“Avoid eye contact”, my friend said as he met me at JFK and heaved my tattered suitcase into the trunk of his blue Pontiac. It was September 1984 and I was dispatched to our UN Mission in New York. He meant well. I was a rookie in a city well known for its street gangs and violence, so it was a sound advice. But I did not follow it; in fact, ever since that autumn, I did nothing but to keep eye contact with Americans from all walks of life. I liked what I saw and I learned so much from just looking America in the eye.
The few words I’m trying to put together here, using some well-trodden clichés and personal remarks that I carry with me, are my very personal “goodbye and thanks for everything.” I spent nearly half of the last 30 years in the U.S. I never attempted to become, perhaps, the longest serving Israeli diplomat in America, but I am quite happy that both my daughters graduated Jewish day schools in Washington and in Chicago.
Back in 1984, I was also advised to be street smart, and I tried my hardest to be just that, navigating, as Israel’s spokesman in New York the 1980s, between dozens of dailies, weeklies, TV and radio stations. I took it later to Capitol Hill, where I tended to Israel’s relations with Congress in the 1990s. When I became later Consul General to the Midwest, I found out that being street smart is essential in maintaining Israel’s special relations with the United States and the American society nationwide. I listened and sometimes spoke to Jews, Catholics, Evangelicals, Liberals, main-line Protestants, Neo-cons, Latinos, African-Americans and many others; navigating for Israel.
“America neither begins nor ends in the Beltway”’ the Federation president coached me in Chicago. He was right, and I found that out as I traveled from California to the New York Island, visiting over forty states of the Union. I was awed and humbled to be invited to address the Assembly and Senate of the Great State of Illinois in Springfield. The devotion and muscle of state, city and local institutions should inspire political life worldwide.
At the North American Division in the Foreign Office, I kept advising my Consuls General and other potential envoys “never to just work with the Jewish community, but live within it.” Indeed, if there is one decisive memory I’ll always cherish, it is the sight of hundreds of people, chanting weekly in Hebrew the Prayer for the state of Israel. It was heartwarming and reassuring and it provided a distinct meaning to the Special Relations between the U.S. and Israel. It led me to devote my Dissertation at Israel’s National Defense College to the brotherly relations, warts and all, that we in Israel have with the American Jewish community.
“Would you mind if I change seats with my Consul General?”, the presidential candidate asked the Foreign Minister as he gestured me to move to his seat, across the table. She smiled in approval and he moved to the seat next to hers, as they began a very fruitful discussion. As I changed positions with him, I thought that he was absolutely right. I spoke for Israel in America for three decades, but I also endeavored to bring home the American message and point of view to decision makers in Jerusalem. I reported my observations of new trends in American political affairs, the evolving society, demographic and cultural changes and Jewish life in America. I may have even become a participating observer in American life.
It was not always easy; back in 1985 when I replaced him as spokesman in New York my friend warned me that in the first six months I’d feel as if I was being run over by a very heavy truck. When I asked him if it goes away afterwards, he smiled dryly and said, “no, but you get used to it.” And I did, as did all my friends at the embassy in Washington and in the nine Consulates around the country. It is a tough job, working sometimes 24/7, on weekdays and weekends, but it is a sweet one.
“Don’t you worry, Mr. Consul General” the Indiana Congressman told me on my farewell visit to his office in 2008. “Israel will always be the last thing on which we can still agree on in Congress.” Given the political atmosphere, I thanked him for his commitment, for Congress is indeed the bastion of support for Israel. However, what I really heard was that Israel might become the next issue on which the two parties do not agree. Israel always kept a bi-partisan status on the Hill and around the country, and that’s the way it should stay.
Here is my final cliché, which I find particularly appropriate. Moving on to my next assignment, I assume I can take myself out of America, but I don’t think I’ll ever take America out of me. Farewell.
Ambassador Barukh Binah, formerly Deputy Chief of Mission at the Israeli embassy in Washington, assumed his new assignment as Israel’s Ambassador in Copenhagen, Denmark, on August 1st.