'Israel is opening up to the world in a whole new way'

Living out her mother’s dream, Canadian Ambassador to Israel Deborah Lyons is strengthening bilateral ties.

Canadian Ambassador Deborah Lyons presents her credentials to President Reuven Rivlin (photo credit: MARK NEYMAN / GPO)
Canadian Ambassador Deborah Lyons presents her credentials to President Reuven Rivlin
(photo credit: MARK NEYMAN / GPO)
The interview with Canadian Ambassador Deborah Lyons takes place in the ambassador’s official residence, which is no longer in the diplomatic ivory tower of Herzliya Pituah, but in a two-story penthouse in a six-story apartment building in the heart of Tel Aviv.
Canadian and Israeli flags stand side-by-side in a corner of the spacious living room.
It’s a given that the national flag of every ambassador’s country is on display at his or her residence, but rare to see the Israeli flag beside it when there is no formal function to warrant its presence. The reason for the companionship of the Star of David with the Maple Leaf becomes clear as Lyons enthuses about Israel in general and Tel Aviv in particular.
“I see life. I see families, people having Shabbat, babies, dogs, old people sitting on benches, young couples holding hands.
I love living in Israel. I love living in Tel Aviv between Habimah and City Hall. I’m a neighbor of the mayor’s and I keep an eye on him.”
In the year that she has been in Israel, Lyons has managed to explore the country from north to south and east to west.
She has a particular fondness for Metulla, which is where the Canada Center includes an ice hockey school that attracts youngsters from all parts of the north and center of the country and from all ethnic and religious backgrounds. Lyons is somewhat chagrined that in international hockey tournaments in Quebec, the Israeli youth team beat the Canadians at their own game.
Nearly all Canadians play hockey or ice hockey at some stage of their lives, and Lyons is no exception, but says she was much better as a speed skater, and in her youth skated from her home on the outskirts of New Brunswick to the center of town.
When people work in both the government and the private sector, they usually go from the former to the latter. Lyons did the opposite. She ran two companies of her own, one in tourism and the other in management consulting, before joining the federal government in 1982. If she ever retires, she says, she’ll go back to working in the private sector. Retirement is not mandatory in Canada and Lyons says that if she remains sound in mind and body she can stay in the Foreign Service or any other government department for as long as she wants.
There are various pension schemes to which Canadians can subscribe, she says, but it is against the law to dismiss someone on the grounds of agism. People retire when they want to, and not because they’ve reached a certain age.
“You cannot be terminated in terms of age,” she underscores. “I’m probably more on top of my game now, than I was 10 years ago,” she adds.
Lyons suggests that countries with low birth rates should emulate Canada in this respect, because mandatory retirement means losing good talent that may not necessarily be replaced.
A firm believer in women’s empowerment, she was surprised to learn that female MKs had campaigned against increasing retirement age for women in Israel.
“Why would they want to do that?” she pondered. “The longer someone works, the more they get in their pension.”
Wherever she is in the world, Lyons, in addition to what her mission is at any given time, likes to meet with women’s movements and to learn to what extent there are equal rights for and equal representation by women in that country.
Before coming to Israel, she was Canada’s ambassador to Afghanistan, and the only female diplomat in Kabul. As a non-Moslem she was not expected to wear a head covering, but made a conscious decision to cover her hair whenever she left the embassy.
This was not only a sign of respect to the host country, but a means of reaching out to the women. If she covered her head, she reasoned, they regard her more as a sister than a stranger – and she was right.
One of several ambassadors who served in Moslem countries in the region before coming to Israel, Lyons thinks that this is actually beneficial, because it gives them a broader perspective and a greater understanding of the region, its achievements and its problems.
In Israel she delighted in the quietness and tranquility of Yom Kippur. She has experienced all the Jewish holy days in Israel and is both fascinated and excited by them.
She is amazed by the amounts of food prepared by people to whose homes she is invited on these occasions.
“If you’re going to be in Israel, you’ve got to eat. I’m eating my way through Israel.
Israelis love their food and the quality is phenomenal. I’m the healthiest I’ve been in 10 to 15 years.”
She attributes this in part to the amount of walking she does. On Saturdays, Lyons gets up early and loves to meander through the side streets and alleyways of Tel Aviv, and may walk along the beachfront at nightfall when the humidity is reduced and a breeze comes off the sea.
On weekdays, she enjoys the hustle and bustle of Carmel market.
Much as she is enamored with Tel Aviv, she also has a fondness for other parts of the country. For work, she’s frequently on the road to Jerusalem and loves the late afternoon in Jerusalem when the sun is somehow reflected in the Jerusalem stone, emitting an ethereal light. She has also visited kibbutzim on the Gaza border and has been greatly impressed by the fact that when Gazans come across to Israel for medical treatment, they are warmly greeted by the kibbutzniks, who allay tensions and any fears that the Gazans may have.
Her favorite place though, is the Hula Valley with its multitude of birds.
What Lyons enjoys most about Israel is the discourse. Jews may joke about two Jews and three opinions, but this is precisely what Lyons delights in. For her, it’s like a shot of adrenalin to listen to the different viewpoints of people of different age groups, professions and ideologies because it all contributes to her knowledge of Israel.
“Issues are very alive, vibrant and engaging,” listing security, social justice, politics and religion as some of the subjects discussed at her own and other people’s dining room tables.
“Israel has an incredibly active civil society,” she marvels. She devours English-language books, newspapers and magazines about Israel as well as online publications.
In fact, she is often reading three or four books at the one time, jumping from one to the other and back again.
“I spend a lot of time learning and benefitting from constant discourse. There is an intensity of life here which is exciting and satisfying.”
When she arrived in Israel, Lyons said that her goals were to create a strong political relationship; to foster business and academic partnerships, to share information and to create a partnership of support to developing third-world countries.
After visiting Ra’anana to see the work of Beit Issie Shapiro, which specializes in improving the quality of life for children and adults with arrested development resulting in physical and or mental disabilities, Lyons has added to her list cooperation between facilities such as Beit Issie Shapiro and their Canadian counterparts.
She has yet to visit the similar Jerusalem facility of Shalva, and she also plans to see what is being done at Yad Sarah, which is headquartered in Jerusalem, so that she can build bridges of cooperation between them and Canada. At Beit Issie Shapiro she was told there are some projects for the disabled in Canada which have been adapted for Israel’s needs at Beit Issie Shapiro. She sees further cooperation in this area as a twoway street.
Lyons who has read extensively on projections for the world’s disabled population, says that by 2050, at least 25% of people around the globe will suffer some form of disability, so bilateral or multi-lateral cooperation on improving the quality of life for such individuals will not only result in a huge social contribution by allowing greater social cohesion and inclusion, but also has huge economic potential, she reasons.
She also sees great potential in cultural exchanges, and is so impressed by the creativity of Israeli artists and designers that she is planning to dedicate a section of the residence to an exhibition area for Canadian and Israeli artists.
It’s a challenge for Lyons to figure out how much of her life is work and how much is an expression of her own interests and desires.
Her late mother always dreamt of visiting Israel, but living at near-poverty level and raising eight children stood in the way of turning that dream into a reality. Lyons’ mother died before Lyons had sufficient funds to pay for her mother’s flight and accommodation. She credits the “good government policies” of New Brunswick to the fact that she and her siblings all have university educations.
She feels that by being assigned to Israel, she is here not only professionally but personally to live out her mother’s dream.
She also believes that she’s in Israel at a pivotal time for the country which is “moving forward with innovation and its social agenda.”
As for her ambitions as an ambassador, Lyons is very pleased that bilateral trade between Canada and Israel last year increased by 11%. Canada’s business community strongly supports Israel and wants to do more, she says.
In terms of supporting third-world countries, Canada and Israel are working together on agriculture, health, education and female empowerment development projects in Ukraine, Ghana and Rwanda.
Inasmuch as Lyons is the ambassador of Canada, in a sense she’s also an envoy for Israel. It’s generally known that Canada is a multi-cultural society, she notes, but “people don’t recognize the pluralism that exists in Israel.” Lyons wants to make people more aware of this factor and thinks that it should be more clearly articulated.
This is a mission that she has taken upon herself.
“I love to tell Canadians about the Israel of today. I don’t think people have a good enough understanding of what Israel is creating and contributing. Israel is opening up to the world in a whole new way that we don’t quite appreciate.”
The Jerusalem Post Diplomatic Conference is taking place on December 6 at the Waldorf Astoria in Jerusalem.