Shabbat Goy: The sweet nothings of foreign ministers

I’ve always been tickled by the expectation that senior Israeli politicians ought to be able to speak excellent English.

By AKIN AYAJI
October 29, 2010 16:51
Avigdor Lieberman

Lieberman cartoon 311. (photo credit: Pepe Fainberg)

I’ve cracked it, I think. The problem with Avigdor is that he speaks English. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s backtrack a little. A while ago, an acquaintance was complaining about Tzipi Livni’s performance as foreign minister during the last administration.

“She has no opinions, no ideology; she doesn’t even speak English properly,” he moaned. Now, the first two points were clearly nonsense – no politician in his or her right mind would ever be caught with an opinion or ideology unless they thought it would win them more votes; but the third was patently unfair. Ms.

Livni speaks excellent English, especially when one considers that it is one of her three languages*.

I’ve always been rather tickled by the expectation that senior Israeli politicians ought to be able to speak excellent English. It does help, obviously, being able to communicate directly with one’s counterparts, and so on. On the other hand...

given the proud history of the modern Hebrew language being resurrected from the dead and so on, one would have thought that there would be a certain pride attached to using it officially whenever possible.

Take Jacques Chirac, for example. He speaks excellent English, but rarely demeaned himself with it while in office, choosing to communicate through an interpreter whenever called upon to communicate with the great English-speaking unwashed.


EXCELLENT MANIFESTATION of a superiority complex... but we’re back to French again, and I’m supposed to be concentrating on English and Hebrew.

So where was I? Yes, foreign ministers speaking English, or not.

Abba Eban, of course, set the standard pretty high with his mellifluous tones, and it wouldn’t be fair to expect anyone – not even a native English speaker – to compete on such terms. On the other hand, one might expect a higher standard than, say, poor David Levy, who copped such grief in the 1990s because he didn’t quite speak the Queen’s English.

But why should he? Because, as my Livni-hating acquaintance argued forcefully, it’s the foreign ministers’ job to represent the country, dammit.

We can’t have any stuttering Sally stumbling over her words in front of the world’s media. We need someone suave and savvy, someone confident, a communicator, capable of explaining to the world exactly what Israel has done in the name of peace and harmony, everyone singing “Kumbaya” in the Middle East, etc.

Ah-hah.

Something I like about Israel (yeah, I’m weird like that) is the fact that Israelis, on the whole, are straight-talking people. Ask a Sabra to tell you his mind and he’ll give you a piece of yours too, for good measure. It takes getting used to, but it isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

But then, it occurred to me; in these parts, people are usually more... forthright when speaking in Hebrew. It makes sense; no matter how fluent I ever will be in Hebrew, I’ll never be able to express my innermost emotions adequately in the language. I’ll always feel most comfortable with English, especially if I have to be unpleasant.

I imagine it’s much the same with the average native Hebrew speaker; English for polite sweet nothings, Hebrew for the business end of things.

Now why should this matter? Because foreign ministers, in essence, are paid to whisper the sweet nothings of the seductive suitor. To charm the knickers off people who otherwise wouldn’t give you the time of day.

As the old adage goes, a diplomat is a person whose job it is to tell you to go to hell in such a way that you look forward to the trip. And with Israel, this important work of diplomacy is all done in English, naturally.

And so I return to Avigdor.

Let’s be clear about one thing: I’m not a member of the Avigdor Lieberman Appreciation Society. If I had a vote, he wouldn’t be getting it. Of course, this is neither here nor there; I don’t have a vote, so what I think won’t matter a jot to Avigdor.

However, one thing I do appreciate about him: The guy says what he thinks.

No ambiguities, no doublespeak, just what he wants to communicate to the world.

Needless to say, this approach is something of a shock to the delicate ears of his diplomatic counterparts in the wider world – take, for instance, the palaver with the French and Spanish foreign ministers a couple of weeks ago. Not quite the way to win friends and influence people.

Given that Avigdor embodies the proud Israeli tradition of plain speaking, one might expect him to be something of a popular hero. But no; he has, rather, been cast as the villain of the piece so far as the curious political peregrinations of the current Knesset are concerned.

The phrase “right-wing” is customarily appended to his name, as if this were the equivalent to being branded Beelzebub (I don’t consider myself right-wing, but I do think it is pretty lazy thinking to assume that the description “right-winger” in itself labels a person as being beyond the pale); we are customarily reminded that he is a Russian (factually inaccurate, he’s Moldovan), and that he was once a bouncer (so? He also has a degree from the Hebrew University).

Essentially, Avigdor is not one of us, the argument goes; we’re not quite sure how he got to where he is, but don’t assume that he represents us.

That’s where you’re all wrong.

AVIGDOR LIEBERMAN is the head of the third-largest party in the current Knesset. This means that quite a few citizens voted for the political platform he represents, and quite a few more are prepared to live with this, given that he is a pivotal member of the current ruling coalition.

Which leads me back to the English issue: I don’t think that the problem with Avigdor is that he speaks out of turn; rather, the problem – if indeed it is one, and I leave that for the reader to judge – is that Avigdor speaks his mind, like any good Israeli. But he does so as clearly in English as he does in Hebrew.

And that’s what makes the electorate uncomfortable. I suspect people would rather have a foreign minister who makes nice – in English – on the diplomatic circuit than one who articulates what quite a few people seem to be thinking but don’t want to be caught thinking.

So here’s the thing, dear electorate: We could leave things as they are and allow the wider world to assume that Israel is made up of millions of little Liebermans; or one could work to ensure that the country is represented by someone who has something meaningful to say about peace in our time. In any language.

*She also speaks French. You may wonder why. I could tell you, but then I’d have to kill you...


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