'Israel is inventive, moving and spiritual, not just about conflict'

Israel is inventive, mo

joel lion 88 (photo credit: )
joel lion 88
(photo credit: )
On a recent afternoon, Joël Lion, the new spokesman and consul for media affairs at the Israeli Consulate in the Big Apple, was juggling a day full of meetings, visiting dignitaries who wanted press, and a New York reporter waiting in his office, when his cellphone rang bearing troubling news. It was home, alerting him to the fact that six of his eight children never came home from school. It turned out the school buses were running late, but the children - in New York for just a weeks - had forgotten their new home phone number, so no one called the Lion residence, located several kilometers north of New York City. "It's very, very hard for them," Lion remarked, after the brood showed up and crisis was resolved. Indeed, Lion and his family served extensively in Europe and Israel before making their way to New York, where Lion was among nine candidates for the job. In addition to wanting to be near Jewish schools for his family, Lion lobbied hard to serve in New York, which he described as the world center of press. "Newspapers here are making the world agenda," he said, during a recent interview in his office. "To serve in the US is part of the career of the Israeli diplomat," he added. "It's a step to understanding who is our ally, with whom do we stand." Lion offers a different profile than his predecessor, David Saranga, who embraced social media as a way of burnishing Israel's image. During his tenure in New York, Saranga did not shy away from big projects - such as a "Tel Aviv beach party" in Central Park over the summer - or controversies, like one he stirred when he invited the Maxim international men's magazine to do a photo shoot in Israel in 2007. Indeed, during a recent visit to the consulate in midtown Manhattan, Lion, who is an Orthodox rabbi, apologized for the lack of decor in his inherited office, where a bare wall was all that remained of a life-sized poster replicating the Maxim spread. Improvising, Lion pulled up a wooden crate to use as a coffee table near two plush armchairs that remained. Lion and his family, minus two children serving in the IDF, arrived in New York in August. Born in France and raised in Luxembourg, his resume boasts several assignments in Europe. Most recently, he was deputy director of the Western European Department at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem and was responsible for political relations with Germany. During the IDF offensive against Hamas in Gaza last winter, Lion was in charge of the Foreign Ministry press center in Sderot. Previously, Lion was head of public affairs at the embassy in Berlin. He also served as deputy chief of mission in Riga, Latvia, and was charge d'affaires for Slovakia at the embassy in Vienna. In the late 1990s, Lion was the first Israeli official to participate in election monitoring under the auspices of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. During the second intifada, he was a Foreign Ministry spokesman in Bethlehem. Already, Lion said he sees vast differences among European and American press corps when it comes to their perception of Israel. In America, critics of Israel do so "as friends," whereas in Europe, the root of criticism is "anti-Zionist," he said. "Here," he said, gesturing around his new digs, "no one questions the fact that there should be a Jewish state in the Middle East. It's not an issue." Lion did not arrive in New York intending to implement any specific new strategy. "I'm learning," he said. "Dialogue is the strategy." The office was recently split between hasbara (public diplomacy) activities and media relations, with Lion heading up the latter. He said he would embrace the technology strategy initiated by his predecessor. "It's branding Israel, and branding Israel is a process," he said, describing a desire to change people's perception of the Jewish state as a place defined by conflict. "Israel must be something else," he said. "Israel is something inventive. Israel is something moving. Israel is something spiritual. Israel is not only conflict." Although one could count the number of articles on Israeli culture or travel to Israel, Lion said it is impossible to measure success in his job. "You are doing it for the good of the State of Israel," he said. "You'll do whatever you can. You'll never know whether you succeeded or not." Still, he is a man of faith, whose spiritual life impacts his work as a diplomat. Several years ago, Lion was ordained as a rabbi through a long-distance learning program at Pirchei Shoshanim in Lakewood, New Jersey. "I always learned," he said, explaining how he got started on a path toward becoming a rabbi. "I think it's important to have the Jewish view of things," he said. "Even if you're talking about serious problems of the world, your faith is always present as a representative of the Jewish state. For me, that's important."