31 March 2020 - 7 Nisan 5780 - ז' ניסן ה' אלפים תש"פ
One to One Interview
Amikam Levy, Israel's Consul General to Hong Kong and Macau - 'getting the job done'. Print E-mail

Amikam Levy arrived in Hong Kong to take up the post of Consul General of Israel in HKSAR and Macau SAR in September 2008. From 2003 to 2008 he was Head of Regional Administration office for Asia and Africa, titled Ambassador at the Ministry and from 2001 to 2003 he was Ambassador of Israel to Vietnam and Laos. He has spent 35 years in the Foreign Ministry - after leaving the IDF where he reached the rank of Deputy Commander.

He now commands a consulate in this important gateway to mainland China, with a staff of 119, in this tiny place. Amikam Levy speaks highly of Hong Kong, telling that as a place to effect his duties life is just a lot lighter than he has experienced elsewhere.

You wake up in the morning as the head of office in Hong Kong and you want to do something, well you can, you can do it easily, because the environment, because of the facilities, because of the energy here and because of the concept [one country two systems] and mainly because this model works.

The citizens respect the government a lot and the government respects the citizens. At the end of the day the result is a very efficient machine, because it's an international hub and a unique place.

You can really go ahead over a wide range of issues of economy, trade, culture - not politics because this place behaves like an independent country except for two issues, security and foreign relations.

In the Foreign Ministry we work to a yearly plan, together with the head office with timetables, noting all the potential obstacles, the barriers such as human resources limitations, we consider the timing and the possibilities.

Looking back and starting from this November: in the middle of November the secretary of environment Mr Edward Yau Tang-wah will pay an official visit to the State of Israel. He will participate in the WATEC exhibition dealing the environmental technologies, alternative energies, and we have finalised his programme. He will visit the Deputy Foreign Minister, he will visit leaders from the economic sector in Israel, also four leading companies concerned with environmental technologies and he will participate in a very professional panel at the Trade Ministry.

He will meet the electric car and charging station system founder Shai Agassi, who is mounting an effort to make electric cars part of ordinary life in Israel over the next decade. Mr Agassi's organisation is called Project Better Place, and this inventor will try to build 500,000 electric charging stations in the country where attendants will swap out depleted batteries and put in fully charged ones.

Agassi is an Israeli and the bulk of the company's US$200 million in funds comes from investors in Israel. The idea is that the scheme will come to Hong Kong before anywhere else. Edward Yau will meet people from the academic world. He will meet three ministers: of the environment, the Foreign Minister for Justice, also the Deputy Foreign Minister - who is also the president of the biggest company in Israel dealing with environmental technology.

The framework of the visit is to cover the environmental issues connected with water, energy, and clean technologies.

Parallel to that visit we will have the Hong Kong Trade Development Council (HKTDC) visiting Israel. A very senior government official will lead that delegation as fits such a professional trade body and they will participate in WATEC as well.

In between all this, Ambassador Reuven Merhav, former Director General, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and first Israeli Consul General to Hong Kong, will come here. He will give a talk to the community and the Israeli Chamber of Commerce. In the Chamber he will speak of the economy and at the Jewish Community Centre.

On 18 October this year we succeeded in sending to Israel Paul Chan the chief editor of the Ming Pao, the first time in ten years that a journalist of his rank will visit from Hong Kong.

Ming Pao was selected as the most credible Chinese language newspaper as it aims at providing comprehensive and accurate reports on political and economic issues in Hong Kong and mainland China. The Ming Pao is read in China so for us this is an important newspaper.

Paul Chan visited Israel for a week and we provided all the expenses. He met leaders from the Foreign Ministry, from the media at the same level. He saw for himself the south and the north and the Dead Sea area where he could relax. He participated in a presidential conference at the 22 October. He now knows about the situation in Israel on the ground.

Other activities lately completed include a promotion of Dead Sea products - the Dead Sea is the lowest point on earth 427 metres below sea level, it is a most interesting place and I want to let the Chinese know about it. Five companies provided the contents of that exhibition and over 80 local companies and individuals took part. There was a lecture on the Dead Sea and it was clear that a lot of business was being discussed.

Before that we had a special event in co-operation with the Israeli Chamber of Commerce where we managed to create a Jewish Food Festival. This was a first of its kind for us. The Under Secretary for Commerce and Economic Development, Mr Gregory So, was our guest of honour and cut the ribbon.

This proved to be a great platform for Israeli foods where our Chabad, our Chamber, and our consulate co-operated.

There are six communities in all across this territory, four on the Island and two on the Kowloon side. We have a local Jewish population of about 2,500 in Hong Kong.

The festival aimed to introduce Israeli food and culture to the local Chinese and the international community and for the benefit of the Jewish community.

Another activity that is important and that we are working hard to finalise is a cultural Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between Hong Kong and Israel where we declare together our will to co-operate government to government on cultural events. I consider cultural activities high priority as well as the economic and political activities. You cannot say this is the first and this is the second because all these are important.

This is about communication with the government, with the Jewish community.

The reason for our being here is to communicate about economic, political, and cultural matters. It is a privilege to see these matters progress in all these areas. We are agreed in principle, it's just the legal advice and checking drafts now. Soon there will be an official signing ceremony.

In another sphere in the relations between the Israeli and Hong Kong governments we have an agreement on IT and high technology. We have yet to finalise the agreement details on customs and on double taxation.

This November the Chief Information Officer, government of Hong Kong, will go to Israel on behalf of Invest Hong Kong which is a powerful firm headed by Simon Galpin which has a branch in Israel as one of 27 branches across the world. This marks another milestone in the relations between Hong Kong and Israel.

On my trips to and around Macau two aspects of potential business struck me following my observations of certain lacks which lie in the areas of education and medicine.

Now that a calm has come into Israel life I have initiated activities with El Al to promote tourism to Israel. We have held two lunches and briefings and we are informing the travel industry of this new calm - it has not been like this for years. After the Gaza operation the south is quiet. Lebanon is quiet. There is a new government in charge.

(Issue November 2009)

Nimrod Barkan states the case Print E-mail

Late July 2009 expert-level discussions took place between the heads of institutions in Israel and China as part of an ongoing dialogue on research.

The talks centred on the Middle East generally and particularly on the rise of Iran and its influence, and the future of the international order in view of the economic crisis and the rise of China as an economic power.

Asia connection


“This is my first visit to Beijing. My field of expertise is the US and Arab worlds,” says Nimrod Barkan, Director, Policy Research Center, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Jerusalem as he passed through Hong Kong July 17, 2009. Mr. Barkan provided Jewish Times Asia with insights and opinions on political policies.

“We are becoming more and more aware of the significance of Asia, both politically and economically. We have a strategic dialogue with Japan which takes place every six or seven months. A political dialogue with India taking place every year - once in India and once in Israel; and Vietnam has opened an embassy in Israel and we now have dialogue with Vietnam.

“Beyond this there is also the growing economic dimension [to Asia], the end of the civil war in Sri Lanka might be helpful and there other aspects. Unfortunately, we do not have good relations with Indonesia and Malaysia due to their basic orientation, but we are working on that.

“We need to develop the political relationships besides the economic relationship in order to augment the thriving economic relationship.

“As I am travelling so far to Beijing it was considered useful to start the visit in Hong Kong with its unique status in relation to trade with China and heritage.”

The main issues

“There are several issues of interest to us. The core subjects - the potential danger to Israel from Syria and Lebanon - not so much from the Lebanese society but from Iran's arming for Hezbollah. Also, the significance of the split between those in the Palestinian society who want to make peace and those that want to make war, once again, with the encouragement of Iran, and Hamas.

We are very interested in the geo-political situation of the region after the Americans leave Iraq in a year or two from now. More than anything else we would like to explore with the Chinese, the nature of the threat Iran poses to the Middle East and international structures in general, in view of Iran's attempt to change the international order and to posses nuclear weapons.”

Mr Barkan said that on this latter issue there were some slight differences of opinion between Israel and China and he wanted to explore the core of those differences and try to hone understanding so maybe the two parties could find mutual agreement rather than difference, on the Iran issues specifically.

These were the main questions plus the future of the international order in view of the economic crises and the economic rise of China.

Question of credibility

Asked if the Israel government does not give any credibility to the Iranian's statement that they are not developing nuclear weapons Mr Barkan replied: “From a narrow perspective this might be true, as we sit here right now, but the building of a nuclear weapon is a long process that necessitates two stages: first the achievement of the military capability and military planning, and we think that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has posed some very substantive questions to the Iranians about their military plans to which the Iranians have not replied at all. So, we are suspiciousas is the international community.

“There was in Iran a very developed military plan that was attested to by national intelligence estimates of the USA last year. They claimed that when the programme was stopped, in 2003, while we don't dispute this necessarily the issue is, at what stage was this stopped? In our opinion, if it was stopped it was stopped at a stage where it was completed, and they have a military programme.

“The second aspect of the construction of a nuclear weapon is the obtaining of fissionable materials. Iran has opted for the - at least officially - uranium channel, the enrichment of uranium. Iran is energetically engaged in the enrichment of uranium for the time being at the civilian level, which is permissible by the IAEA conditions however there is no logic, no energy logic, for Iran's enrichment of uranium unlike other countries that have energy needs that justifies the trading of such huge quantities uranium for power production.

“The only power plant that will be in operation in Iran, Bushehr, will be fuelled by Russian uranium, they don't need this enriched uranium for Bushehr.

This raises suspicions that the only logic for what they are doing is preparing the groundwork for further enrichment to bring it to the military level.

Not only that, concurrently with the enrichment of uranium Iran is building a research reactor, in Iraq, a heavy water research reactor, which is supposed to be a 50 megawatts research reactor and this is the classic weapons creating plutonium channel.

“There is no real logic behind that beyond the military one. Consequently we think all the evidence including evidence obtained by the IAEA is that the logic of the Iranian programme is military. It is to prepare the groundwork for a bomb.

“We estimate that Iran will enter the threshold stage category in a month or two from now, when it will have obtained sufficient low-enriched uranium to produce a bomb in less that a year and then they will need to enrich to a high level. There are no longer any technological problems facing Iran, it is only a political decision.

“The short summary of this long answer is, the logic of Iran's nuclear programme is only military, there is no civilian logic to it and we believe that while they are not yet combining the fissionable materials under a military programme they are laying the groundwork for doing so. That's why we think we can treat them as a country that is preparing a bomb.”

What needs to be done

A further question was asked as to what Iran can do to allay such fears and to prove that they are not building a bomb?

“Return to full transparency with the IAEA, respond truthfully to those questions that were posed to them by the IAEA, sign - among other things - documents that allow serious and unimpeded control by the EIA over their institutions, and sign additional protocols, mainly on the agreement that allows more intrusive inspections, in order to make sure they are not building a bomb. This particular protocol was created after Iraq was caught cheating by the United Nations Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC), this is an agreement that is full of holes as it only allows inspection at pre-arranged sites and scheduled dates. It does not allow challenge visits, nor other steps that are essential to make sure a country is not cheating. Iran should sign the additional protocols and open itself up to inspections.”

The Qur'an and the bomb

Jewish Times Asia pointed out that some authorities have clearly stated that the Qur'an does not allow Iran to have nuclear weapons and that this means something substantial as it is an Islamic republic.

“Until the elections in Iran we had a stronger belief in the veracity of that statement but when we saw how Iran treated their own institutions and its own decisions, after the elections when they simply carried out a coup d'état and threw out the real results and perceived interests, we could not put a lot of weight on the statements to the fact that there is a Qur'anic law that forbids the bomb.

“We took this very seriously just as we took seriously the fact Iran condemned North Korea's nuclear experiments, but now we have lost all trust in them when we saw how they behaved in recent elections and internal disputes,” ended Mr Barkan.

(Issue September 2009)

Mara Moustafine and the girl in the trench coat Print E-mail

Mara Moustafine is an academic. She is a historian and a former journalist, intelligence officer and diplomat. She is clear that her book, Secrets and Lies - The Harbin Files, is history but it is really so much more.

Her book is the story of her journey, across continents, political systems and through time to uncover the truth of the fate of her family lost behind the Iron Curtain. The start of Mara Moustafine's journey began the day she stole a photograph from her grandmother Gita's drawer.

The photograph, of her grandmother Gita's sister Manya, is described by Moustafine as a portrait of a young woman who was, “worldly-wise and modern. Dressed in an open-necked trench coat, with dark shoulderlength hair…gazing mysteriously into the distance.”

Mara Maoustafine was in fact named in memory of Manya, a common custom of Jews of Eastern European origin. Her family though, living in Harbin, changed her name slightly to attempt to disconnect themselves from the shtetls they had left behind in Russia.

That single photograph was the spark that led Moustafine on a journey that ultimately maps out a complex and hidden lethal conspiracy hidden deep within forgotten Soviet file rooms where secrets seldom escape.

When asked if she regretted opening a Pandora's Box, Moustafine quickly responds with a definitive, “no.” She explains, however, that her mother questioned her decision and asked why she needed to go since she knew what happened there. “They died in the time of Stalin” was never an answer that would satisfy Moustafine.

As Moustafine explains, she was “driven by curiosity and armed with chutzpah.” She also gives quite a bit of credit to fate. She saw that “suddenly the doors of the archives were flung open,” and continues on to say that, “A window of opportunity presented itself and I seized it.” She admits that she likely would not have gotten as far in her search today. Timing was really everything.

Though the portrait of Manya, along with the realisation that so little stood to prevent her and her parents from suffering the same fate as those in her family who unfortunately made the decision to return to Russia, was what sent Moustafine on this journey, the academic in Moustafine took over. Moustafine can't help sprinkling in questions about Manya like: “Did she have a lover? Was she artistic? Was she fat or thin?”

When asked if she at any point considered writing the book from Manya's point of view and allowing her to have a voice and answer these questions Moustafine responds, “I actually have not grown up enough to write fiction. The only voice I have is my own.

This is the truth as I know it and satisfies the academic in me - this is the voice of authenticity.” So as an academic she is methodical in her journey and meticulous with her research.

But, the basic humanity of her subjects creep through as she traces her family's journey from Russia to Harbin where she was born. In Harbin, unlike the shtetls they were confined to under the Russian Tsarist regime, they lived in a mixed community and Jews were afforded freedom and opportunity they had long been denied in the Pale of Settlement. Moustafine's heritage is, as she explains, “a composite” of many cultures.

Her grandparents all came to Harbin and flourished there and escaped the religious and ethnic prosecution they had suffered. “Manchuria gave to minorities of the Tsarist Empire a chance for life without the restrictions that held them back.”

She has two Russian Jewish grandparents on her maternal side. And on her paternal side, she has one Russian Orthodox and one Russian Tartar grandparent.

She refuses to rank her identities and seems to embrace them all. She states, “I am Australian but not born in Australia, from China but not Chinese, Russian but not Russian Orthodox.” Currently she is a Doctoral Research Student at the University of Technology in Sydney working on a project on identity entitled Making Multicultural Australia Project.

This focus on identity and ethnicity is perhaps something she had to grow into, a departure from the world of politics and diplomacy. As she states, “As you get older, you start to looks for roots; where you came from. There is something very special about the Harbin identity. It is not just what I say I am, but a real connection.” She explains that the Harbinsty (Russians from Harbin) collectively are extremely proud of that association “whatever the individual and group hardships we suffered.”

And despite the period of stability, freedom and the respite from pograms and persecution, the safety of life in Harbin though was ruptured by violent struggles between Bolsheviks and White Russians.

The Japanese occupation of China and the Russian-Japanese hostilities put them further at risk and ultimately scattered the already displaced Harbinsty community.

In the mid-1930s, most Jews left Harbin and neighbouring Hailar. Her extended family divided. Some members opted to return to Russia given the uncertainty of their fate in the turbulence of China under occupation.

Whether Soviet or stateless, there were few options open to them and great difficulty relocating elsewhere. Even Shanghai, a seemingly natural choice for many, presented challenges. Harbin, after all, unlike Shanghai, was essentially a Little Russia rather than a bustling international community. Mara Moustafine's parents struggled but chose to remain in China. They ultimately were able to immigrate to Australia.

Those that returned to Russia, her family along with the other former Harbinsty, were arrested and charged as Japanese spies. They all suffered similar fates: forced confessions or torture, followed by years in the gulag where chances for survival were slim. The others were executed. Moustafine's research uncovered the documents and signed confessions that condemned her family one by one. She further uncovered Soviet documents that summarily condemned the entire Harbinsty community.

Moustafine interestingly quotes Joseph Stalin. “One death is a tragedy; one million is a statistic.” Stalin's quote and that single photograph of Manya merge and create a force. Moustafine was set on separating her family from the statistic.

While the history of not only her family but of the history of the Jews of Harbin and the history of the victims of Stalin's purges are preserved in Secrets and Lies, it is the voices of her family that emanate in their struggles. Manya, though still shrouded in mystery, becomes real. Mara Moustafine's greatgrandmother Chesna becomes heroic and grows to mythic proportions.

Following gruelling years in the gulag, losses too great to count and the political executions of her husband and children, Chesna continued to fi ght for her own rehabilitation and the posthumous rehabilitation of her family members. She summarises her struggles by simply stating, “A human being is stronger than stone.”

While Moustafine will never have answers to all of her questions and she will never know if Manya had a lover or other secrets of the soul, she is able to say, “I know a hell of a lot more than when I started. History doesn't stand around waiting for you but it will meet you halfway.”

(Issue May 2009)

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