For years, I joked about writing about my experiences as a Speechwriter for the Ambassador of Israel to the United States. In fact, I even had a gag-working title – a title indicative of the relationship between the typical Israeli and the world. I would call it, "I Am Not Mad at You, I Am Just Shouting." But, as the years went by and the memories began to fade, it became less and less likely that I even could write this book. Then, out of nowhere, I started hearing about "Shut Up I Am Talking and Other Lessons I Learned in the Israeli Government" -- the story of Greg Levey, a Torontonian, who became a Speechwriter at the Israeli Mission to the United Nations and ultimately became Speechwriter for Ariel Sharon.
And then.... the book kept finding me. My brother somehow ended up having coffee with Levey in Toronto. A friend sent me the book as a thank you for helping him with a personal project. Then, a local shul brought Levey in to speak about his experiences and I started getting invitations to the event by email. At this event, which I unfortunately could not attend, yet another friend bought a copy of the book for me, which Levey inscribed, "You know what it's like – Greg Levey." Out of sheer envy and opportunism, I began to reflect on my own absurd odyssey to and from the Israeli Embassy once again.
I began to reflect on my own absurd odyssey to and from the Israeli Embassy.
When I graduated from the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, Canada with a degree in Political Studies in 1998, I was tipped off by a friend who had worked at the Israeli Embassy in Washington, D.C., that he was leaving. For security reasons the Embassy did not post jobs. So, he told me that I should send my resume – and he stressed immediately – to Ambassador Avi Granot, the Embassy's Minister of Public Affairs. I sent my resume to Ambassador Granot and then proceeded to call him every Friday for twelve weeks to inquire about an interview – sometimes Ambassador Granot answered my calls – most of the time he did not. Whenever I connected with him, he called me "motek" (sweetheart) and told me that I should be patient and that they would interview me. I was stunned at my own rudeness/persistence, but knew that this was the only way I would get anywhere with Israelis. Ambassador Granot finally called me one day and told me that I should be in D.C. for an interview the next day – clearly not understanding that there was no D.C./Winnipeg direct flight. I hopped on a plane. Did well in my interview. Was called back for a second interview the next Monday. Extended my ticket. And then...didn't get the job.
Instead, I took an unpaid internship at the Canadian Embassy in Washington, D.C., in the Congressional Affairs department – a position that I loved. Each day, I would head off to Congress and write reports to be sent to Ottawa on immigration legislation or report on hearings on terrorism. I was quite proud to enter that building each day and was disappointed when my term was up, even though I was unpaid labor.
With four weeks left in my term at the Canadian Embassy, I went down to the cafeteria for lunch and stopped by to say hello to one of the only other Jewish people at the embassy, who happened to be having lunch with an Israeli diplomat. The Israeli asked me what I was doing after I completed my internship and I said that I had no idea. She told me that the Embassy of Israel was hiring and that I should call them immediately – I should call Ambassador Avi Granot, who all but hired me on the phone – as a Public Affairs Officer.
I waited eight weeks for my security clearance and when it arrived, I flew to Washington, rented an apartment and started my job. As a Public Affairs officer, I responded to phone calls, wrote responses to thousands -- seemingly millions -- of angry letters and emails that arrived each day and I spoke publicly to virtually anyone who was not important enough for Ambassador Zalman Shoval to address. So, if the Board of the New York UJA was in town, they met with Ambassador Shoval, but if a JNF mission from Topeka was in town, they met with me.
As a Public Affairs Officer, after only a few weeks on the job, I was sent out to speak to audiences of up to one-hundred and fifty people. No one ever told me what to say. No one ever came to listen to my speeches and give me feedback. Maybe they knew that I had a twelfth grade Israeli History class and Hebrew University Professor, Ehud Sprinzak's Contemporary Israeli Politics class under my belt and assumed that that would be all that I would need to represent Israel? Until there was an international incident, I was deemed to be doing a great job.
I remember a time quite early on when I was speaking to a group of high-school kids and a smart Alec asked, "Does Israel have nuclear weapons?" I could see the headlines. "Israeli spokesman acknowledges Israeli nuclear arsenal for the first time, asks schoolchildren not to tell anyone." I had no idea what to say. Flustered, I said, "No" and quickly moved to the next question. After the speech, I went to see Ambassador Granot and told him about the incident. He told me that if it comes up again that I should answer, "Israel will not be the first country in the region to introduce nuclear weapons." That was my training. One question and one answer.
That was my training. One question and one answer.
Even though no one knew what I was doing, I was doing such a good job that when the Netanyahu government fell and the Barak government came to power and a new Ambassador was thus appointed to Washington, D.C., I was given the chance to earn a promotion. The Ambassador, who had not arrived in D.C. was to give his first speech in Palm Beach, and I was told that if I wrote a good speech, the job of Speechwriter would be mine. I was also told that the new Ambassador loved jokes and that I should write a twenty minute speech with lots of them. From Monday to Friday that week, I wrote an optimistic three page, fifteen minute, speech on Barak's approach to the peace process – the first page, all corny jokes and embellished thank yous for a cocktail party crowd. At the end of the week, I was informed that I would be moving my desk to the Ambassador's office (or nearby at least). I was a few weeks shy of my twenty-third birthday and quite literally could not believe that I had been given this job.
The new Ambassador, Ambassador Ivry, was a hero and quite literally a legend -- and a completely unimposing and unpretentious one at that. He was a lifetime military man, whose claim to fame was that in 1981, as a General and the Head of the Israeli Air Force, he masterminded Israel's attack on the Osirak Nuclear reactor, denying Iraq's attempt to "go nuclear." On the wall of his office there was a signed Satellite photo of the bombed out site of that daring attack, which said, "For General David Ivry, with thanks and appreciation for the outstanding job he did on the Iraqi nuclear program in 1981 - which made our job much easier in Desert Storm. Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney." When people would ask me who I wrote speeches for, I would say "I write for the man who saved the world."
When I started as a Speechwriter, I had the naïve daydream that I would be writing quotable, Kennedy-esue speeches. I had and still have the utmost respect for Ambassador Ivry, but this man hated the press, had a terrible command of English and was a habitual mumbler. In my first speech, when I did not know Ivry, I strung together a bunch of hackneyed clichés that I knew a cocktail crowd would love. Something like...
"We were in the midst of a thunderstorm for generations. Now, the path to peace is filled with fallen branches and stones, but we must remove each and every obstacle, not for our enemies but for our children"
Weeks later, this type of sentence would be reduced to, "The path to peace has challenges. We must follow it for our children. For our grandchildren too."
I would joke that we could simplify it further into caveman language. "War bad. Peace good."
I would joke that we could simplify it into caveman language. "War bad. Peace good."
The Ambassador's contempt for media appearances was quite clear to me in that two weeks after arriving at the embassy – probably the two or three busiest weeks he would have in terms of public speaking -- he and I had not met. I remember approaching the Chief of Staff, my boss and the direct link between me and the Ambassador, and suggesting that the three of us sit down each Monday and discuss our speeches for the coming week. The Chief of Staff told me, "You are doing a good job. The Ambassador does not have time to discuss speeches with you."
So, I decided that I would learn how to write by going to hear my speeches being delivered by the Ambassador – and they were delivered exactly as I had written them. Because the Ambassador did not have room for me in his car, as he had his driver, his security guard and his wife, Ofra, I would take cabs alone to events across town and then cab back -- never interacting with the Ambassador. It was at these events that I discovered that he could not pronounce most names and places. So, I would write the Hebrew lettering, with the vowels underneath, above names that I was concerned he could not pronounce.
In my year and a half writing for Ivry, 95% of the feedback that I would get was through the Chief of Staff, who would mostly tell me that Ambassador Ivry, no master of delivery, wanted more jokes – more lawyer jokes in particular, even though Ivry was not a lawyer – jokes which I refused to write and which they inserted themselves. Once, he wrote "tov me'od" [very good] on a speech that I had written for an economic conference in Delaware and I was quite literally stunned by the feedback. The Chief of Staff underlined a single line – "In Israel, first we made the desert bloom. Now, we have turned the desert sand to silicon chips." The Chief of Staff wrote, "Include this line in every speech."
In the early days, there was a certain hysteria surrounding Ivry. Dozens of diplomats fought for his time and vied to establish loyalties with him. The Chief of Staff was no different. So, showing extra care, after the Ambassador's wife stopped attending his speeches, he suggested that I start going to events with him. I was called in one weekend – no one ever worked weekends at the embassy – and was told to go with the Ambassador to Baltimore. I was told that I needed to make sure that he found his way to the Harbourfront room at the Harbourfront Hilton. So, I got on my bike, came to work, hopped into the Lincoln with the Ambassador and sat silently for an hour, which was terribly awkward, I walked into the Hilton ahead of the Ambassador and asked where the Harbourfront room was. I then took the Ambassador to the room. I paused and thought: from a bunker in Israel, this man found a nuclear reactor two countries away, but I need to help him find the Harbourfront room? There it was on the second floor.
From a bunker in Israel, this man found a nuclear reactor two countries away, but I need to help him find the Harbourfront room?
For months, I wrote pretty watered down speeches about "the road to peace," tweaking a standard speech each day to reflect current events, but honestly not much changed and the challenge of my job diminished. Unfortunately, things did get a bit more "exciting" and indeed they turned tragic when Prime Minister Barak offered what by all accounts was a generous final status package and Arafat, betrayed his own people by choosing the sword. As Israel experienced the second intifada, I became discouraged. The Chief of Staff told me that we needed to keep an optimistic tone with respect to the peace process, but at time, it was difficult to be optimistic.
I can't say that I left the Embassy for ideological reasons, but I did find those last few months, as Barak and Clinton continued to push for peace, to be quite challenging. Mostly, I left the Embassy, in March of 2001, because I was tired of the grind – tired of working in such illogical and isolated ways. And, quite frankly, I knew I wanted to go to graduate school and wanted to travel before enrolling in the fall.
It was an unusual ride – one that I never expected – and one that seems entirely surreal upon reflection.