Sunday, October 4, 2015

Tova Herzl's Madame Ambassador

Tova Herzl's fun new memoir Madame Ambassador - Behind the Scenes with a Candid Israeli Diplomat, intended to answer three questions. What do diplomats do when they go to the office (explicit question), Are Israeli diplomats any different (explicit), and What did she do (implied question). Along the way she also answered two questions of mine (one explicit, the other implied).

Full disclosure: Tova and I have known each other since we trained as tourist guides together, many years ago. How many? Lots. Neither of us had launched our professional careers at the time, and look, Tova has already written a fine memoir about hers. At one point in her memoir, however, she talks about how being a transient diplomat means loosing contact with many second-tier friends, which is kind of generous of her, since the losing of social ties can be a mutual activity, even when one doesn't keep changing countries. Still, for all our travels and travails, we're still in touch, and I watched Tova struggle to find her voice in writing this book, and occasionally made what were probably unhelpful comments about this section or that. All the more reason, then, to tell of my delight when I finally sat down and read it, cover to cover.

So what do diplomats do? They work hard, apparently, and none of us ever give them much thought. They apparently need to know just about everything on the land they serve in, and the land they serve, and make as many useful connections as possible. They're required to smooth all interactions between both sides, so that a crass but acceptable joke made by one non-diplomat doesn't ruffle too may feathers of the other side. They need to ascertain the visiting politician doesn't get stuck in traffic, and that their own elected leaders understand how their actions will be seen by the locals they're interacting with. They need to know which idiotic local journalists need to be slapped on the wrist and which should be shrugged off. How to dress for which social event, and what needs to be achieved there (and what not). How to relate to all the other diplomats in town, some who are friendly and supportive, others anything but. They deal with economics, trade, and development, culture, politics, sport and science.

They need to do this intensively, then pick up and move elsewhere and start all over again in a new context. Moves which carry with them much promise and new opportunities, but also the jettisoning of significant baggage from the previous chapter. Unlike software coders or social media marketers, ultra-sound operators or bloggers, none of whom existed 50 years ago (OK, a handful of coders calling themselves programmers did already exist), diplomats have been around for centuries. All the more startling, then, that such a Diplomacy for Dummies handbook hasn't been written until now; if you read it, it's reasonable the knowledge you'll acquire will still be up to date after you complete the reading.

Are Israeli diplomats different? Any universal story must be grounded in the particular before it can be of general interest; any diplomat must represent some country in some other country. Yet Tova's story does have particular Jewish and Israeli and Arab parts. Being the daughter of Holocaust survivors representing Israel in the Baltic states, for example. Burying Michal Franklin, a beloved niece murdered by a Palestinian suicide murderer in 2002, while representing Israel to an overtly pro-Palestinian South African regime and society. Balancing the positions of the Jewish State and the local Jews. Visiting an Arab ambassador of Israel in a nearby country, however, was a welcome respite, as he kept kosher, as part of his understanding of his job. So there was that.

The book is organized in a series of short topical chapters: presenting credentials, working the media, life with a bodyguard, using the diplomatic post and so on. (Interestingly, there's nary a word about any sort of intelligence matters. Maybe there weren't any). Yet as we progress, it's also a memoir, giving us Tova's personal story, which is interesting as any Israeli active in the first century of the Jewish return to history.

Then there were my two questions. Right before the end of the book, Tova tells of her friend Yaacov who wondered if an Israeli who knew the language and closely followed all the electronic media couldn't know as much about the country without having to be an ambassador; perhaps the entire profession has become an anachronism? Tova's specific response is unconvincing: she tells how much she knows about Israel which a distant Hebrew-speaking observer would miss out on: that wasn't my question. There are many non-Hebrew-speaking diplomats in Israel who are no better educated about us than distant Hebrew-speakers. Yet coming as it does at the tail-end of the book, her specific response isn't necessary. The entire book has by that stage refuted the assumption of my question. It turns out that diplomats do a real job, and if you're interested, this book will demonstrate what it is.

It has also answered a question I've been toying with for a number of years - first formulated, by the way, by Tova herself: Might I wish to be an ambassador? Some ambassadorial posts go not to career diplomats but to others. There are about two of them which I might, at least conceivably, have a shot at if I really wished, given my rank, qualifications and connections.

It would mean doing the job she has described so well, parts of which I would like and parts, not at all. Just like real life. It would also mean additional years of not speaking my own mind, and of representing the system. This is hard enough where I'm currently at, and would be too tedious to try anew anywhere else. That' however, is a subject for another day.


Paul M said...

Looking forward to the day you can return to speaking your mind again. It's good to read what you feel still free to write, but I miss your old blogging.

David Gruber said...

I second what Paul M. has said above!