Ambassador from Down Under shows over-the-top enthusiasm

Dave Sharma: I like the passion with which life is lived here.

September 24, 2016 23:39
ustralian Ambassador to Israel Dave Sharma with his palm painted yellow to sign the virtual wall.

ustralian Ambassador to Israel Dave Sharma with his palm painted yellow to sign the virtual wall.. (photo credit: BENI LAPID)

When his term concludes in June, it’s going to be hard for Australian Ambassador Dave Sharma and his family to leave Israel.

Sharma, who was appointed in June 2013 at age 37 as Australia’s youngest-ever ambassador, recently conveyed those sentiments to The Jerusalem Post.

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Australian ambassadors usually spend only three years abroad, but Sharma received a one-year extension. He can’t stretch it more than that.

“Only political appointees can go beyond four years,” he said with a smile.

Sharma previously held various senior positions in government. He served as assistant secretary for Africa in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade; legal adviser to Foreign Minister Alexander Downer; at the Australian Embassy in Washington, and at the Australian High Commission in Papua New Guinea as the senior civilian attached to the Australian-led peace monitoring force in Bougainville.

Israel was his first ambassadorial posting. After Papua New Guinea, he had no apprehensions about Israel, despite negative media images.

“I had a firm sense that the picture you saw in the media was not exactly accurate.” One common theme emphasized in Australian media reports on Israel is security. “But there’s much more happening than security,” says Sharma. “It’s not as overwhelming as you would think from watching the media.”

He arrived with his wife, Rachel Lord, a human rights lawyer, and their three small daughters, then aged three months to nine years. Sharma and his wife instantly felt at home. This was aided by being preceded by another first-time envoy, British Ambassador Matthew Gould and his wife, Celia, whom they had known in Washington. The Goulds invited the Sharmas to dinner at a Tel Aviv restaurant. The Sharmas didn’t want to leave their baby at home, but worried whether they could bring her to a restaurant where her crying might disturb other diners. They were instantly reassured when they arrived and saw a row of baby carriages.

Sharma thinks Israel is a wonderful place to raise children “because people put children in the center of life. It’s normal to have children at all events.

In other countries children are seen and not heard, or not seen and not heard. We take our kids everywhere – even to funerals. There’s nothing from which they’re excluded.”

Through his children, Sharma learned to appreciate Jewish holidays. He and his wife even built a succa last year, because the girls wanted one.

They eat apples and honey on Rosh Hashana and doughnuts on Hanukka, which Sharma refers to in Hebrew as sufganiyot.

Continuing in this trend, the girls taught their parents Purim songs and games.

In interviews before leaving Australia, Sharma said that in addition to promoting Australia, he wanted to give Australians a better understanding of Israel.

He’s been doing that almost from day one, hosting and addressing numerous Australian business, academic, political, sporting and various Jewish delegations at the Australian residence in Herzliya Pituah, or by joining such delegations on tours or for dinners at hotels in which were staying.

Sharma genuinely believes that Israel is a unique place and he has no problem in enthusiastically conveying his impressions.

“Australians are liked around the world, but particularly in Israel,” he says, alluding to Australian troops who were stationed and fought here in the First and Second World Wars, and to Australia’s important role in the 1947 United Nations resolution for the partition of Palestine.

There is warmth from the Israeli government, he said.

“And the level of access is quite high because Israel is such an open society.” He doubts that he would have the same level of access anywhere else in the world. “I could have gone to a country more traditionally important to Australia’s interests, but I wouldn’t have had the same level of access,” he said with remarkable candor.

It’s possible that part of the access is due to Sharma’s friendly, easy-going personality and the fact that unlike some of his colleagues, he makes himself easily accessible.

He has also thrown himself wholeheartedly into the Israeli life-style. A keen athlete, he either runs or cycles from his residence to his office in Tel Aviv. In fact, on the day of this interview, he wheeled his bike along one of the embassy’s corridors. He’s also a keen swimmer and tennis player, and regularly plays tennis at the Dan Accadia Hotel, which is near his residence.

He has worked as a volunteer in a Tel Aviv soup kitchen, and has helped clean beachfront areas on Clean-Up the World Day, an Australian initiative that has gone global.

He also visited the Save a Child’s Heart Department at Wolfson Medical Center in Holon, donated blood at Hadassah in Jerusalem, and is believed to be first head of a foreign diplomatic mission in Israel to visit the Ziv Medical Center in Safed to observe at close quarters the humane and humanitarian treatment accorded to Syrian victims of the civil war, who were brought across the border for care. He continues to maintain contact with all three medical centers and was even treated at Hadassah after falling off his bike while riding in the Jerusalem Hills.

Before embarking on a diplomatic career, Sharma envisaged himself as a physician.

He began by studying natural sciences, then switched to law and then to medicine. But after a year of medical studies, he became a civil servant and his ambitions changed course.

A strong believer in one-onone outreach, Sharma doesn’t have a receiving line at receptions at the residence. He and his wife, Rachel, simply mingle among the guests, chatting to as many people as they can, and introducing some of their guests to each other.

This casual Australian attitude also comes to the fore at more formal occasions, such as the annual ANZAC Day memorial ceremony in Jerusalem in April, or the commemoration of the Battle of Beersheba in October.

Australia is among those embassies that do not hold national day receptions, but on Australia Day on January 26, Sharma joins Australian expatriates in a Tel Aviv bar where they can all clink beer glasses together.

The closest thing to Australia Day will take place Monday at the Peres Center for Peace at the launch of the Ozreal brand, which is aimed at capturing the best of the Australia-Israel partnership.

Although a strong effort was made for purely Australian fare, apparently Australian cuisine is something that has not caught on in Israel, especially among kosher caterers, but there will be a number of items familiar to the Australian palate.

Very much a people person, Sharma loves to collect personal stories from people he meets – Jews, Muslims Christians – and there’s nothing stereotypical about any of them.

“You don’t stereotype people in Israel,” he said.

He and his family like to travel all over the country with guide book in hand to connect biblically and historically with wherever they happen to be.

Their favorite spots are in the Galilee, particularly Megiddo and Beit She’an.

The Galilee topography hasn’t changed much, said Sharma, “so you get a sense and feel of history.”

He admits to being more of a history than cultural buff, but nonetheless, found the prestigious Rubinstein piano competition totally fascinating when he witnessed the intensity and passion of young pianists as they played.

On an everyday basis, Sharma is very taken with the Israeli “zest and zeal for life” and the manner in which Israelis ride high and low emotions, embracing both, celebrating joys and mourning sadness with almost equal fervor.

But he also noticed that there is a lot of anxiety because of the existential threat, and the speed with which things change in Israel and prompt changes in people’s attitudes.

“I like the passion with which life is lived here.”

He also admires Israel’s hi-tech achievements and “the massive dreams” that people in the hi-tech community turn into realities.

“People dream big and think ambitiously and are open to all possibilities.”

Australia, like Israel, is a hi-tech innovation and startup nation, and this is part of reason that traffic between the two countries has increased dramatically, Sharma said.

What does he regret most about leaving Israel? He won’t be here to see the fruits of his efforts on next year’s centennial of the Battle of Beersheba, which was essentially won by Australian and New Zealand Light Horse troops. He’s seriously thinking of coming back as a tourist for the occasion.

For the time being, he’s not contemplating another overseas posting. For one thing, he thinks that it’s important to go home and get the feel of what’s happening there, and for another, his wife put her own career on hold so that he could pursue his.

“When we go home, it will be Rachel’s time,” he said.

The ‘Jerusalem Post’ Diplomatic Conference will take place on November 23 in Jerusalem.

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