Israel's Man in Paris

Israel's ambassador to Paris, Yossi Gal, is better versed in religious ceremonialism than the French language.

ברק רביד - צרובה
Barak Ravid
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ברק רביד - צרובה
Barak Ravid

The dedication of a Torah scroll in a synagogue is one of the most festive ceremonies in Judaism, usually involving a procession from the donor's home to the holy ark. That is why many people at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem were surprised when about three months ago leaders of the Jewish community in Paris and Israeli diplomats living in the French capital were invited to such a ceremony at Rue Rabelais 3, the building where the Israeli Embassy is located, when two Torah scrolls were dedicated.

It was the head of the Defense Ministry acquisitions delegation in France, Maj. Gen. (ret.) Yossi Ben Hanan, who more than a year ago suggested holding the ceremony to the ambassador at the time, Daniel Shek. Shek, who was nearing the end of his tour of duty in Paris, rejected the idea. "The embassy," he told Ben Hanan, "is a workplace and it does not need to serve for other activities. For prayers and Torah lessons there are synagogues."

Israel’s ambassador to France, Yossi Gal. His speeches in French are limited to five minutes.Credit: Tess Scheflan

Several months later, after Shek had left the embassy, Ben Hanan raised the idea with the new ambassador Yossi Gal, who had taken up the position in November. Gal accepted the idea, showed up at the ceremony and delivered an enthusiastic congratulatory speech. He made it clear to the Foreign Ministry's legal advisor that the Torah scrolls were brought in with his agreement and were not a gift, rather were loaned to the embassy.

In accordance with Ben Hanan's suggestion, the two Torah scrolls were placed in a special ark in his delegation's conference room at the embassy. From time to time prayers are held there and once a week a rabbi comes in and gives Torah lessons for those who are interested. No one will admit this officially, but it appears that the room has become a synagogue and study house.

In no other Israeli diplomatic mission abroad is there a synagogue or a study house, not even in countries where there is no Jewish community. In a handful of cases, approval has been given for establishing a ritual bath for Israeli diplomats serving with their families in Africa or Southeast Asia.

Gal, 61, joined the diplomatic service in 1975 and has served as the Israeli Embassy spokesman in Washington, ambassador to Holland and deputy director general for economic affairs at the ministry. He was also appointed head of the press department at the Prime Minister's Office under Ariel Sharon, a job he left after half a year.

Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman appointed Gal director general of his ministry in April 2009. Gal was perceived at the ministry as a veteran and professional diplomat, one of their own, and not as an external appointment parachuted in by the minister. In the appointment, Lieberman himself transmitted a message of confidence in Israeli diplomats. Half a year later, in October, Gal applied for the position of ambassador to Paris. The prevailing assessment at the Foreign Ministry was that he was looking for an escape hatch from the position of director general because he realized Lieberman took a view of the position opposite to his own. Today it appears it was Lieberman who was not pleased with Gal's functioning and decided to "kick him sideways" to Paris.

Previous Israeli ambassadors to Paris like Elie Barnavi, Nissim Zvili, Yehuda Lankry and Daniel Shek knew the language well enough to conduct diplomatic talks with the French foreign minister, give live interviews or participate in question-and-answer sessions with students. Gal came to Paris with only basic French. Intensive French lessons he took before taking up the post only slightly improved his fluency in the language.

In France, more perhaps than in any other country, the language is a national and cultural symbol. In the diplomatic community too, French is an official language in which international treaties and official United Nations and European Union documents are formulated. "It's like sending to Washington or London someone who doesn't know English," says a source at the Foreign Ministry.

Few friends

Gal hardly gives interviews on French radio or television. His second-in-command, Sammy Ravel, is not interested in media exposure. Spokesman Yaron Gamburg is a relatively junior diplomat, who is not very fluent in French either. In the situation that has developed, it is former office holders such as Avi Pazner who appear in the French media. "The ambassador in France is not only a representative of Israel, but also a key figure in the Jewish community," says a highly-placed Israeli source who is involved in what happens in the community.

"This is a person all of France knows and is at home in television and radio studios. In the eyes of the Jewish community, when Israel gets criticized, the ambassador has to appear in the media, not only to defend Israel but also to bring honor to the community. This is something unprecedented, which is causing a great deal of embarrassment for Israel and the Jews of France."

Though Gal does periodically hold background talks with journalists, these quickly slip into English. At official events he gives a speech in French not more than five minutes long, which he reads out.

In November Gal's deputy, Ravel, sent a classified cable to the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem in which he cited a senior French official with whom he had spoken, stressing that the official's words reflect the prevailing sentiment: "Israel has few friends at the French foreign ministry. Key elements in France that deal with the Middle East have an 'Israeli obsession.' This does not only have to do with the thinking that the French interest is to strengthen relations with the Arab counties, but rather with a search for every opportunity to criticize Israel."

Senior sources at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem note that the problems with Ambassador Gal's functioning are not only in the area of public opinion, but also spill over into the diplomatic relations with the French Foreign Ministry and the Elysee Palace on sensitive matters like relations with the Palestinians, the Iranian nuclear program and the revolutions in the Arab world.

A highly placed Foreign Ministry source noted that the deputy ambassador and the diplomatic advisor at the Paris embassy send in many high-quality reports, but the top administration people in France talk to the ambassador. The cables Gal sends to Jerusalem do not contain intelligence and diplomatic information in the quantity and of the quality expected from an experienced diplomat serving in France, a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council which is deeply involved in issues concerning Israel. The Foreign Ministry is still waiting for Gal to meet with the leading candidate for the presidency of France, Socialist Francois Hollande.

Postcard from Paris

On October 3, for the Jewish New Year, Gal sent a cable headed "Rosh Hashanah 5771 - the Holy Community of Paris." After an historical and architectural description of the Great Synagogue of Paris, La Victoire, the ambassador wrote: "The sound of the ram's horn from the various houses of prayer mingled with the vocal embellishments of the cantors in the Sephardic liturgies mingled with the voices of the polished choir at the Great Synagogue. The aliyah (invitation to bless the Torah ) and the carrying of the scroll with which I was honored accorded me many manifestations of warmth. And upon exiting to the busy street - Paris going about its business, noisy traffic, the unbearable heat of the Indian summer and the packed restaurants and bars."

After that the ambassador went on to tell about the eve of the holiday with the chief rabbi of Paris at the Ahavat Shalom Synagogue in the 16th arrondisement [district]. "As is customary among our Sephardic brethren, the excitement reaches its peak during the course of the sale of the mitzvah (good deed ) of "Psalm of David for the opening of the Tabernacle," an augury for a good livelihood. One of the wealthy leaders of the community bought the mitzvah for the paltry sum of 12,000 euros," wrote the ambassador, following the practice of designating numerals by Hebrew letters.

"In his speech the chief rabbi took pride, for the umpteenth time, in 'our Moroccan ambassador,' who worships in our midst with great conviction - and I did not know I was such a person!"

A week later, on October 10, under the heading "Postcard from Paris," Gal told the foreign minister, his deputy, the director general of the ministry and the other high-ranking correspondents about the Kol Nidre prayer on the eve of Yom Kippur at the Paris Congress Center. "The prayer of the holiest day is accompanied by a choir and music ... My daughter who is accompanying me whispers in my ear throughout that the event is reminding her of a huge church in the United States and not of the solemnity of the day she remembers from her youth," wrote the ambassador. "Of course I walk from our home to the place where the service is held. My request not to be accompanied on that day by two cars and a motorcycle as is usual with my every move goes up through the ranks to the desk of the commissioner of police, who grants it unwillingly."

Gal goes on to describe the end of the Yom Kippur observance. "Bitter cold accompanies us on our way home to a quiet day of reckoning of the soul. I attend the Neilah service (concluding the day of fasting and introspection ) at the Hotel Georges V with members of the Moroccan community. [The liturgical ode] Adon Haslihot (Lord of Forgiving ) arouses in me tremendous longings for my late father's small synagogue in Jerusalem.

"And from there to the blowing of the ram's horn in the splendid 18th arrondisement with members of the faith of Moses ... Here too I am honored with the reading of the prayer for the welfare of the State of Israel ... To myself, I wonder what the author of the prayer was thinking about when he wrote 'and grant wisdom to its ministers and advisors.'"

Gal goes on to provide color about Paris. "The exhausting routine is broken by the cultural richness of this city: The Grande Salle is showing Stein's collection of the four greats - Picasso, Matisse, Cezanne and Degas. The Pompidou Center is showing the last paintings by Munch, the repressed Norwegian, and the Louvre the treasure of Alexander the Great," wrote the ambassador.

On December 12, Gal went for a visit to the city of Toulouse: "The reason that brings me to the city is the annual dinner of the major donors to the [fund for Israel], which is held in the splendid casino building. The local rabbi and his attractive wife explain to me that they had worked all day to kosher the kitchen."

Gal also tells about "the book that fills his nights," by philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy, about the civil war in Libya. "At my meeting with him in the lobby of the Bristol Hotel the waiters knew his special drink - half a glass of lime juice, Coca-Cola and ice. His perfectly pressed collarless shirts that are always unbuttoned down to the middle of his chest and his abundant hair adds to the aura surrounding the man."

The ambassador makes his way back to Paris by plane: "Air France Flight 6119 is full. Unlike their colleagues at the Israeli airline, here they 'show respect' to the Israeli ambassador and before I sink into a tired doze I discover they have seated me in the front row."

The embassy: "No synagogue"

The Embassy of Israel in Paris has responded: "The embassy does not have a synagogue. In 2011 two Torah scrolls were donated to the Defense Ministry delegation in Paris by a representative of the Jewish community. The scrolls were loaned to the embassy and they are located in the Defense Ministry delegation conference room. The Torah scrolls are dedicated to the memory of Yoni Netanyahu and Ilan Ramon. The scrolls were accepted at the embassy after consultation with the relevant authorities. "The ambassador and embassy staff hold dozens of diplomatic meetings as a matter of routine with representatives of the French foreign ministry and diplomatic establishment. Dozens of reports on these meetings are sent to the Foreign Ministry. In the cited report on a short trip to Toulouse, the ambassador reported on a meeting he held, this too as part of the routine of many visits to provincial cities like Marseilles, Lyons, Nice and Strasbourg.

"The embassy conducts daily activities vis-a-vis the media by means of press conferences, interviews and briefings. Articles about the ambassador have been published in the leading newspapers in France, and in addition many interviews and briefings have been given by the embassy staff: the ambassador, the attache, the speaker and the culture and public diplomacy advisors. The embassy has excellent working relations with all parts of the community and its organizations, as well as with economic, scientific, cultural and tourism authorities and more."

Read this article in Hebrew.



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