Book Review: An Israeli ambassador, aboveboard

During her time as ambassador, Tova Herzl had to face lingering anti- Semitism in Latvia and anti-Israel feelings in South Africa.

Tova Herzl (photo credit: DEBBI COOPER)
Tova Herzl
(photo credit: DEBBI COOPER)
When Foreign Ministry workers went on strike over the issue of diplomatic pay last year, it was perhaps the first time that many Israelis realized that their diplomats were earning low salaries – and that a number of them were struggling to stay afloat in countries with (even) higher living expenses than Israel.
Not only were diplomats the only civil servants without an organized wage agreement, their salaries had remained static for years. Surprisingly, there was also no distinction in pay between a diplomat working in a low-cost country and one sent to represent the state in a country with a high cost of living, making some posts more attractive than others due solely to financial reasons.
The two-week strike, which effectively closed Israel’s 103 embassies, consulates and diplomatic missions, ended with an agreement to increase pay for diplomats, including cost-of-living adjustments.
In addition to raising salaries, it turned the notion of an exalted life focused solely on galas, dinners and receptions into the stuff of legend – at least for Israeli diplomats.
If Tova Herzl’s book, Madame Ambassador: Behind the Scenes with a Candid Israeli Diplomat, had come out earlier, perhaps fewer people would have been as surprised about the conditions under which Israel’s diplomats had been serving.
Herzl, a career diplomat who entered the diplomatic corps at the age of 30, worked for the Foreign Service from 1983 to 2003. These years marked a period of frenetic change the world over, but especially in the countries in which she served as ambassador – the Baltic States (from 1993 to 1996) and South Africa (from 2001 to 2003).
Given all she saw and experienced in her two-decade-long career, there is a lot to reminisce about, and the book flits back and forth between Herzl’s postings – which also included two tours of duty as a congressional liaison in Washington.
The book is formatted as a subject- based rather than a chronological look back at her time abroad and among the many and varied topics, Herzl touches on the importance of language (the complicated issue of whether to speak Russian in former Soviet states), what an ambassador actually does, and the Holocaust (an inevitable subject in the Baltics).
She also outlines more personal issues such as battles with Jerusalem over diplomatic pay and car usage (yes, it was a problem even 30-plus years ago), a “chutzpadik” bodyguard who did not so much protect her as take advantage of his position to meet women (seriously), and hints at the challenges of being a single, religious woman in the service of the state.
While Herzl’s descriptions of life in Washington are interesting, it is the reminiscences of her sojourns in Latvia and South Africa that are especially fascinating.
Along with the challenges of setting up a working embassy and dealing with three countries (Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia) that were embracing their independence, Herzl also had to deal with Latvia’s seeming inability to take responsibility for its actions during the Holocaust and for the lingering anti-Semitism that permeated the country at the time. As the child of Holocaust survivors, these dual issues especially affected Herzl, who undertook to publicly award as many certificates to Righteous Gentiles as she could in a bid to change an age-old story.
In South Africa, a country in which she had lived in as a girl and graduated from university, Herzl kept coming up against anti-Israel feelings. Her tenure in Pretoria included the now-infamous World Conference Against Racism, which took place in the seaside town of Durban in 2001 and marked a period during which virulent anti-Israel sentiment came to the fore on the world stage.
While in South Africa, the day-today behavior of some in the diplomatic corps also revealed a clear anti-Israel undercurrent and behavior that was anything but diplomatic. For example, the dean of the diplomatic corps (the longest-serving ambassador, at the time the ambassador of Libya) failed to invite Herzl to a lunch meeting with the South African Foreign Ministry to discuss the then-upcoming Durban Conference.
This was not just a serious breach of etiquette, but also an example of the uphill battle Herzl faced in carrying out her job properly and productively.
Of course, diplomatic life is full of propriety and protocol, and understanding just how the rules work and with whom you can and should fraternize is not always easy. To give some insight into just how the complicated system works, Herzl outlines the minutiae of diplomatic life, how relationships work, whom you visit and how you address them, even when the person standing opposite you is clad just in animal skins and feathers – as was the case when she presented her credentials to the king of Swaziland.
It is vignettes such as these (and especially one that involves Madame Ambassador’s underwear) that make the book so enjoyable and readable.
As she states in the introduction, the book is an attempt to write a personal, yet general, informative and entertaining work that would demystify diplomacy.
Herzl easily jumps between the political and personal, the absurd and the weighty, and in so doing has certainly made the diplomatic life a little less foreign.