Tags: madame ambassador | israeli diplomat | tova herzl

Behind the Scenes with a Candid Israeli Diplomat: Excerpt from 'Madame Ambassador'

Thursday, 15 January 2015 02:06 PM

Excerpt from the book Madame Ambassador: Behind the Scenes with a Candid Israeli Diplomat by Tova Herzl

My plans to celebrate my fiftieth birthday were derailed by the murder of my niece.

December 29 is in the middle of the southern hemisphere summer. In 2002, it fell on Sunday. That afternoon, more than a hundred people would come to the embassy’s apartment in Cape Town; we would party into the night. I would invite friends and professional contacts who lived there and others from around the country who vacationed at the coast. My two sisters, Sarah and Miriam, would travel from Israel to the city of our adolescence. It was clear and detailed in my mind, but it was not to be.

On Wednesday afternoon, June 19, Israeli news on my computer in Pretoria reported a “hot terrorist alert in Jerusalem.” At the time, the height of the second Palestinian intifada, such terminology from intelligence sources was all too familiar. It meant that a human bomb had infiltrated the city, heralding a race between being located and blowing up.

I drove to a Jewish event in Johannesburg. Someone told me about a suicide murder at French Hill Junction in Jerusalem a little earlier, with several dead. A day before, nineteen people were killed on bus number 32, and conversations during pre-dinner mingling were somber. Only after we were seated did I notice something unusual: If I did not contact my family in Jerusalem after a bomb, someone would routinely call to reassure me. A few hours had passed; there had been no contact.

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As prayers were being said for Israel’s welfare in those harsh times, I tried to speak to my mother, remembered that she had gone to a wedding, and called my sister Sarah. Her seventeen-year-old son answered. Is everything in order, I whispered. Not sure, he said (years later, I get the same goose bumps when I recall his words). His sister Michal, twenty-two, returning home from her last day of college, chanced to be where the bomb exploded and is not answering her phone. His parents had gone to look for her in hospitals. More whispered calls elicited the same.

I explained the situation to my neighbors at the head table, asked them not to disrupt the proceedings, and got up to return to my big, empty house in Pretoria.

From the car during the half-hour drive, I called Malcolm Ferguson, a Middle East expert in the South African Foreign Ministry. During a year and a half of working together, we had become friends. The second call was to Daniel Pinhassi, my deputy, then returning from a short family vacation. Both came to the house. Others trickled in. All tried to calm me, comfort me, feed me.

It was a long Thursday at home in Pretoria, waiting for an evening flight via Switzerland. Shivering in shock, covered in a blanket, I met a visiting Israeli official in the small downstairs study. My mind an automaton, I described pertinent issues and responded to his questions (but did not join him, as planned, for his meetings with local officials).

I remained with my family in Jerusalem for two weeks. It would have been hard to go back alone, even to a supportive environment. In South Africa, it was insufferable.

As was my practice, I spent a few hours skimming newspapers that had accumulated in my absence. In one, “bereaved” headlined a short report with a photo of me, grinning. I had been photographed numerous times; there were other options. Did the editorial choice reflect bad taste? Amateur journalism? An odd sense of humor? Perhaps deliberate dehumanization of Israelis, portraying us as perpetrators, never as victims?

People in pain may demand too much sensitivity or expect unreasonable attention. Even with long hindsight, I am sure that this was not my case then.

I received many touching letters of condolence from Jews and Jewish organizations, private South Africans, colleagues, and members of the opposition. The government, which takes pains to acknowledge officially the suffering of both sides, more or less ignored the loss of the closest I had to my own child.

A letter from the deputy foreign minister who was responsible for South Africa’s dealings with the Middle East arrived five weeks after the event, apologizing that the original had been mislaid. The chairman of the foreign affairs committee also wrote, and there was one more letter from a member of the ruling party. At the French Bastille Day celebration soon after my return, the vice president’s foreign policy adviser expressed his sympathy. That was all.

A month after the tragedy, a journalist-friend invited me to lunch. A senior Palestinian representative who sat at the next table came over, stretched out his hand, and expressed sympathy. His lunch companions, a table of local officials with whom I worked regularly, did not move.

Some time later, I paid a call on the premier of one of South Africa’s nine provinces. She drew the usual comparison with the blacks’ struggle against the white regime and insisted that like them, Palestinians would never target civilians. When I answered that my niece had been killed by the al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, established and funded by Yasser Arafat’s Fatah, she responded that she doubted it. That they took public credit for the action and compensated the perpetrator’s family was not enough to sway her.

For the remaining eighteen months of my tour, I continued to live and work among people who ignored my loss. It was difficult for me not to imagine South African responses had a close relative of an Arab ambassador been killed by Israelis.

A professional, I did what I had to do. I had meetings, went to receptions, entertained, and kept my feelings to myself. With one exception—I met a grief therapist. I let down my guard, spoke freely, cried a little. As I was ready to leave her clinic, she told me how pleased South African Jews are with me as Israel’s ambassador. She was showing kindness, but at that moment it seemed to me that she could not separate me from my job, was unable to see me as an ordinary person in pain. I did not return.

My niece’s murder was political; my job was political. That intersection was an extreme example of how diplomats shift from who they are to what they represent, zigzagging between self and duty. But even in less dramatic transitions, when a diplomat marks life-cycle events, the delineations between private person and official persona are vaguer than usual.

Take gifts. I try (but do not always succeed) to avoid the impersonality of writing checks. A gift certificate sends the recipient to a shop chosen by someone else. Selecting the right something is time-consuming. Unless one knows the recipient well, it is difficult to be sure that the choice is appropriate.

As a diplomat, giving presents has added complications. Say an invitation to a celebration comes from people who are not close, and it’s obvious that they are motivated by my name-dropping appeal. For whatever reason, I decide to attend. Must I bring something? Having given what they really want—my presence—should I give less than usual? Maybe give more, as befits my status?

I found a solution. Long before Israel’s establishment, the Jewish National Fund (JNF) worked to counter centuries of desertification. It maintains parks, develops nature walks, and plants trees. To raise money, it sells virtual trees—as few as one, as many as a forest.

True, a normal thirteen-year-old celebrating his bar mitzvah would prefer cash, maybe credit at a music store. Still, I felt that a certificate for trees, with the celebrant’s name and mine printed on it, was suitable. How many trees? Easy. Hebrew letters have numerical value. The number 18 is “chai,” life. Multiples of that are common; hence donations in sums like 36 or 900 are often made to charity, rather than a round 35 or 1,000.

When the first child was born to the King of Lesotho, I honored the little princess with a certificate for eighteen trees. Given land problems in rural Africa, I assumed that my cover letter explaining the JNF’s objectives and its actions would make the gift more relevant than a toy. I was disappointed to not receive a response.

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Nor did former President Nelson Mandela acknowledge my eightyfifth birthday gift to him. Bono, former U.S. president Clinton, thousands of Mandela’s closest friends, and I went to his party. I brought a slim book of poems that my mother wrote before, during, and after the Holocaust, and published in her seventies. I included a note about the strength of the human spirit, as reflected in his life, and hers.

Yes, it was work, a duty. But a person who invested thought and effort expects this small politeness, an acknowledgment.

In this perpetually divided self, of who I am and what I do, professional responsibility could clash with personal wishes. Boys were born to two Israeli diplomats during my South African tour. Circumcision must be on the eighth day, and it is traditionally performed in the morning. The babies’ parents, living far from their families and friends, wanted to share the event with colleagues.

They included embassy security, whose absence from the office means opening the embassy late. Whoever phoned the embassy before coming would hear a recorded message announcing the delayed opening. What about someone who came to the embassy according to the normal schedule, only to find a closed door and consular services unavailable? We did not have hundreds or even dozens of daily visitors, but public service is just that, service. I ignored strong pressures exerted by my conscience, favored people’s needs, and I allowed the embassy to open late.

Moving from birth to death, let me mention two colleagues who died in the line of duty.

David Ben-Rafael, a close friend, served in London and Chicago and became the Deputy Ambassador of Israel to Argentina. He was one of twenty-eight Argentinean and Israeli victims of a car bomb that destroyed the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires in 1992. For weeks afterward, the cafeteria of the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem was stunned into silence. To the shock and sorrow was added a frightening thought: It could have happened to any one of us; it could have happened to me. As ambassador to Latvia, I was also responsible for Estonia. Until he left in 1994, American Ambassador Robert Frasure and I overlapped for a year. He was generous with his time and his knowledge, and I tried to see him on every trip to the capital, Tallinn. His subsequent duties in the State Department included negotiating in Bosnia. In 1995, he was killed with two other Americans when their vehicle, circumventing a blocked highway near Sarajevo, plunged into a ravine.

These fatalities touched me deeply. But most work-related deaths are just that—work. I was in Pretoria when former President Nixon died. The American Embassy sent a note announcing the times when diplomats and sympathetic locals could come to sign a condolence book.

I formulated a text, focusing on Nixon’s role in supplying Israel with emergency equipment during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, and naturally ignored any scandal associated with him. I drove to the American Embassy and meticulously copied my carefully considered words into a special thick, black book. It was placed on a black tablecloth covering a small table, which also had a photo of the deceased, with a slanted black ribbon across the corner. As I wrote in the volume, which would soon be sent to America, I knew that other than perhaps a curious staffer in the embassy, no one would ever glance at those sentences.

Attending funerals is also part of diplomatic duty. Walter Sisulu died in 2003, aged ninety-one. He had been a leader in South Africa’s liberation struggle. Several members of his family went on to hold important positions after apartheid. It was said that political prisoners on Robben Island turned to Mandela with their problems, and Mandela turned to Sisulu.

I had visited him at his home in Johannesburg a year or two earlier and had found him frail but alert. He told me about a longish visit to Israel in 1953, en route to Europe. That sojourn in my country did not appear in the postmortem reports of his travels—apparently the officials who provided the data for his obituary wanted it to be politically correct, and Israel did not qualify.

Sisulu had no official role, but in recognition of his place in South Africa’s history, there was a “special official funeral” in Pretoria’s City Hall, and ambassadors were invited. At the scheduled time, I was supposed to meet Moeletsi Mbeki, an academic, businessman, brother of South Africa’s president, and critic of his policies. Their father, Govan, was a contemporary of the deceased.

Might Moeletsi go to the funeral? Better not to ask directly; there may be sensitivities among the Mbekis or between the two families. Instead, my secretary contacted his office for a routine confirmation, which was given. Aha! Suspicion confirmed! There is a grievance somewhere! My deputy Daniel would therefore represent us at the funeral. I arrived in Mbeki’s Johannesburg office on schedule and was not entirely surprised to discover that he was not there, as he had gone to Pretoria to pay his respects.

Daniel had an interesting experience at the funeral, designed to celebrate a life rather than mourn it. He reveled in the singing and dancing (“you should have seen Madame Foreign Minister move!”). And I never did meet Moeletsi Mbeki.

The mourning Sisulus would receive comforters for seven days. This was similar to the Jewish custom whereby immediate relatives—spouse, children, siblings, parents—sit shiva, meaning seven. Sisulu’s widow, Albertina, had welcomed me kindly when I visited her husband. I traveled from Pretoria to Johannesburg to express my condolences. About eightyfive then, she was resting. I waited among neighbors and struggle veterans, and I left without meeting her.

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By coincidence, I was at the November 1995 funeral of my murdered Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin. I flew from Riga to Israel for my nephew’s bar mitzvah. It was celebrated in Jerusalem on Saturday morning. That evening, after a peace rally in Tel Aviv, Rabin’s life was ended by Yigal Amir, who objected to Rabin’s actions on the peace process.

Jews bury quickly; the funeral was on Monday. Delegations from about eighty countries came. More than half were headed by a king, a president, or a prime minister. To make room for them, tourists were herded from their hotels to simpler or more remote hostelries. Hundreds of buses were hired. I never lend a blue baseball cap distributed there, evidence not just of an unusually warm winter day but also of the detailed planning that went into organizing the event at short notice.

Among those who paid respects in person were the prime ministers of Latvia and Lithuania and the President of Estonia. He was the most senior of the three; I was asked to accompany him. The entire proceeding was weirdly jarring. On one hand, the numbing political murder. On the other, the ordinariness of escorting a foreign dignitary. It was somber yet exciting, and it felt like a giant cocktail party, with spontaneous mingling in hotels, at the reception that Israel’s President Ezer Weizman hosted for visiting delegations, and during the funeral itself.

The King of Jordan, the President of the United States, his counterpart from Egypt, and the heir to the British throne all received much media attention. Others had little. Estonia’s Lennart Meri had an unusual knack for publicity. In this case, he had to sign a law, and he did it by fax. That was a first for Estonia, and the novelty became news there but also in Israel and elsewhere, giving reporters and readers a break from the morbidity.

For a few days, Rabin’s murder had a special angle in Riga. It emerged that the murderer had been in Latvia for several months in 1992. As soon as it became possible, Nativ, an Israeli government structure that deals with Soviet Jewry and was then still covert, dispatched young Israelis to the nascent republics, to imbue and enthuse local Jews. Among them was Amir.

Latvian journalists noticed press reports that the assassin had been an emissary of some official but indeterminate Israeli body, and they demanded to know if he had been sent to spy on Latvia. At the request of the Latvian Foreign Ministry, I wrote a letter categorically—and truthfully— denying any activity beyond working with youth. I will also admit to backdating that letter by a day or two in order to make the official who asked me seem as alert as his country’s press.

Several years after the Rabin murder, I traveled from Washington for another family bar mitzvah. A beloved relative died during that short trip, and I could attend his funeral, adding sadness to the joy. Those short roller-coaster days showcased one of the difficulties of living and working abroad. Being at major life events demands travel. It is expensive and disrupts work.

Work is why I missed the wedding of my first niece to marry. The timing was bad—it was at the height of the Phalcon crisis, and there was a lot of pressure in the office in Washington. When two years later her cousin was murdered, I did not consider delaying my trip. Since then, when people mention the cost or the effort of going to a celebration, I ask, if it were a funeral, or to visit a deathbed, would you go? Invariably, they would.

Isn’t it odd, and sad, that this is what we people do? That we do not hesitate for sorrow, but think twice for joy?

Then I tell them about my nieces and urge them—and you—to invest in happiness.

From Madame Ambassador: Behind the Scenes with a Candid Israeli Diplomat by Tova Herzl. Copyright © Rowman & Littlefield. Used by arrangement with the publisher. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or printed without permission in writing from the publisher.

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My plans to celebrate my fiftieth birthday were derailed by the murder of my niece.
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Thursday, 15 January 2015 02:06 PM
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