I started writing this article during the first Israeli Foreign Ministry strike a few months ago, but was reluctant to publish it because of my personal predilection against involvement in internal governmental matters of this kind. Visiting Israel at the time, I was stunned by the public’s indifference to the strike and the dismissive attitude towards those engaged in it. Now, with the strike resumed and intensified, the same lack of concern and interest seems to prevail.
When there is a strike that directly impacts people’s lives, like a bus stoppage or electricity shut off, the reaction is swift and pressure quickly mounts to reach an accommodation. This is not the case when Israeli diplomats go on strike, possibly because most people don’t realize the negative effects, the direct harm and the lasting damage it may cause.
I cannot presume to evaluate the demands and counteroffers made by striking Foreign Ministry workers or by Finance Ministry officials, but I am in a position to judge the impact that the strike is having not only on Israeli diplomats but also on many good people who wish to visit, develop ties or engage in commerce with the Jewish state.
I have worked closely with many members of Israel’s foreign service at every level for decades. Most of them are amongst the hardest working and most devoted, dedicated and committed public servants I have ever met. Many of them could easily find more lucrative positions outside the Foreign Ministry, were it not for their devotion to serving the country and representing Israel abroad.
Far too many Israeli elected and public officials do not sufficiently appreciate these diplomats or the personal sacrifices they must make in order to represent Israel around the globe, including in hostile or isolated locations. Their assignments can often involve danger to them and their families—and the memorials in the Foreign Ministry attest to those who have paid with their lives. Often, the spouses of diplomats must give up promising careers in order to accompany their families abroad. This can also mean relinquishing a pension and creating obstacles to finding similar employment when they return.
I know that some people are under the impression foreign postings for diplomats entail lavish benefits. This is far from the truth, especially for those who are with families who serve in expensive cities. I personally know of Israeli diplomats who were forced to borrow money while abroad in order to make ends meet. I was not surprised to learn, therefore, that one third of those recruited in the past ten years have left the Foreign Ministry for financial reasons.
I have worked especially closely with Israeli emissaries in the United States. They are a remarkably talented and articulate team that would make any country proud. They devote themselves wholeheartedly to their tasks, are available at all hours, day or night, and often go far beyond the call of duty. In the Conference of Presidents we visit many countries—most recently Spain and Greece—and we are often witnesses to the high regard in which Israel’s representatives are held. In Israel itself a few weeks ago, we were once again impressed with the competence, knowledge and understanding of the staff that serves in the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem.
Israel’s foreign service is a critical part of the country’s strategic equation and is vital to an array of national interests. From the consular services that address individual needs to hasbara advocacy for Israel, to promotion of economic ties and facilitation of visits by foreign leaders and people of influence, Israeli diplomats provide vital services.
It is clear that most people in Israel, aside from those seeking direct services, do not realize the overall impact the strike is having. Many visits by leaders and delegations have and will be cancelled or postponed as a result of this strike: Events have been called off, plans have been scuttled, lives have been disrupted. Yet far too many people, in both the government and the media, show a shocking lack of personal compassion for the striking diplomats or concern for the damage that their strike is causing to the perception of Israel as a whole.
I hope that this appeal can help to introduce a greater sense of urgency to the negotiations and perhaps some soul-searching about how those who are “the face of Israel abroad” are being treated. It is humiliating for them as well as for the State of Israel, and the price is mounting everyday.
Malcolm Hoenlein is the Executive Vice Chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.