The man who changed the face of Israel's foreign service

‘In Jerusalem’ explores what drives the man who changed the face of Israel’s foreign service and is transforming the new generation.

(Left) Yitzhak Eldan, president Shimon Peres and prime minister Ehud Olmert (right) with US president George W. Bush and first lady Barbara Bush on a May 2008 visit to Tel Aviv (photo credit: AVI DODI)
(Left) Yitzhak Eldan, president Shimon Peres and prime minister Ehud Olmert (right) with US president George W. Bush and first lady Barbara Bush on a May 2008 visit to Tel Aviv
(photo credit: AVI DODI)
As a Moroccan immigrant, a boy from a kibbutz and a Black Panther, Yitzhak Eldan was an unlikely man to have changed the face of the Israeli Foreign Service – but possibly the most appropriate.
Eldan served 41 years in the Foreign Service. He was a consul in Montreal, Houston and Los Angeles; ambassador to Denmark, UNESCO and the Council of Europe; was chief of protocol for the Foreign Ministry; and served as the head of the Israeli Diplomatic School.
He has developed friendships with heads of states, foreign ministers, diplomats and journalists. He is, by all accounts, a very popular man, and though he has left the Foreign Ministry, he has not strayed far.
Today, he serves as the president of the Ambassadors’ Club, runs the Young Israeli Ambassadors School, sits on the Board of Governors of the Jewish Agency and is a senior adviser to the Israeli Jewish Congress. Eldan is still very busy, engaged and trying to finish what he started some 41 years ago.
Now 72, Eldan speaks affably, instinctively eyeing his immediate vicinity almost as if to make sure no one is unnecessarily being left out. Occasionally his voice lowers to a whisper to elucidate some ostensibly important historical minutia or rises to admonish some guest for coming into the bar without a shirt on. He will warrant such admonishments by pointing to his years as chief of state protocol.
“I was chief of state protocol for many years, so everything must be in order.”
He is unabashedly friendly and will frequently start conversations with staff or really anyone that so happens to pass by the table, though he never seems to linger too long in one conversation.
Yitzhak Eldan (photo credit: FACEBOOK)
Yitzhak Eldan (photo credit: FACEBOOK)
WHEN ELDAN recalls his native Morocco, he remembers Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser on the radio. He remembers being frightened as Nasser spoke against Israel after Operation Sabcha, a November 1955 IDF operation carried out in against Egyptian military positions in the border region. But he also remembers how much he still wanted to come to Israel.
“I believed the sky was blue and so close that you could touch it,” he said.
When just 12 years old, Eldan begged his parents to allow him to make aliya.
They gave in only with the stipulation that his older brother, Shlomo, should come as well. With help from Youth Aliya, Eldan his brother and a group of Moroccan boys arrived in Israel in 1956, where they were promptly sent to Tirat Zvi, a religious kibbutz. The kibbutz put the boys to work almost immediately, and after short while the other boys, including Eldan’s brother, requested to be transferred to Mazkeret Batya. “They left me alone,” he said.
By himself and considered an outsider, life in Tirat Zvi was not easy.
“I was not a boy from the kibbutz; I was an outsider. Anywhere is hard, but especially in such a close society as a Kibbutz. It was very difficult,” he said.
“Think about it this way: you are Moroccan, you are not like them, you don’t speak Hebrew. You are different. I attracted a lot of negative comment,” he went on.
Eldan’s early years in the kibbutz were some of the most difficult, and it is a time in his life that he speaks about with an uncharacteristic rancor. That time was marked by sense of shame with his Moroccan identity.
“I remember once meeting with [David] Ben-Gurion, and I told him that I wanted to go to university, but I didn’t have money to study. My parents had eight children. Ben Gurion reacted by asking ‘Are you Moroccan?’ To me it was a big compliment because I didn’t look Moroccan.
“It was so difficult, walking into the dining room at the kibbutz and hearing people say such awful things about Moroccans.
You don’t want to be Moroccan, you want to be one of them. You want to be accepted,” he said.
“But I surmounted it.” He pushed through by biting his lip, holding in the desire to retaliate. “I remember becoming stronger. I remember sitting in class when one of the boys wanted to say something about me. I held it in. I said I will be strong.”
Things generally stayed difficult in the kibbutz until Eldan started playing basketball.
“Through basketball I finally became Hebrew. Through basketball, I became one of the leaders instead of someone that was a target for remarks.
“But I never forgot it. It shaped me in such a way that in the 1970s, some years later, when I was student, I joined the Black Panthers [protest movement].”
BEFORE ATTENDING university Eldan served in the IDF. He was assigned to the Golani Brigade – a group that at the time was largely made up of Moroccans, something that he resented initially.
“I was sent to be with Moroccans and I didn’t want to go. I was already accepted I thought. I was an accepted one.” Eldan would later fight in the Yom Kippur War and today reminisces nostalgically about his former unit.
It was during his time in the army that Eldan decided he wanted to be a diplomat.
He credits Golda Meir for the inspiration.
“In the ’60s Golda Meir became foreign minister and visited Africa. She was the first Israeli leader to go to Africa. I said I want to be a diplomat, so I can help Africa.
This was my dream. Because of Golda Meir,” he said.
Eldan would leave the army after trying to gain a commission to be an officer, after realizing that it would require a commitment of five years and conflict with his diplomatic ambitions. He eventually studied Middle Eastern studies and political science at Hebrew University, and it was during this time, he says, that he began to better understand the plight of Moroccans in Israel and subsequently joined the Black Panthers.
“When I became a student, when I had the tools to know what had happened to the Moroccan Jews, I exploded. I exploded and I joined the Black Panthers.”
But soon the Moroccan and Sephardi group become more overtly hostile in its attempts at recognition, leading eventually to a famous exchange between Black Panther activists and Golda Meir in which afterwards she would say, “They are not nice people.”
Eventually the Black Panthers began using outright violence, and though Eldan was against using force, he could not bring himself to disavow the group.
“I was very angry and I felt cheated,” he says.
“When you hear things like how Ben-Gurion and the leadership chose only the best Moroccan Jews to come. They didn’t want the old people, but then my parents came, and look in what condition they flew my parents in. I suffered little in the kibbutz compared to what my parents went through,” he said.
When asked how he managed to reconcile his resentment with his ambition to join the diplomatic corps, to represent Israel, he responded by saying, “You discover and you try to recover. It was painful and it went against everything I told people. When people would ask if there is any discrimination in Israel, I would say no, even though for me the situation of my parents was the most important and the most exemplary case of discrimination,” he said.
“But when I see people in need, I go and help. When I see a country like Israel that is in need of things to strengthen itself, I will do whatever I can to strengthen our country. I moved on, but I never forgot.”
JOINING THE Foreign Ministry was also about proving something that stemmed from his experiences as a boy in Tirat Zvi.
“I wanted to show my family that I could reach the top. The top of Israel. Do you know what it means to be among the five that entered the Foreign Ministry? I’m proving to so many people what many others [like me] could do,” he went on.
To enter the Foreign Ministry was the fulfillment of a dream for Eldan, one that never mixed bitterly with his previous experiences. It was a way to prove something and ultimately to help fix something.
“Tikun olam” is how he describes it. “It means to correct the world.”
In 1995 Eldan became the head of the Israeli Diplomatic School and started this “correction” in earnest. His position gave him the responsibility to choose, educate and direct Israel’s new diplomatic class.
At the Great Wall of China in December 1998 (photo credit: Courtesy)
At the Great Wall of China in December 1998 (photo credit: Courtesy)
“The whole story comes back to this process of choosing,” he says.
For the first time, Eldan was the one deciding who was in and who should stay out, and to those decisions he brought to bear a lifetime of understanding about discrimination, isolation and difference.
“Every time I came across someone with potential coming from the periphery, I looked at them more than the others. I give them the possibility. For me this was a way to correct the situation. I saw the potential. If I did it, why not them? If I could make it, they could make it. This is what I did for five years. For me those five years and to be the head of the school of diplomats in Israel were the highest of my achievements,” he said.
Yet it is not fair or accurate to say that what Eldan did, he did to rectify old grievances. To him there was something greater about what he was doing. It wasn’t just about justice; it was also about strategy.
Because, as he puts it, “diplomacy is something that is moving all the time.”
“A good diplomat is someone that looks at the developments in the world, like globalization, and can adapt the tool, the diplomatic tool, which is the Foreign Ministry. How do you adapt it? Not only by opening embassies but also by changing the characteristics of the diplomat. You have to build new diplomats. You have to build a new culture of diplomacy that can work in the new world.
“We had to build a new man. Because we needed diplomats to adapt themselves to a time of peace with the Arabs.”
That is what Eldan did. In his five years as head of the Israeli Diplomatic School, he oversaw the transformation of Israel’s diplomatic corps into a tool not only for peace and war but also for the global community. A tool that can serve Israel’s needs not only in Washington but also in Ghana and Guinea. A tool that not only more accurately represents Israel but understands the nuances of discrimination and difference needed to communicate in the new global village.
Eldan is still working, this time shaping the minds and characters of a much younger cohort. As head of the Young Israeli Ambassadors School he oversees youths aged 15 to 17. Little has really changed, though. He still encourages tikun olam and aspires to have every child that comes through his program be “open-minded with a global mind, born not only to Israel and the conflict but [also] born to the global village. He should be somebody who knows how to handle things in the global world.”
Yitzhak Eldan, it seems, is still on a mission.
For more information on the Ambassadors’ Club: