Borderline Views: Educating our diplomats

A country that wants others to respect it cannot expect the world to be sympathetic if it continues to send out untrained and unskilled people as its representatives.

The report that the director-general of the Ministry of Public Diplomacy and Diaspora Affairs has to travel with an interpreter because he is unable to converse or make speeches in English was published on the wrong day. It would have been more appropriate for April 1, or perhaps on Purim.
But it is not something to be laughed at.
It is a disgrace that this country continues to appoint people to positions which require them to represent it, and who are unable to fill even the most basic requirement of speaking the necessary languages. This used to be a major problem with diplomats, but the situation has improved significantly during the past decade, as the younger generation of diplomats are almost all fluent in English and other languages. Unfortunately, there are still occasions where a political appointment of an ambassador results in someone who lacks the necessary language skills representing us abroad, putting us to shame.
I WAS reminded of this with the passing this week of Dr. Tamar Golan, former ambassador to Angola – a person who had spent much of her life establishing links with Africa, and who had become identified with Africa more than any other public figure. Golan was a flamboyant and highly identifiable character on the campus of Ben-Gurion University where, in recent years, she had been responsible for the establishment of the Center for African Studies. This was not only an academic project. Bringing African students and diplomats here, sending student delegations to Africa to participate in aid and humanitarian projects, the center set about to raise awareness and understanding of the African continent among students and faculty.
This was parallel to the setting up of the African studies program. The first inter-university project of its kind in the humanities, this study program is funded by Yad Hanadiv (the Rothschild Foundation) as part of a nationwide effort to strengthen those areas of study which have been neglected in recent years, and which are now being promoted between the countries’ institutes of higher education.
Rather than each university attempting to teach its own program for a small number of students, Yad Hanadiv supports projects in which students can take complementary courses at a number of universities, attaining higher thresholds of participants. This has begun to take off with respect to two important areas of study which are necessary prerequisites for anyone wishing to pursue a career in diplomacy – the study of languages and area studies.
At Ben-Gurion University, the reemergence of African studies complements other teaching programs and research centers, such as the Herzog Center for Middle Eastern Studies or the Center for the Study of European Politics and Society. Our strategic location at the geographic meeting point of Europe, Asia and Africa is a geopolitical reality for which we are insufficiently prepared and which, to a large extent, has been pushed aside through long years of fiscal cuts. Without a deeper knowledge of language, culture, traditions and contemporary politics and economics, it is impossible to prepare a well-educated diplomat, though these skills should be a prerequisite for budding diplomats, above and beyond the limited in-house cadet training.
While the immediate geographic region is well covered by these study programs, the two most important regions with which we trade and have critical political relations – Asia and North America – are not studied at Ben-Gurion University, although programs exist at other universities. It is impossible for every university to teach everything – there simply aren’t enough resources. The Yad Hanadiv project can offer these skills and knowledge to ever-widening groups of students, pooling the limited resources of the country’s universities.
This can only be to the benefit of our future standing in the world, over and beyond the ability (or inability, as is more often the case) to talk endlessly about the “conflict” but little else.
Good diplomacy is not only about the world understanding “me” and my problems, but starts from an awareness of the problems and issues of “others,” especially in the countries in which young diplomats are posted.
A COUNTRY that wants others to respect it and understand its unique problems cannot expect the world to be sympathetic if it continues to send out untrained and unskilled people as its representatives. It is not only about language, but it starts from that most basic of skills – the ability to communicate.
Israel does not lack immigrants from almost every country with a knowledge of the societies in which they grew up, and with a strong desire to contribute to the strengthening of relations between their country of origin and their country of residence. Nor does it lack a young, globally aware generation of students and adults who are much better able to deal with an external, sometime hostile world than its parents’. To send out people unable to speak the language, or who do not know the basic facts about local economics, politics, culture or traditions is not an April 1 or Purim joke, it is a pure and simple disgrace.
The writer is dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Ben-Gurion University and editor of the International Journal of Geopolitics.