From Africa, via Israel, to Canada
Israeli diplomat Paul Hirschson and I agree to meet up for an easy exchange. I’ll give him a packet of biltong I brought back with me from my last visit to South Africa, and he’ll give me an interview.
Two weeks later, he’s about to jet off to his new post as consul general of Israel in Montreal, Canada, and the biltong is still sitting in my cupboard.
He’s a busy man, “our” Paul. The former Hillbrow/Yeoville boytjie is happy for the South African Jewish community to claim him as one of its own because he’s the first to admit how his South African identity has influenced his life.
“I’m proud to be South African,” he chuckles down the phone, the two of us having long since given up actually meeting face-to-face. His South African accent is as strong as ever, an immediate giveaway as it was all those years ago when I first met him doing the rounds of foreign journalists based in Israel and offering us assistance. At the time Hirschson was working for the Israeli Spokespersons Bureau, and gleefully took on the challenge of being battered by the international press corp.
“My grandparents were born in Johannesburg, and my grandparents’ grandparents are buried in Johannesburg,” he smiles.
“My late grandfather was banned by the apartheid regime for 25 years. I spent many, many, weekends at his home, and every single time he was in violation of the banning order because there were too many people in the house.”
The experience moved him, as did the strong Zionism he was brought up with. So, at the age of 21, he made aliyah on his own and enlisted in the army as a lone soldier. He later completed a business degree at Ben Gurion University in Beersheba in partnership with Boston University.
He was in the right place at the right time. It was the early nineties – the Israeli hi-tech sector was taking off, and ties between Israel and Arab countries looked promising.
“I started off in a company where I was responsible for developing ties with the Arab world. Until then, there’d been nothing. Arab countries were fully aware of Israel’s competent technology, but outside of Egypt and Jordan it was illegal for them to work with us. Most of the Arab world desperately wanted to work around that obstacle.”
Israelis were also working extensively in Africa.
“We did a lot of the rollout of the cell phone infrastructure with Vodacom, MTN, and Telkom itself. Those fibreglass trees in Sandton all have Israeli radio technology inside them. We weren’t the only players, but we were the biggest. Venture-capital companies were completely overwhelmed by the determination of Israeli hi-tech entrepreneurs not to give up because we survived the dotcom meltdown in 2000 and the financial crisis of 2008. It was a spectacular time.”
For someone who had always been interested in international affairs, it was a natural step, a decade later, to enter the Israeli foreign ministry. Fascinated by North America, Africa, and the Arab world in particular, Hirschson was the first Israeli to be posted to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) 16 years ago. Together with another diplomat, he established the initial viable conversation between Israel, the UAE, and other countries in the region.
“There were a lot of South African Jews in the UAE at the time, and one or two of them, aside from me, did very, very significant business on behalf of Israeli companies.”
Later, he served as the consul in Miami and most recently, as ambassador in West Africa, based in Senegal and responsible for seven countries.
Hirschson chuckles. He’d never visited Miami or Senegal before being sent there, and when he sets foot in Montreal next month, it’ll be his first time in Canada. His biggest concerns? That his French, while good, is not at mother-tongue level … and the weather.
“Canada is a good friend of Israel, illustrated by the fact that we have three missions there. We have the embassy, the consul general in Toronto, and the consul general in Montreal. The province of Quebec where Montreal is has just the right amount of news and diplomatic/political interest for me. It has a long history of its own. It’s the only French place in North America. Its population is very keen on preserving their national interests. Most South African Jews who live in Canada are in Toronto, but I know of at least one former South African who is arriving this summer together with me. He is the new president of Zim Shipping, a very big and significant Israeli freight forwarding company.
“There’s a big Jewish community in Montreal, in the region of 100 000 Jews. Most of them come from Russia, but a significant portion, a quarter plus, come from North Africa because of the French-language connection.”
Hirschson doesn’t rule out a future posting as ambassador to South Africa.
“If it came up at the correct time, I would seriously consider it. We need to improve South Africa-Israel relations, and I would enjoy the challenge. On a bilateral level, the countries have tremendous economic relations, but there’s a lot of work to be done both to grow those and to improve political diplomatic ties.
“On a multilateral level, Africa is a very positive territory for Israel, and South Africa is a significant player in Africa. It probably should be more significant than it actually is. Israel and South Africa are geographically on either end of Africa. If we look forward 1 000 years, with the Syria Africa rift continuing to move almost a centimetre a year, one day Israel is going to be an African country as we disconnect from Asia together with the Sinai desert. It’s a little far in the future, but it’s there”.
As for the biltong, I’d better get it to him before a possible future South African posting. Otherwise, what else would I have to entice him for another interview?