Lots of Parties, a War, Some Bad Press and an Astounding Garden Terrace

My 12 years in Israel were the most fascinating time of my life, says departing Bahai official Murray Smith.

Even Murray Smith seems a little taken aback when he calculates how many cocktail parties and diplomatic events he must have attended since taking up the post of deputy secretary general of the Bahai World Center in Haifa twelve and a half years ago. Calculating an average of two events each week, the number easily tops the thousand mark.

"It makes me sound like a bit of playboy," admits the 65-year-old former politician. "But it's actually hard work."

Not convinced? Smith, whose lengthy term of voluntary service in Israel ends this month, arrives at his office at the Bahai World Center by 7:30 five or six mornings a week. He days included hosting VIP guests at the center, meeting with Israeli officials and briefing diplomats in his role on the secretariat of the Bahai international community, which he describes as its "foreign ministry." By the end of the evening receptions - usually in Tel Aviv, Herzliya Pituah or Jerusalem - when Smith must drive back to Haifa, he is understandably on the tired side.

"After a period, you recognize what your limits are," says Smith, who served as a Labor member of parliament in his native New Zealand some 30 years ago. "My wife and I used to entertain at home in the early years, but we realized we couldn't keep up the pace. She has a hec tic and demanding job herself."

Miette Smith, who joined her husband in Israel for what was billed as an "indefinite period," volunteers as a librarian at the Bahai World Center, the international headquarters for the faith's five million believers worldwide. She was the first in the family to accept the Bahai religion, after encountering the faith while campaigning for her husband. After a period of intensive study, she ceased actively campaigning as the faith strictly forbids affiliation with a political party. Such partisan political activity is considered the antithesis of unity, one of the supreme Bahai values (see box below).

The Smiths' five children studied the Bahai teachings and made the commitment to become followers of the religion. Their father was actually the last family member to convert in 1989, thus bringing to a close his many years of involvement with New Zealand's Labor Party.

Greater scrutiny

Not that his job in Israel can be described as free of politics. While the secretariat works to address issues facing Bahais around the world - most notably in Iran, where the 350,000 members are persecuted and regarded as heretics and Zionist collaborators - its staff must also contend with local matters here.

And the last 12 years have certainly been eventful ones for the several hundred tourists and temporary residents who make up the Haifa Bahai community. Most visibly, the center's spectacular garden terraces on Mount Carmel were opened to the public in May 2001, after a $250 million investment by the community. The move significantly raised the profile of the community - which adheres to a strict policy of not seeking converts in Israel - bringing them under greater scrutiny and, according to Smith, some unfounded criticism.

In 2001, the center was reported to have received millions of shekels in irregular payments from the Israeli government. Subsequently, it was claimed the center had received tax reimbursements it was not entitled to, had unethical links to the Labor Party and used excessive amounts of water to maintain the gardens. Bahais were even accused of worshiping idols and using incense during religious practices. Bahai officials strongly denied all these accusations; none proved to be true.

"Having been in politics, adverse publicity is nothing new and is to be expected," says Smith, resolutely. "The media is always looking for angles. We just hope that most of what is written about us is better researched or that they come to us first [to check facts or for a response]. We don't have anything to hide."

One highlight of his stay was the 1998 Bahai national convention, which drew believers from more than 75 countries. "To see everyone participating in a system of governance free of partisan politics was really something," says Smith.

But the next convention, in 2003, was canceled due to the SARS epidemic, complicated by the impending invasion of Iraq which threatened consequences in Israel. Smith reports that voting for the nine-person body that functions as the faith's supreme governing authority still took place by postal ballot. "But the excitement and the motivation that come from being part of a convention and seeing it operate was lost," he admits.

Business as usual

Last summer's war caught the community as much by surprise as everyone else in Haifa. "We encouraged our staff to continue with business as usual," says Smith, who reflects on the period as "an interesting leadership experience," which challenged him in a way he had "never been tested before." Though the gardens were closed for the duration, at the request of Mayor Yona Yahav, the Haifa landmark remained fully lit the whole night rather than just the usual two hours after sunset as a "gesture of confidence and optimism."

He says the "feedback was good. Local people felt it did have a positive effect."

Smith's many contacts in Israel had a chance to bid him farewell at a reception on Wednesday in Herzliya Pituah, where they also met his successor, Anthony Vance, an American who worked for USAID for 21 years, the last six in Cairo.

Not surprisingly, the main factor calling the Smiths back to New Zealand is family - most of their children and grandchildren live there. Ahead of the posting in Israel, the couple purchased a retirement home in the West Coast village of Raglan, renowned in the surfing world for having the planet's longest left-hand break. With a permanent population of just 3,000, Smith admits the pace of life is going to take some getting used to.

"Leaving here is going to be a real wrench. It's been the most fascinating and interesting time of my life," he says, before pointing to one area that will offer some compensation: "I'm going to watch a lot of rugby and cricket."