‘every day is a miracle’

Noam Schalit this week described each day since his son’s release as a “miracle” and insisted that fears about the release of Palestinian prisoners had proved to be largely unfounded.

In an interview with the Jewish News to mark one year since the former IDF soldier walked free from his 1,941-day ordeal at the hands of Hamas, Noam Schalit offered an insight into how his son Gilad (pictured right at a Barcelona football match) was enjoying life back in Israel and looking forward to travelling abroad, including to London.

Reflecting on the fact the 26-year-old recently spent his first Rosh Hashanah at home for six years, he said: “Every day, every holiday, every weekend, it’s a miracle for us. Gilad and the whole family have a great sense of renewal and he’s doing very well.”

He revealed that Gilad was currently mulling over which course to take when he begins university in September 2013 but is now “catching up on the gaps he missed” following his kidnapping while still a teenager in June 2006. “He’s been going out a lot, especially during the Succot holidays while his friends are on vacation from university. He’s also been hiking, cycling and has attended many sports events.”

As well as celebrating his birthday in August – according to Noam, it’s as if his son now also has a second birthday on the day he was freed – the Schalits have had no shortage of reasons to party this summer with the wedding of Gilad’s brother Yoel to Ya’ara Winkler.

“The couple met in 2009 in the Jerusalem protest tent during the campaign for Gilad, but avoided any celebration before he was freed,” Noam said.
“Some guests had never met Gilad or hadn’t seen him since he returned home – everyone wanted to shake his hand or exchange a few words. The couple were at the centre but he was the second focus.”

While Noam said Gilad was trying to look forward, rather than back, and the possibility of him writing a book had been “postponed”, his son this week spoke in public for the first time about his experiences in captivity. He recalled passing the time drawing pictures of his road in Israel to ensure he wouldn’t forget it and rolling up socks or T-shirts to play sports-oriented games. Noam believes, however, that he is yet to reveal even to his family every aspect of his experiences.

Since Gilad’s release, he has been able to indulge his love of sport by penning a weekly sports column for the Yediot Ahronot newspaper and by attending events like the NBA Finals and one of the world’s top football fixtures between Barcelona and Real Madrid during one of his foreign trips.

While acknowledging that, “maybe the first voyage abroad we were a little concerned”, Noam and wife Aviva have encouraged their son’s independence. Looking ahead to his visit to London for the B’nei B’rith Europe Young Adults Forum, Noam said: “He’s very much looking forward to it, especially to attending a football match. He watched a lot of the Olympics.”

Gilad also spoke in his television interview of the day he was freed and his fears that something could go wrong at the last minute as he travelled towards Egypt to be handed over.”

Asked whether he had ever thought during his family’s tireless campaign for Gilad that he might never see his son again, Noam told the Jewish News: “It was never certain he’d be freed, looking at the experiences of previous Israeli soldiers like Ron Arad. I only knew we could not retreat or give up, because I realised that if we did not fight the chances of seeing him back were quite low.”

Supporters across the world joined calls for his son to be freed and to be granted visits from the Red Cross, with Londoners joining vigils, marches and petitions. Hundreds, including then premier Gordon Brown, took part in the Jewish News’ campaign to sign Rosh Hashanah cards to the young Israeli.

He said: “We were very encouraged by the support of the Jewish communities worldwide including Australia, Canada and the United States. We needed all the support we could get worldwide. I think that the campaign in England was very effective because your government was very aware of this crisis.Gordon Brown wrote us a letter, ambassador Matthew Gould’s first mission was to come to our tent and William Hague also visited us in Jerusalem to express his support.”

For Noam, who had seen intense media speculation of an imminent deal come to nothing on previous occasions, scepticism remained even after finally receiving news in a 5am text message that a prisoner swap deal had been reached. “It still had to be approved by cabinet members and sometimes in the past there have been cases where the cabinet does not approve the prime minister’s recommendation. But as the day went on – and especially after it was published in the media at 7pm – I realised that they must approve it. I thought very few members of the cabinet will oppose this deal, because we had between 75 to 80 percent of public support.”

Addressing the vocal opposition to that exchange deal – which saw 1,027 Palestinians including those convicted over terror attacks set free – Noam stressed that his family had not taken part in the negotiations and “were not responsible for the price paid. We just asked that the government will fulfil its duty to bring back a soldier”. He added that “very few of those freed have been re-arrested and some of those that have were later released. The bottom line is that all the forecasts in Israel that there would be murders and buses would be exploded again were false.”

Noam is now embarking on a whole new campaign after accepting an offer to join Labour’s list for the next Knesset. While admitting that he had “never before” considered entering politics, he said MKs had an opportunity to influence life in Israel for the better and said he wished to speak up, in particular for those in the country’s north where he lives and also the south. Noam, who this week joined the family of Arad at a ceremony marking 26 years since his plane went down over Lebanon, also said that the issue of Israel’s missing soldiers would be one “I’m sure I won’t forget” if he enters the Knesset after the 22 January elections.

Noam, a member of Labour since the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, was adamant that he would have no qualms in opposing Netanyahu in the Knesset, despite the fact “we appreciate very much that he took the decision to cut a deal maybe against his beliefs and ideology”.

He said: “It has nothing to do with the efforts that he and former PM Olmert and decision-makers made to bring back a soldier they had sent to his mission. It has nothing to do with political views or beliefs and doesn’t mean I have to believe in the same ideology of the prime minister and his party.”

But today, on the first anniversary of Gilad’s release, his thoughts will inevitably be focused on his son and his future. He said that, despite irreversible damage to his left hand as a result of shrapnel, his son’s health was “quite good”.

Noam added: “I hope he will go to university to acquire a profession and, like every parent, we hope that Gilad will sooner or later find a girl and establish his own family.”
• Gilad Schalit on the set of Homeland, page 15

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Brown Proves That Israel Is Losing Its Commons Touch

“One year on from the devastating conflict in Gaza, which left 1,400 Palestinians dead, the siege continues. Humanitarian relief is hard to come by and Gaza lies shattered. Although there were undoubtedly war crimes on both sides, does my right honourable friend the Prime Minister agree that what is now happening is the collective punishment of one million people? Will he now make urgent representations to ease the siege of Gaza as a critical step towards a peace settlement?”

Gordon Brown replied: “My honourable friend is absolutely right, and she speaks for many people. We must not forget the people of Gaza. I have raised with Prime Minister Netanyahu the speed at which aid and humanitarian assistance can get into Gaza and we are pressing the Israeli Government to do more to get aid in.

“I will look at exactly the points that my honourable friend has made and see what more we can do in this new year. In the end, this will require a political settlement between Israel and the Palestinian state that gives Israel security and Palestine a viable economic state that it can manage. In the meantime, we must avoid unnecessary suffering.”

This reply is, to say the least, surprising. Yes, of course the Palestinians are suffering. But Brown buys into Karen Buck’s one-sided allocation of blame for Gaza’s plight.

There is no word about the root cause of Palestinian suffering or about how Hamas sabotages Gaza’s future and provoked the war.

There is no word about how Hamas has turned Gaza into a proxy of Iran in its confrontation with the “Zionist cancer”.

There was silence from the prime minister on the massive humanitarian aid into Gaza, facilitated by Israel, despite Palestinian attacks on crossing points and no word on how Hamas has commandeered aid, medical supplies and building equipment entering Gaza.

There was silence on Hamas breaches of international humanitarian law by denying access to kidnapped IDF soldier Gilad Shalit.

There was silence on the blood-curdling incitement by Hamas against Israel on Gaza TV and attempted infiltrations into Israel.

And there was no word about Egypt‘s imposition of harsh restrictions on Palestinian movement.

Instead, Gordon Brown apparently agrees “absolutely” with Karen Buck that Israel is inflicting “collective punishment” on one million Gazans. And he agrees with her claim that Israel “undoubtedly” committed war crimes, even though Richard Goldstone has himself now conceded that “if this was a court of law, there would have been nothing proven”.

Every Yom Ha’atzmaut, Gordon Brown proclaims his friendship for Israel and British government policy is to uphold Israel’s security. But real support for Israel in 2010 is about more than Mr Brown’s speeches at Jewish communal functions or general pledges about the Jewish state’s security.
One way support should be measured is by how he faces down Israel’s detractors in Parliament – people like Karen Buck.

Yes, it’s an election year, and he’s under pressure. And yes, he and his advisers face sustained lobbying by anti-Israel pressure groups. But his careless reply suggests that he’s become disconnected from the context of events in Gaza. Instead, he’s casually absorbed a lop-sided narrative, based on falsehoods and half-truths.

The prime minister’s words will not help ordinary Palestinians. Instead, they reward Hamas. And their result, unintended maybe but possible nevertheless, could be to encourage the further demonisation of Israel in the UK.

-Andrew White is a London based solicitor, and author of the website www.beyondimages.info

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Exodus from Ahmadinejad

His words prompted a mass exodus of delegates with dozens of officials flocking out of Geneva’s Palais des Nations in protest, though most returned to their seats at the conclusion of the speech.

Foreign Secretary David Miliband slammed the Iranian leader’s comments, but said the offensive speech emphasised the importance of government participation in combating racism, saying: “Our engagement in the UN conference has always been on the basis that we will not accept attempts to prejudice the conference conclusions – for example removing references to Holocaust remembrance or the fight against anti-Semitism. And we will not accept an event that degenerates into racism and intimidation. But nor should we leave the international stage only to those, like President Ahmadinejad, who would take global efforts against racism backwards.”

World Jewish Congress President Ronald Lauder said participating in an event like Durban would profit no one, adding: “This conference will do nothing good in terms of fighting these scourges. The United Nations and its many bodies need to do better, much better, because the victims of racism need their help. UN officials need to lend an ear to what victims have to say, not just to
representatives of governments, some of which represent the perpetrators of
crimes.”

The WJC was a part of umbrella group the International Jewish Caucus attending the event, comprised of NGO’s from Jewish parties worldwide, including the Jewish Human Rights Council. A spokesman for the JHRC-UK said: “It is a travesty that the UN allows Ahmadinejad to hijack an anti-racism conference in this way. This has endangered, devalued and further delegitimised the entire Durban process. We will be urging all those delegations that left the conference during his speech to seriously reflect on whether or not they continue to participate in the conference.”

Following the ceremony, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu thanked the countries that boycotted the conference and praised the countries whose delegates walked out during Ahmadinejad’s vicious remarks. He said it was his “fervent hope” that this stand “will mark a turning point in this battle and that moral clarity will once again prevail in world affairs”.

He added: “That decision helps restore a measure of sanity in a world in which a conference against racism gives a platform to the head of a regime that denies the Holocaust and openly seeks to perpetrate a new one through the destruction of the Jewish state.”

Closer to home, Conservative and Liberal Democrat politicians voiced their outrage at the UK‘s continued participation in Durban II. Lib Dem Leader Nick Clegg urged Gordon Brown to recall the UK‘s delegation, stating: “Alarm bells in Downing Street should have started ringing when it was announced that President Ahmadinejad was to address the conference. Following President Ahmadinejad’s crass and unfair speech this morning, Gordon Brown should send a signal that this deplorable anti-Semitism is never acceptable and recall our delegation.”

Parliamentary Chairman of Conservative Friends of Israel, James Arbuthnot added: “After months of hesitation, the government made the decision to attend the conference. In light of the fact this year’s conference maintains the same dubious language as Durban 2001, this was undoubtedly the wrong decision. Now that the UK government have finally woken up and walked out, I hope this means they will stay out and boycott the rest of the conference.”

The disruption didn’t hinder the conference’s business at hand, as a final document was adopted on Tuesday. The text of the ratified agreement includes a reaffirmation of the original anti-Israel Durban I document, which had prompted both the US and Israel to walk out of the inaugural 2001 event.

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‘A Giant Among Men’

Former Hendon United Synagogue minister Reverend Leslie Hardman died on Tuesday at the Royal Free Hospital, sparking a flood of tributes from some of the thousands of individuals and organisations he touched through his work in Holocaust education and during his more than seven decades of communal service after the war.

“He lived such a life – it’s almost unbelievable to speak of him in the past tense,” said Chief Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks at a memorial service at Hendon shul on Tuesday. “How can any of us imagine a Hendon Jewish community without him? He was a source of strength for me, as he was for all of us. For me and for so many rabbis he was a role model. In clinging to the tree of life he became a tree of life.”

In entering Belsen on the 17 April 1945, two days after its liberation, Reverend Hardman was greeted by some of the most horrific scenes in history – 13,000 dead bodies lay unburied and most of those that had survived to that date were gravely ill.

The chaplain – described by one survivor as “our Messiah” – comforted whose who had been incarcerated and, as one of only three Jewish soldiers, led the first Hebrew prayer service following the liberation.

Rabbi Sacks, a friend for 35 years, spoke about how Reverend Hardman conducted separate burial ceremonies for 20,000 people at the camp, saying Kaddish for all of them. He added that “it was spiritual leadership on a heroic scale, giving them dignity in death that they had not known in life. You can almost imagine [Reverend Hardman] surrounded by clouds of glory”.

Hardman once told a BBC correspondent: “If all the trees in the world turned into pens, all the waters in the oceans turned into ink and the heavens turned into paper, it would still be insufficient material to describe the horrors these people suffered under the SS.”

But Hardman still worked to teach others about the Nazi era, authoring a book about the horrors he witnessed and talking to audiences across the country about those darkest of days including a moving address earlier this year at the national commemoration of Holocaust Memorial Day.

Lord Janner, Chairman of the Holocaust Educational Trust, said: “It was at the Bergen-Belsen Displaced Persons Camp, on the second anniversary of the camp’s liberation, that I first met the remarkable and greatly respected Reverend Leslie Hardman. As Military Chaplain for the British Army in Germany he was an outstandingly supportive presence in the DP Camp and he did so much to lift the morale of survivors. Reverend Hardman was a long-standing supporter of the Holocaust Educational Trust and we shall miss him greatly.”

Association of Jewish Refugees Chairman Andrew Kaufman said the organisation “sends our sincerest condolences to his family. Like many AJR members, Reverend Leslie Hardman was a witness to the Nazis’ inhumanity. He will always be remembered and honoured for continuing to speak about his experiences at Belsen, which had a profound effect on his life.”

Hardman, who was awarded an MBE in 1998, served as minister of Hendon United Synagogue between 1946 to 1975 as well as as the Hendon Branch Chaplain of the Association of Jewish Ex-Servicemen and Women.

Jeremy Jacobs, new chief executive of the United Synagogue, commented: “Reverend Hardman was a remarkable man and played a leading role in developing Hendon United Synagogue and creating a thriving community. Within the United Synagogue he was one of our most senior and most respected ministers – a man full of compassion who dedicated his life to our community.”

Reverend Malcolm Weisman, senior Jewish chaplain of Her Majesty’s Forces, added:”He was one of the most remarkable people I’ve ever met-a dedicated chaplain and a very inspirational person. I asked him once how he was doing, and he answered ‘I’m getting younger all the time.’”

Jewish News columnist Eric Moonman, a family friend who grew up with Reverend Hardman, added: “He had a gift and the experience to liven up any meeting or conference he attended. He could infuse people to act. My father used to say ‘Leslie Hardman is a mensch and always will be.’”

Reverend Hardman is survived by two daughters, seven grandchildren and 26 great-grandchildren. He lost his wife and another daughter earlier this year. A fourth daughter passed away some years ago.

“Until the last few months of his life he seemed ageless,” said the Chief Rabbi. “The loss of two of his daughters and his beloved wife Josie, to whom he was married for more than seventy years, finally made him long to be reunited with them, but not before he gave a moving address, at the age of 95, at the National Holocaust Memorial Day commemoration in Liverpool earlier this year.”

He added: “He was a great man, a good man, a man who dedicated his long life to the service of others and of God. He will be missed, but never forgotten.”

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‘A new reality’

Expressing hope that the agreement would mark the dawn of a “new reality”, Jerusalem yesterday agreed to an Egyptian-brokered truce which could spell the end to the onslaught which has claimed several innocent lives and could eventually bring about the freeing of Gilad Shalit, the Israeli corporal kidnapped in 2006.

“Thursday will be the beginning we hope of a new reality where Israeli citizens in the south will no longer be on the receiving end of continuous rocket attacks,” government spokesman Mark Regev said. “Israel is giving a serious chance to this Egyptian initiative and we want it to succeed.”

Under the terms of the six-month agreement, which started at 6am local time, there should be an immediate cessation of terrorist activity in Gaza as well as a halt to Israeli military operations. If the ceasefire holds for three days, Israel will then ease its blockade on Gaza to allow in medical and humanitarian supplies and will later ease restrictions on cargo crossings.

Successful implementation of these initial terms will lead, after two weeks, to a second stage of negotiations including talks on opening up the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt and over the release of Shalit.

But as rockets continued to rain down on Israel yesterday, Amos Gilad, head of the Defense Ministry’s Diplomatic-Security Bureau, warned: “If the firing of Kassam rockets continues, it will constitute a violation of the cease-fire, and the IDF is also prepared for this situation, regardless of where the Kassams come from, from Hamas or Islamic Jihad.” He also insisted that the truce did not represent a peace agreement, telling Israel Radio: “There is an understanding that is based on the effectiveness of military activities until now, and the will to stop it. At this point, we are exhausting the possibilities.”

Hamas has pledged to abide by the terms of the agreement as long as Israel does, but frictions emerged early yesterday when the group’s leader Khaled Mashaal insisted talks on Shalit’s release were nothing to do with the ceasefire and part of separate negotiations on prisoner exchanges.
Gordon Brown, speaking during Prime Minister’s Questions yesterday, welcomed the developments. He said: “I think the whole House will be pleased to have heard of the ceasefire that has been announced, thanks to the work of the Egyptians whom I praise, between Hamas and Israel. And that, hopefully, will bring greater peace to Gaza.

“We, Britain, are ready with other countries with an economic plan to underpin a peace settlement but that peace settlement must be based on a security agreement which only the Palestinians and the Israelis should sign and I hope it moves forward quickly.”

But American officials were less encouraged. State Department Deputy spokesman Tom Casey told reporters yesterday that it sill doesn’t take Hamas “out of the terrorism business”. He said: “Saying you have a loaded gun to my head but you are not going to fire it today is far different than taking the gun down, locking it up and saying you’re not going to use it again.”

Although the agreement makes no mention of the West Bank, reports have speculated that the talks could also open up the way for negotiations over the West Bank and with Lebanon and Syria. (The deal could also foster a reconciliation between Hamas in Gaza and Fatah in the West Bank led by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas). He described the truce as “a national interest for our people”.

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Queen praises Wolfson head

The educationalist, who had previously worked at JFS and Rosh Pinah before taking the helm at the Southgate school, was honoured with a special lunch earlier this month at which a series of tributes from leading politicians and community leaders were read out.

A letter from Buckingham Palace to Chair of Governors Howard Cohen said: “The Queen would be glad if you would tell her that Her Majesty has heard with interest of the dedication with which she has served the school during the past sixteen years, and of all that she has been able to achieve in that time.” The letter also said the Queen “sends her good wishes for a long and happy retirement”.

Gordon Brown, meanwhile, wrote: “I have been greatly encouraged to hear of the commitment and vision that you have employed at Wolfson Hillel and would like to commend you for what you have achieved since the school opened in 1992. At Wolfson Hillel you have built up a great school which provides an excellent education for its pupils.” Schools Secretary Ed Balls and Chief Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks were among the others paying tribute to the headteacher, who will return to the school next term to help plant a biblical garden which has been donated by parents of youngsters at the school.

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Felt tips at the ready!

And this year is no different, with another opportunity for your creation to take pride of place on the mantelpieces of communal and political leaders.

After it is turned into the official new year 5768 card for Jewish News parent company Totally PLC, the overall winner’s design will be sent to the likes of Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Chief Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks.

Last year, euphoric Menorah Primary School pupil Yoel Rotenberg emerged victorious from hundreds of entries, telling us: “When I found out that I had won, I shouted and screamed and jumped in the air!”

Like Yoel, this year’s winning entrant, along with two runners-up and their families will be invited to the Ben Uri Gallery, the London Museum of Jewish Art, for a special reception at which their work will be displayed. And our winners will also have an extra sweet start to the new year by receiving art sets and materials provided by Ben Uri.

Jewish News Editor Zeddy Lawrence said: “Each year we feel sure the standard of entries can not possibly match the high standards of those sent in the previous year, and each year we are proved wrong – never has a journalist been so happy to be mistaken. We are proud to be able to give the budding young artists in our midst the opportunity to showcase their talent and look forward once again to deliberating over many fantastic creations.”

Ben Uri Chairman David Glasser added: “Its always a privilege and pleasure to see the natural talents of our budding young artists expressing their feelings for the new year in wonderful and creative ways.” The contest is open to youngsters aged 13 or under on the closing date.

After the closing date of 20 August, entries will be whittled down by a panel of judges including Glasser and Lawrence, with the eventual winner revealed in Rosh Hashanah issue on ? September. Entries should be sent on an A4 sheet of paper to Card Competition, Jewish news, PO Box 34296, London NW5 1TL.On the back, they should write their name, address and phone number, along with their age and school.

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Of Tea Leaves and Prime Ministers

With Gordon Brown having just entered 10 Downing Street, unpredictable forces will undoubtedly come into play. New challenges, crises, opportunities and pitfalls are just around the corner.

When looking at the new Prime Minister through the lens of our own remit at the Board of Deputies – to preserve, protect and defend the interests of British Jewry – it is important to take into account what he has achieved.

As Chancellor, Gordon Brown has presided over a period of growth that many claim has had long-term benefits for the country and for our community’s participation in it. And while economic stability has been good for us throughout the history of the Diaspora, Mr Brown’s own commitment to underpinning it with equity and social justice has been proven to be the right approach time and time again.

He is variously referred to as a ‘friend of the Jews’ and a ‘friend of Israel’. However these words do not adequately express what I have come to see through my personal encounters with him, which is a profound respect for our shared values and the community’s contribution to society. Indeed, in his keynote speech to the Board of Deputies at its recent annual dinner, he spoke of how the concept of tzedakah – as both ‘justice and equity’ resonated with him as a child and underpins his core belief in ‘shared national purpose’ and the notion of ‘civic responsibility’, which are woven throughout his writings.

These are not values he has adopted out of opportunism, but ones which were inculcated early on, when, as he says, he was growing up in a struggling and economically challenged post-war Britain. It was at this time, we learned – again in his speech to the Board – that his admiration for Israel both as an ideal and a reality, was formed, when his father, a Church of Scotland minister who read classical Hebrew and chaired the Church of Scotland’s Israel Committee, returned from his twice yearly trips to Israel, inspired by what the country and the Jewish people had achieved.

It is this same inspiration, I believe – and his ability to see the economic wonder that the Jewish State is – that has led the new Prime Minister to appreciate the necessity for an economic roadmap for Israel and the Middle east – one that will bring about real change and hopefully lay the groundwork for peaceful coexistence.

Domestically, he is committed to combating terrorism and its extremist impulse by improving economic conditions, and through policies aimed at increasing engagement with civic society. He emphasises the importance of community development and social cohesion, areas which are central to the remit of the Department of Communities and Local Government.

However, closer to our own concerns is his assertion – “I commit that never again will the Jewish community have to fight antisemitism alone. The Jewish community do not cause antisemitism and it must not fall on them to have to defeat it.”

He has also condemned without qualification terrorist acts against Israel and boycotts of Israel – “I recoil in revulsion at the prospect of boycotts of Israel and the Israeli academic community”, and we appreciate enormously his unprecedented grant to the Holocaust Educational Trust to enable at least two sixth-formers from every school in the country to visit Auschwitz.

The tea leaves are always difficult to read, and the Board is not a party political animal but, from a parochial point of view, I predict that the new Prime Minister will continue to show his understanding of our concerns and fears. I wish him well.

- Henry Grunwald is President of the Board of Deputies.

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