Some 30 years after leaving the Woodside neighborhood of Queens, where his best friends were Chinese and Irish Americans, Yehuda Yaakov returned to the US East Coast this week to take up his job as Israel’s consul-general in Boston.
Yaakov, who entered the Foreign Ministry in the cadets class of 1989, which included future ambassador to the US and deputy foreign minister Danny Ayalon, has spent the last decade dealing – in one way or another – with the Iranian portfolio.
“You don’t know how much I am looking forward to leaving the Iran issue, to pledge allegiance to the Red Sox nation, to go to the most beautiful region in America, to go to the most European of all US cities,” he said in an interview last week, before leaving for his new job.
But being the consul-general in Boston is not all golden Autumn leaves and Fenway Park, where the Boston Red Sox play baseball, it is being responsible for the region where some of America’s most prestigious universities are located, and with them – of course – BDS activists and activism.
“We are going to have to deal with the challenges,” said Yaakov, adding that this means having “antennas up and ears to the ground” to be able to discern what boycott and divestment moves are afoot.
The BDS movement in the US is not, at the moment, at the level it is in Europe, he said, and to make sure it does not develop there is a need to “delegitimize the delegitimization efforts.”
This may be less problematic in New England than elsewhere, because New Englanders have a “high moral sense,” he said. “When talking about a country making a sincere effort to reach a peace agreement while taking into account its genuine security challenges, I think that people can be prevailed upon to understand the dilemmas here.”
According to Yaakov, the American public is not going to pick up and “run away” from Israel.
“Israel has for decades been an integral part of the US cultural fabric,” said Yaakov, who earned a journalism and international relations degree from Syracuse University before making aliya in 1983. “The friendship is very robust, and a move from friendship to boycott is not something people will jump at that quickly.”
Yaakov’s new job in Boston will be his second stint in the ministry in the US, having served under Alon Pinkas at the consulate in New York from 1997 to 2001 as the spokesman, including during the first weeks of the second intifada, when he faced dozens of protests in front of his office.
But even during that period, which he said was “horrible” at times, as Israel was bombarded by criticism because of the Muhammad al-Dura incident, Yaakov said the majority of the US public “still saw Israel’s point of view. Throughout that period, the critical mass of the American public was understanding, if not sympathetic, to Israel’s challenges.”
That, he said, is also the case today, adding that he believes the biggest problem is not a lack of understanding for Israel, but rather growing apathy toward Israel. “People are less interested,” he said. “It is important for us that people are interested.” One of his tasks, he said, will be to stoke their enthusiasm.
Yaakov’s own interest in Israel came from his home.
His father was a member of the Bene Israel community in India before leaving for the US in the 1950s. Yaakov did not go to Jewish day school and “never heard of the Jewish Agency,” but he did go to a summer camp in Israel and had his bar mitzva in the Jewish state.
After university and a couple of years freelancing and working for AP – mostly covering sports in Syracuse, New York – he went to Kibbutz Alonim in the Jezreel Valley.
From there it was into the army, where he served in the Golani Brigade for 18-months, from 1983 to1984, during the First Lebanon War.
After the army he worked at the Government Press Office, before joining the Foreign Service – one of 12 people selected out of some 2,500 applicants.
He was motivated to join, in part, he said, because one of his bosses at the time at the Government Press Office introduced him and his colleagues at a meeting as the “furniture,” and he didn’t want to spend his career as merely “the furniture.”
For the last 13 years, Yaakov has been a permanent fixture in the Foreign Ministry, on issues of counterterrorism, weapons of mass destruction and Iran.
He headed the ministry’s weapons of mass destruction department during what he said were the three critical years, from 2003 to 2006, a period when “the international community had the ability to stop the Iranian program in its infancy, but let it get away.”
This was when Iran’s current President Hassan Rouhani was responsible for Iran’s nuclear portfolio.
The three European countries that were leading the negotiations with Tehran at the time – Britain, France and Germany – thought they could induce the Iranians to alter their strategic goal of obtaining nuclear weapons through a combination of political and economic enticements.
They were wrong, Yaakov said, adding that they misread the Islamic Republic’s aspirations regarding regional hegemony.
At the time, he said, Rouhani mastered a tactic he still uses today: When Iran runs into a confrontation with the international community, it steps back by conceding areas where it has already gained mastery, but refuses to give concession in areas where it still has a ways to go.
Yaakov bewails that the sanctions on Iran have been rolled back, saying “You can see the bricks coming out of the wall. Europe wants to return to business as usual with Iran.”
He also bewails, as someone who has been intricately involved in Israel’s public diplomacy efforts on Iran, how Israel’s reservations on the recent interim agreement with Iran have been portrayed in the public sphere.
“Israel was portrayed as the party-pooper,” he said. “That is not a very sophisticated response to some serious contentions from our side. We can demand a bit more credit when looking at an issue that has a direct bearing on us.”
Even though he is looking forward to getting away from total immersion in the Iranian issue, that message, surely, is one of the main ones he brought with him to Boston.