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Special Interview Israel’s Consul General in New York

What does it mean to be Israel’s Consul General in New York, the largest center of Jewish population in the world?

For Naphtali Lavie, Israel’s Consul General here since Sept. I, it means an overwhelmingly tight schedule of meetings and appointments with Jewish leaders, Jewish organizations, media representatives and various individuals and officials.

“Since I assumed my post, I have not had one free weekend,” Lavie said in an interview with the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. He hastened to add, however, that his work and his contacts are a source of great satisfaction. “The contacts are with Jewish organizations and Jewish leaders who are highly sophisticated, with a deep understanding of the Arab-Israel conflict and Israel’s internal problems,” Lavie said.

A FRUITFUL DIALOGUE

Dealing with American Jewry is not a one way street, he observed. “It is a fruitful dialogue on various levels where both sides learn from one another,” Lavie stated. He said his contacts with the American Jewish community include all shades of opinion within that community — from Reform to ultra-Orthodox, from intellectuals and academicians to grass roots elements.

Although he has been here only four months, Lavie said that he has been deeply impressed with American Jewry. It is, he observed, “a warm Jewry, on the leadership and on the grass roots levels alike, a Jewry deeply committed to Jewish identity and to the State of Israel.” This commitment, he said, is expressed through their organizations, educational institutions, and community and religious activities, as well as the high level of involvement in America’s social and political life.

The 55-year-old Polish-born Lavie served from 1970 to 1977 as spokesman for the Ministry of Defense and advisor to both Moshe Dayan and Shimon Peres during their tenures as Defense Ministers. From June 1977 until assuming his post in New York, Lavie was spokesman and advisor to Foreign Ministers Dayan and Yitzhak Shamir. Prior to serving as a government official, Lavie was for many years a journalist and news editor for Haaretz.

EDUCATING THE PUBLIC

With such a background, one of Lavie’s major undertakings so far has been the rearrangement of the Consulate “hasbara” (information) targets, dividing them into three categories, each requiring a different kind of approach. The mass media, where an immediate, simple-to-under-stand information on daily developments is needed Jewish organizations and Jewish leaders, where more background information is needed; Congressmen, leaders of ethnic groups and religious leaders, where a detailed account of history and developments is needed geared to creating long-term relationships and understanding of Israel.

“Our major obstacle in hasbara is that the public at large in America is not familiar with the small details of the Mideast conflict,” Lavie said.

“For instance, the public here is not aware of the fact that a settlement cannot be reached in the Mideast because of the inter-Arab conflicts. They (the Arabs) perpetuate the Palestinian problem to cover up internal Arab problems. They divert attention from these problems by using Israel as a target. The public in America is not aware of these things.”

“It is important to us to inform American Jews and Americans in general of what really happens in the Middle East and in Israel,” he said. “Most of the people, despite the availability of information through the media, do not succeed in reading about the situation in depth. They read headlines, and what follows is that a gap is created between what really happens and a fragmented image of reality. Here, in my opinion is where the role of the Consul General comes into play. He provides the necessary background and analysis of whatever has happened.”

THE CHALLENGE OF ISRAEL

Asked about the challenges, if any, that Israel can offer today to American Jews, Lavie said: “We believe that the State of Israel, with all its difficulties, is the challenge of this century — if not the last 20 centuries — to any Jew, young or old, who is not ashamed of his Jewish identity but is interested in conveying the legacy of his people to his children and grandchildren.

“The challenge requires not only a moral, political, and financial support for Israel, but a physical involvement as well. In other words: The challenge today is aliya to Israel. Israel cannot offer its new citizens, or the old ones for that matter, the comfort and opportunities of the affluent, Western world. But it can offer a life of challenge and a bright future.”

THE ISSUE OF YERIDA

The Consul General was asked for his view on the problem of yerida, considered by some to be one of Israel’s gravest in recent years. He said:

“I do not have reliable statistics on the number of Israelis living here. Some estimate it as being in the 50,000 range, while others say there are some 150,000 Israelis here. On a whole, this is a very saddening phenomenon, especially when among the yordim there are young men and women who were born in Israel and are part of Israel’s flesh.

“It is a pity to see them discard all the positive things the country had given them as independent and free Israelis. An Israeli is not free in New York as he is free in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv or Ramat Gan, even if he owns three cars here.”

Lavie added that as Consul General he is going to treat all Israelis here as Israelis “as long as they feel themselves to be Israelis.” He said that he considers the Israelis in America as citizens who are “on vacation” from their own country and from the obligations of living there. “I intend to keep in touch with them,” Lavie said.

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