NEW YORK (JTA) – When people used to ask me about the two-and-a-half years I spent writing speeches for the Israeli ambassador to the United Nations, I often would describe myself as a recovering Zionist.
Representing Israel in an irredeemably hostile environment while witnessing firsthand the inane squabbles, petty politicking and often comic ineptitude of Israel’s diplomatic corps was nearly enough to purge me of any trace of the starry-eyed Zionism of my youth.
Working for the Israeli government seemed to be the kind of experience that should be followed by enrollment in a 12-step program.
By all indications Gregory Levey, one of my successors in the speech-writer’s chair, feels the same.
In his new and often hilarious memoir “Shut Up I’m Talking” (Free Press, 2008, 267 pp.), Levey recounts his experience as U.N. speech writer and his subsequent drafting to work in the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem under Ariel Sharon.
The result is a rich portrait of a diplomatic effort so ferociously inept, and staffed by such insipid characters, that no one should ever again wonder why Israel seems incapable of convincing the world of the basic justice of its cause.
From what I can recall, Levey’s account of the Israel mission’s bizarre cast of characters is spot on.
Take the deputy ambassador, an official with an impressive resume and a penchant for grossly inappropriate humor. As Levey aptly describes, he could contort his legs into such improbable positions that visitors often were treated to an unfortunate view of his pasty white legs.
Or consider “Avi,” another Israeli official who conveyed genuine confusion when Levey expressed an interest in actually visiting the country whose diplomatic interests he was laboring to serve. Or the unnamed librarian, a man I remember as strange but kindly who had worked in the office longer than anyone and whose function no one really seemed to understand.
How folks such as these became responsible for presenting Israel’s case to the world is inexplicable to Levey, as it was to me.
Yet as someone whose job was once to make Israel look good, it’s hard not to read Levey’s memoir as a colossal act of betrayal.
Levey holds his former colleagues out to dry, skewering their foibles and playing on Israeli stereotypes for comedic effect and, one suspects, the advancement of his literary career.
Those who know Israel with any degree of intimacy will chuckle knowingly at his depictions of lunatic cab drivers and Middle Eastern machismo. But for those inclined to see Israel in a less forgiving light, Levey has provided a trove of ammunition.
If his book has any significance beyond cheap laughs, it’s less as a commentary on Mideast politics than as a wakeup call for a nation seemingly oblivious to how it is seen by the rest of the world, let alone by the unwitting foreigners who happen to stumble into its corridors of power.
Putting such qualms aside – an easier feat for readers who won’t recognize the personas minimally masked with pseudonyms – Levey guides us on an entertaining, if shallow, tour through the high-wire act of Israeli diplomacy and the fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants school of foreign relations whose principles Israel rigorously puts into practice.
The book’s opening passage finds Levey seated alone at Israel’s place in the U.N. General Assembly faced with an impending vote and no instructions on how to proceed. A clueless Levey simply follows the lead of the Americans and votes “No.”
Then there are the actual speeches. Aside from the high-profile ones on terrorism and the Arab-Israeli conflict, most of Israel’s U.N. speeches are on mundane and often obscure topics such as desertification or land mines. For these, deliberation on what Israel actually should say is astonishing – mostly because there isn’t much.
Like Levey, I drew on what Israel had said in past years – God only knows what that was based on – whatever limited knowledge I might happen to have about the subject and the results of a cursory Google search.
Levey has mastered a vaguely David Sedaris-esque style of humor spun from the conceit that the author is the only sane inmate in the asylum. The career foreign service officers who supposedly are driving Israel’s diplomatic efforts appear barely capable of coherent thought, their legendary rudeness tempered only mildly by the unfailing politeness of the United Nations.
Compared to the decorous ceremony of U.N. proceedings, the Israelis come off as crass buffoons who steamroll over diplomatic protocol with the same cavalier disregard with which they allegedly quash Palestinian rights.
In one episode, Levey finds himself in the New York hotel suite of Israel’s foreign minister as he prepares to do an interview clad only in his underwear. Only Levey seems to find this the least bit abnormal.
To be fair, a little creativity is probably unavoidable for a state that is almost constantly in the dock at the United Nations. A typical meeting on the latest regional conflagration routinely draws two dozen Muslim delegates who heap scorn upon the Jewish state, and another two dozen who do just about the same thing in somewhat more moderate language.
Locked in a near-constant scramble to defend itself – not unlike the very real dangers Israel faces daily in its quest for security – Israel sometimes finds itself forced to figure things out as it goes along.
“Shut Up I’m Talking” capably dramatizes this improvisatory streak in Israel’s diplomacy but provides little insight into the challenges that make it necessary.
Levey likely would argue this isn’t his objective, and he’d have a point.
But it doesn’t bode well for this embattled democracy that the image Israel emits to those who engage it diplomatically is a pasty white leg propped unceremoniously on an ambassador’s desk.
(JTA staff writer Ben Harris was formerly the speech writer for Israel’s mission to the United Nations.)