NEW YORK — The Times of Israel’s inaugural Gala here Sunday night mixed tributes to some of Israel’s fallen with accolades for some of Israel’s pioneers, added a measure of celebrity stardust, and topped it with a twist of subtly biting politics from a former president. It made for a heady concoction that packed the ballroom at the Waldorf Astoria.
The evening began with a reception where guests and celebrities posed in sometimes improbable combinations — models and actresses and presidents and innovators — with the star of the show, former president Shimon Peres, usually at center. It can’t be that often that supermodel Bar Refaeli stands to one side of a photograph, but she did to pose alongside Peres, with Wonder Woman Gal Gadot on the former president’s other side.
If Gadot towered over Peres, he towered over Dr. Ruth Westheimer, who waited patiently for her picture with the president, in deference to his seniority: He is 91, she a youngster of 86.
When the 1,200-strong crowd moved into the ballroom, the opening section of the Gala, entitled “Telling Israel’s Story,” turned far more serious.
Evie and Max Steinberg, parents of lone soldier Max, killed fighting with the Golani Brigade in Gaza last summer, delivered a moving appreciation of their son.
They also hailed the outpouring of love and support they had received from Israel and from the US Jewish community.
Rimal Saif, whose husband Zidan was shot dead by terrorists when he rushed to respond to the Har Nof synagogue attack last November, delivered a tearful speech in his honor, in Hebrew, to a spellbound audience. Her final paragraph, pledging a “blood covenant” between the Druze and Jewish communities, was then translated for the audience by Alexander Chester. Alexander and wife Jennifer named their newborn son after Zidan when they heard of his death; all were on stage together. Also on stage a little later was Akiva Pollack, the first MDA medic at the scene of the attack, whom Saif protected at fatal cost.
A tribute was also paid by the One Family Fund’s Marc Belzberg to the families of the three Israeli teenagers murdered by Hamas terrorists in the West Bank last June.
As the evening continued, the tone shifted, first to a certain amount of star-gazing, as the crowds swirled around the top table where Peres, Refaeli and other headliners were seated — with guests more than ready to let their dinner get cold for the chance to snap a selfie somewhere in the vicinity of the VIPs. (Refaeli slipped away soon after.)
Then came the second half of the event, highlighting the achievements and contributions of those, as Times of Israel Editor David Horovitz described them, “who insist that Israel thrive amid the challenges.”
Among those feted were Meira Abulafia, the chair of the IsraAid humanitarian relief organization; jurist and advocate for Israel Alan Dershowitz — who slammed “pro-Israel professors” on US campuses for not raising their voices against the demonization of Israel; Iron Dome project chief Danny Gold, whose interceptors prevented the devastation of Israel by Hamas rockets last summer; Kira Radinsky, a 26-year-old pioneer of predictive analytics who is building algorithms to predict patterns in world events, notably in global health and political unrest; and the evening’s final honoree, Gal Gadot, who was introduced by Israel’s two leading New York-based diplomats, Ido Aharoni (consul general in New York) and Ron Prosor (ambassador to the UN).
Evidently feeling thoroughly at home in a crowd that included a fair number of Israelis, Prosor threw in a brief Shimon Peres impersonation.
Earlier, the real Peres had offered an insistently optimistic take on world affairs, during an on-stage interview with ToI’s Horovitz.
Not for the first time taking a very different stance from that of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Peres eschewed Netanyahu-esque pleas to European Jewry to dash to Israel, and instead urged “every Jew who wants to come to Israel to please come… Don’t come to Israel because of a political position, but because you want to come and live in Israel. Israel must remain a land of hope and not a land of fear.”
In similar vein — stressing hope, and differing from Netanyahu (though without naming him) — Peres reiterated his respect for President Barack Obama, and argued that no country alone could thwart Iran, but also that the regime would not last forever. “I don’t think that any single country can stop Iran from having bombs. President Obama, who I have the highest respect for, said that we have to put all the options on the table, but I suggest that we should not start with the shooting option, but with the option of sanctions and political pressure,” he said.
“The idea that Iran is forever doesn’t hold water, in my judgment,” Peres added, referring to the current regime in Tehran. “Iran too will change. You cannot have the ayatollahs as the eternal government.” All kinds of factors, including pressure for reform from young Iranians, would spell the demise of the regime, he predicted: “In 10-15 years, Iran will be out of water and thus out of ayatollahs, in my judgment.”
Peres praised the Gala’s organizers for hosting “a group of Israelis that represent the future… These men and women represent the promise of Israel from all facets of life: science, movies, technology, athletics, music…”
The Gala marked the three-year anniversary of The Times of Israel, which launched in English on February 14, 2012. It is the fastest-growing such site in the Jewish world, with what Horovitz said are “millions and millions” of monthly unique users. ToI also now publishes in French, Arabic and Chinese.
Horovitz also announced the introduction of Times of Israel Local — a new initiative aimed at established Jewish weeklies in the US and beyond, for whom ToI will “provide an online home,” he said, “to bring their content to a wider readership, allying local Jewish reporting to our wider coverage.” The first newspaper to partner in the venture is the Jewish Standard of New Jersey.