‘It was in Poland that I learned this about myself’

An interview with departing Israeli ambassador to Poland Anna Azari .

DETAILS ON a Jewish grave in Poland (photo credit: REUTERS)
DETAILS ON a Jewish grave in Poland
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Anna Azari has been Israel’s ambassador to Poland since September 2014, the first woman to hold the position. In January 2018, a diplomatic crisis related to the amendment of a bill from the Institute of National Remembrance broke out. According to the new legislation, any individual who accused the Polish nation or Polish state of participating in crimes committed by Nazi Germany could be fined or even imprisoned. Azari tried to convince the Polish government and citizens who supported the amendment that it could be used to prosecute journalists, or even the Holocaust survivors who share their stories. But she was unsuccessful and was criticized by Polish media not only for a lack of objectivity or diplomatic skill, but for her appearance and age. In her opinion, this criticism was caused mainly by her gender and antisemitism. As she finishes her stint as ambassador, Azari says it’s not going to be her last goodbye.
I read on the web that you are a ‘devil in a skirt.’ How do you react to that?
This is one of the more mild terms that I’ve heard since January last year, when a diplomatic crisis related to the amendment of the bill from the Institute of National Remembrance began, which was viewed in Israel as opening the door to imprisoning Holocaust witnesses and survivors.
Over the past year and a half, much worse things have been written about me full of antisemitism and sexism. Most of the critical comments were not about my job or competence, but about how I looked, how old I was and what I was wearing. Unfriendly media outlets deliberately chose to illustrate their publications with my least attractive photos, sometimes even caricatured.
Even my family was unable to recognize me in those photos. I wondered what would have happen if I was a man. Would the reactions to what was happening between Poland and Israel be the same? I came to the conclusion that they would probably not. A male ambassador would not have been verbally abused based on his sex, and his mother for having given birth to him.
Was there a moment when you feared for yourself in Poland?
There was a lot of aggression in everything that was happening with regard to the bill on the Institute of National Remembrance. I was afraid that something might happen to me. After all, many were not wishing me well, and threatening letters were delivered to our embassy.
Anonymously, people are prompted to write the worst things to each other – threats, intimidating comments. While on the street, no one has ever had the courage to approach me and say such things, especially if I was walking with someone. If a stranger approached me, it was rather to show me support, and I hope it remains like this.
I once got scared in Gdansk when I was walking with my daughter and my husband on a narrow street, and a passing couple suddenly turned toward us. They just wanted to take a picture, but I reacted very nervously. I didn’t immediately realize it was only about a selfie. My husband joked that I left the impression of being a rather unfriendly person, but at that time I lived in constant tension.
Were you fed up?
When I was coming to Poland, I thought I understood the country pretty well. As time went by, I realized the longer I was here, the less I knew about it.
I met wonderful righteous people here, like Fr. Wojciech Lemański, who devoted their lives to nurturing the memory of former Jewish neighbors. And on the other hand I discovered terrible antisemitic attitudes. I had one moment of crisis, but it passed when I turned off the TV. I thought: What was the point of wasting time on this? I gave up watching the news and immediately felt better.
This nervousness was exhausting. I felt like I was playing in a bad movie.
I will never forget when I went with my deputy, Ruti, to a meeting in the Senate regarding the aforementioned bill. We opened the door, and inside, dozens of journalists and cameras surrounded us from all sides. Tiny Ruti was almost run down, and I was pushed. I only managed to encourage her to smile, not to show anger. I was surprised by my own calmness. I think it is part of the job. I don’t think I would have been as calm 15 years ago.
I am surprised myself today at the mere thought of the journey. I went from the hippie to the ambassador, except that even if I might seem very serious on the outside, this little girl from Haifa in too big of a shirt still lives inside of me.
It is a pity that we women cannot be ourselves all the time – that the same virtues like strength, bravery or courage in a man are seen as advantages, while they are associated with aggression when embodied by women.
Tell me about your childhood.
I was the first child in the family. My brother was born 12 years later. I had a lot of time to be the apple of my parents’ eyes, who raised me to be a leader.
In addition to his engineering work, my father composed music. He was known for it in the Russian-speaking circles of Israel. He liked football very much. We spent hours watching matches together and we used to get excited about them like the hardest of fans.
My parents met at a university in Moscow. They were never party members. They studied engineering, and upon graduating they settled in Vilnius, where my mother came from. I was born there. I had a good childhood. Four educated people worked for the benefit of the family – my parents and grandparents.
I attended an artistic, and rather elite school in which, in addition to the basic subjects, classes in music and ballet were offered. When we were leaving for Israel, the whole class together with the teacher accompanied us to the airport to say goodbye. In Soviet times, such an action was a sort of political demonstration. Lithuanians very much wanted independence. At school they were the majority and they were not afraid. Only two girls from the class did not turn up – one Jewish and one Polish. They did not want to provoke repercussions.
Why did you leave?
Not because of antisemitism. My parents were simply Zionists. The relations between the West and the USSR gradually began to improve back then, and so we seized the first opportunity to leave. Israel existed for a little over 20 years. My parents wanted to live in a country of their own, to contribute somehow to its building.
You were a little over 12 years old. Did you also share the desire to build Israel?
I remember that I was happy to leave, although – as it soon turned out – Lithuania and Israel were worlds apart. We landed at the Ben-Gurion Airport on January 16. We were all wearing furs because when we left Vilnius it was freezing. We got off the plane. I was wearing that warm coat and carrying a half-month-old brother, and it’s spring-like weather in Tel Aviv. Sun, palm trees and mandarins. I experienced cultural shock.
Was it in Israel that a Lithuanian girl became a hippie?
[The ambassador laughs for a long time at this memory.] Let’s say I showed such a tendency quite early. Looking back at it this seemed to be a natural path for us. In the first years we were only immigrants in Israel. We lived modestly and without money. There was nothing easier than to become a hippie. At the time, I only had a pair of jeans from the store. The rest of my clothes were borrowed from my father. I would put on shirts of his that were all too big for me, but that was enough for me at the time.
However, I was not crazy enough to take drugs or practice free love. I didn’t fly away completely. For me, the hippie movement meant being open to the world. When I was studying at the University of Haifa, I dressed exactly the same – completely at ease – not quite as elegant as some students today. In a way, at that time in Israel, everyone was a hippie. I had only one dress in the wardrobe – an Arabian galabiya with holes in it.
Was your house religious?
Let’s say that my relationship with religion has never been stable. At home in Vilnius it did not play any role whatsoever. My parents were assimilated, and the need to live in Israel was not motivated by religion.
Besides, my mother and her parents went to Palestine before the war in 1936. But in September 1939, they were visiting Lithuania as the war began. They were evacuated to Uzbekistan as my grandfather fought in the Red Army. I remember that my grandmother, during the strict fasting related to Yom Kippur, did not actually eat anything, but smoked one cigarette after another, which was not allowed either. My grandfather didn’t even manage to refrain from eating. In Israel, this didn’t change. My parents and grandparents didn’t go to synagogue at all.
When it comes to religion, I went through different phases. At times I was closer to religion, on other occasions not so much. I got closer to Reform Judaism when I was in the youth movement where I met my husband. However, I joined it because I had heard that the coolest boys went there.
Orthodox rabbis have issues with you?
In Reform Judaism I liked the fact that women can be rabbis, read the Torah in the synagogue and sit where they want and not be restricted, because there are no separate sections for men and women.
Orthodox rabbis had to accept the fact that I would not be persuaded to sit in the women’s section, period. I remember the negotiations undertaken by my office before the opening of the synagogue in Kiev, to which I was officially invited. My assistant had a lively conversation with the rabbi. She ran to me saying that I was asked to promise to take a seat in the women’s section, because even the wife of [former Lithuanian] president Leonid Kuchma would sit there, and what would I say? I only replied that the wife of president Kuchma can do what she wants. I will not go to the women’s section. Eventually, I only came to cut the ribbon and did not stay for the prayer.
How was it in Poland?
When I came to Warsaw, Rabbi Michael Schudrich didn’t really like my stubbornness at first. It was very similar at the first official ceremony during the Jewish New Year. I accepted the invitation, said a few words and left. Over time, he got used to it, as did other rabbis. Gradually no one had a problem with it.
I explained to them that I did not want to sit on the second floor like a citizen of a worst kind. If this was not my own religion, I might have gone, sat down on the sidelines out of curiosity. But at my place I will never agree to this. For my husband, this segregation is also unacceptable. In his synagogue, women and men sit together.
He is unconventional himself. He was one of the first rabbis to marry same-sex couples in Israel, which I fully supported and will continue to support him.
Does the end of your mission here mean goodbye to Poland forever?
No. It so happened that four years ago my son visited me in Warsaw. He met a very nice girl on a train heading to Berlin. She happens to be his wife today. For now, there is no indication that they will leave Poland, so I will definitely be visiting Warsaw.
I really liked it here very much. Thanks to this whole crisis between the Polish and Israel, I learned an important thing about myself – that I can be very strong. Recently, women have even started coming up to me to thank me for this strength, and to say that my courage inspired them. Could something please me more?
Be it a crisis or otherwise, I do not regret anything, even if to someone for the past five years I have been a ‘devil in a skirt.’
Translated with permission from Wysokie Obcasy, a global feminist weekly magazine that is part of Gazeta Wyborcza, Poland’s largest daily newspaper.