Madame Ambas­sador: Behind the Scenes with a Can­did Israeli Diplomat

Tova Her­zl
  • Review
By – May 18, 2015

The word can­did” does best describe the author’s intent in delin­eat­ing the par­tic­u­lar aspects of life as a career diplo­mat for the State of Israel. In short chap­ters, Her­zl dis­cuss­es each of the top­ics a diplo­mat has to deal with — some mun­dane, some offi­cial, such as Cre­den­tials” or Body­guards” or Neu­tral­i­ty” and diplo­mat­ic Immu­ni­ty” — and then illus­trates them with per­son­al expe­ri­ences. Her unique per­son­al aspects (being a sin­gle, Ortho­dox woman) also fac­tor into some of her descriptions. 

Her­zl, born in Israel in 1952 to Holo­caust sur­vivor par­ents from Hun­gary, was edu­cat­ed in South Africa, where her par­ents were Hebrew teach­ers for sev­er­al years, which accounts for her flu­en­cy in Eng­lish. Her diplo­mat­ic post­ings includ­ed Riga, Latvia, Wash­ing­ton, D.C. and Pre­to­ria, South Africa. She notes, some­what iron­i­cal­ly, that while she is often intro­duced as hav­ing served in Wash­ing­ton (two post­ings), she con­sid­ers her accom­plish­ments in Riga, where she was also the non-res­i­dent ambas­sador to Lithua­nia and Esto­nia, and where she had to func­tion with a trans­la­tor, to have been of greater impact. In Wash­ing­ton, she was part of a large Israeli diplo­mat­ic con­tin­gent, while in Latvia and the adja­cent Baltic States she was the sole rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the State of Israel.

The for­mal­i­ties of pre­sen­ta­tion of cre­den­tials, recep­tions, hol­i­day greet­ings, and deal­ing with gov­ern­men­tal offi­cials are all dic­tat­ed by pro­to­col, which exer­cis­es a heavy degree of con­trol. The dai­ly tasks of deal­ing with the postal sys­tem for trans­porta­tion of clas­si­fied mate­ri­als, han­dling body­guards, or man­ag­ing an offi­cial res­i­dence sin­gle-hand­ed­ly are all part of the skills required of a career diplo­mat. Added to that is the con­stant respon­si­bil­i­ty to rep­re­sent Israel both to the host coun­try and to oth­er coun­tries’ diplo­mats, as well as to estab­lish con­tact with the local Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty and to report back to the For­eign Minister’s office in Israel. Her­zl pro­vides many inter­est­ing anec­dotes of her expe­ri­ences in each of these spheres. She notes, as well, that nor­mal post­ing time is three to five years to pre­vent what in Wash­ing­ton is known as cli­en­ti­tis, the dis­ease of overi­den­ti­fi­ca­tion with the host coun­try.” Her­zl reit­er­ates her respon­si­bil­i­ty not to con­fuse per­son­al pref­er­ences with pro­fes­sion­al positions.

The author’s per­spec­tive on Avrum Berg’s vis­it to Con­gress in 2000, on Jonathan Pol­lard, and, espe­cial­ly, on the 2002 meet­ing in Dur­ban, South Africa of the Unit­ed Nations World Con­fer­ence Against Racism pro­vide inter­est­ing insights into the high­ly charged agen­das of sev­er­al NGO’s (non-gov­ern­men­tal orga­ni­za­tions) all intent on label­ing Israel as an apartheid state. The chap­ter on the ille­gal organ donor trade, which describes the attempt to hood­wink the embassy into nota­riz­ing” an ille­gal doc­u­ment in order to facil­i­tate the trans­plant in a South African hos­pi­tal that would not be pos­si­ble with­out it, is an exam­ple of what an ambas­sador has to deal with that often involves the local Jew­ish community. 

Tova Her­zl has writ­ten an inter­est­ing mem­oir about a fas­ci­nat­ing career that has lots of un-fas­ci­nat­ing parts to it. She has obvi­ous­ly been a hard­work­ing pro­fes­sion­al with few per­son­al issues that detract­ed from her com­mit­ment. While most peo­ple con­sid­er the diplo­mat­ic corps a glam­orous” life, it has many aspects that are not glam­orous at all, but the author is can­did about both these hum­drum real­i­ties and her per­son­al life as a sin­gle, reli­gious­ly-obser­vant per­son, and con­veys a sense of sat­is­fac­tion in hav­ing car­ried out her man­date with skill and grace.

Relat­ed Content:

Esther Nuss­baum, the head librar­i­an of Ramaz Upper School for 30 years, is now edu­ca­tion and spe­cial projects coor­di­na­tor of the Halachic Organ Donor Soci­ety. A past edi­tor of Jew­ish Book World, she con­tin­ues to review for this and oth­er publications.

Discussion Questions