Cultural Wanderlust

New British Council head takes chance to explore roots

Having served for the British Council in Singapore, Bangladesh, Nigeria, Sudan and Moscow, Simon Kay has become addicted to discovering new places. "There is a sort of restlessness," he said. "You settle but you got used to moving on, and these are the challenges of learning about a new culture and a new language and exploring new places."

Last year, Kay's wanderlust brought him to Israel, a country he chose for several reasons: "First of all, I've always been attracted by jobs that offer real complexity. I think it's fairly obvious that working in Israel offers real complexity," the soft-spoken Kay told Anglo File recently in a Jerusalem cafe. Secondly, the new director of the Council's three offices in Israel continued, he wants to connect more to his Jewish roots, which during his previous postings he had little opportunity to explore.

"My father's Jewish," Kay, said proudly, shortly after having ordered tea in Hebrew. "He's from Chicago and his parents are from a small village in what is now Moldova. I had very little Jewish culture in my upbringing, but it's never too late, and so now I'm learning Hebrew. For me this is part of a personal voyage of discovery."

Kay, 50, says his Hebrew is far from being fluent, but that he is fascinated by some cultural insights he derived from his language studies. "For the first time of my life I know what Bethlehem actually means [House of Bread], and understand that in Hebrew you derive the word for Christians [Notzrim] from Nazareth." He also gets to do fun things. His participation in a three-kilometer "swim-a-thon" in the Kinneret last September, for example, was the highlight of this time in Israel so far, he said.

But his addiction to discovering new places comes at a price. The hardest part of his job is being separated from his wife Ying, whom he met in Singapore, and his children, who remained in London when he moved to Herzliyah last August.

"They love their school, and it's the wrong age to move children," he said about his sons, Charlie, 16, and Benjamin, 13. "We lived around the world and moved around together but they reached that age when they really need stability and to develop their lifelong friendships." Kay returns to London once a month. "I always think there are people who have more difficult problems. But of course I miss them very much." The British Council - which has offices in Ramat Gan, Jerusalem and Nazareth - seeks to strengthen bilateral relations through cultural, educational and scientific exchange programs.

A scientist himself - his doctoral thesis dealt with immunology and cancer research - Kay says he especially appreciates the 75-year-old institution's work in advancing scientific cooperation. "I had the privilege to visit the Weizmann Institute - these scientists are doing some of the best work in the world, there's no question about that," he said. But one of Kay's main goals for his four-year term in Israel is to increase cultural exchanges, such as "Bi Arts," a program promoting educational-artistic dialogue between Israeli and British artists, he says. "I'd like to see a much higher profile and more performing of U.K. and Israeli arts," says Kay.

The Council also facilitates exchange programs for Israeli students who want to attend British universities, and vice versa. "The main challenge here is getting British accreditation of some Israeli universities," Kay says.

The Council also promotes English language studies, but is currently shifting its focus. "If you go back five to ten years, we would have run a teaching center, where we would have people come in off the street to study English. The model is very different now, and in my view actually more powerful. My strategy is that the British Council will reach every teacher of English in Israel with some kind of British Council product or service." A handful of teachers travel the country and offer workshops on various topics, such as technology of teaching, he explains.

The Council's key mission is creating "long term trust and engagement," Kay continus, adding that he is very mindful of some of the current problems in the bilateral relations. "There are perceptions about anti-Israeli sentiment in the U.K. The British Council can't change that. But wherever we can we will encourage dialogue and engagement." While he admits there are "voices in the U.K. that are critical of Israel," he is convinced those opinions represent a small minority. "Britain is still a highly tolerant country," he said, pledging to visit Jewish communities and Jewish groups on campuses during future trips to the U.K., in order to better understand why so many British Jews feel constantly under attack for their affiliation with Israel.

Many veteran immigrants from the U.K. fondly remember the English language library the Council used to operate, and other programs geared at the expat community that no longer exist. Because of funding difficulties, the Council was no longer able to run the library, explains Kay, adding that his annual budget lies around a million pounds, or NIS 5.85 million. "We had libraries everywhere. But as the years went by, libraries obviously became less and less relevant, as people accessed more and more information digitally... Libraries have always been a very expensive way of reaching a relatively few number of people."

Kay also says he is aware that many long-time Israelis with British roots are often disappointed the British Council no longer offers programs directly targeted at their community. "But I hope that, in an oblique way, they see that we're serving them by deepening the ties between our two countries," he says.