Diaspora Jewish Diplomats: Come to Israel's Rescue

Israel is hardly secure enough to weather a strike by its diplomats that has already caused great damage. It’s time for an unconventional solution.

Emil Salman

For the strike of Israel’s Foreign Ministry employees- which has already inflicted  some real damage - there are two conventional remedies and one that would be a great deal more innovative.

On August 3, 1981, the members of the U.S. professional air-traffic controllers' union PATCO went on strike. They had never needed to strike before, because the fear of a total air transport shutdown that would progressively paralyze the entire American economy (no aircraft could land or take off without PATCO's consent) meant that the threat alone had won vigorous salary increases on previous occasions. This time the demands had escalated: A salary increase of $10,000 a year (that was a lot in 1981), a reduced four-day workweek, and better pensions.

But the newly inaugurated President Reagan was determined to break PATCO's power, and gave the strikers 8 hours to return to work, declaring that any who remained on strike would be dismissed and never again hired as air controllers. Less than 2,000 of the striking air controllers returned to work; 11,435 employees did not and were dismissed, along with 4,000 air controllers who had not joined the strike in the first place. The U.S. Air Force took over the air-traffic control towers while newly-hired employees were trained.

To be sure, Reagan was an anti-union Republican, and he did have the legal power to act under the Labor Management Relations Act of 1947, better known as the Taft–Hartley Act. But that was a legal power that no previous president had dared to exercise against the all-powerful air controllers, and what Reagan did launched his entire administration on an upward trajectory of power.

But of course Israel is not the United States. It is a country with a social-democratic past and important social-democratic institutions, which does not follow American precedents or rules when it comes to labor relations, and indeed operates much more in the European tradition of strong unions.

That is why the Swedish precedent is much more applicable. Sweden too is a country with strong social-democratic traditions, its labor unions are strong, and there are no Republicans in sight - even the so-called "conservatives" are center-left by U.S. standards. Most important, unlike the U.S. Foreign Service, Sweden's Foreign Ministry is almost entirely unionized just like the Israeli Foreign Ministry.

Yet there can be no foreign ministry strike in Sweden because when one was threatened in 1971, the government immediately proposed and the Riksdag parliament promptly passed a special law prohibiting strikes by ministerial employees. In 1971 Sweden was both very heavily armed (the Swedish Air Force was the fourth largest in the Western world) and a neutral in the Cold War, and thus more secure as a country than any other in Europe. Yet a net majority in Sweden's parliament decided that the costs and risks of a Foreign Ministry strike just could not be accepted, for they compromised the country's international standing - and perhaps its safety, too.

True, given the overall state of the Middle East and the world, Israel is far more secure strategically than it ever was in the past, but there is no doubt about the huge damage already inflicted by the strike, including the cancellation of the visit of the first Pope seemingly really well-disposed towards Israel, and whose presence would have been of use to counter the noxious fraternity of highly politicized Arab-nationalists in Franciscan robes.

Of the two conventional remedies for the strike of Foreign Ministry employees, Reagan's union-breaking or Sweden's anti-strike law, the latter seems to better fit Israeli circumstances.

But there is also a less conventional remedy that would turn the strike to Israel's advantage. As I travel internationally for my consulting work, I frequently run into the diplomats of many different countries. Diplomacy used to be a largely judenfrei profession. This is no longer the case, even in European countries where Jewish communities are really very small (that is, all of them but for France, the UK and Germany), and there are Jews in almost all the diplomatic service, in small yet disproportionate numbers.

So that is the less conventional remedy: Open up the hiring window of an Israeli Foreign Ministry 2.0 start-up to qualified diplomats who happen to be Jewish, have the applicants pass by the Interior Ministry to pick up their citizenship papers, and then start them on a vigorous ulpan [Hebrew language] schedule. Think of it - the immense knowledge of the inside workings of foreign ministries that would arrive all at once. Yes, there would be a few problems, including military service for the younger ones and the high cost of housing in Jerusalem as compared to...almost anywhere. But I have no doubt that applicants would show up, highly desirable immigrants in any case.

Or to put it differently, something needs to be done - unless of course one believes that Israel in 2014 is so much more secure and prosperous than Sweden in 1971 that it can tolerate the very high costs of an outrageous strike.