A diplomatic partnership

When Jacob Dayan — along with his wife, Galit, and their three children — arrived in Los Angeles in October 2007 to take up his post as Israel’s consul general for the southwestern United States, L.A. got two activist diplomats for the price of one.

With the approach of the end of his four-year term this week, as they looked to returning to their home on the western outskirts of Jerusalem, Jacob (listed as “Yaakov” on his birth certificate and otherwise known as “Yaki” to everyone) and Galit Dayan spoke in separate interviews of their experiences here.  

“I’m going back home stronger than when I came, because I know that we Israelis are not alone,” Yaki said, sitting in his office with a splendid northern view of the city and the Hollywood Hills.

It is reassuring and flattering to Angelenos to hear such a remark, as Yaki is occasionally asked why a rising and ambitious foreign service professional, previously in the thick of high-level negotiations with Palestinians, Jordanians and Syrians, and with service in Athens and Washington during a 13-year career, would have asked to be assigned to Los Angeles.

Granted, we have pleasant weather and sunny beaches, but nobody has ever described L.A. as the diplomatic center of the world.

His answer illustrates how much diplomacy has changed from the old image of formally dressed men redrawing boundaries and parceling out colonies behind closed doors to the current focus on influencing public opinion, using all tools of communication and persuasion.

“I can do more for Israel from Los Angeles than almost any other place,” Yaki said. “Of course, it’s the stronghold of the movie and television industries, but, in general, I found the autonomy and flexibility here to launch any project that will benefit Israel and make it happen.”

He arrived with a plan to address three primary communities: Jewish, Israeli and non-Jewish, with emphasis on the growing Latino population.

Besides the quiet day-by-day work of reaching out to each of these audiences, the Dayans and the consulate’s academic, cultural and public-relations staff organized a number of memorable attention-grabbing projects, many later adopted by other Israeli consulates in the United States and throughout the world.

One of the first was to raise Israel’s blue-and-white flag outside the Wilshire Boulevard high-rise that houses the consulate, something that had never been done in the history of the consulate since its opening in 1948.

After considerable red tape and strong opposition by the building’s owner, who worried about security, Yaki’s good friend Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa cleared the way.

From left: Consul General Jacob Dayan, Kobe Bryant and Ambassador Michael Oren.  Photo courtesy of Jacob Dayan

Typical of Yaki’s style, what might have been a quiet little ceremony turned into a major public occasion. Included were the mayor himself, 3,000 participants, an African-American choir, a Latino band, 60 rabbis and lay people blowing shofars, an Israeli army honor guard, and more.

The flag raising was, thus, reported widely in the Israeli, world and local media and was warmly applauded by Jewish residents. “This was an event where the Jewish community rallied, not to react to a crisis but to take part in a proud and joyous event,” Yaki said.

In another project, Yaki organized and accompanied a group of 18 rabbis of all denominations to Israel on a mission, dubbed Am Echad (One People). “One day, I hope to see as many Israeli rabbis from different denominations sit down and talk together,”
 he said.

On the political front, Yaki quickly established personal ties with California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger as well as with Villaraigosa. The connection paid off in 2010, when Israel faced international criticism after the Gaza flotilla was halted by the Israeli navy, resulting in the death of nine Turkish flotilla members.

Yaki and his staff boosted Israel’s damage control by organizing the largest pro-Israel rally in the world at the time, with Schwarzenegger front and center. The rally was widely reported and “made a huge impression in Israel, which now felt that it was not standing alone,” Dayan said.

In a collaboration between the Dayan couple and with cultural attaché Lior Sasson as producer, the consulate staged an Independence Day celebration last May with an exuberant 90-minute show, featuring Los Angeles’ multiethnic talents.

Not every media mention of the consul general has been an unalloyed joy. Early last year, Dayan found himself at the center of a brief flap between Washington and Jerusalem, following a conversation he had with Rahm Emanuel, President Barack Obama’s then-chief of staff.

Allegedly, Yaki let it be known that Emanuel had told him the administration was fed up with both sides in the Middle East peace process, and that if progress was not made soon, the White House would turn to other priorities.

Washington and Jerusalem quickly denounced the report as “distorted.” Although Yaki did not comment publicly, Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, spoke up on his behalf, describing Yaki as “one of Israel’s most experienced and respected diplomats.”

Israeli community

Almost from the beginning of the modern state, Israeli governments have wrestled with the unwelcome reality that considerable numbers of their citizens — native born or naturalized — have chosen to leave Israel and live in the Diaspora.

In the first few decades, expatriates were belittled as weaklings, cowards and yordim, those who “go down,” in contrast to olim, who make aliyah and “go up.”

Such denigration did nothing to change the situation, and Yaki has been among those trying to reconnect the expats more with their homeland as well as with the larger resident Jewish community.

While he said he hopes that a fair proportion of the expats, and their children, will return to live in Israel, his main concern is that they not lose their Jewish identity entirely.

“The first generation to migrate here maintains its close connections to Israel,” he said. “The second generation begins to drift away, and the third generation doesn’t know Israel anymore.”

Though America’s economy is not as strong as it once was and unemployment is high, the country’s lure is still potent. Yaki quotes Congressman Brad Sherman as telling him, “Encino is a greater danger to Israel than Iran,” referring to the draw of the American suburban lifestyle.

Such projections may be overly pessimistic, but Yaki is convinced that third-generation Israelis here will be lost without strong Jewish roots entwined with the general Jewish community.

Estimates on the number of Israeli expats in the L.A. metropolitan area, including their children, fluctuate widely, but the consulate uses 100,000 as a working figure.

If such is the case, one out of every five or six Jews in the area is Israeli. However, at this point, Israelis still form a largely self-contained community, with its own shops, newspapers, doctors, lawyers and attitudes.

Except for a few veteran leaders, mostly early migrants, most adult Israelis have few day-to-day ties with the larger Jewish community. Whether this will change, as Yaki hopes, time will tell. He credits his wife with establishing concrete projects to maintain the ties of second- and third-generation expats with Israel (see accompanying story).

Traditionally, the Israeli and Jewish communities came together in large numbers for the annual Israel Independence Day Festival, held in recent years at Woodley Park in Van Nuys.

The popular family celebration had been organized by local Israelis, with Yoram Gutman at the helm for the last 15 years, but the annual event was canceled last spring because, according to Gutman, he lost the financial backing from The Jewish Federation and, worse, was faced with a $43,000 bill for the 2010 event from the Los Angeles municipality for police and fire protection services, which had in the past been rendered for free.

Gutman said festival organizers had always provided a booth for the consulate, without fee, so when the city presented its tab for the first time, Gutman asked Yaki if the latter could talk to his friend Villaraigosa about voiding the bill.

The Dayan family poses for its close-up. From left: Itay, Galit, Jacob (Yaki), Daphne and Tal.  Photo by Peter Halmagyi

Yaki said he did request the mayor’s help, but given the city’s own budget woes, was turned down. The festival managed to go on in 2010, but this year neither Gutman nor Yaki attempted to reverse the city’s financial demands.

The consul general said he has, for years, been advocating for a more inclusive Independence Day festival, co-organized with The Jewish Federation and all other major Jewish organizations locally, as well as the Israeli community and incorporating the consulate’s own traditional reception.

He even proposed that the celebration could become a regional event, joined by delegations and entertainment from other southwestern states.