking nonstop for over an hour. I’m supposed to get you guys to talk!”

“We don’t want to talk. We want to listen to you.”

“But I’m tired of telling you bad news. Who has some good news for us? Yes, Martin?”

“I heard today the interest rates are going up.”

“And how is that good news, sir?”

“I don’t know.”

“I have some good news.” It’s The Diplomat. “This goy says to me, ‘You’re Jewish, no?’ So I told him, I says, ‘I don’t like you either.'”

“You told us that already, Ethel!” Ann reprimands .

“Leave me alone!” Ethel pleads. “I was in the camps!”

“Maybe you could share with us some of your experiences under the Nazis, darling,” I say. “What camp were you in? Auschwitz? Buchenwald?”

“I don’t remember. I want to forget.” Her voice trails off.

Who am I to pry into something like that? Especially if she doesn’t want to talk? The room is silent, except for the air-conditioning.

“What time is it?”

“It’s six past three.”

“We’re supposed to be done at three.”

“We know,” Sophie laughs. “We like being with you.”

“I like being with you, too. See you next week.”


Wildman Weiner is credentialed teacher of older adults.

Q & A With Yuval Rotem


Consul General — now Ambassador — Yuval Rotem arrived as a 39-year-old career diplomat in Los Angeles in September 1999, with his wife, Miri, and their three children. He will return to Jerusalem Aug. 16, leaving behind hundreds of friends who consider him one of the most popular and effective envoys to have represented his country in Southern California, the Southwestern United States and Hawaii. The Jewish Journal met with Rotem in his office for a farewell interview.

Jewish Journal: What will you miss most about Los Angeles?

Yuval Rotem: Our monthly shopping trip to Costco — there’s nothing more American. I’ll miss the games at Staples Center. That’s the only place I turned off my cell phone to get completely away from everything. Also, taking the car and the family and going from Santa Monica to downtown, to see all the changes of faces and signs. And, of course, the weather.

JJ: How has your five-year stay affected you personally?

YR: I am returning to Israel as a better Jew. I represent the typical secular Israeli, and I was transformed by the flourishing Jewish life here. To pray with Jews in Maui, to buy at a kosher market in Salt Lake City, to see the number of synagogues in Las Vegas go from four in 1980 to 30 now, that’s a whole new horizon.

I have learned about Judaism through the eyes of my kids, who studied at Temple Beth Am. I realize now that we need more of a Jewish curriculum in Israeli schools, but at the same time there has to be more about Israel in Jewish education here. When you see the crisis on college campuses, to some degree that represents a failure to teach young Jews about Middle East history and Israel and to take pride in their heritage.

JJ: What were your goals when you came here and did you carry them out?

YR: When I arrived in 1999, we seemed to be on the road to peace with our neighbors, and I felt that in our relationship with American Jews, we needed a new sense of purpose, a new agenda. But the following year, with the intifada, we were back to the old, crisis-driven agenda. I found The Jewish Federation and its president, John Fishel, very sensitive and understanding to the sudden change of agendas.

JJ: If and when peace comes, what would be the "new" agenda?

YR: Israel and the Diaspora always come together in time of crisis, but perhaps with peace, we can have a less emotional, a more rational approach, focusing on the social fabric and economy of Israel. I think there should be an unofficial task force of American Jews and Israelis of my generation to lay out the new guidelines. But we Israelis are so overwhelmed by crises that the initiative has to come from your side.

JJ: How would you evaluate the Jewish community here. Is it cohesive?

YR: I would hardly use he word "cohesive." You have all the different ethnic tribes and tons of organizations. It’s quite a challenge to the leadership to overcome the divisions and come up with a common agenda.

Overall, though, in time of crisis, The Federation here, unlike federations in many other places, always rose to the occasion. L.A. was the only place where the consulate and Federation worked together to stage a mass public rally in 2001 along Wilshire Boulevard in support of Israel.

JJ: Who are the key leaders in the Jewish community, the ones you would call first if you needed advice or help?

YR: Don’t put me on the spot. I’ll say that I have a list of about 100 people, and it’s not that much different from the one you put together for The Jewish Journal some years ago. This is a very diverse community, which is wonderful, but in the end, Aish HaTorah and Peace Now need to know that we have the same goal to pursue.

JJ: You tried very hard to enlist the Hollywood community to visit Israel during the last few years. How did it work out?

YR: That’s been a definite disappointment. In 2001 and 2002, when there was no tourism, the economy was down and Israelis felt isolated. In that moment of truth, only a very few in Hollywood were willing to extend their hand to Israel. We went from agency to agency and from studio to studio with little success.

JJ: Why wouldn’t they come?

YR: It was partially fear of terrorism, and in general, people in Hollywood try to shy away from conflict. We didn’t ask for propagandists, just some humanitarian gestures, a message of comfort, as Christopher Reeve did during his visit.

But after two years of hard work, some doors are opening, and I hope that in the next few months, more celebrities in the arts and sports will come over and also that Hollywood will again shoot movies in Israel.

JJ: What was your worst moment here?

YR: That was July 4, 2002, the day the El Al counter at LAX was attacked, with two people killed. I said then, and say now, that rather than bring the conflict of the Middle East to Los Angeles, we need to bring the spirit of L.A. to the Middle East.

JJ: What development during your tenure surprised you the most?

YR: The emergence of the Iranian Jews, some 30,000 very committed Jews, as important players in the general Jewish community. I think their participation in pro-Israel causes helped their integration into the Jewish community.

On the other hand, I am surprised that I still meet quite a few American Jews who ask how Israel can accept a Palestinian state. By now, Israel has internalized that fact, it’s basically a fait accompli. Overall, American Jews at all levels need to be more updated and aware of the changes and realities in Israeli life.

JJ: What accomplishment gave you the most satisfaction?

YR: The close relationship we have forged with the Latino community since 1999. Early on, I started going to the Eastside, to Latino events and meetings. It’s a two-way street. We can’t expect Latinos to share our concern about the Golan Heights, if we don’t understand their concern about immigration laws. We have added a special liaison for Latino relations at the consulate, and I think the entire Jewish community has benefited from our effort.

JJ: What did you and your family miss most about being away from Israel?

YR: The sense of brotherhood and togetherness that bonds Israelis. You can’t find that in any other place.

JJ: Quite a number of community leaders asked Jerusalem to extend your stay in L.A. What happened?

YR: I appreciate the efforts of all the people who petitioned the foreign minister, and I’m a little sad that it didn’t work out. But I served as chief of staff to Ehud Barak and Binyamin Netanyahu when they were foreign ministers, so I know the rules and how things work.

JJ: What are your future career plans?

YR: I’ll be reporting to the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem, and the general rule is that a returning diplomat stays in Israel for two to four years before being sent abroad again. I’m on a so-called "fast track" in the Foreign Ministry, and that makes it a little harder to find the appropriate position for me.

I may accept a different government-oriented post, and I can’t rule out taking a leave of absence and working in the private sector for a while. The political situation changes all the time in Israel, and, as we say, the only predictable thing in Israel is the unpredictable.

JJ: Any final words?

YR: When you see Los Angeles, you see the whole world, and if you don’t like L.A., you just don’t like the world. I am really going to miss it.

Out on a Limb


During the darkest days of the Holocaust, 63 diplomats from 24 countries risked their careers, in some cases their lives, by issuing unauthorized visas and protective letters to save an estimated 200,000 Jews.The deeds of four of these brave envoys are honored in the documentary film “Diplomats for the Damned,” to air Sun., Nov. 26, on the History Channel.

The rescuers were not highly placed ambassadors and plenipotentiaries, but middle-level consuls and attachés who had every incentive to play it safe and follow orders from above.

Chronicled in the documentary are American Hiram Bingham, Aristides de Sousa Mendes of Portugal, Charles Lutz of Switzerland, and Georg Ferdinand Duckwitz of Germany.

As U.S. vice consul in Marseilles in 1940, Bingham defied orders and issued safe passes, letters of transit and falsified visas to save some 2,000 Jews, among them artists and intellectuals, including Marc Chagall and Max Ernst.

Sousa Mendes was the Portuguese consul general in Bordeaux during the fateful month of June 1940, when France fell and refugees desperately sought to escape the advancing Nazi army.Against direct orders from Lisbon, Sousa Mendes not only issued 10,000 visas to Jews and 20,000 to others, but personally conducted hundreds of Jewish refugees across a checkpoint at the Spanish border. For his courage, Sousa Mendes, the father of 13, was dismissed by his government, lost all his property, and died in poverty.

Lutz was the consul for Switzerland in Budapest during the last two years of the war. He invented the “protective letter” for Jews – later adopted by Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg – set up a string of 76 “safe houses,” and even managed to channel 10,000 Jewish children to Palestine.Jewish relief agencies estimate that he saved as many as 62,000 lives.

While the American, Portuguese and Swiss diplomats paid for their humanitarianism with stunted careers, Duckwitz, a Nazi Party member, bet his life in saving Denmark’s Jewry.

As trade attaché at the German embassy in Copenhagen, he learned that on Rosh Hashanah 1943, the Nazis planned to round up and deport to death camps the country’s 7,000 Jews. He first flew to Berlin to try, unsuccessfully, to change his government’s mind, then to Sweden to arrange safe haven for the refugees, and then tipped off the Danish underground, which ferried the Jews to safety.

Fittingly, he was the one rescuer to benefit from his deeds when the postwar German government appointed him ambassador to Denmark.

Two points should be made about the four diplomats and dozens of their known and unknown fellow rescuers.

One, in a profession known more for bureaucratic punctiliousness than civil courage, they showed that one brave man can make a profound difference.

Secondly, Sousa Mendes, a deeply religious Catholic, and Bingham and Lutz, equally devout Protestants, were willing to act on their faith when most of Christian Europe turned its back. As the Portuguese envoy put it, “I would rather be with God against man than with man against God.”

The impact of “Diplomats for the Damned” will not end with the History Channel broadcast. On the initiative of the Committee for Righteous Deeds, founded by Rabbi David Baron of Temple Shalom for the Arts in Beverly Hills, special fundraising screenings will be held in various cities.

The proceeds will go toward buying some 2,000 videocassettes of “Diplomats,” complemented by a teacher’s guide for public and private schools created by Holocaust historian Michael Berenbaum, past president of the Shoah Foundation, who wrote the teacher’s guide for “Schindler’s List.”

The Los Angeles premiere was held last month, and future events are planned to Chicago, Washington, D.C., New York, Quebec, Montreal and Geneva.

“Diplomats for the Damned,” will air on the History Channel, Sun., Nov. 26, at 10 p.m.

Sugihara’s Mitzvah


Diane Estelle Vicari and Robert Kirk cheered when the Japanese foreign ministry apologized to Chiune Sugihara’s family this month.

The filmmakers’ acclaimed documentary, “Sugihara: Conspiracy of Kindness,” which screens at the International Jewish Film Festival this month, helped build the international pressure that pushed Japan to posthumously acknowledge its greatest Holocaust hero.

“Sugihara” tells of the diplomat who defied his government by issuing thousands of visas to help Jews flee Kovno, Lithuania, on the cusp of the Shoah. For four harrowing weeks in summer 1941, Sugihara worked 16-hour days to complete the visas before the Russians shut down his consulate. He scribbled more on the ride to the train station while leaving the country; still more on the railroad platform while desperate Jews clung to the window of his train compartment. “He was so exhausted, like a sick person,” his widow, Yukiko, recalls in the documentary.

Because of Sugihara’s courage, more than 40,000 Jews, survivors and their descendants, are alive today. But disobeying orders cost him dearly. After the war, the “Japanese Schindler” was dismissed from government service and reduced to menial work. He spent his later years working in Moscow, where he lived alone in a squalid hotel room. “He barely smiled,” Sugihara’s grandson says in the movie.

The attention granted “Conspiracy of Kindness” is helping to right the old wrong. This year, the movie won best documentary at the Hollywood Film Festival; there was a standing ovation at a United Nations screening and Japanese leaders have expressed interest in a private screening. Just last month, the filmmakers won the prestigious International Documentary Association/Pare Lorentz Award.

Producer Vicari, 45, who took up filmmaking eight years ago, accepted her prize while recovering from pneumonia contracted while completing the documentary. “It’s been an incredibly long, difficult journey,” she says,”but also an incredible honor.”

Vicari admits she’s the last person one would expect to obsess for more than four years about a Holocaust-themed film. She grew up French-Catholic in the flat farm country outside Montreal, the daughter of a barn-and-silo painter-contractor. Not a single Jew lived in her town, she says, and not a single word was taught about the Holocaust at her Catholic school.

“There wasn’t any anti-Semitism, but there was terrible racism,” adds the producer, who defied her parents by riding her bicycle onto the Indian reservation or meeting Iroquois friends at a Dairy Queen three miles from home. When her neighbors spewed epithets about Native Americans, she knew they were lying.

That explains why Vicari was riveted when she learned about the horrors perpetrated by the Nazis. In 1994, Vicari, a fashion designer-turned-filmmaker, volunteered to work at Steven Spielberg’s Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation, where she was appalled to discover she knew next to nothing about the Holocaust. She immersed herself in Shoah research, sat in on interviews and then began to interview survivor after survivor.

But the endeavor took its toll. Vicari suffered nightmares after every interview – until she chanced to learn about Chiune Sugihara.

The scene was a reception honoring the diplomat’s widow at the Museum of Tolerance in February 1995. Tiny, graceful, soft-spoken Yukiko Sugihara recalled the sad crowd outside the Kovno consulate; the Jewish women gazing at her with “great sorrow” or pleading with clasped hands.

“Previously, I had learned only about the victims and the perpetrators of the Holocaust,” Vicari says. “Learning about Sugihara was like a pearl.”

Director Kirk, who is Jewish, admits he previously turned down every Holocaust-themed project that had come his way. “I was chicken,” he says. “I thought it would be too painful. But Sugihara’s story was uplifting.”

“Conspiracy of Kindness” posits that the diplomat dared disobey his government because he was an iconoclast: He defied his father by refusing to enter medical school; he quit his post in Manchuria after witnessing Japanese atrocities there; he spoke fluent Russian and German and was, Kirk says, “an internationalist.”

Vicari, for her part, hopes to dedicate the rest of her career to subjects worthy of Sugihara. Her next film will expose neo-Nazism in the U.S. “We see the Holocaust as something outside America, but we’re wearing blinders,” she says. “We don’t realize that hatred is alive and well among us.”

“Sugihara” screens 7:30 p.m., Nov. 14, at Laemmle’s Music Hall in Beverly Hills. For information, call (818) 786-4000.

Reviews of “The Envoy” and “Hitler’s Head”


“You can’t confront evil on its own ground without becoming part of it,” muses diplomat Heinrich Zwygart in “The Envoy,” and his self-recognition clearly applies to Switzerland, the country he represented faithfully in Berlin during the six years of World War II.

Zwygart’s job was to implement the “Swiss doctrine,” which is never defined in the play, but alludes to the country’s policy of collaborating economically and financially with Nazi Germany to forestall an invasion or economic strangulation.

He did his job well. He hobnobbed with Hitler at Berchtesgaden, promised von Ribbentrop food supplies and war planes in the waning days of the Third Reich, and, in the line of duty, slept with the wives of high-ranking Nazis.

Zwygart returns to his home after the fall of Berlin, expected to be hailed as a hero and savior of his country. Instead, he learns that his superiors at the foreign ministry have chosen him as the fall guy for their collaborationist wartime policy, and consigned him to permanent non-person status.

Swiss playwright Thomas Hurlimann plants “The Envoy” in a pure Kafkaesque milieu, in which Zwygart never sees or meets his accusers. Instead, in generally effective but occasionally wearying marathon monologues, he addresses his defense to a bug planted in the chandelier of his living room.

Alternately begging and defying his unseen and unheard superior, Zwygart unravels as he gradually builds the case against himself, all the while desperately trying to escape the trap.

In his thrashing about, he even considers enlisting the support of a wealthy Jew, whose jewels and paintings he apparently helped save from the Nazis, only to recall regretfully that the man perished in the Holocaust.

As presented at the Marilyn Monroe Theatre in West Hollywood, the intermission-less play ratchets up the tension under the sure direction of the 99-year-old “wunderalte,” Martin Magner.

In the capable cast, in which Josh Welsh essays the title role, and Erinn Strain his sister, veteran actor Curt Lowens stands out as the envoy’s blind father.

But the play impresses most for its political courage. Playwright Hurlimann has dared to indict not only his country’s politicians, but Switzerland’s most sacred institution, its citizen army.

Through Zwygart’s mouth, Hurlimann almost contemptuously dismisses the cherished Swiss belief that its small army forestalled a Nazi invasion, granting at most that it “shot some refugees.”

The second award for civil courage goes to the local Swiss consulate, which not only brought the play to the director’s attention, but, with Germany’s Goethe Institute, is the official sponsor of the production.

“The Envoy” plays Friday and Saturday evenings, through May 22, at the Marilyn Monroe Theatre of the Lee Strasberg Creative Center, 7936 Santa Monica Blvd. For tickets, call (323) 660-8587.

Hitler’s Head Shows its FaceBy Naomi Pfefferman, Entertainment Editor