The diplomacy profession

Tova Herzl sheds welcome light on a profession both familiar yet not well-known.

Ambassador Tova Herzl (left) visits the ruins of the Great Synagogue of Riga, which was burned down on July 4, 1941, with Jews inside (photo credit: COURTESY TOVA HERZL)
Ambassador Tova Herzl (left) visits the ruins of the Great Synagogue of Riga, which was burned down on July 4, 1941, with Jews inside
(photo credit: COURTESY TOVA HERZL)
TOVA HERZL, a young Israeli diplomat, found herself accompanying the first Hungarian delegation to Israel in the early 1980s.
There were high hopes that the visit would lead to the renewal of diplomatic relations between Israel and Hungary, which at that time was part of the Soviet bloc. Though she was a junior diplomat, she was chosen to escort the mission because she possessed a knowledge of Hungarian from her parents. It took a busy week traveling around the country with the guests to break the ice and hopefully lay the groundwork for further contact between the countries.
Naturally, Herzl spent much time trying to explain the ever dynamic political situation in the Middle East. Shortly before saying goodbye, one of the Hungarian visitors whispered to Herzl that she was a wonderful host, spoke very good Hungarian, but should know that the word for ‘peace’ in Hungarian is beke.
The word she had used instead, beka¸ means frog. As Herzl quips in her chapter about language, she spoke for days about “Israel’s frog treaty with Egypt and expressed hope for frog with more neighboring states.”
“Madame Ambassador” is an entertaining book full of incidents taken from the author’s experiences during her over 20-year career.
What distinguishes this book from the memoirs of many other envoys is the emphasis on the day-to-day work done by diplomats.
The reader is offered a smorgasbord of events which illuminate what a diplomatic posting entails. Statecraft and policy might be the objectives of an envoy’s work, but describing how to go about it, the skill set needed, and the challenges, frogs and all, are the goals of this often humorous book.
Herzl, born in Israel, spent part of her youth in South Africa where her parents were teachers. Holding degrees in philosophy and literature, she applied and was accepted to the Foreign Service and was posted twice to Washington, first as the junior and then as the senior liaison to Congress. Between these two assignments in the US capital she served as Israel’s first ambassador to the newly independent nations of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. (If you are wondering how to be an ambassador to three different countries simultaneously, she resided in Riga, Latvia and made periodic visits to the two other states.) Herzl’s final foreign posting in 2001 was as ambassador to South Africa. During her term there, relations between the two countries were uneasy and Herzl gives us an insider’s view of the United Nations Conference on Racism and Racial Discrimination held in Durban that year, during which Israel was severely excoriated.
Herzl, like most diplomats, spent a considerable amount of professional time working in her home country. She served many years in the Foreign Minister’s office, the President’s office and spent a year earning her master’s degree at the National Defense College.
Though her stints in Israel could probably offer fine reading material too, Herzl sticks to her theme of recounting what diplomats do abroad.
The book is organized according to different facets of diplomatic work and chapters range from the light, such as “Clothes: Do I look All Right?” to the heavy, such as “Holocaust: A-6766” (this is the tattoo number on her mother’s arm, resulting from a sojourn in Auschwitz-Birkenau). This method of compiling various incidents from her work gives the reader a full picture of what it is like to be a diplomat.
Herzl includes explanations of arcane diplomatic protocols, which are most likely unfamiliar to the general public. For example, there is a well written description of how an ambassador presents her or his credentials to the head of a foreign state. The credentials are a letter from the ambassador’s host government designating a person an Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary. Plenipotentiary, a word most of us have not come across, means having been delegated full power. Herzl dryly comments, “I have found no explanation for ‘Extraordinary.’” OTHER CHAPTERS are more personal. For example, the author is an observant Jew who does not eat non-kosher food nor travel on the Sabbath. This led to a number of droll contortions as she attempted to reconcile personal observance with official obligations. Her dilemmas highlight the fact that each diplomat has to resolve the conflict between the individual and official, and not just conflicts between the country he or she represents and other countries.
Diplomacy is a profession and Herzl is keen to explain that to succeed one needs to know the tools of the trade, work ceaselessly, and be very hardheaded about goals and methods to achieve them. The picture she paints is very different from the common notion that diplomats spend all their time socializing at parties and making small talk with dignitaries while holding a martini. Herzl does explain why entertaining is part of a diplomat’s work, along with running from one end of a country to another, cultivating relationships with politicians, civil servants, the press and the local Jewish community, contending with rambunctious visiting Israeli politicians and defense envoys, and ceding almost all of your personal time along the way. Her point is: You do what you have to do to get the job done, glamour or not.
Herzl writes in a lively, consistently self-deprecating tone. Apropos dealing with the press, she remarks that taking yourself too seriously “is silly and counterproductive” and she learned “to be satisfi ed if reporters just mentioned my job and spelled my name correctly.” She makes fun of her sartorially challenged self by recounting how the South African press commented on her red pantsuit that “the Israeli ambassador needs a stylist.” She can occasionally be a bit touchy, like when she devotes a couple of pages to a bodyguard more interested in being a Don Juan than on the lookout for a terrorist attack.
However, most of all Herzl comes off as an ardent student of the art of diplomacy with a healthy sense of its importance and scope.
Readers expecting high international drama might be better served elsewhere. The incidents used in the book are mostly illustrative and Herzl avoids going into great analytical depth even about such well-known imbroglios as the Pollard affair. This is both a strength and a weakness. There were times when this reader’s interest was especially piqued, and would have appreciated an account with wider breadth. For example, Herzl mentions issues that arose with the Balkan states concerning the Holocaust, but she refrains from going into much depth about the numerous questions raised, their consequences and resolutions. This is also not a book about Israeli policies per se. Israel serves only as a backdrop to the theme of the practice of diplomacy, and therefore “Madame Ambassador” is accessible to a general audience.
Herzl does jump back and forth chronologically and this is sometimes confusing for the reader. The book also might have benefi ted from fewer stories in order to make her points more effectively. Nevertheless, Tova Herzl was indeed an ambassador plenipotentiary and extraordinary, and “Madame Ambassador” is an informative and enjoyable book, which sheds welcome light on a profession both familiar yet not well-known.
Yitzhak Avigad is a former Israeli diplomat