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State of Tel Aviv

On Being a Jewish Diplomat in Israel

I. The Middle

One evening, in the summer of 2015, I was invited along with ten or so European ambassadors to a dinner party in Herzliya. An affluent beach town just north of Tel Aviv, it was the favored location for many foreign diplomats’ residences.

The gathering was just what one would expect: canapes, fine wines, formal service, the sort of petit bourgeois fussiness that has become a hallmark of modern diplomacy. Diplomats, it is true, love to play fancy aristocrat.

At the time, Ayelet Shaked was Israel’s minister of justice, and she joined us for the first hour of the evening to discuss a hot topic in those days: the European Union’s plan to pass legislation requiring products made in the West Bank (those made by Jews, not Arabs) to be labelled as having originated in the Occupied Territories.

The intention, of course, was to pressure Israel to engage in what the EU considered to be serious talks to cede control over the West Bank in favor of Palestinian sovereignty. Sanctions targeting Israeli interests were one tool in their kit. This move also came at a time when the BDS movement was gaining momentum globally and presenting as a serious economic concern to Israel.

“Why is it,” the ambassador continued to probe, “that 'you people' have such problems with labelling?”

The EU ambassadors were—with few exceptions—enthusiastically supportive of the labelling initiative, but they restrained themselves with Shaked.

When the minister slipped away, we continued on to the main course, and the knives—literal and metaphorical—came out.

A robust discussion ensued, considering the merits and demerits of the “labelling” plan.

One ambassador turned to me, arms crossed, head atilt.

“Vivian, what are your personal views on the issue?”

At the time, I was serving as Canada’s ambassador to Israel.

“My personal views are no more relevant than those of anyone around this table,” I responded. “The views I represent are those of the Government of Canada.”

Clearly, the fact that I was Jewish was an issue for some.

“Why is it,” the ambassador continued to probe, “that 'you people' have such problems with labelling?”

Oh. My.

You people. Labelling. In Europe.

II. The Beginning – Part 1

I call it my “Cinderella” moment, when Prime Minister Stephen Harper of Canada appointed me, in January, 2014, to serve as ambassador to Israel. A dream I had never dreamt was now coming true.

Before announcing my appointment publicly, a senior aide to the prime minister met with me to be sure that I understood some of the less fabulous aspects of the position. The concerns distilled to two: that I would become a public figure and, therefore, a target for rancor; and, that I would be required to represent policies and views with which I might not agree personally.

The public attention part was not particularly appealing to me but a small price to pay, I believed, for such an indescribable honor: the daughter of a Holocaust survivor representing Canada to the Jewish state. It still gives me goosebumps.

As for having to represent views and policies not aligned with mine, I was well accustomed, after more than twenty years of practicing law, to separating my personal views from my professional duties. As ambassador my role was to represent the policies of elected officials and provide advice when necessary or asked to do so.

I was not a career diplomat, but rather a “political appointee,” selected by the prime minister to serve in a role that he considered particularly important. Such individuals, generally, are trusted by elected officials to faithfully represent the country and honor the policies of the democratically elected government.

Political appointees are almost always resented by the career public servants, who spend years moving up the ranks, only to have a plum appointment snatched at the last moment and given to a helicopter candidate from “outside” the system.

All that is understandable. The pique and pitch of the behavior that I experienced, however, is not.

It was no secret that there were tensions between Canada’s cadre of professional diplomats running the Department of Foreign Affairs in Ottawa and the values and policies of the Harper government.

The Department quite openly opposed – and, frankly, caricatured – Harper’s support of Israel. I became the convenient personification of all that they loathed.

But. It’s not really about me. Sadly, what I experienced is much more about the virulence of antisemitism.

Like what was on display at that dinner party in Herzliya in the summer of 2015.

III. The Beginning – Part 2

From the moment my appointment was announced publicly, career Department officials – active and retired from service – took private and public runs at my “suitability” for the role. They put forward a laundry list of reasons (amplified in opinion pieces, radio and TV interviews and reported in the odd article without verification); topped by the fact that I was Jewish and openly supportive of Israel. Well, not only supportive, but that I was, so they alleged, an extremist and “inside member” of some secret society of loyalists of then prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. I was a hardcore Likudnik.

It was all very cloak and dagger. It was also all untrue. I mean, I’ll cop to the Jewish and pro-Israel bits, but none of the rest.

Being accused of disloyalty is among the most enduring and vicious epithets that has been used to smear Jews for centuries. It goes to the core of a person’s integrity. It is calculated to debase, defame, demean.

Lack of veracity was no deterrence to what seems to have been a disconcertingly large number of nameless, faceless public servants who decided that I was disloyal to Canada and that I prioritized Israel’s interests.

The old subversive, global, Jewish cabal of antisemitic legend had been revived.

My accusers, who seemed to have a hotline to certain media outlets, had no basis to support such an offensive line of attack but, apparently, felt that the evidence was, well, self-evident. Being Jewish and supportive of the right of the state of Israel to exist was sufficient.

Being accused of disloyalty is among the most enduring and vicious epithets that has been used to smear Jews for centuries. It goes to the core of a person’s integrity. It is calculated to debase, defame, demean.

And, just like that, I became the nefarious, suspect, disloyal Jew.

In fairness, as with any institution, there surely is a solid contingent of good, ethical, intelligent foreign service officers. What is clear, however, is that there was and is an alarmingly high and widespread tolerance for the sort of malevolence directed at me which, curiously, continues to this day. More than eight years on.



IV. The End: On Being Cancelled, Definitively

I was, in retrospect, cancelled; rubbed out professionally for holding impure personal beliefs imputed to me. And for being unapologetically supportive of Israel. The Jewish bit was just icing on the cake.

Cancel culture, which has flourished for almost a decade in North America, supports the sort of malicious conduct that was and is directed at me.

It goes something like this: A particular set of beliefs is proscribed by any number of interests. For example, on many North American university campuses, support of or identification with Israel becomes legitimate grounds publicly to shame, to isolate and, if possible, to destroy the person’s career.

This presumed license to destroy and “take down” individuals and institutions for real or imagined “thought crimes” is the greatest threat, in my view, to unfettered intellectual debate. When I came of age, we were encouraged to critique, fearlessly and intelligently, and not just to accept rigid doctrines.

Today, people are afraid even to admit that they hold certain views. It is all very top-down, and deviations from the inventory of approved opinions are punished severely. Israel. Gender issues. It’s a long list.

The ferocity of cancel culture—often aligned with whatever “woke” belief is in vogue—is real. This zeal has permeated many mainstream institutions, shutting down the free exchange of ideas.

The parallels between thought controls in certain large institutions—like academia and government, as well as the media—are striking and very real.

The bottom line is not pretty. When it is cool in “progressive” Canada to throw around with impunity the “disloyal Jew” canard, lifted straight from the anti-semitic bible—the Protocols of the Elders of Zion—well, folks, we have a problem.

V. Diplomats and Media in Israel: Keep it Simple

With the resounding electoral victory of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in October, 2015, it was clear and expected that my tenure was limited. Such is often the fate of political appointees.

For personal and professional reasons—not to mention the amazing climate—I remained in Israel, and chose to reside in Tel Aviv. Since that time I have worked as an independent business consultant and decided to focus on writing. Truth is, my childhood dream was to be a journalist.  I was just slightly diverted for a few decades.

Over the last five years I have enjoyed steady gigs with publications in Israel, the U.S. and Canada. Writing for such different audiences has been eye-opening, with each bringing a very different depth of knowledge and political slant to issues concerning the Middle East.

I have also paid more attention to the content produced by foreign media correspondents working in Israel, who often default to simplistic clichés. As with journalists everywhere, those posted in Israel are often committed to a particular agenda; what have come to be known as “activist” journalists. They are addicted to “the conflict” and a particular narrative about it. Most disturbingly, many of them seem to reject the traditional discipline of professional journalism, which drew solid red lines between reporting and opinion. There is, generally speaking, not much of an effort made by journalists today to aspire to objective, fact-driven reporting.

This tiny country of 9 million, the size of New Jersey, hosts one of the largest press corps in the world, after Washington, D.C. and Brussels. That fact alone is astonishing, and begs the question: Why is the media so obsessed with Israel?Why is the world so obsessed with Israel?

The parallels between thought controls in certain large institutions—like academia and government, as well as the media—are striking and very real.

With few exceptions, the foreign media slips into a social milieu and professional headspace that understands Israel in quite extreme terms that often do not align with the facts. So. Either they’re onto something, or not.

Israel presents a steady supply of front page stories and the context is always much more complex than the headlines suggest. Yet, the more I scrutinized, the more I saw a disturbing trend: the inclination of the foreign press to cast blame. Everyone likes a story with angels and devils, heroes and villains, oppressed and oppressors. It makes for a simple, compelling narrative. And it has become the go-to formula for many journalists covering Israel.

It is also well known that virtually all foreign reporters based here speak neither Hebrew nor Arabic. Frankly, they haven’t a hope to understand and feel this place, no matter how competent their “fixers” may be.

This tiny country of 9 million, the size of New Jersey, hosts one of the largest press corps in the world, after Washington, D.C. and Brussels. That fact alone is astonishing, and begs the question: Why is the media so obsessed with Israel?Why is the world so obsessed with Israel?

Why are NGOs, including the United Nations, so obsessed with Israel?

Israel is a complex, nuanced place that requires more sensitive and knowledgeable treatment. It takes time to explain and understand the challenges, diversity, successes, and failures with unsparing clarity. The tendency to dumb down the innately complex reminds me of a comment made over coffee one morning by the ambassador of a western country in Israel.

“It was so much easier to support ‘plucky’ little Israel in 1967,” he opined, “beating the Arab states against all odds.”

Since then, he lamented, things had become so much more complex. Indeed.

VI. Coming Full Circle

Like so many Canadians, my family were immigrants. (In those days, the word “refugee” wasn’t used widely.) Our collective gratitude for having been given sanctuary and opportunity in Canada was boundless and eternal. For us, it meant life.

My paternal grandmother died in Israel in 1969, ending a grindingly hard life. In the early 1960s, she moved to Israel from Romania, a desperately poor refugee. In order to raise much needed foreign currency, Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu literally sold his Jewish citizens to Israel, at a fixed price of five to seven thousand dollars per head. It is reported that he personally skimmed $50-70 from each “transaction.”

When I visit my grandmother’s grave, on the outskirts of the northern town of Afula, I wish she could see and enjoy—just for a moment—the life that her sacrifice made possible for me.

This personal history reinforced my gratitude and commitment to serving my country, Canada. It was an incredible experience. No day was the same, with each one bringing new challenges, knowledge, and opportunity. In spite of the hostility of so many, my triumph is that I squeezed that proverbial lemon hard and, I believe, made some darn fine lemonade.

Onward and upward.


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Author image
Tel Aviv, Israel
Originally from Toronto, now residing in Tel Aviv, Vivian has long been active in journalistic pursuits, practiced law for 24 years and served as the Canadian Ambassador to Israel from 2014-16.
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