Bridge Builder

Published: February 23, 2020
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Since starting his four-year diplomatic term in August 2016 as Consul General of Israel in New York, Ambassador Dani Dayan has mastered the art of diplomacy. Representing communities throughout New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Delaware, his influence reaches far beyond his official jurisdiction. Ambassador Dayan has become a familiar figure in the region, advancing Israel’s interests by strengthening existing relationships and forging new ones.

With degrees in economics and computer science, Ambassador Dayan was a highly successful entrepreneur who served as Chairman of the Council of Jewish Communities in Yehudah and Shomron and as the Council’s Chief Foreign Envoy. A frequent commentator in both broadcast and print media, he was born and raised in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and emigrated to Israel in 1971.

In an exclusive interview with Hamodia, the ambassador shares his thoughts and experiences as Consul General in the biggest Jewish community outside of Israel.

How does your personal background of growing up in Argentina influence your outlook?

When I first arrived to serve in New York, I experienced a puzzling feeling of déjà vu. I had visited New York many times, but it’s not the same as living here. I realized that this was the first time, since making aliyah 46 earlier, that I was living outside of Israel. Although both the environment in Argentina and my age are different, I had a clear feeling of déjà vu because I suddenly remembered what it was like to live as a Jew outside of Israel. I am an ardent Zionist, but I realize that you can be a Jew and live a Jewish life — although I hesitate to say a full Jewish life — outside of Israel.

How does your previous position as Chairman of the Council of Jewish Communities in Yehudah and Shomron, as opposed to perhaps being a mayor of Tel Aviv, shape your political viewpoints?

First of all, I represent a government. And I believe, and act accordingly, that I represent the entire exciting and diverse mosaic that is the Israeli society. Here in New York, I am a representative of the [chareidi] Rabbi in Jerusalem, the social activist in Tel Aviv, the Arab from Sachnina and the Israeli settler from Kiryat Arba. I represent all of them. But I represent only one policy — the policy of the Israeli government that sent me here.

Obviously, there is no contradiction to my being a resident and previous leader of the Jewish community movement of Yehudah and Shomron and acting for the Israeli government here. I am very open about representing the entire gamut of Israeli society.

How would you define the role of consul general, and do you have a particular focus or goal you work toward?

In one sentence, I would say that it’s to garner support for Israel. There’s economic and cultural interaction, but the main mission of any Israeli foreign affairs ministry or embassy or Consulate General is to garner political support for Israel.

The first decision I had to make when I came to New York was to determine which sector to prioritize. We oversee five very large and important states. These states have extremely important political significance, and three of them are swing states. But I had to prioritize because the area is so vast and diverse. New York especially is the definition of diversity. I realized that if I only touched a few segments here and there, I would find myself four years later feeling that I accomplished nothing.

There are four audiences that I clearly prioritize. The first one, obviously, is the Jewish community. In some sense, we are the Israeli ambassadors to the American Jewish community, because our area consists of 40-45% of the Jewish population living in the U.S. The area is also home to the national headquarters of most major Jewish organizations, except those in Washington.

The non-Jewish priorities were more difficult to define. Ethnically speaking, we decided to prioritize the Latino community. It’s the fastest-growing and less politically identified with or against Israel. In 40 years from now, when the Latino community will be almost one third of the American electorate, it will be too late to start outreach to them then. Also, my Spanish was very helpful.

The second group is the liberals. I believe Israel has the necessity to be bipartisan in American politics. But it’s tough, because nothing in America is bipartisan anymore — gun control, tax cuts, health insurance, global warming. And the last group is the millennials, which is one of the most difficult.

Do you feel that you had to prioritize within the Jewish community itself?

When I arrived, I decided against preaching to the choir. I prefer to engage with Jewish communities that have differences with Israel in general, and with the current government in particular, and with liberals whose support for Israel is possible but not obvious. There are sectors in American society that I won’t waste any time on, like the anti-Israel fanatics from Jewish Voice for Peace. Otherwise, I engage with all shades of the Jewish community. I feel comfortable with all sorts of Jews, as long as they don’t cross a red line. My former deputy consul general stated that he never saw such a Jew-lover as me.

Have you had success with the liberal Jews?

I feel like I have. I have cordial relationships with the entire gamut of the Jewish community. To what point do I sway their positions? It’s not an immediate change. It’s a gradual process, and I believe I contributed to that process to bringing them closer to Israel.

A very liberal Jewish community leader told me that he initially asked [Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin] Netanyahu to revoke my nomination because he said he’s sending a “flamethrower” to New York. Later, he admitted that he was completely mistaken. I see that as an important achievement. Despite our political differences, we can work together for a higher cause.

Do you feel that the rift between Israel and much of Diaspora Jewry can be bridged, or will it grow further apart as the liberal Jews become more liberal?

I think that there is no other option other than trying to bridge the gap. Though we are Jews, marriage between Israel and the American Jewish community has one [unique] characteristic — there is no divorce in this marriage. We have to put that notion aside and work together.

I frequently ask myself whether our contemporary Jewish generation has an special mitzvah. Back in the late 1930s and 1940s, the Jewish generation had a clear special mitzvah — to save European Jewry from extermination. Unfortunately, we know today that they failed. I am not judging, because it was probably impossible for them to succeed. Then in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s we had the special mitzvah to try to liberate Soviet Jewry and bring home Ethiopian Jewry. Baruch Hashem, we succeeded.

I think this generation has two special mitzvos. One is to uphold Israel’s security and make sure that Israel not only exists but thrives as a robust Jewish state. The second mitzvah is to guarantee the continuity of Jewish life elsewhere. This belief, which comes from the bottom of my heart, is to ensure that the miraculous chain that started with Avraham and Sarah is not broken in our generation, our children’s generation or our grandchildren’s generation. My fear is that each one of the large Jewish communities, Israel and America, will see itself as responsible for only one of those mitzvos. Israelis will recognize its responsibility for the existence of Israel and neglect ensuring Jewish continuity in America. And American Jewry will recognize their responsibility for continuing Jewish life here and neglect the mitzvah of maintaining Israel.

If there is one mission that I have now, and intend to continue pursuing, it is to make sure we maintain a “cross-responsibility.” What literally keeps me awake at night is not so much the headline of tomorrow or next week or even next year, but what will be written in the Jewish history books a hundred years from now. And there are two dangers. One is that the two largest Jewish communities will be separated, and a worse scenario is that one will disappear. That’s what we have to work to prevent.

Your fear concerning non-Orthodox Jews assimilating is validated. But wouldn’t you agree that the continuity of the growing Orthodox community is guaranteed?

That’s a good question. You are right in some sense. I developed a relationship with the Skverer Rebbe, and he invites me to his simchos. I always leave New Square exalted, because I know that the children of these marriages will almost surely remain Jewish — this generation, the next generation and the one after that.

That’s the reason I have to devote more effort, and I believe so does Israel, to help the other sectors of the Jewish community, who are in danger of maintaining their Judaism. I have no doubts that Orthodox Jews don’t need Israel to do that. They can take care of themselves. Reform Jews have told me, “I would love to give my children a Jewish education but I can’t afford it.” But I know that the Orthodox community will do anything — eat less, travel less — to ensure their children get a Jewish education.

In the years since you are here, there has been big rise in anti-Semitism, particularly in the New York region. As somewhat of an outsider, what would you attribute it to?

It’s important to understand what kinds of anti-Semitism we are facing in order to combat it. I think we are witnessing a dangerous synergy between four types of anti-Semitism. The first one is the white supremacist, neo-Nazi, “old-school” type of anti-Semitism. It is ideological, and we paid a heavy price for it in Pittsburgh and Poway.

The second is the Black ideological anti-Semitism of Farrakhan, the Nation of Islam, and Black Israelites [who] assassinated two Jews in Jersey City and probably attacked in Monsey.

The third is the Brooklyn anti-Semitism of thugs and hooligans, which might not be ideology-driven but not less dangerous.

And the fourth is the type we see a lot on campuses, which is thinly-veiled anti-Semitism. At this point it’s less physically dangerous, but it has very dangerous implications.

We have to combat them all. I don’t think America of 2020 is Europe of the 1930s. There is a difference between us and our brethren and even the entire civilized world of those days. That difference is that now we are experienced. We know where anti-Semitism can lead. We don’t have the privilege to ignore it now because it’s relatively small.

How concerned are you that anti-Semitism on a political level, like that coming from the Democratic Party, will worsen the dynamic?

It’s a real concern. It’s probably not surprising that, in spite of my efforts, I met the entire New York congressional delegation except one person — Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. That is worrying.

Do you encourage aliyah as an antidote to anti-Semitism?

I encourage aliyah 24/7, 365 days a year, but not as a response to anti-Semitism. To encourage aliyah when an anti-Semitic event occurs is to accept the existence of anti-Semitism. Aliyah is always a priority for me but I wouldn’t mix that with the struggle against anti-Semitism. Anti-Semitism has to be subdued and not escaped from.

My Zionism was never one of refuge, of shelter. It is one of right and of the restoration of Jewish sovereignty in Eretz Yisrael. As President [Reuven] Rivlin said at Yad Vashem, the State of Israel is not a compensation we received from the world because of the Shoah; it is the right of the return of the Jewish People to their rightful and ancient homeland, regardless of the Shoah. The same applies here.

Israel recently welcomed leaders from around the world to commemorate the Fifth World Holocaust Forum and mark 75 years since the liberation of Auschwitz. At the same time a recent Pew study revealed that just 45% of American adults know that six million Jews were killed in the Holocaust. What role does the Consulate play in promoting Holocaust education?

We try to raise awareness of the Holocaust at every opportunity. We intend to present an exhibition shortly in a very public place about Righteous Among the Nations diplomats who saved Jews during the Holocaust. And while I usually don’t involve myself with promoting legislation as a foreign diplomat, I spoke at an event with Representative Carolyn Maloney, who is advancing federal legislation to promote Holocaust education in America public schools.

For me personally, most of my family was far from Europe during the Holocaust, having previously emigrated to Latin America and Eretz Yisrael. But the Shoah is always omnipresent in my mind. That’s the reason that I was naïve enough to believe that after the price humanity paid for the scourge of anti-Semitism in World War II — and not just the Jews, because I know no one really cares about the Jews — I thought we would be free from that scourge for at least for a century or two. Unfortunately, I was too optimistic. I have to admit that in my wildest nightmares I wouldn’t have imagined that it would be part of my job here in the U.S.

It started with a visit to a desecrated Jewish cemetery in Rochester, New York, in March, 2017. I was surprised then that I had to do such a thing. Then a swastika at a Manhattan shul, and then the most indelible event that happened on my tenure here, which was the Pittsburgh massacre. Pittsburgh is part of my jurisdiction. That was followed by Jersey City and Monsey.

As a diplomat, are you able to publicly support American policies towards Israel?

If policies affect Israel, it’s my task to be involved and to promote pro-Israel decisions by the administration, Congress or local and state legislatures. Of course, I welcomed the recognition of Yerushalayim as the capital of Israel, the recognition of Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights, Secretary of State [Mike] Pompeo’s statement about settlements, and many congressional resolutions regarding Israel. There are only two issues I am prevented from speaking about — domestic American politics and domestic Israeli politics.

While you must always be diplomatic, do your personal feelings regarding Israel or the Israel-America relationship ever come in conflict with official policy?

The duty to be quiet about certain issues is probably the most difficult part of my job for me. There are so many things that I want to say, tweet or post that are waiting for August 1, 2020, when I will be a free citizen.

I am a political appointee and not a career diplomat. I was nominated by Prime Minister Netanyahu, and it’s no secret that I endorse and voted for him in previous elections when I was a citizen and not a civil servant. Basically I represent government policies that I feel comfortable with. I might have reservations sometimes about this or that decision, but when I took this position I knew of its limitations. Thankfully, I was never in a situation in which I said I cannot represent the government.

In addition to advocating for Israel and Jewish issues, the Consulate also oversees routine matters, including facilitating kevurah in Eretz Yisrael. Sometimes American Jews meet with difficulties, such as not being able to expeditiously reach the Consulate to arrange kevurah details, which might result in delaying a kevurah. What can the Consulate do to make the process easier?

We do the utmost we can in order to prevent chillul Hashem. I’m aware of potential problems regarding a deceased during Shabbat and Chag and, specifically, even Sunday. We really stretch the regulations in order to allow the most expeditious as possible transfer of the deceased to kevurah in Eretz Yisrael.

Sometimes it’s easy for other players involved in the process to blame the Consulate for their own faults. This is probably the one single consular issue, as opposed to political or diplomatic issues, that I am most personally most involved in — making sure that the transfer of the meis is done as expediently as possible and with kvod hameis kept as meticulously as possible.

The region will miss you when your term is up this the summer. Do you have political plans for the future?

I entered public life after the successful business chapter of my life basically as a one-issue person, which is the issue of Eretz Yisrael. I leave New York knowing that the issue of the Israel/Diaspora relationship is in my blood, and I would want to be influential in some sense in that relationship. Exactly how, when and where I don’t know. I can’t say my dream is to immerse myself in the political battleground, although I understand that sometimes in order to influence you have to go that route.