They Speak For Us?? by Judy Lash Balint Israel National news Radio
February 14, 2002
Earlier this week, the Israeli Foreign Ministry workers' committee voted to empower the Histadrut to declare a work dispute on its behalf. The workers are upset over a proposed reduction in overtime. In other committee action, the workers, with time on their hands, passed a resolution stating that they refused to move into the new custom-built, Foreign Ministry building that's just about ready for occupancy.
These moves are only the latest indicators of certain attitudes that seems to prevail among the people charged with presenting Israel's face to the world.
Israel's Foreign Ministry employs 1,000 workers, 500 in Israel and 500 scattered in embassies and consulates throughout the world. It's the Foreign Ministry that oversees our much-maligned public information campaign from its primitive headquarters just down the street from the flashy International Conference Center. Under control of Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, who doesn't quite see eye to eye with Prime Minister Arik Sharon on policy at the moment, some foreign ministry employees are charged with representing Israel's case to the media and the public here and abroad.
Just like in the British Foreign Office and the US State department, Israeli Foreign Ministry employees are career lifers. They don't change with new administrations, they generally stay put in their offices until they retire. Gideon Meir, the head of the Information Division, rarely misses an opportunity to proudly declare at conferences that he's been at the FM for 30 years. The implication is quite clear--don't think that YOU can tell ME anything about how to do hasbara.
Alan Baker, FM legal advisor, runs a close second to Meir in seniority. The British born lawyer has served the FM since 1979. Most recently, he's been in the limelight as Arik Sharon's defender against the move to prosecute the prime minister for war crimes in Belgium. Just a few months back, the soft spoken, decidedly uncharismatic Baker ended up being Israel's front man at the notorious UN conference in Durban, after the delegation's leaders staged a protest walk out. In a public review of the event several months later, Baker, a self-described "practitioner," explained Israel's underdog status at the conference. "FM appointees are by definition not passionate ideologues like their Palestinian counterparts." The statement speaks volumes about the attitude prevailing in Israeli civil service circles. What has happened to passionate ideology--and why is it accepted and expected of Palestinians and not Israelis?
A younger FM employee, Noam Katz, deputy spokesperson in the "prees" division, as it states on his business card (we can't afford to reprint them, he explains,) has come to the conclusion that "we'll never convince anyone that occupation is good, or that settlements should be supported." We should just accept that "our policy is perceived by the outside world as not just."
Then there's Deputy Foreign Minister Rabbi Michael Melchior, a relative newcomer to the world of the FM. Melchior is very concerned these days about the nasty resurgence of anti-Semitism. After the shock began to wear off after the virulent expressions of Jew hatred exhibited at Durban, Melchior spent considerable time and energy forming International Forum Against Anti-Semitism. After recruiting top-flight international human rights campaigners with impeccable credentials, he brought them to Jerusalem for a public launch of the Forum. Only problem was that when asked by several journalists present for specific plans or the names of others who had signed on to be part of the Forum, Melchior admitted that he could provide neither.
What about FM representation around the globe? In budget cutting moves, twenty embassies are slated for closure in the near future. Pity the poor Ambassador from Paraguay--he arrived here just a few months ago. Now it looks like he'll have to turn around and go home, because there won't be an Israeli Embassy in his country much longer. This despite the Ambassador’s goal of increasing Paraguay-Israel trade 15 fold over the next three years. In a strange twist of priorities, the Bolivian embassy will stay open—due to the large number of Israeli backpackers who get in trouble in the country each year.
In London, the Israeli embassy public affairs officer sent out notice of an upcoming education series at a suburban London synagogue by attaching a 5MB file to his e-mail message. Most servers rejected the file that took 20 minutes to download, and several angry recipients sent nasty notes to the Embassy. One of the scheduled speakers at the synagogue event was an Israeli diplomat who had served at the UN. One British Jew, who had encountered the speaker in his community, questioned the choice, writing: "He has the unusual ability to contradict himself within the same sentence and continue unabashed throughout a long unimpressive speech. His analyses rivaled the perversity of even the BBC and we were left wondering with what intention he was appointed as a diplomat to the UN. To confuse the enemy perhaps?"
According to one London source, the Israeli embassy's computer crashed last year without any back up of the media distribution lists used to disseminate news releases and statements. Since then, the Embassy is allegedly using old lists. The same source complained that the annual Yom Ha’atzmaut Ambassador’s reception is segregated. Non-Jewish leaders, Members of Parliament and journalists attend one reception whilst the Jews have a separate one. Thus, instead of the Zionists exerting some influence, they are excluded. When the matter was brought to the attention of the person responsible for the invitations, the official's response was that he had not really given it any thought.
Meantime, back in the USA, consul generals are not receiving rave reviews either. In Chicago, the recently appointed Consul General, Moshe Ram, gave an interview to the Chicago Jewish News where he said, "No one in Israel has the slightest doubt that eventually there will be a Palestinian state."
As one prominent member of Chicago's Jewish community noted: "Many pols in Israel have said the same thing. However, government policy of the State of Israel, which is his duty to represent, is that this is a final status issue to be negotiated between the parties. Instead of the Consul General talking about Jewish rights, historic homeland, and the Zionist dream, he's talking about a Palestinian State. "
Out west, reaction in some quarters has not been much better. One Seattle businessman described a speech by the Israeli Consul based in San Francisco as "pitiful, totally unconvincing. He gave a semi-apologetic defense of Israeli policies to defend her citizens." The Jewish community leader complained that the Consul could not answer audience questions, and provided no concrete ideas for improving Israel's image to the committed audience waiting for direction.
Perhaps the most bizarre incidence of consulate complacency may be seen from an incident in Los Angeles. Operation Ezekiel, a blatantly messianic missionary group, put out a news release about a February conference in North Hollywood, which included the information that the itinerary would include a "Special leaders debriefing luncheon with a representative from the Israeli Consulate in Los Angeles." Calling the consulate to confirm their participation, this reporter was asked to stay on hold while confirmation was sought. A few minutes later, a flustered employee responded that while the consulate had received an invitation to the event, they had not yet decided whether or not to accept since research was being conducted to determine the nature of the group. Just a one second click to Ezekiel's website reveals on the home page that the group's mission is to target Israeli émigrés in the LA area. No further research is required than a glance at the list of invited speakers--"Israeli Messianic Jewish leaders from Jerusalem."
Perhaps it's not such a bad idea after all that so many embassies and consulates are scheduled for closure.