To the foreign eye, Israel can be an overwhelming place. Secular and Orthodox Jews, Arabs and Christians walk alongside each other in the hope that a violent outburst won’t occur.
For a tourist, it is difficult to comprehend the volatile political climate and tensions between various groups. But while the tourist can get away with spending a few days in the country with a superficial understanding of the Holy Land, for a diplomat stationed here, feigned knowledge is not an option.
Nobody understands this more than Avital Leibovich, director of the American Jewish Committee in Jerusalem, who launched AJC ACCESS Israel in September of last year.
The program aims to engage young diplomats rising in the ranks of their respective foreign ministries while they are here in Israel, so they end their terms here not only understanding its politics, but also the people and culture behind it.
The hope is that when the young diplomats come back to Israel as ambassadors (which is often the case), their knowledge and appreciation of the country will be deep, and their networking contacts rich and diverse.
“The young diplomats serving here will be the future ambassadors and the future leaders of foreign affairs in their countries,” Leibovich explains.
“They’re here for three years, usually, and Israel has limited means and manpower and attention to give them. I believe that if you don’t give them proper attention while they’re here for three years, you lose them.”
Through person-to-person interaction where these young diplomats are paired up with the future movers and shakers of Israel – professors, CPAs, lawyers, hi-tech executives – ACCESS Israel hopes to invest and set the groundwork for what will hopefully become the future of diplomatic relations between Israel and various countries.
“The young diplomats will be in Tel Aviv for three years, and we want to make sure that they meet as many young Israeli leaders their age as possible. Maybe these contacts will carry on when they leave Israel, and perhaps in a decade, they will return here as ambassadors themselves,” she said.
Leibovich recognized that these young diplomats, roughly between the ages of 25 and 45, have been largely ignored by the Foreign Ministry, and she is eager to fill that void. “We just realized an area that nobody deals with and we decided to pick it up and take it upon ourselves. It’s part of our initiative to promote Israel and strengthen its position around the world,” she said.
“This is a win-win proposition. Israelis often say something like, ‘It’s all lost, our media is anti-Israeli, the whole world is anti-Israel’ and here they have a great opportunity to meet the future policy makers of faraway countries and have an impact on them as human beings and individuals who live here.”
Walter Zepeda Palomo, the consul of Guatemala in Israel, who has been stationed here for two and a half years, concurs. “ACCESS Israel is very valuable to young diplomats. It gets us acquainted with Israeli society and gives us a bridge to its other institutions.”
The program also aims to educate these diplomats, who are often responsible for providing their ambassadors with analysis reports of the country. Often these reports are written from an office, with information gleaned from the Internet or secondary sources. ACCESS Israel wants to eliminate the middleman and give them firsthand knowledge of the biggest news stories of the day.
For example, when the clashes between police and Ethiopian Israelis occurred last May, AJC recognized that the average diplomat would have very limited knowledge of this complex issue. As a result, they held an informal dinner at an Ethiopian restaurant, where 20 young diplomats dined with Ethiopian Israelis and spoke about the driving force behind those protests.
“In a very calm and informal atmosphere, we discussed the issue and explained it to them. The Ethiopians themselves explained it to them,” she recalled. “We want them to see and experience these places, events and people face-to-face.”
“Mingling with other diplomats is something I can do all the time, but meeting Israelis is unique,” Palomo said, acknowledging the program’s added value.
Before the elections in March, ACCESS Israel held a casual panel about the elections in an unassuming pub on Tel Aviv’s Dizengoff Street. The panel featured an English-speaking moderator and included MK Silvan Shalom, former MK Ronen Hoffman and MK Nachman Shai, explaining the foreign policy positions of the Right, Center and Left, respectively.
Leibovich herself has gotten into the person-to-person, grassroots spirit – on Rosh Hashana, she hosted four Chinese diplomats at her home and explained to them the traditions and history behind the holiday.
In a little over a year, and with a humble budget, the program has managed to interact meaningfully with more than 50 diplomats representing over 30 countries.
“I think that our achievement comes from the fact that we’re authentic.
We’re not trying to show Israel through rose-colored glasses,” she said, explaining the success of their apolitical and personal approach.
“There are many good things in this country, but you know, like every other country, there are some areas where Israel can improve. We are trying to show the full nuanced picture, and it’s not a shame to say we can do better.”
Israel being Israel though, not everything has gone according to plan.
A trip to Nahal Oz, next to the Gaza Strip, was scheduled for mid-October, but was postponed due to logistical complications. The tour will take place late this month instead, so that diplomats are given the opportunity to speak to average Israelis and local officials who contend on a daily basis with the threat of Hamas rocket attacks from Gaza.
“This is as down-to-earth as you can get,” she said of the AJC ACCESS Israel tours. “In most cases, they get only filtered information. We want to remove that filter.”
The Jerusalem Post Diplomatic Conference
, a prestigious forum where some 400 ambassadors, ambassadorial spokespeople and military attachés from around the world will convene, takes place at the Waldorf, Astoria Hotel in Jerusalem on Wednesday, November 18. The conference, featuring an array of speeches from Israeli newsmakers, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, will be broadcast live on Jpost.com.