One is Druze, another arrived from Ethiopia as a child, a third is an Orthodox Jew. They represent, as Sarah Ann Madi said, “the Israeli human mosaic” and they are about to be posted abroad as economic attaches for Israel or are in the middle of a stint.
They also happen to all be women. That adds an additional dimension to a job where some of their host countries find the idea of a working woman strange. In almost every place, they feel they have to strike a balance between being perceived as assertive or aggressive.
Noa Asher, at 47 the eldest of the group, has been Israel’s economic attaché in Tokyo for past five years and will return for a sixth and final year. After completing initial training in 2002, she was posted to Chicago. She had a 2-month-old baby when she arrived in Japan.
“In Tokyo, society doesn’t support working women,” she said in a roundtable interview, where the four discussed their lives and careers. “I’ve often been at receptions attended by 1,000 Japanese men, and I’m the only woman standing on the stage to represent Israel. At first it’s strange, then you get used to it.
“I often raise the issue when I talk to Japanese businessmen about the fact that they don’t properly use 50% of their workforce. Women have very great value,” she said.
Yifat Alon Perel, 40, who has been in Washington for two years and was posted to Spain a decade before that, doesn’t encounter that kind of challenge. But she says she has to be careful about her behavior in public.
“I meet a lot of women in government in Washington, and I’ve never encountered a glass ceiling. When I was in Spain, I often sat in rooms filled with men, but I never felt any kind of problem. Still, a strong women will always be thinking how not to be seen as aggressive. She will seek the balance between wanting her voice to be heard without being aggressive. A man doesn’t think in those terms.”
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She is the religiously observant one of the four and grew up in a small settlement. She said she feels the lack of role models for women in business and economics, especially for religious women.
Israel has 43 economic attaches posted around the world, 15 of them women. Their job is to promote Israeli exports to their host countries and encourage investment in Israel. A big part of their job is to bring together Israeli and local businesspeople.
“Already in the fourth grade, I saw myself as matchmaker and that’s what I do between Japanese and Israeli companies,” said Asher.
The process of becoming an attaché is highly competitive, with tests on general and economic knowledge. Candidates have to speak English and have professional training. No fewer than 1,422 candidates applied for openings in 2016 and only 13 were accepted to the cadets course, five of them women. In 2017, it was 1,058 candidates, among whom 15 were selected, eight of them women.
They take a three-month course and then spend three years in related jobs in the Economy and Industry Ministry before being sent out on their first posting.
Esti Ayalon Kovo, 39, is the first Ethiopian Israeli to serve as an economic attache and will be going to Beijing shortly. A graduate of Tel Aviv University, she joined the Economy Ministry in 2014, without the idea of being sent abroad.
“I was working in a law office and earning a nice salary until I got tired of representing the interests of wealthy people. I wanted to represent the economic interests of the country,” Ayalon Kovo said. “The pay at the ministry isn’t great and there no competition like in the private sector, but the contribution you make and the influence you have in Israel and abroad – there’s a lot.”
Ayalon Kovo has the extra burden of being black. Whenever she entered a room, others assume she is either an intern or a secretary. “It’s still hard for Israeli society, my status and position," she said.
“I know that I will stand out abroad, but in Israel I also stand out. When I was in Beijing to prepare to take over the job I felt my daughter was seen as more attractive because of her curls,” she said.
Sarah Ann Madi, at 29 the youngest of the four, grew up in the Druze town of Julis in northern Israel and studied at the elite Yarka high school. She has two bachelor's degrees from the University of Haifa and a master’s degree from Jerusalem's Hebrew University.
Madi says her family is supportive and doesn’t discourage her from going abroad, even though she is unmarried. “Young Druze are different from older generations and are less influenced by what they hear on the street or in the village,” she said.
She chose to be posted to Warsaw. Israel has had difficult relations with Poland recently over issues of anti-Semitism. “I chose Poland despite the political sensitivities because it has an attractive economy that has performed well. There’s a lot of potential there for Israeli industry,” she said. “I have no doubt that Israeli can forge a lot of opportunities there and in neighboring countries.”
Madi is the only single woman among the four. The three married women say their postings are demanding for their husbands.
“The spouse of an attache has to be strong and full of self-confidence,” said Alon Perel. About her own husband: “Perhaps he wouldn’t have chosen this particular challenge himself, but he was never fearful of it. The transition is not without pitfalls, but very empowering.”
In her case, Alon Perel’s husband was working for the Israeli high-tech company Amdocs, which reassigned him to a job in Spain where she was being posted. When she talked about a second posting, he was less than excited, but the two agreed that if she got the plum Washington assignment he would go. He went.
“Sure it’s a problem – it’s hurt his career,” said Asher. “But he came with me to Japan,” she said. Like many other spouses he was offered part-time work at the Israeli embassy but today works for a Japanese company.