On the evening of May 1st, Israelis will begin to mark Yom Ha Shoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day.
It is a day when we remember the destruction of an entire civilization. The world of European Jewry came to an end in gas chambers, crematorium and countless ditches and rivers. We remember people like us slaughtered without mercy or cause, simply because they were Jews, It didn’t matter if they were orthodox or atheist, Zionist or communist, healthy or disabled, rich or poor, old or young, man or woman, even babes in their mothers’ arms were pitted on bayonets.
An estimated one third of the Jews of the world were brutally exterminated. Two thirds of the Jews of Europe, 90% of Poland’s Jews, were all to meet in mass graves or have their ashes dumped in rivers, lakes or plowed under with bulldozers.
First, they lost their civil right and then they were robbed of all their property and possessions, forced into ghettos and traumatized with disease, starvation and slave labour-before they were transported to the death factories.
Who is guilty?
Is it the German Nazis and their henchmen who perpetrated these atrocities? Absolutely. The Nazis who along with all those who benefited from the slaughtered? Of course. But there is more. The world is guilty.
The British who closed off the gates to what was then mandate Palestine, the ancestral homeland, to those fleeing from the killers.
The Americans who denied visas to those who desperately sought asylum in the land of immigrants. Even their fellow Jews who in their comfortable safety in many nations, were fearful to demonstrate in their millions to cry out for their trapped brethren. Silence was not golden; it was a death sentence. Whatever happened to the biblical exhortation “Thy shall not stand idly by thy brother’s blood?”
There will be many fine speeches and many calls of “Never Again,” but I want to make this more personal.
My mother’s parents were lucky enough to have left Europe many years before the Holocaust. My maternal grandmother and her brothers and sister left the Polish city of Przemsyl, after the area was ravaged during WW I. Their family had been successful for middle class Jews in Poland, owning a flour mill and fruit orchards. My grandmother often told me of how, as a child, she and her siblings would catch fish in the stream that powered their father’s mill where the local peasants would bring their grain to be ground into flour. Had there not been the destruction wrought by the war, they would have remained in Poland and I would never have been born, and they would have ended up, like the other Jews of Przemsyl, in the death camp at Birkenau.
My mother’s father, my Zaide, was born in Vienna. The son of a family of furriers, well off by most standards and fiercely proud of being part of the Germanic world. My grandfather served in the Kaiser’s army during the Great War as a cavalryman and fought against the Allied armies of America, England and France. Why did his family leave a prosperous existence? They were by no means religious Jews, but, as they would say, “Germans of the Mosaic persuasion.” But the raging anti-Semitism after the war, when the new nations that emerged after the dismemberment of the old Austro-Hungarian Empire were feeling their birth pangs, the new nativist parties descended on their minorities with a vengeance and the Jews of Austria caught the enmity of their neighbors in their faces. Regardless of my grandfather’s service in the military, he was beaten and broken by the hatred and his family also left for the shores of America and arrived at the gates of New York.
My father’s family left Kaminetz-Podolsk in the Ukraine, after the Bolshevik revolution. My paternal grandfather was a bootmaker and had a small shop where he made all types of leather goods from boots and shoes to harnesses for horses. The Soviets took his shop and called him a lousy “Zhid,” Russian for “dirty Jew”. When I first heard this story, as a small boy, I couldn’t understand why they hated this man, with his shining blue eyes, quick smile and warm embrace. But, now I know, that they did him a favour because it motivated him along with my grandmother and my father, his two brothers and baby sister, to make the trek that ended up in an apartment building in the Bronx, weirdly, not that far from where my mother was living as her family also lived not far away.
So, for me, because my family took an often hazardous and dangerous sea voyage across the Atlantic, I eventually came to be. I used to tell my students when I was teaching children in my temple, that for want of a sea voyage, many of them would never have been born-including their esteemed teacher.
That is not to say that I didn’t lose hundreds of cousins who weren’t fortunate enough to have left Europe, and even though I never knew them, I grieve for them.
Only G-d knows how many souls were destroyed, how many artists, musicians, doctors, teachers, went up as greasy smoke in the crematoriums of the death camps, or were machine gunned and fell into muddy pits all over the European continent. Was the cure for cancer murdered at Majdenek, or burned at the stake at Kluga, or drowned in the Danube? Was anyone of them my kith and kin?
But as a people we have survived and thrived. We have rebuilt our sovereignty in our own homeland, and I am doubly blessed to be alive and living in the land of our ancestors. I wake up and see the flag flying from the pole in front of the elementary school across the street; I see and hear beautiful Israeli children schlepping their book bags to classes, laughing and talking in Hebrew. I watch as young men and women in the uniform of the IDF standing at the bus stop on their way back to their bases and, most importantly, I know that every day the sun rises over a free, proud and independent Jewish state and blesses her people with a bright, shining “boker tov” that another Holocaust shall never happen to this people again. We continue – not in mourning for what was lost, but in celebrating of being alive, free and forever Israeli.
Irwin Blank was born in NYC in 1952 and has a BA in Political Science from Colombia University NY. He was part of the Speakers’ Bureau American Zionist Youth Foundation and editor of the Zionost Organization of America. He made Aliyah in July 2008 and lives in Maaleh Adumim.
Has Jan Smuts’ Great-Grandchild, Philip Weyers, hit the nail on the head?
By Peter Bailey
As we commemorate Yom HaShoah, in memory of the six million Jews who perished in the Holocaust it is appropriate to readdress the question frequently asked:
“Why it is that Jews have been singled out for a particular kind of hatred by diverse groups of people over two millennia?”
There are, and have been many prominent individuals, such as Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad and British Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, who appear to hate Jews for no good reason, other than their Jewishness. However, the establishment of the State of Israel 70 years ago has proved a game changer. No longer do we only witness acts of anti-Semitism against Jewish individuals and property, but the Jewish State of Israel has become a prime target. The world can almost be divided into those countries that are vehemently opposed to Israel, denying its right to exist, and those that tolerate its existence for political expediency. The reality is that Jews in general, and Israel in particular, have few genuine friends in the international community, which brings me back to my opening question as to why that should be.
During my research, I come across long forgotten articles or facts dating back many decades, elements of which are as relevant today, as they were when published. One such article, was published on 8 February 1920, by no less a person than British master statesman, Sir Winston Churchill, titled ‘Zionism versus Bolshevism’ – A Struggle for the Soul of the Jewish People’. The date of the article is important, as it follows a few years after the publication of the Balfour Declaration by the British Government and mere weeks after the Treaty of Versailles, the terms for the end of WWI, came into effect.
Included in the Treaty of Versailles was the Balfour Declaration, giving the establishment of a Jewish Homeland the international stamp of approval.
Palestine had a population of about 800,000 when Churchill wrote his article, while the global Jewish population stood at around 14 million, from which we can infer that Churchill saw Palestine, at best, as a symbolic home for the Jewish people. Certainly not the independent State of Israel, often referred to as the Innovation Nation – a world leader in science and technology. Despite his brilliance and acknowledged foresight, he would be amazed to find that Israel is now a fully-fledged state where more than half the global Jewish population of about 15 million reside.
The Palestine that Churchill referred to was the whole of what became Mandate Palestine, which currently comprises Jordan, Israel and the disputed territory, which was illegally annexed by Jordan on 24 April 1950, and renamed the West Bank, while modern Israel comprises only 17% of the original area that was intended to become Mandate Palestine.
Churchill would be truly amazed that such a small area today sustains such a large percentage of world Jewry.
Anyway, I forwarded the article to my good friend in South Africa, Philip Weyers – a great-grandson of General Jan Christiaan Smuts, former Prime Minister of South Africa and a great friend of Winston Churchill the two having first met during the Anglo Boer War of 1899, albeit on opposing sides, and then as fellow members of the British Imperial War cabinet during both WWI and WWII. Together with British Prime Minister Lloyd George and Foreign Minister Arthur Balfour, they shared a common belief in the importance and necessity of the establishment of a Jewish Homeland in Palestine. Smuts played an important role in the wording of the Balfour Declaration and its acceptance by the Imperial War Cabinet.
The tone of Churchill’s article is set by the opening statement which reads:
“Some people like Jews and some do not; but no thoughtful man can doubt the fact that they are beyond all question the most formidable and the most remarkable race which has ever appeared in the world.”
The reply from Philip Weyers after he had read the article, really got me thinking that he might well have hit the nail on the head. Philip had this to say:
“Interesting that Churchill did not think Palestine would be big enough to accommodate ‘more than a fraction’ of the world’s Jews. I reckon he did not know about the resourcefulness of Jews to transform desert into very habitable areas. The world will continue to underestimate Jews as they have done for millennia, and when the Jews rise above expectations the response is often pure anti-Semitism.”
Could this be it – when Jews “rise above expectations” – that it is all about jealously’?
It is certainly no accident that twelve Israelis have won Nobel Prizes, three for peace efforts, while the rest for literature, science, medicine and economics. The development of many of the scientific and medical innovations that currently prolong or improve the quality of millions of lives daily – an ongoing process since modern Israel came into being 70 years ago.
During the same period, the surrounding Arab states – with about 430 million inhabitants – have managed to produce six Nobel Laureates, four of them for the peace that perpetually eludes the Middle East.
Let me end off by saying that by replacing the hatred and vitriol with an acceptance of Israel as a fixture in the region, rather than the never ending threats to annihilate the country and its people, would allow Israel to offer so much that could enhance the lives of the millions citizens throughout the Middle East and beyond.
Peter Bailey, who grew up in the South African gold mining town of Brakpan, first appeared in print at the age of 10 with two poems appearing in the SA Outspan and Farmer’s Weekly. He speaks extensively on the Jewish contribution to South African military history and is the author of ‘Smuts, the Anonymous Figure Behind the Balfour Declaration’ and ‘Street Names In Israel’.
My Name is Rella Krok. I was born in the small town of Rakashik, Lithuanian in 1918. My father Yankel Krok was a leather merchant. He was a wealthy man and upstanding member of the community. My mother, Dvora Gruniye (nee Assness) took care of us all. We were six kids – Ettie, Ollie, Yaakov, Zalman, Sonya, Sima and me. I was the baby.
I was the lucky one.
Ettie married Mendel Maron – and Ollie married David Yaakov. The young couples made the long sea journey to Cape Town, South Africa, where their children were born. The pain of separation was excruciating.
The rest of us stayed.
I finished school and went on to study nursing. I was living in the ghetto of Kovna and working in the hospital nearby. The atmosphere was tense. Everyone was afraid. I was engaged to be married to a fine young man. He wanted to escape. He decided to run. He was going to cross the border of Lithuania and keep going until he was safe.
He begged me to run with him. I refused. I could not leave my home, my family.
He was shot dead near the border.
One of my colleagues, a Gentile doctor in the hospital, approached me quietly. He told me that if I was ever in trouble to come to him.
People were starving. There was no food. I made a decision. That night I was going to look for bread. I removed my yellow star and snuck out after dark. I found someone willing to sell me some bread. I hid it under my thick winter coat. I was almost back in the ghetto when I was caught by soldiers. I was terrified. What now? They took me to a room somewhere and locked the door. They told me to strip naked. I did. I was shaking from fear. Are they going to rape me? Are they going to murder me? They forced me to lean over and they whipped me. It was agony. The humiliation more than the pain. They told me to get dressed again. They had had their fun. They dumped me back in the ghetto, without the precious bread. Everyone was still hungry.
What now? What next?
I approached the Gentile doctor. I told him I need a place to hide. He did not hesitate.
I spent the next two years in a tiny crevice dug below the basement floorboards. I never saw daylight. The Gentile doctor’s wife was angry that he had brought me into their home and endangered their lives. She was terrified. I was hidden from their children. They lived in fear that the neighbours would hear a noise. I was alone all day and most of the night in this tiny little hole. Once a day, late after dark, they let me out to relieve myself and eat. I was embarrassed and ashamed to use a pot. A pot that the doctor’s wife had used to empty and clean. A meal was raw potato skins and hard bread. But a meal it was.
I owe them my life. I survived.
After the liberation, I returned to Rakashik to my family home, hoping and praying that I would find my family alive. It was not my family I found. The Lithuanian neighbours had claimed our family home. It was now theirs. I begged them for knowledge of my family – of their whereabouts. They would not let me in. They slammed the door in my face, so I knocked again. My mother’s Lithuanian neighbor and friend opened the door and threw some of my mother’s belongings at me. My mother’s winter coat. My mother’s starched white linen. I sobbed. She threw my mother’s things at me and told me to go.
My old school friends crossed the street to avoid me.
My brother’s twin infant boys were cared for by a Nanny. She adored those boys. A streak of hope…. Maybe she took them to be her own. Maybe my nephews were alive. Maybe they were safe and sound. I started to run. I ran all the way to her house and knocked on the door. But I was wrong.
They were all dead. My family had not survived.
My sisters Ettie and Ollie sent me a ticket to Cape Town. I travelled by boat. I was with them for nearly a year. They begged me to stay, to settle in South Africa, to be close to them. I refused. I would not. I could not.
I made Aliyah and settled in Petach Tikva. I found a job at HaSharon Hospital as a surgical nurse. There was no other place for me. Israel was now my home. Israel was now MY home. Here I was safe. I would always be safe. I was safe for 60 plus years.
I died August 2004. I was 86 years old. I died of old age.
I am buried in the Yarkon Cemetery. I have a grave.
Martine Maron Alperstein made aliyah from Cape Town 21yrs ago. She currently resides in Modiin with her husband, kids and kitty cats.
The noble rhinoceros once roamed the plains of Africa in great numbers. South Africa once prided itself on great numbers of these creatures who attracted many around the world who visited the southern African state to see them as part of their safari experience. Sadly today, these modern-day unicorns are targeted and hunted for their horns; their killers believing the horns have medicinal or aphrodisiacal properties!
Poachers are predominantly from the Far East and as a result of their killing these “Big 5” animals, populations are dwindling at alarming levels and if nothing is done to protect and save endangered rhino populations, they could become extinct.
I cannot imagine a world devoid of these magnificent beasts!
South Africa has the largest remaining population of rhino in the world and is at the forefront of rhino conservation. There are a lot of concerted efforts of the ground to protect rhino populations as well as capture and punish poachers but there is an unlikely hero in this story – Israel.
Rhinos are not indigenous to the Holy Land so how come they are finding a new lease on life and thriving?
The Ramat Gan Safari Park on the outskirts of Tel Aviv has successfully brought rhinos from South Africa.
These horny South Africans are thriving in their adopted country and are managing to breed successfully.
The Ramat Gan Safari Park started their rhino conservation programme in 1974 and to date an estimated 31 calves have been born in captivity. The first baby rhino, born in September 1978 was a girl named “Shalom”. The birth of this little calf coincided with the signing of the Camp David Accords – the peace agreement between Israel and Egypt.
This rhino breeding programme is part of a global conservation effort to increase rhino populations. The white rhinoceros, also known as the square-lipped rhinoceros, is in the greatest danger. Some 78 zoos are taking part in a European breeding project that so far numbers over 300 rhinos. The Ramat Gan Safari has a larger herd than any in Europe! In October 2018, it was noted that the crash of rhinos at the Ramat Gan Safari currently numbers fourteen.
World renowned South African conservationist, Braam Malherbe, lauded the efforts being made by the Park and believes it is a model that should be implemented globally. As a commitment to breeding this highly endangered species, two young females were imported from Pretoria Zoo in 2012.
In recent years, the park has celebrated the birth of baby Terkel, Tupak, Tashi and Timor, all rare white rhinos born to their South African immigrant mother, Tanda. Calves have also been born to Keren Peles, one as recently as the 30th of December. The baby girl’s name is still unknown, but she made her entrance with a lot of energy and curiosity and decided to venture out of the maternity ward on her own. This was the second calf born to 31-year-old mother, Keren Peles, who was named after Israel’s singer-songwriter.
Celebrations have also been conducted for babies Rami, Kipenzi and many more!
In fact, life for rhinos is so good in Israel that a few have tried to explore the sites for themselves. Rhinos have escaped their enclosures at the Safari Park and have sauntered out into the park or the street – much to the absolute astonishment of passers-by!
These horned South African “olim” (immigrants) do not have to worry about dealing with the challenges that others have to deal with like bureaucracy, language and navigating day-to-day life.
In the quite sanctity of the Ramat Gan Safari Park they are assured that the only place a horn belongs is on a rhino.
There is something that is quite phenomenal when women bond. Women can connect in a way that is unique and on a different level to their male counterparts. So, imagine the possibilities of what could happen when you bring together women from very divergent backgrounds!
One Man’s Vision
Israel is a country of simplicities and complexities and gorgeous diversity. This is a country that has gathered in exiles from over 80 different countries and has rich and diverse minority communities making up roughly 24% of the population and contrary to what many of her detractors would have you believe, they enjoy full and equal rights as citizens with representation in the Knesset (parliament).
But Israel, being a country filled with paradox, means that sometimes there are chasms between the cultures and creative ways to break down barriers is exactly what is needed.
David Moatty, Director of WIZO (Women’s International Zionist Organisation) Afula Community Centre had a vision. What would happen if he brought together women from different cultural backgrounds to bond over something creative – painting?
The Olive tree has long been a symbol of peace. Its roots (pun very much intended!) stretch all the way to biblical times and are an iconic image for the Abrahamic religions. In Judaism, the olive tree and its oil, symbolises justice and mercy, and according to the Christian gospels, olives are symbols of sacrifice and love. In the Quran (the central religious text of Islam, which Muslims believe to be a revelation from God), it is written that the olive tree is the “world’s axis and the symbol of the universal humanity of the Prophet’.
Bonds of Friendship
They came from a variety of different backgrounds and ages with a common interest – to create art and perhaps make a friend or two. Women from all cultural and religious groups – Jewish, Muslim, Christian and Circassian and originally from places as exotic and diverse as Romania, Lithuania, Argentina, the Caucasian mountains and with a local flavour that included Nazareth, Umm-Al Fahad and Tiberius. Thirty-five women, aged between 17 and 80, painted glorious portraits of olive trees and weaved bonds of friendship that will last a lifetime.
The project is sponsored by a host of European WIZO Federations that include France, Switzerland, The Netherlands, Belgium, Austria, Germany and the United Kingdom.
Through their mutual love for art, the women have fostered an environment of tolerance and sharing. Olive trees make no distinction between cultures and art is a universal language and this is evident in the exquisite portraits painted by the women. Each picture tells a story and transports you through their personal journeys.
Mali Schneiderman from Kfar Saba was seriously wounded in a car accident ten years earlier. Painting has helped her to heal and regain both her physical and mental health.
Hana Rozenstein, a Holocaust survivor, has painted her “Tree of Peace” in gratitude to the beautiful country she calls home. Sharing her story with the Arab women in the group has brought her a tremendous sense of joy, and Shuzanna Abu-Masoud, the sixth child in a religious, Muslim family, dedicates her painting to her mother who adores the multicultural contact between Jews and Muslims.
It is not just the paintings and their talented artists that tell a story. This project with its roots firmly grounded in tolerance and altruism, has found itself warmly received all over the world – even in the halls of the United Nations, where it has been showcased both in Geneva and Vienna.
Mention of the UN is guaranteed to raise the blood pressure of every Israeli as the institution seems to have a disproportionate amount of focus on the Jewish State but the Olive Tree project is living proof that accusations of practices of Apartheid and trumped up resolutions are figments of the imagination. The real work is done on the ground between Israel’s citizens. This is where peace is negotiated.
The Olive Tree project has recently been renamed “Shutafot le Derech” and the journey that it has inspired has not just been a tour of the world – helping to tell Israel’s stories of diversity and tolerance that are so seldom heard but do exist – but also healing.
It is here amongst the women, amongst the unbreakable bonds of friendship, where the roots of peace are firmly planted.
Israel welcomed an estimated 150,000 Christians for the festive 2018 Christmas season, according to the Tourism Ministry, with many joining the celebrations in Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Nazareth, and visiting the very locations where the Christmas story unfolded.
More than half the tourists – some 56% – who visited Israel in 2018 were Christian. By denomination these Christians were 41% Catholic, 27% Protestant, and 28% Orthodox.
One such recent visitor was award-winning author and novelist and third generation Oklahoman, Margy Pezdirtz, a leader in the Christian Zionist movement.
Below is her report from her recent visit to a Christian town, Gush Halav, on Mount Meron in northern Israel.
A Village Called ‘Jish’
In nearly every country in the Middle East, Christians are persecuted, frequently killed at the hands of their Muslim neighbors. The only country in which this does not happen is Israel, where Christians are welcome and free to worship. A classic example of this freedom of worship is the lovely village of Gush Halav, ‘Jish’ for short, sitting atop a steep hill in the foothills of Har Meron (Mountain of Meron), thirteen kilometres north of Safed, in Israel’s Upper Galilee. This small village of 3,078 citizens – according to the last census – proudly worships as Maronite Christians, a branch of the Catholic Church.
The village is a center for the Aramaic revival, an initiative by local Maronites. In Israel, we can speak of ‘revival”, elsewhere in the Middle East, only of Christian ‘suppression’.
We visited Jish just prior to Palm Sunday, the Christian feast falling on the Sunday before Easter commemorating Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. We found teenagers happily preparing for the upcoming Easter parade, which they will lead with a full corps of drums escorting a large cross carried by leaders of the village. Almost every citizen will joyfully line the streets to pay silent tribute to their Savior as the cross weaves its way upward to the top of the hill where it will rest for the holiday. Looking down on this parade from the rooftop of St. George’s Church, will be the three permanent crosses that bear witness to the faith of the village. All of these crosses are lighted every night – not just Easter – to testify to all around that thisis a Christian community.
There is frequently confusion as to where these Christians came from. Are they Arabs? Christian Arabs? No, not really. They are quick to make it clear that they are Aramean Maronites, not Arabs. According to Wikipedia, Arameans are a Semitic people who originated in what is a combination of the western, southern and central parts of Syria generations ago.
As to where the Christian portion came to fit, generations ago a priest by the name of Maroun felt drawn to isolate himself in the mountains of Syria to meditate and draw closer to God, the Father, through his Savior, Jesus Christ. In doing so, others were attracted to his dedication to God and began following him. Thus the name “Maronite” was attached to his followers who, today, remain dedicated in their worship of the Heavenly Father through the auspices of the Catholic Church. All Maronites are Catholics.
Originally, the Maronites spoke and prayed in Aramaic; however, over the years, the language was lost other than for prayer which only the very elderly could speak or understand. In recent years that has changed. Now students are offered the ability to learn the Aramaic language in public school through to the 8th grade, which is encouraged by the Israeli government.
While the United Nations lambasts Israel with resolutions accusing it of false human rights abuses and unfair treatment of her minorities, a hilltop in northern Israel tells another story – a beacon of truth. Here at ‘Jish’, a religion other than Judaism and a language other than Hebrew is encouraged and promoted by the Israeli government. The village youth are proud Israeli citizens. While Christians are not obligated to join the IDF, many chose to do so as volunteers upon graduating from high school. And, those who prefer not to serve in the military are quick to volunteer for Sherut Leumi an alternative national service where participants engage in programmes such as working in schools, hospitals, nursing homes, health clinics and disadvantaged communities. These are young Christians giving back to a society that has given to them – a phenomenon unheard of elsewhere in the Middle East other than in Israel.
Life is good in Gush Halav. Those interviewed expressed: “we have everything we want or need” and “are happy to live where we live and to be Israelis”.
Life is good indeed, in Gush Halav, Israel.
About the author
Margy Pezdirtz has been a leader in the Christian Zionist movement for over twenty-five years. Born a third generation Oklahoman, the granddaughter of pioneers who were the first to break the sod on their homestead in Grant County, she learned early on the significance of establishing a foundation toward building a future. Coming from a family of farmers she was taught self-reliance and the value of standing strong during the wildest of storms and hard times. She believes the lessons learned from her farm family taught her the values and determination that is necessary to establish her support for Israel. An award-winning author and novelist, Mrs. Pezdirtz is an avid student of the Bible.
The northern Israeli city of Haifa is a model of integration and tolerance. Every year, thousands of revelers descend on the city to celebrate the highly anticipated, Festival of Festivals. This 25-year old festivals takes place every December and is a celebration of the country’s three main religions – Judaism, Islam and Christianity. Haifa is festooned with twinkling Christmas lights, chanukiot for Chanukah and Islamic symbols. It is a rare opportunity to be exposed to and enjoy the timeless traditions of these three religions. Rolene Marks filed this report for Channel News Asia:
If donkeys had a public relations spokesman, Jester would be it. A nuzzle of the nose is all the payment he requires. Gali is the beauty queen with her grey coat and elegant black markings. She is also a bit of a maternal figure. Sooty has the longest ears and wiggles them proudly and Chicco has a long memory for kindness. Yalon steals your heart with his large foal eyes and gangly legs and Hope is a movie star with a penchant for a little something sweet. She is also in for a surprise because on Christmas day she will turn one year old and there is a party planned in her honour.
These are just some of the 250 cast of characters that call Safe Haven for Donkeys in the Holy Land their home.
The gentle and noble donkey is an iconic image that had long been associated with the Holy Land. Since the time of the Bible, donkeys symbolise peace, conciliation and humility and are ingrained into the imagery of all three of the Abrahamic religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Kings David and Solomon revered donkeys; Kind David kept a royal she-mule and King Solomon chose to be anointed on one instead of a grander animal like a thoroughbred horse or elephant. Jesus entered Jerusalem on the back of a donkey as a symbol of peace. In Islam it is believed that a donkey who had the power of speech, told Muhammad that it was the last in a line of donkeys ridden by prophets and was a descendant of the donkey ridden by Jesus in his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, which was also called Ya`fūr.
Sadly today, in a region that is often volatile and mired in conflict and conflagration, these humble, gentle creatures are often a casualty.
Donkeys have often been referred to as a workhorse, not because of their shared equine features but because of their ability and patience to bear heavy loads. This ability is sometimes exploited by some who use these sweet creatures as construction workers, over-burdening them with weight and materials.
In this region that can sometimes be a tinderbox waiting to explode, donkeys have been brutally abused by terrorists who have exploited them to make a political point. During the second intifada (Palestinian uprising) it was not uncommon for terror entities to pack these sweet creatures with explosives and direct them towards soldiers at checkpoints. In the last few months, as Hamas encourages rioters along the border between Israel and Gaza, so too have donkeys been used as weapons. One of the first weeks of protest saw donkeys draped in Israeli flags and set on fire. This outrageous act of animal cruelty and depravity has barely registered in the media. Donkeys are just not “sexy” enough a story.
Thankfully, there is an organization that is dedicated to the well-being and upkeep of these humble and noble beasts.
The sanctuary provides life-long care to over 200 unwanted and abused donkeys of all ages, but the work does not stop at the sanctuary gates. Safe Haven for Donkeys operates a mobile clinic that treats around 500 working donkeys, mules and horses across the Palestinian Territories as well as a permanent clinic in the city of Nablus. The mobile vet treats injuries such as those from poor harnessing, overgrown hooves and bad teeth are easily treatable and this goes a long way in helping to improve the lives of the animals who work so hard for so little.
Safe Haven for Donkeys has realized that education is just as important and help teach children and adults how to treat these animals with humanity and kindness and through the work with the owners of these animals, the team has made many friends and is treated with trust and respect.
“Our vets circulate and go to a different village every day to ensure that as many are treated as possible” says Abed, a caregiver whose dedication and love for his charges is evident.
The work done by this organization is evident in the happy, braying donkeys who despite all that they have endured, are friendly to the visitors who come to either volunteer or check out the sanctuary. The donkeys just love a cuddle and a scratch – and maybe a good old roll in the sand. After enduring so much abuse, Safe Haven’s over 200 personalities who proudly carry their names on their harnesses, get to live out their lives in peace and serenity in the gorgeous heart of Israel.
For a donkey called Hope and all the cast of characters, Safe Haven for Donkeys in the Holy Land is more than just a sanctuary, it is home. It is a veritable heaven for donkeys – and that is worth braying about.
For more information about the sanctuary and to contribute, visit their website:
The saying “It’s not the number of years in your life but the life in the number of your years,” resonates in describing the relatively short but extraordinary lives of three members of one heroic Israeli family – Ilan Ramon, son Asaf Ramon and today’s sad news, wife and mother – Rona Ramon.
By David E. Kaplan
“He has never left us – his spirit, his values and his message to future generations lives on for all time,” said Rona Ramon in an interview with this writer in 2014 about her late Israeli astronaut husband, Ilan Ramon, who died in the Columbia Space Shuttle disaster in 2003. She could so easily as well be referring to her beloved son Asaf Ramon, who followed in his father’s footsteps becoming a pilot and was tragically killed in an Air Force training accident in 2009.
And sadly, as the news broke that Rona too, was taken before her time – passing away at age 54 from cancer – the Jewish world can say about Rona, “her spirit, her values, and her message to future generations lives on for all time.”
In the years following the tragic passing of her husband and son, Rona showed the same bravery, determination and grit as she spearheaded the perpetuation of the family legacy through the Ramon Foundation.
A life characterized by triumph and tragedy, the writer sat down with Rona Ramon for an exclusive interview for a major magazine in Israel.
Colonel (Aluf Mishne) Ilan Ramon perished at the age of 48 when the Columbia space shuttle disintegrated on its re-entry into earth, killing all seven astronauts on board. An ace Israel fighter pilot, in 1981 Ramon was the youngest – participating in Operation Opera, Israel’s impressive strike against Iraq’s near-completed and threatening nuclear reactor in Osirak.
A global icon, Ramon is the only foreign recipient of the United States Congressional Space Medal of Honor which he was awarded posthumously in 2004.
With Israelis enjoying a love affair with the Ramon family – the surname embedded in the minds of most – my first question opened with their ‘love affair’.
How did you and Ilan meet?
“We met on my 22nd birthday party at a friend’s house in Kiryat Ono. My friend’s eldest sister invited her neighbor – this 32-year-old good looking guy with a million-dollar smile – and to this day I always say, “Ilan was my 22-birthday present.”
Six months later they were married.
“Why wait, we were in love,” the couple thought at the time, and nine years later with their four children, they were living in a suburb close to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. All this would come to a crashing, cataclysmic end as billions of people stared in disbelief at their television sets as the Columbia space shuttle disintegrated in flame as it reentered the earths atmosphere.
This nation was unprepared.
It was just not possible!
After 16 days of almost constant news coverage about “our Ilan’s” exploits in space – from how he spent Shabbat (Sabbath), the various experiments he was conducting in space and what special mementos he took with him such as a prayer book to recite the Kiddush (blessing) as well as a Kiddush cup, a picture drawn by a 14 year-old boy who perished in Auschwitz and a Torah scroll that survived the Holocaust – Israelis felt they knew him personally.
He was family!
As one newspaper at the time expressed it:
“He represented us all – our country, our people, our past and our future. He was our hero at a time when we sorely needed one.”
The son of Holocaust survivors, he represented a nation’s rebirth – the young, proud modern Israeli rising from the ashes of the Shoah (Holocaust) to a child of a new nation, reborn in its ancestral homeland and who in one generation was seeking answers to earth’s problems in the heavens.
How perceptive and prophetic were Ilan’s words from space:
“The world looks marvelous from up here, so peaceful, so wonderful and so fragile.”
From a prolonged high to a sudden low, how did Rona cope?
“Before finding answers, I had to understand the questions. I felt such conflicting emotions to a situation I was unprepared. I was not only dealing with a profound personal loss but a national loss, so while having to keep my young family together, I also could not forsake my national responsibilities and obligations all under the international spotlight.”
Hard for anyone to be prepared, how did you find the strength?
“My family – my wonderful kids who brought me to a place that I found I was not afraid and I found the strength to shift from thinker to doer.
Did it make it easier or more difficult that all Israel shared in your grief?
“It added to the huge weight on my shoulders as I was representing Israel not only symbolically but physically. I was compelled to channel my grief through action. I had to present myself before several investigation committees relating to the accident; addressed conferences and attended commemorative ceremonies, such as accepting from President Bush in 2004 the Congressional Space Medal of Honor. Ilan is the only non-American to have ever received this prestigious award.”
Was it stressful taking on all these responsibilities?
“Actually the exposure to so many people and situations gave me strength, and after returning to Israel from the USA, I found solace in returning to academia. I took my Masters in Holistic Studies through Lesley University, Boston. My thesis dealt with how personal loss impacts on our lives – physically, emotionally, spiritually and cognitively. Through my studies, I navigated my return journey home to normalcy.”
Trying Times To Ramon Foundation
If losing her celebrated husband was not enough, Rona would be tragically tested once more. In June 2009, President Shimon Peres had awarded Captain Asaf Ramon his air force wings at Hatzerim base in southern Israel. The President had been close to the Ramon family and it was Peres who has encouraged President Clinton to include an Israeli astronaut in a future NASA space mission. “Peres felt at the time,” said Rona, “that the country needed a boost; that there had been much division in the society following the Rabin assassination and that an Israeli traveling in space would unite the nation like no other event.” This proved correct. The nation did unite around this spectacular venture.
Inspired by his father, Asaf had excelled in his training and had expressed the hope that he, too, would one day become an astronaut.
It was not to be.
On the 13th September 2009 Captain Asaf Ramon, age 21, was tragically killed when his F16-A jet crashed during a routine training exercise.
The way Rona dealt with this further blow was to channel all her energies in founding the ‘Ramon Foundation’ which would honor both her husband and her son.
“The foundation,” said Rona, “promotes and initiates projects that can influence our society for the better. We focus on the field most associated with the Ramon name – space and science, as we view these fields best to inspire children and young people to dream, to pursue, and to make their dreams a reality. Just like his father, Asaf fulfilled his dream of becoming a fighter pilot, and just like his dad, he graduated from the flying academy with honors.”
Rona quotes from both Ilan and Asaf, whose writings from their diaries were the inspiration for her founding the Ramon Foundation. Ilan wrote: “The children and youth are the future of the development and advances in space research, especially since they are open to new creative ideas and not prisoners to old ways and therefore so important to our future in space.” And following his graduation, Asaf wrote: “My siblings and I were lucky to grow up with parents who helped us to fulfill our dreams and reach our unique potential.”
Rona says she was “humbled and moved reading this,” and took this short appreciative passage of Asafs’ as her Magna Carta in founding the Ramon Foundation.
So what are some of the programs?
“We have many and use the world of space and aviation, associated with Ilan and Asaf, to encourage personal excellence and community involvement. We support groundbreaking excellence in academic achievement among Israeli youth and promote STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) education involving scientists, pilots and young leaders, all determined to make these goals a reality.”
Do you work with schools?
“Yes, we are working with 20 schools all over the country and including all the communities – Jews, Arabs, Druze and Bedouin. We look beyond ethnicity to enthusiasm. All who want to excel are welcome. So for example in our elementary schools, we have set up Aviators Clubs where squadrons from the Israeli Air Force adopt a school and where the students are inspired by the pilots who serve as role models.
We have witnessed trouble-makers transform into outstanding students. All they wanted was to excel and we provide the tools and the inspiration to follow their dreams. The pilots inspire the children to strive for excellence and be better students, citizens and leaders of their society.”
Projects Out Of This World
For the older students, I understand you have a program called the Ramon Space Labs. Can you explain the program?
“Imagine the excitement of a school kid knowing that an experiment he is working on will be tested by a real astronaut onboard an International Space Station (ISS)! There are currently 100 students in four schools who are planning an experiment soon to be launched, while some have already watched their experiment launched into orbit. Basically, students design and build an experiment to be performed on the International Space Station. They watch it then being launched into space, performed by the astronauts on the ISS and then on the return to earth, the results are analyzed and published.”
Rona was also working with the Conrad Foundation, named after the late Apollo 12 astronaut, Charles “Pete” Conrad, who had struggled academically due to dyslexia and only because of a perceptive headmaster, saw Pete’s spark of genius and gave him the confidence he needed. He went on to earn a scholarship to Princeton University and in November 1969, Pete became the third man to walk on the Moon.
We too are looking for that ‘spark of genius’ in our Israeli students and this year, twelve of our schools are participating in the Conrad Foundation’s
‘Spirit of Innovation Challenge’ which invites high school students from all over the world to its annual competition.
Using science, technology, engineering and math skills, teams develop innovative products to help solve global and local problems while supporting global sustainability. We are sending our best students to represent our country and hope to reach the semi-finals. The finals, where the participants will present their products and vie for seed grants, patent support and commercial opportunities will be held as a space camp in Houston.”
Can you foresee future Israeli astronauts like Ilan?
“We need to equip the dreamers to emerge as doers. Everyone has their own calling. I have a son who is a talented musician composing his own material. Our foundation helps young people identify their talents and explores ways for them to reach their full potential. We are offering opportunities to kids which would not otherwise have them. However, as our young participants grow older, we zone in on those who have the potential to make a global impact.
For such individuals we have a program called ‘Ramon Breakthrough’. This program is open to those who can through innovative technology, improve the lives of one million people in Israel. The prize is a scholarship to Singularity University in California where the student will together with other students from around the world will explore solutions aimed at solving some of the world’s most pressing challenges.”
It would seem you are busy now than ever before?
“Well, from losing members of my family, I feel the Ramon family is expanding as we are touching the lives of so many kids. Today, I have a large family.”
There are parks, sixteen streets alone in Israel, museums, schools, playgrounds, departments at hospitals, soon the renaming of the airport in Eilat and even an asteroid named after Ilan Ramon. How special for you is the new Ramon Museum at Mitzpe Ramon?
“When the government decided to honor Ilan with a national memorial, I pressed for the focus to be less about a memorial and more about education. I also felt that Mitzpe Ramon would be the ideal location. The crater has a surreal space quality about it and on the personal level – Ilan was a child of the Negev having grown up in the desert’s capital, Beersheva. With the crater below and the space above, the museum’s exhibits project both the heaven and earth.”
Rona’s Proudest Moment
After the first anniversary of her husband’s death, Rona received the program of the first anniversary ceremony of the Columbia tragedy to be held at Arlington Cemetery in Virginia. She saw that it did not include the Hatikvah – the national anthem of Israel – so she called her friend at NASA who explained to Rona that the protocol at such ceremonies allows only for the American national anthem.
“In which case, I will not be attending,” Rona replied.
There was silence at the other end of the phone “and my friend replied he would call back. It apparently went all the way to President Bush who approved. It was the first time a foreign national anthem had ever been played on such an occasion. I felt truly proud when I stood at Arlington Cemetery listening to Hatikva.
The personal legacy of Ilan for me is his wonderful smile. I suspect wherever he was that day looking upon me having stood my ground defiantly, he was smiling.”
On behalf of a mourning nation, Israeli President, Reuven Rivlin said today, “Rona Ramon left us as she lived among us – noble, pure, full of faith.”
Rona joins her husband and son but leaves a legacy that will forever enrich the lives Israelis today, tomorrow and into the far future.
The Israel hating crowd in South Africa now desire to boycott Israel`s academic institutions and Israeli academicians due to the “treatment” of Palestinian universities.
Let`s ask some questions. Are there universities in the West Bank and Gaza? If so, who established the universities and when. How are Palestinian universities ranked as compared with their Arab counterparts.
The Ottoman Empire, actually Turkey, a Moslem State, occupied Palestine from 1513 until 1917. Since Charles William Eliot, the president of Harvard University, who visited the country in 1867, and described the Galilee as a place of emptiness and misery and in his famous book “Innocents Abroad,” Mark Twain recalls not seeing a living soul throughout his journey, unsurprisingly, there were no Arab universities. The Jews, however, established the world famous Technion in Haifa in 1912.
The British controlled Palestine between 1917 and 1948. The Jews immediately established another university, the world famous Hebrew University of Jerusalem in 1918. The Arabs? Nothing, as in: no Arab university.
Jordan, an Arab country, illegally occupied Judea and Samaria between 1948 and 1967, renaming this area the West Bank.
During this period, the Jordanians were careful and shrewd enough to forbid and prevent the establishment of any university in the West Bank. Yes, in 1967, when Israel regained Judea and Samaria, there were no universities in the West Bank. NOT ONE! Did anyone academically criticize or boycott Jordan? Of course not. When it comes to Israel, double standards are the order of the day.
Israel recovered Judea and Samaria in 1967. In 1970, Deputy Israeli Premier Yigal Allon, who was then Minister of Education, announced that he had approved the establishment of the first university in Ramallah in principle when approached by West Bank Arab leaders, including Dr. Salem Nashef, Dean of the Tulkarem Agricultural School.
Paradoxically, it was the Arab Jordanians who still attempted to prevent the establishment of the first university on the West Bank. In April 1971, Sheikh Mohammad Ali Jaabari, the Mayor of Hebron, even needed to warn the Jordanian government not to interfere with plans by West Bank Arab leaders to establish an Arab university on the West Bank. Jaabari spoke in reply to a charge made by the Jordanian Education Minister in Amman that “all those who take part in planning the university are traitors and collaborators with the Israelis.” Eventually, under the Israeli administration, in 1971 the foundation of the Hebron University was laid and forty-three students joined from different parts of the West Bank and Gaza.
The universities in the West Bank enjoyed the cooperation of the Israeli universities without which they could not have been developed. In 1973, Dr. Nashef, as a guest of Tel Aviv University’s “Shiloah” Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies, reported that Arab education on the West Bank had expanded under the Israeli administration since 1967. According to Dr. Nashef, 90 percent of children between 6-15 were receiving an elementary education, a much higher percentage than under the Jordanian regime. He further said that by 1973 the number of matriculants under Israeli administration had risen from 3,500 to 14,500.
Stupid matriculants. Were they not aware that they were supposed to boycott Israeli administered education?
What exactly are the boycotters boycotting? Thanks only to Israel, a second university, Birzeit University, was established in 1975. Under Israeli guidance, by 1993, when the Oslo Agreement establishing the Palestinian Authority was signed, there were 14 universities, 18 colleges and 20 community colleges in the West Bank and Gaza.
Current Palestinian tertiary student enrolment is 214,000, of which roughly 54 per cent are women and 46 per cent are men. This compares favorably with Israel’s tertiary sector where from a larger population enrolment is approximately 307,000 and the gender balance among undergraduates is 56 per cent women and 44 per cent men. The remarkably high participation rate reflects both the commendable importance Palestinians attach to the universities (and formal education more generally) for strengthening both their economy and their national identity and, importantly in the context of the proposed “academic boycott”, the absence of any impediment by Israel. There is no legitimate reason for any “academic boycott” except hate for Israel.
With Al-Najah National University of Nablus ranked in 20th place of the top 300 ranked Arab universities and Birzeit university of Ramallah in 27th place, it is clear that the Palestinian universities are among the best in the Arab world and do not suffer discrimination or oppression by Israel.
If the boycotters, like the Jordanians, had their way, there would today still not have been any academic institutions in the West Bank. Israel`s positive contribution to the Palestinians generally and Israel`s contribution to the establishment of higher education specifically continues to be ignored by the Israel haters, best described as the new obstructionist Jordanians, who themselves contribute nothing to the Palestinians.
Israel`s positive contribution to the Palestinian higher education may be compared to the “contribution” by UCT, Stellenbosch and other South African universities` professors and students specifically and South Africa generally to the Palestinians – which is nothing. The anti-Israel noise by some South Africans may be emotionally satisfying to these few boycotters but the constructive support continues to be provided by Israel. By their actions, in attempting to prevent Israeli support of Palestinian institutions, these few boycotters may best be described as anti-Palestinian rather than anti-Israel, much like the Ottoman Empire (the Turks), British and Jordanians pre-1967.
Israel is now to be “punished” by a boycott for permitting the establishment of universities in the West Bank and Gaza, against the opposition of Arab governments such as Jordan. Until 1967 the world was silent which means the world at that time consented to the Arab opposition to universities in the West Bank. The criticism of Israel and its academics and the boycotting of Israeli academics is simply living proof that no good deed goes unpunished.
Kafka? Orwellian? I doubt whether these Israeli haters even know who these guys are.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Charles Abelsohn, a co-founder of Truth be Told, retired several years ago as the legal manager of one of the most well–known entities in Israel. He is a graduate of three universities (Cape Town, Stellenbosch and U. of South Africa) in South Africa in Law, Transportation Economics and Finance. His interests, even as a young student, were Judaism, Israel, Economics and Finance.