Interview: Hitting the message home

Arye Mekel sums up his three-year stint as Israel's consul-general in New York.

Arye Mekel 88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Arye Mekel 88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
'I used to work with the movers and the shakers; now all that's left are the movers," joked Arye Mekel earlier this month, just before returning to Israel after a three-year stint as consul-general in New York. His large desk calendar was entirely empty, and the walls of his office stripped of pictures and other memorabilia. But Mekel proudly pointed to a parting gift he recently received: a collage of photographs of people he has dealt with throughout his tenure. Most showed him with well-known American figures, including Henry Kissinger, Billy Crystal and Martin Luther King III. Despite having served in one of the Foreign Ministry's most coveted positions, Mekel has had an unconventional career. Unlike many of his counterparts, Mekel began his service at the late age of 38, and left to serve abroad for the first time at 47. Before that, he had spent 20 years as a journalist. He first worked for Army Radio, where he spent three years as a military reporter and then as a diplomatic one. In 1970, when he was 24, Mekel joined Israel Radio. In 1989, after joining the Foreign Ministry, he became the president of the Israel Broadcasting Authority. Over the course of his career, Mekel has dealt with a wide range of issues, from presenting Israel's case on radio and television, to combating anti-Semitism, to serving as the charge d'affaires at the Israeli Embassy in South Korea. Mekel began his term in New York in 2003, as deputy to the permanent representative to the United Nations. In 2004, he became consul-general. Born on a train in Kazakhstan, as his parents were on their way from the Soviet Union to Poland after World War II, Mekel moved to Israel at three. He grew up in a blue-collar community near Haifa, where his father was a policeman and his mother a cashier in a supermarket. "So, if I can make a contribution to the Jewish state and the Jewish people, there is nothing more important than that for me," he said. At 61, Mekel, who has now been replaced by former Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert spokesman Assaf Shariv, is not yet ready to retire, and hopes to serve for at least another six years in the Foreign Ministry. Leaving, he said, is bittersweet. "On the one hand, it is always good to go home; on the other, this is a great job and a great city. When it's over, there is always a sense that there is a lot left to be done." What is still "left to be done"? Let me back up. This position is considered one of the most important in the foreign service. It's not a coincidence that so many people are interested in getting it. This consulate is the largest Israeli diplomatic mission in the world, and the scope of the work is unparalleled. The most important thing we do is cultivate relations with the Jewish community in America. This is based on the fact that the major Jewish organizations, other than AIPAC, are based in New York. There are 2.5 million Jews in the tri-state area, almost half of American Jewry. The second thing is the hasbara and media, based on the fact that all the TV networks, newspapers and magazines are based in New York. That work entails appearing on TV, cultivating relationships with editors and working with politicians. We usually see results only a few years later. This year, when two major presidential candidates are from New York, it has become dramatically evident that the work we invested in cultivating relations with them over the years is paying off. New York is the entry gate to America. What have been the most significant events since you began your work as consul-general? Disengagement and the Second Lebanon War. How did they play out in New York? When it comes to the disengagement from Gaza, we tried to avoid the kind of controversy we had with part of American Jewry during the Oslo process, when many of the Orthodox were very upset. At that time there were many protests in front of the consulate. This time the scope was more limited, but we spent a lot of effort and time, especially with the Orthodox leadership. We told them that even those who disagree with the government of Israel should still accept the premise that issues of peace and security should be determined by that government. Anybody who doesn't live in Israel, with all due respect, cannot make such decisions. By and large, this notion was accepted by almost all the Orthodox and right-wing organizations in America. The disagreement was only on the edges of this group. We had something to do with it. We had several months to prepare and I think we were successful. The attitude of American Jews during the Second Lebanon War was of concern. They were watching the developments every day, the attacks on the North. They wanted us to assure them that things would be okay, which we did to the best of our ability. As soon as they realized there were real problems, and that people in the North needed help, the Jewish organizations were some of the first to react positively, to send missions at a time when tourism really wasn't there, and to assist with money. We saw concern, but also immediate reaction. This was a time when our presence was needed in the media. It was summer, a slow time for the media, and almost 24/7 was about the war, but our voice was there. We were fortunate to have a good team in America, and I think the Israeli presence was felt all the time, but we worked very hard, running from one studio to another. What were some of the challenges during that time? Our situation with the American media is very good. Anyone who don't believe that should go to Europe and watch some TV. During the war they had many questions. They couldn't figure out why it took us so long. We in a way spoiled our supporters and the media. People expect Israel to go in, spend six days and get out with a tremendous victory. But what I explained is that we live in a time when there is a transition taking place in the definition of war, and we have to redefine the meaning of victory. We no longer have a situation of large Arab armies where at the end of the day someone comes out with a white flag and you know clearly who won. Today as we see, not just in Israel, but in Iraq and other places, it's different. The enemy doesn't wear a uniform; the enemy hides among the civilian population that you don't want to hurt; and they don't have to cross the border into your territory. The enemy can stay in his own place, use weapons easily and terrorize large sectors of the civilian population. In this situation you can't really employ the old tactics; you have to find new ones. In a way we were caught by surprise, but the good news is that in the year that has passed, we have learned our lesson. These are the kinds of things we try to explain to help the media, and people who get information from the media. What about issues in America? What is your sense of the Jewish community? We are very fortunate to have the Jewish community in America. I, unlike many Israelis, felt all my life that I am a Jew first and Israeli second. In spite of the fact that I came to Israel at the age of three, I always felt part of something larger, the Jewish nation. If you understand you are part of the Jewish nation, history doesn't start for you 60 years ago. Our fate in Israel depends on the fate of Jews in the Diaspora and vice versa. We have forged an interesting partnership with the largest Jewish community in the world, that of North America. The relationship is based on the fact that American Jews provide us with political or financial support, but we in Israel provide them with something they don't have - or can't produce like we can - namely, the inspiration, especially to the younger generation. In other words, when they help Israel prosper and be strong, we help them with their number one problem - Jewish continuity. It is amazing that after all these years, a few people, and I commend them, decided that even 10 days in Israel is an important booster shot for young Jews as far as Jewish continuity goes. Birthright is the number one program when it comes to creating Jewish identity among the young. Only by understanding that we are one and the same, Jews first and Israelis second, can we continue and have this partnership flourish. How has that partnership has changed over the years? It has changed and it is changing, because the nature of the Israelis is changing. No doubt Israelis have some qualities that are to some extent similar to those of other Jews, but they speak a different language from one another, literally and figuratively. And they practice religion differently. The challenge we all have, as far as the American Jewish community is concerned, is to make sure the next generation, those who don't remember the Holocaust and the pre-Israel world, continue to feel the same kind of affinity and interest in Israel as their fathers and grandfathers did. This is a big challenge, and we have to work hard, because it's not guaranteed. What do you make of studies that show younger Jews are less connected to Israel? There is a correlation between their interest in Israel and Jewish continuity - the more people feel Jewish, the more they tend to support Israel. Do you think hasbara has been successful? What are its limits? One of the hobbies that many Jews and Israelis have is to criticize Israeli hasbara. But I think our hasbara is very effective. We've learned a lot about how to do it over the years. When the intifada started, I was in charge of the hasbara efforts in US, so I've been in this for a long time. I think our hasbara today is very sophisticated. You could see it during the Second Lebanon War, when we were all over the place. It's not just appearing on TV; it's a long-term effort, and it's very difficult to judge how successful you are. You have to work and work and work and hope that you are getting somewhere. What we see right now and have to come to terms with, in addition to the classic hasbara - on campuses, in churches, through speakers, materials and exhibits - is the fact that the world is changing. Young people today are used to getting all their information and entertainment from the Internet. We are trying to find ways to reach the new generation. We now have a consulate blog, videos on Youtube, space on Myspace. We had the Maxim magazine [swimwear pictorial of female soldiers] that drew criticism, but nevertheless was part of our efforts to reach out to new audiences. We are trying to deal with Israel beyond the conflict. We don't want Israel to be mentioned in the media only in the context of war and terrorism; we want to show young people that we are a normal society. We have to understand how the media works and as long as we get our fair share, we can't really complain. That's the nature of the beast. So what is still left to accomplish? The most important thing is maintaining support of a Jewish community that is changing. For people born long after the Holocaust and after the establishment of Israel, this doesn't come naturally. It has to come through education. There are also concrete challenges, like Iran. We cannot allow Iran to have a nuclear weapon; it's an existential danger for the Jewish state. We are trying to bring this message to America and to the Jewish community and others. Of course, 2008 is an election year in America. We don't ever interfere in domestic American issues, but certainly we have to follow the situation and constantly strengthen the relationship with the major candidates, because one of them will win. Our support in America is always bipartisan, but we can never take anything for granted. Point to an example of your working behind the scenes. A lot of our work is behind the scenes. Iran is a good example. Most of that work is done behind the scenes, such as efforts to put economic pressures on Iran. We don't talk about it all the time. Neither do our friends. But we are certainly working.