Meet the Ambassador: An ambassador at home in Israel

Lithuanian envoy Edminas Bagdonas marks his year representing his country in Israel by organizing visits from his prime minister and president.

LITHUANIAN AMBASSADOR Edminas Bagdonas (photo credit: GPO)
(photo credit: GPO)
Like all of his predecessors, Lithuanian Ambassador Edminas Bagdonas is thrilled to be in Israel, not only because of the lifestyle and the warmth of the hospitality, but also because Lithuanian diplomats feel so much at home in a country where, according to Bagdonas, there are at least 200,000 people with Litvak roots.
Bagdonas well remembers that when he presented his credentials to President Reuven Rivlin in September 2014, the president spoke of how his own forebears had come to Jerusalem from Lithuania in 1809.
And in September this year, when Bagdonas accompanied visiting Lithuanian Prime Minister Algirdas Butkevicius to his meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the latter mentioned his own Lithuanian roots.
Bagdonas, like some of his predecessors, also tried to claim former president Shimon Peres as a Litvak, but despite changing borders, Vishneyva, where Peres was born, was in Poland at the time of his birth and today is in Belarus. At best, Peres is a neighbor of the Litvaks but not a Litvak himself.
Bagdonas has an edge over his predecessors in that both his president and his prime minister will have visited Israel on his watch, along with several ministers and the mayor of Vilnius, Lithuania’s capital.
President Dalia Grybauskaite, Lithuania’s first-ever female president and the first president of Lithuania to serve two successive terms, is due to arrive in Israel on a threeday visit on October 19. A diplomat and an economist as well as a politician, Grybauskaite is often referred to in her own country as the “Steel Magnolia.” She is arguably one of the few heads of state in the world to hold a black belt in karate.
Understandably, Bagdonas has been very busy over the past two months or so – first helping to organize the itinerary for Butkevicius and now for Grybauskaite, as well as for Vilnius Mayor Remigijus Simasius, who in addition to being a member of Grybauskaite’s entourage will be attending the 30th International Conference of Mayors in Jerusalem.
But Bagdonas is actually an old hand at organizing important events. During the two terms of president Valdus Adamkus, Bagdonas served as chief adviser to the president, head of the Foreign Policy Group, coordinator of advisers to the president, chairman of the Consultative Committee of the Presidents of Lithuania and the Republic of Poland and director of the State and Diplomatic Protocol Department.
Grybauskaite’s main purpose in coming to Israel is to participate in the World Lithuanian Economic Forum, which will be attended not only by bona fide Lithuanian businesspeople but also by Litvaks from Israel and around the globe.
In addition to a business delegation of more than 100 people, she will be accompanied by the ministers of foreign affairs, energy, economics and agriculture. She is the patron of the forum, which will be held at the Dan Hotel in Tel Aviv.
“We’ve held it previously in Chicago, London, Norway and Vilnius. Now it’s time for Israel,” said Bagdonas.
Grybauskaite will also attend a separate Litvaks forum of three separate Israel-based Litvak organizations, which will be held at Beit Hatfutsot – The Museum of the Jewish People in Tel Aviv, which for several years has been a favorite venue of Lithuanian ambassadors for events related to their country and its people.
The Litvak forum will also be of importance to Simasius, who on September 22 unveiled a street sign for the first street in Lithuania to be named in honor of a Righteous Gentile who risked her life to rescue numerous Jews from the Vilna Ghetto. Ona Simaite, a Vilnius University librarian, who in 1966 was recognized by Yad Vashem, will now be remembered in perpetuity in her own city.
When asked whether he knows Grybauskaite personally, Bagdonas all but bristled. “Of course I know her personally. She was the one who sent me to Israel.”
As far as Bagdonas is concerned, it’s an ideal posting. He loves the weather, the sea, the culture, the music, the theater and the general way of life.
In addition to meetings with her fellow countrymen and women, Grybauskaite will meet with Rivlin, Netanyahu and with leading figures from the World Jewish Congress and the American Jewish Committee. In addition, members of her entourage will be meeting with their opposite numbers to discuss bilateral relations, energy, the geopolitical situation, economics, cultural exchanges and tourism.
The latter is a matter of great urgency, according to Bagdonas.
There are currently two direct flights a week from Tel Aviv to Vilnius, “and they are always full,” he says.
“It’s not always possible for me to get a seat. We need more flights.”
Most of the countries to which Bagdonas was previously posted were in the Baltics, so he was really eager to come to Israel with his wife, Julija, and their son, Martynas.
They also have a 27-year-old daughter who comes to visit.
His predecessors had been very positive in their descriptions of Israel, and he already had a lot of Litvak friends who are Israeli citizens.
Needless to say, he has acquired many more Litvak friends since his arrival in Israel.
Unfortunately, Grybauskaite, whose visit will end on October 21, will not be staying around long enough to join Bagdonas in celebrating his 52nd birthday on October 23.
But by then, he will be able to relax a little, but not for long, because his office is also involved with the visit of Lithuania’s National Opera and Ballet which will be performing at the Tel Aviv Opera House from November 5-11.
Fortunately, Bagdonas can take all this in stride, mainly because of his enthusiasm for yoga. He’s out on the beach in Herzliya every morning at 5.15 a.m. to practice yoga. This puts him in a good frame of mind for the rest of the day, regardless of tensions around him.
When asked if he plays any sport, Bagdonas replied: “Like all Lithuanians. We’re basketballers.”
In common with most of the diplomats stationed in Israel, he likes to travel around the country, not so much to the big cities but more to villages and kibbutzim.
“I want to cover all the bases,” he explains.
He’s invited to the big cities and towns for special events, so he gets to see them anyway.
But when the choice is his, he’d rather go to smaller places, which he says are more “interesting, important and necessary,” because “you have to feel reality on the ground.”
When he has time to read, his preference is for history books, and he likes to read in Czech, which is one of nine languages in which he is fluent.
He is still in what he terms the beginning stages of Hebrew.
“I need a little time,” he says, declaring that he believes that it’s vital to speak the language of the country in which one serves. “It’s not easy,” he admits with regard to Hebrew, “but I’ll do it. If you want to know something of the literature and the culture of the country in which you serve, you need to know the language.”
The ‘Jerusalem Post Diplomatic Conference’ will take place on November 18 in Jerusalem.