Israel mission impossible

A nice Jewish boy crosses the ocean to write speeches for Ariel Sharon.

Gregory Levey 88 224 (photo credit: Carl Hoffman)
Gregory Levey 88 224
(photo credit: Carl Hoffman)
Shut Up, I'm Talking: And Other Diplomacy Lessons I Learned in the Israeli Government By Gregory Levey Free Press 288 pages; $24 Just minutes before an important vote at the United Nations on a resolution he hasn't the slightest clue about, representing a country of which he isn't a citizen, 25-year-old Gregory Levey begins to panic. Calls to the Israeli delegation to the UN, hoping for guidance, prove fruitless. "They're going to vote," Levey whispers urgently from a cellphone in the General Assembly to someone at the mission. "A vote? A vote on what?" says the voice on the other end. "I was hoping that maybe someone there had some idea of what it was and could tell me how I should vote." No such luck. This episode, which opens Levey's just published memoir Shut Up I'm Talking: And Other Diplomacy Lessons I Learned in the Israeli Government, only begins to describe the inner sanctum of Israel's most important diplomatic outpost where Levey landed himself as a speechwriter. The result is an often hilarious account of Israeli diplomatic efforts so befuddled by ineptitude it leaves little doubt as to why Israel fails to explain its case to the world. At least, that is the perspective of Levey, a Canadian born to South African immigrants who themselves considered settling in Israel, but opted for Canada instead, choosing "polite people who had opinions about nothing" over "ill-mannered people who had opinions about everything." Levey's two-and-a-half-year stint as a speechwriter, first for the delegation to the UN and later for prime minister Ariel Sharon, coincides with no shortage of drama: Yasser Arafat dies, construction of the security fence has the world astir and Israel is assassinating Hamas militants on a weekly basis. But these events don't seem to shake Israel's diplomatic arm into action: Inside the halls of Israeli diplomacy, a comedy of errors unfolds. Tasked with making Israel look good in the face of often extreme circumstances are a cast of characters who, to the young Canadian, seem incapable of getting anything right. Take for instance Levey's unforgettable first encounter with a former foreign minister to finalize drafts of a speech. The young Canadian straightens his tie, brushes off his suit and waits nervously. "Incredibly proud to be there and smiling broadly, I strode in and put my hand out in greeting." There to greet him was the minister in his underwear. "I left my hand out, dangling for a moment, and thought, Oh my God! Why is this man only wearing underwear?" That never gets explained, nor do the countless other mishaps that Levey encounters. "Avi," a fellow employee, is befuddled by Levey's decision to visit the country he was hired to represent, and tries to convince him to go somewhere "fun" instead, like Sweden. Ambassador Arye Mekel is even less encouraging. "We don't want to hear that your body washed up on the Tel Aviv beach." These episodes among the many Levey recounts do not bode well for a country that needs no additional handicaps at the international body where it is at best an unwelcome guest. THE EPISODES get stranger when Levey is transferred to Jerusalem to work in Sharon's office. Rushed across the Atlantic with seeming urgency, it then takes months before Levey can even begin working. The bureaucratic hurdles, that would make a communist regime look good, provide fodder for the second half of Levey's memoir which focuses on his time in Israel. One such delay is a math test, a strange prerequisite for speechwriting, which awaits translation into English. This takes weeks. Then the protracted battle over getting a cellphone which needs the go-ahead from the "telephone committee." This takes months. Somewhere down the line, Levey ends up distributing his home phone number only to be terrorized for weeks on end by the "Israeli government's mad scientist," a government employee who seems to spend more time concocting conspiracy theories than doing any actual work. At a time when many are mulling over an increasing divide between American Jews and their Israeli counterparts, it is hard not to read this book as an insider's guide to one side of that very divide. Like many North American Jews who grow up learning to defend a country they have little idea of, Levey is taken aback by what he finds when introduced in the most intimate way to Israeli culture. Early in the book, he recalls his childhood years at a Zionist day school, where the students would "dutifully" rise to sing the Israeli national anthem, unaware of the "incongruity" of singing it against the Canadian winter landscape. Half the day would be devoted to studying modern Hebrew, Israeli history and Zionist literature. And yet the Israel he was taught to believe in during those many hours is a far cry from the country he later comes to know first hand. It is this incongruity that seeps through Levey's humorous account. Behind the countless episodes, is the voice of a Canadian Jew struggling to understand the mysterious ways of a country he wants to connect with, but can't. By the end of the book, the clown takes off the face paint. The Levey we get is that of an exasperated idealist, whose dream has been shattered. An Israeli friend tells him: "That's why they call it the Zionist dream. Because it doesn't really exist." It is on that sadder note that Levey brings his memoir to a close. Sitting on the side of the road after a car accident, Levey ponders his experience in Israel. One can imagine him telling this incident with the same kind of humor that fills the rest of this book. The hours it takes for the tow truck to arrive; the seeming indifference to him bleeding on the side of the road. But he doesn't. His reflection leaves him somber. "As I looked toward a future alongside my soon to be wife, Israel no longer seemed relevant," writes Levey. Here Levey is not alone. Studies suggest that younger generations of North American Jews are less connected to the homeland than the generations before them. The divide, we are told, is only growing. Israelis who read this book will laugh at the seriousness with which Levey takes his job. They will brush him off as stiff and rigid. They will question his inability to improvise. Voting without being advised on how to vote? "No big deal," they will say. And they are probably right. An Israeli in Levey's shoes would know how to wing it. But if anything, this book assures us of at least one unifying bond: humor. Though shocked and dismayed by much of what he finds, and panicked by the tasks he is given, in the end the "nice North American Jewish boy" manages to survive pretty well among his rude, cavalier Israeli counterparts. What allows him and his Israeli brethren to manage the absurd with relatively few bruises is their ability to laugh - surely, Levey will remember this about Israelis, alongside their often exasperating flaws.