Although she is only the t h i r d - l o n g e s t - s e r v i n g ambassador to Israel – after Diplomatic Corps dean Henri Etoundi Essomba, the ambassador of Cameroon, and Jose Joao Manuel, the immediate past ambassador of Angola – Suzana Gun de Hasenson, the outgoing ambassador of El Salvador, is arguably her country’s longest-serving diplomat in Israel.
With the exception of a one-and-a-halfyear stint as the minister counselor in her country’s embassy in Sweden, Gun de Hasenson has spent all of her 40-plus years as a diplomat in the Jewish state, serving as ambassador since January 2003.
Not too many little girls can pinpoint a career choice before the age of 10, but long before she reached a double-digit age, Gun de Hasenson knew she wanted to be a diplomat. She was inspired by a meeting with Golda Meir – when the latter, as foreign minister, visited El Salvador; Gun de Hasenson got to meet her because her mother was president of WIZO.
Several years went by before Gun de Hasenson paid her first visit to Israel, however. She was studying at Andover in Massachusetts, but her sister – who was working at the Hebrew University’s Hadassah Medical School – was already living in Israel, so Gun de Hasenson came to visit; she was sufficiently impressed to return two years later. She enrolled in the Hebrew University’s preparatory program and remained in Israel to complete her university studies in international relations and political science.
Returning on vacation to El Salvador, Gun de Hasenson got herself a job as a secretary at the about-to-be-established Embassy of El Salvador in Israel. She subsequently became a diplomatic cadet on the job, and the rest is history.
While at the Hebrew University she met a fellow student from Finland, Dave Hasenson, who was studying political science and statistics but opted to become a tour guide. They married and produced four children, who each have triple citizenship – Israeli, Salvadorian and Finnish.
Due to their Israeli citizenship, all four – Mia, Dana, Kelly and Ben – had to do mandatory IDF service. Mia became wellknown as the chairwoman of the Israel branch of Amnesty International, later moving to London where she became their international projects adviser.
Dana is an alternative psychotherapist, and Kelly a clinical psychologist. Ben is currently completing his army service.
When Gun de Hasenson, speaking fluent Hebrew, presented her credentials to then-president Moshe Katsav, she was accompanied by her family. Kelly was then serving in the Givati Brigade and came in her IDF uniform.
Katsav did not immediately realize who the soldier was and in an aside to one of his aides, voiced surprise that the new ambassador was accompanied by an Israeli soldier. Many new ambassadors are accompanied by a defense attaché – but one from their own country, not one wearing the uniform of the IDF.
When informed of the identity of the young Israeli soldier, Katsav said he was proud of her.
For many years, El Salvador and Costa Rica had the last two remaining embassies in Jerusalem. In mid-August 2006, the Costa Rican Foreign Ministry announced it was moving its embassy to Tel Aviv; a week later, the Foreign Ministry of El Salvador decided to do the same.
Ben Hasenson, who was then 10 years old and playing basketball in the junior league of Hapoel Jerusalem, did not want to go to Tel Aviv.
Soon after the announcement of the move, El Salvador’s foreign minister visited Israel and was feted at a reception at the residence of the ambassador in Jerusalem. The minister was fond of children and when Ben told him he didn’t want to leave and why, and stated that his mommy could drive to Tel Aviv every day and come home, the minister agreed – which is why the residence remained in Jerusalem after the embassy moved to Herzliya.
With hindsight, Gun de Hasenson tells The Jerusalem Post that moving the embassy was not a bad idea. El Salvador is a friend of Israel, she says, and it would not have been beneficial to Jerusalem to have a friend isolated from all the other embassies. From San Salvador’s perspective, the move was a good one because the business community is essentially in Tel Aviv and surroundings, and from the point of view of attracting investments and networking with the right people, it just makes life easier.
El Salvador’s Jewish community is small – only 300 souls – and as far as she is aware, Gun de Hasenson is the only person of the Jewish faith working in El Salvador’s Foreign Service, though one never knows because there are many more with Jewish bloodlines descended from the Anusim expelled from Spain and Portugal.
Her driver, Carlos, is a case in point; certain Jewish customs were kept in his father’s home. There was no explanation – just a matter of traditions passed on from one generation to the next.
The interview with the ambassador takes place in her car, as Carlos drives us from a diplomatic reception in Ramat Gan to Jerusalem. While talking about her country’s tiny Jewish community, she makes the point that nonetheless, there are Stars of David and menorahs in evidence all over the place. When asked about Conversos, she concedes doesn’t know how many there are, but is aware that there are quite a lot and cites her driver as an example.
Carlos has taught himself Hebrew and Rashi, and says that when he turned 13, his father sat him down with the Bible, opened a chapter in Leviticus and made him read aloud about the purity and impurity of man. His older brother sat opposite him grinning. When Carlos asked why, the brother replied: “Because he also did that to me when I was 13.”
At the time, Carlos did not understand what he was reading, but his father explained it and told him that his grandfather had done the same to him when he was 13, and told him to continue the tradition when he had his own children.
There was always a Star of David and an Israeli flag in his father’s house.
Gan de Hasenson says Carlos knows more about Judaism than she does, and often fills her in on things such as the parsha.
As her country’s longest-serving foreign diplomat in Israel, Gun de Hasenson – who is due to retire at the end of May – has had a better opportunity than any of her colleagues to observe the development of the country.
When asked what she likes best about the Jewish state, she doesn’t have to think about her reply. Her spontaneous response is “Yad Sarah,” the volunteer organization that does so much to help the sick and the elderly, with medical equipment, occupational therapy, transportation, home visits, social networking, etc.
She has tried many times to set up something similar to Yad Sarah in El Salvador, but can’t get people to grasp exactly what the organization does in terms of tikkun olam – repairing the world. That doesn’t mean she will stop trying; on the contrary, once she does actually retire, she will devote herself to tikkun olam activities without the constraints of a formal position, politics and a diplomatic lifestyle, and will continue to do her utmost to help the people of El Salvador through the knowhow she has gained in Israel.
She sees no conflict in regard to her position and the fact that she is Jewish.
In fact, Latin America in general has been outstanding in the number of Jewish diplomats it has sent to Israel, and some countries such as Guatemala, Colombia and Chile have sent Jewish ambassadors on more than one occasion. Ambassadors from Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Uruguay have also been Jewish.
During World War II, Latin American diplomats serving in Europe were active in saving Jews.
“The story that will never change is that I love El Salvador and I love Israel, and I will work for the good of the Salvadorian people with the help of the Israeli people,” she says, adding that “Salvadorians love Israel.”
Her family is typical of that of a melting pot society. Her father was born in Bessarabia, which he left in 1932. After studying at the Sorbonne, he went on to Mozambique, then Brazil, then all over South America, settling eventually in El Salvador. Her mother was born in Chile, where the ambassador’s grandmother had come after leaving Ukraine in 1904, having first lived in Argentina. Her parents met when the ambassador’s father was invited to a wedding in San Diego; they were engaged two weeks later, and her mother moved to El Salvador where the ambassador was born. Her mother, now 96, lives in Jerusalem.
Gun de Hasenson and her husband are not staying in Jerusalem but are moving close by, to Mevaseret Zion – where she may have a little more time for her hobbies, which include flower-arranging and calligraphy; she has studied both. When time permits she likes to read historical fiction in either Spanish or English, but on never a Kindle; she bought one two years ago, but has never used it “because I like to turn pages.” She also enjoys cooking for her family, which includes “five-and-a-half grandchildren” – the sixth grandchild is due in August.
Like many retired diplomats, Gun de Hasenson will not entirely disappear from the diplomatic scene. She will remain on the guest lists of many diplomatic missions, particularly those of Latin America, and she will continue visiting Palestinian Salvadorians, most of whom live in Bethlehem. Although she was not assigned to the Palestinian Authority, she started taking care of the Palestinian Salvadorians before the Oslo Accords, and simply kept up the connection.
Under El Salvador law, the offspring of a person with El Salvador nationality is a citizen of the country. Under Ottoman rule Christians in this part of the world were used as canon fodder and many, when they managed to escape, headed for Latin America. Some of their offspring, who were born in El Salvador as well as other Latin American countries, returned to marry Palestinians and stayed here. Babies born of these unions in which one of the parents had been born in El Salvador were automatically Salvadorian citizens.
“I probably wrote their birth certificates when I was still a secretary,” remarks Gun de Hasenson. When she told them she was retiring, they were upset and told they didn’t want her to leave them. She assured them she wouldn’t.
Although there were several Latin Americans in the 11-member UN Special Committee on Palestine, whose recommendations led to the November 1947 UN Resolution on the Partition of Palestine, Gun de Hasenson thinks Israel does not give Latin America its due, and does not pay sufficient attention to cultivating relations with the region.
She instances a red alert vis-a-vis Jerusalem- Latin American relations: When five ambassadors were recalled during Operation Protective Edge. Israel was unhappy about this, perhaps more so when some Latin American countries including El Salvador recognized Palestine as a state.
But Israel is not doing enough to enhance its relations with these countries, she opines; this also applies to Latin Americans who are trained here by Mashav, the Foreign Ministry’s agency for international development. Instead of constantly training new people, she says, it would be more mutually beneficial to bring back former trainees to update them on new developments, so that they can go home and share that information with hundreds of others.
This would establish deeper, more permanent contacts than focusing on a new batch of trainees each time, then losing touch with all of them.
Israel in general needs to do more to cultivate person-to-person contacts between Israelis and Latin Americans, she asserts.
She will not be the first Latin American ambassador to remain in Israel after retirement. Former Colombian ambassador David de la Rosa lives in Herzliya Pituah; one of his successors, Isaac Gilinski, has an apartment here and returns with his wife from time to time to visit relatives.
It is customary when ambassadors complete their tour of duty for the Foreign Ministry to host them at a luncheon or dinner. In Gun de Hasenson’s case this will happen in June, after she has actually retired – but it won’t really be goodbye, because she will still be around, commuting between Israel and El Salvador by way of London, to babysit for her British grandchildren. But most of her time will be spent in Israel.