Exclusive interview with Dep Ambassador
Understanding the Israeli diplomatic strike
The strike action by Israeli diplomatic staff at over 100 embassies and consulates around the globe are having enormous ramifications for the state of Israel. After seeing that SA Jewry and Israelis living in SA were receiving non-responsive replies from the Embassy in Pretoria (SEE BELOW), SAJR Online tried to find out what it’s all about.
A Google media search for the position of the Israeli government turned up no real explanations with regard to the diplomatic strike – they appear to be playing the silent game. The country’s own, and diaspora Jewish media, though, has had a lot to say about the implications of the industrial action and seems quite sympathetic to the plight of the diplomats.
Israel’s SA Ambassador, Arthur Lenk, also wrote an Op-Ed piece titled “THE WAGES OF DIPLOMACY: TOO LOW” explaining the position from the strikers’ side.
SAJR Online ran a story on the strike earlier this week warning SA Jewry and Israelis living in SA of the IMPLICATIONS TO THEM PERSONALLY of the non-availability of consular services.
Nu, so what’s it all about?
To understand the frustrations of Israeli diplomats, SA Jewish Report spoke to Michael Freeman, Deputy Head of Mission at the Pretoria Embassy of Israel.
Freeman says two specific areas beg deeper investigation:
• What are the implications to Israel? and
• What makes folks who have devoted their lives to promote Israel take such radical action?
The strikers’ grievances generally fall under two main categories, says Freeman, adding that diplomats “feel terrible,” on behalf of diplomats worldwide stopping to provide services and promoting Israel. But, he says, they believe that they were left little choice but to take this action. The reasons Freeman proffers are very similar to those of Ambassador Lenk’s, SEE: “THE WAGES OF DIPLOMACY: TOO LOW“. Michael Freeman’s take on the diplomats’ two main grievances:
1. Respect and Appreciation
Freeman says there has been a gradual reduction of the Ministry’s (Foreign Affairs) powers over the past few years by the creation of new ministries on the one hand, and the transferring of certain functions to other Ministries.
“This is all part of larger culture of “a lack and understanding for MFA,” he says.
2. Practical working conditions
“We pay a higher rate of tax than other Israelis,” says Freeman. Israeli diplomats “have a unique tax bracket of 48 percent regardless of their final salary and expenses!”
“Diplomatic salaries worldwide have not had a cost of living or other increase since 2002,” says Freeman. People don’t want to work abroad, he says, and there are in the region of 30 posts globally that remain unfilled as the MFA cannot find people who want to work overseas.
“If I am working in Israel and, say, earn $1, I am taxed and paid a pension contribution on my income of $1,” he explains. When working overseas diplomats are paid more to cover their higher cost-of-living outside of Israel. “If I am working in SA and, say, earn $2 – I am taxed on the higher amount but my pension and benefits accrue on lower amount of $1,” he explains.
Freeman says people who join the foreign ministry “do not enter this job to make money. I took a 70% pay cut to enter this work,” he says. “We joined the MFA in order to help Israel, and to now be in a situation where we have to take this type of action is really tough.”
People don’t really understand or respect the importance of diplomacy, says Freeman, as much as they would if the grievances were in the IDF or at ElAl Airlines. “One of the ironies of diplomacy is that it is only noticed in retrospect,” he says, for example all the many years of hard work that is only now bearing fruit in relations and trade between China and Israel. Or bringing a tennis coach to Soweto. Israeli diplomats feel that the value of their work is not understood.
Partners of diplomats have to give up work when they leave Israel, says Freeman. He says that the usual diplomatic rotation in Israel is four to five years posted overseas and two years back in Israel – and so on. “When partners go back to Israel they can’t build any type of career,” because they are only going to be in-country for two years.
“One third of diplomats leave (the profession), they simply can’t make ends meet,” he says, “they are asking their parents to help them financially.”
Financially, says Freeman, the pension dispute is one of the main concerns of diplomats – not only because they are paid at their Israeli base rate, but also because wives cannot do full-time work and therefore the couple will ultimately have to retire on a single and very low pension.
An emotional plea to Yair Lapid
Last week Michael Freeman’s wife posted the following letter on the Facebook page of Yair Lapid, the Finance Minister and head of Yesh Atid Party:
I voted for you.
I got up even though I was confined to bed rest. Zionism called and my husband and I thought that voting in Israel was important enough for us to “to take the risk.” I climbed down the 3 floors of stairs of our apartment and up the stairs of a primary school in central Jerusalem. I gasped and I climbed. I took the “Yesh Atid” voting slip without any hesitation and with complete confidence that only good could come out of it.
I voted for you.
When he was 27, my husband made Aliyah from London. At age 41 (December 2011) he started the Foreign Ministry Cadet training course. When he began his career at the Foreign Ministry he left his previous job as a Director, took a pay cut of ₪ 11,000 a month, left the company car at his old office and walked to the Foreign Ministry – proud to be serving his country.
I voted for you.
In July 2013 we left for our first posting in South Africa. Like any relocation, the first months are not easy but we are skilled, talented and Zionist right?
I voted for you.
I left behind family, friends, a career … maybe I should elaborate a little more on my career: I come from the world of Zionism. I worked with “Naaleh” the Jewish Agency progrmme and I worked in Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan; I went on a Jewish Agency Shlichut for three years in the U.S.; and to finish it off I was a senior manager for Young Judaea “Birthright”. Why to finish it off? Because the reality is, it probably was the end … I’ll be back to Israel in four years and I’ll submit my candidacy for various positions – but who will take me when they know I am only going to be in Israel for two years (until our next posting)? And my pension? After living like this, it won’t be a realistic one. My only source will be the pension of my husband – and his will not be enough to live off
I voted for you.
We barely manage to finish the month here. When we first arrived, we had to bring money from Israel. We had to buy two cars, because we are not allowed to take public transport due to security considerations. We pay all of the expenses for both of the cars, despite the fact that one of them is used only for work. We pay a rate of tax of 48% that is unique to us and is higher than we would pay in Israel!!! Why ? ? ? However, the pension is based on what is euphemistically known as a “shadow” salary – the salary we would receive if we were serving in Israel. What is certain is that this arrangement will cast a shadow over our adult lives. All this and our salaries have not been updated since 2002, while inflation in South Africa continues to rise.
I voted for you
I live in a country with one of the highest levels of crime in the world. I cannot go out with our one year old baby for a walk in the park. Every time we want to go anywhere we need to check under and around our cars for suspicious objects. We need to always be alert. At night we close the bars on the windows and lock the iron gate that separates where we sleep from the rest of the house. But through the lenses of Zionism everything seems beautiful and harmless.
I voted for you.
When my husband and I retire our state pension benefits will be 4000 ₪ a month. When the kids want to come over for Shabbat, for the holidays and birthdays we will have to take our Zionist-tinted glasses off and wipe away the tears whilst no-one is looking .
I voted for you.
And I ask, where are you now? When will you vote for me?
Diplomats doing Israel proud
Referring to the successes of the Israeli consular mission in SA, Freeman says that the trade trend is moving upwards, that 50 percent of all tourism from the Middle East to SA comes from Israel
Internationally, there are now over 100 consulates and embassies and that number is growing.
The dispute started a year ago, says Freeman. After months of arbitration the diplomats had had enough. “We believe that the finance ministry did not negotiate in good faith,” he says, and so the diplomats started their strike two weeks ago. “We are willing to be very reasonable and we are prepared to be flexible,” says Freeman, but the finance ministry had not even approached them since the strike began.
In effect, the actions of the diplomats have stopped all consular services being provided, no media matters are being attended to, no letters are sent and no mail is being responded to, they have stopped all social media campaigns and updates and are making no appointments or appearances.
All Embassy doors remain closed but staff is going to work daily.
Apology to community
“We are very, very sorry and we don’t want to harm or inconvenience any Israeli citizens or anyone in the SA Jewish community,” says Michael Freeman, “but in the long run we are doing this for the benefit of everybody.”
Both SA Jewry and especially Israelis in SA, of whom significant numbers go to Embassy daily, are not receiving consular services. Nobody who requires a visa can get one, Israelis cannot renew expired passports, etc. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Jerusalem estimates that the strike is costing Israeli $10-mil a week in lost tourism.
Attempts to communicate meet a dead end
E-mail messages to the Israeli Embassy in Pretoria are responded to with the following “out-of-office” message:
Thank you for your message.
We would like to share with you that Israeli diplomats and the employees of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs are currently engaged in a labour dispute.
As a result, I may not be able to respond to this message or other requests.
Our struggle is an attempt to strengthen the Israeli Foreign Service as a major contributor to national security, to its ability to promote Israeli values and interests, and to give a better service to Israeli citizens.
I apologize for any inconvenience.
Israeli media behind diplomats
Interestingly, Israeli media seems very sympathetic to the plight of the diplomats, while the government (actually, the Finance Ministry) has yet to engage with them since talks broke down and the work sanctions started two weeks ago.
Consider this statement: MFA’s “work sliced away, salami style”
Haaretz blogger Matthew Kalman wrote in a recent post that: “The diplomats have good cause to strike. Their pay and conditions are awful. Dozens of diplomats have quit the ministry, unable to survive on the ministry’s starvation wages and the shocking way in which it treats their spouses and careers. To add insult to injury, the ministry’s work has been sliced away, salami-style, for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to distribute to his coalition favourites.
“First, the Ministry for Public Diplomacy was given ham-fisted responsibility for Israel’s public information efforts. Then the Ministry for Strategic Affairs was given large parts of the Iran portfolio. Then Tzipi Livni was put in charge of the Palestinian peace talks.
“Despite these strategic blunders by the government, the Foreign Ministry has continued to make huge strides in various areas of diplomacy around the globe – including in China, where relations are growing steadily, and in Britain,” wrote Kalman.