The wages of diplomacy: Too low
Israel’s ambassador to South Africa, HE Arthur Lenk, wrote an Op-Ed piece in the Israeli media last Friday giving his take on what the strike by Israel’s diplomats is all about. “We are all understaffed and underpaid. We have to pick up our families, pack our lives and start again every few years. Our spouses have to give up any hope of a career (or a pension) as they follow us around,” writes the ambassador.
Originally Published in TIMES OF ISRAEL on 14 March
I love my job. I am astoundingly blessed to be Israel’s Ambassador to South Africa. After making Aliyah to Israel as a teenager, I could not have imagined that I could one day not only represent Israel abroad but have the opportunity to meet presidents and kings on behalf of the Jewish State. To do this is an honour that is almost beyond comprehension. I get paid to travel the world and promote the interests of the people of Israel. I have hosted President Peres in Azerbaijan and attended the funeral of Nelson Mandela here in South Africa with the Speaker of our Knesset. Amazing.
These days, however, with the deepest regret, I – along with hundreds of my colleagues in Israel and around the globe — have stopped working. We are in the midst of a bitter work dispute with the young men and women who control Israel’s ministry of finance, who have basically told us that they have no appreciation for what Israel’s professional diplomats do. After a year of negotiations and seven months of mediation by the former president of Israel’s labour court, the finance ministry side has returned with an offer that was not only insulting to those of us, and our families, that quite literally fly the flag for Israel across the globe, but shows a clear misunderstanding of what Israel loses without international representation.
Israel’s diplomats work in incredibly difficult places like Angola, Uzbekistan and Albania. In the last month alone, we face challenges such as staying safe during violence in Kiev, Ukraine, boxed in by large protests at the gate of our Embassy in Amman, Jordan and for the small team at my embassy in South Africa, responding to obscene calls and mischaracterizations at the heart of BDS activities during “Israel Apartheid Week.” In recent years the media has reported on terrorist attempts targeting Israeli diplomats in India, Thailand and Georgia. I, personally, was targeted by Hezbollah terrorists while I served as our Ambassador in Azerbaijan. Sure, we also have colleagues in New York and Geneva. But they face, every day of the week, the challenge of United Nations forums which single out Israel for unique and hostile treatment like no other country.
Impact on wives & kids
We are all understaffed and underpaid. We have to pick up our families, pack our lives and start again every few years. Our spouses have to give up any hope of a career (or a pension) as they follow us around. When we returned to Israel from my last post in 2005 it took my wife a full year to find a new teaching job in Jerusalem. After three years, she gave it up to come with me to South Africa and it has taken nearly another year for her to find a new position here.
The wife of one of my colleagues in South Africa is a trained lawyer but is working – part time — in our consular department because her Israeli Bar membership is irrelevant here.
The impact on our kids is complicated, too. Try finding quality day-care that a junior diplomat can afford in Europe or the US (our government only pays from age 3). They live with extreme pollution in Beijing, driving for more than an hour each way to school in Moscow, and no Jewish community in Vietnam. They study in a foreign language, have to make and lose new friends every few years and then come home to Israel, basically as Olim, to reintegrate into Israeli public schools.
Our oldest daughter is currently in officer’s school in the IDF and another daughter is in 12th grade finishing her exams in Israel and getting ready for the army with us thousands of kilometres away. I am likely to miss my soldier-daughter’s graduation from Officers School due to our Independence Day ceremony and our twelfth-grader’s high school graduation because of a delegation planned for those dates here. Our youngest daughter is with us and is studying in her fourth different school in the past five years and has had to live with the security limitations that exist in South Africa.
Salaries of diplomats abroad have not been updated in a decade and we have a unique tax bracket (48%) regardless of our final salary and expenses. The situation has caused many of my colleagues to have to seek help from their families to be able to serve Israel. Others have, in significant numbers, reached the conclusion that they just cannot afford to live in Washington, Brussels or Brasilia and have ended their tours early. Many young diplomats have left the foreign service, in dangerously high numbers, taking their degrees, training and experience to places that allow them to make a decent living. This has resulted in a situation where there are almost no candidates for midlevel jobs in our key embassies – last summer in both New York and London there was a need to actively recruit within the Ministry. In “harder” posts like Moscow and Abuja, Nigeria, the posts lie empty or we need to find non-professionals to keep our missions running.
We represent Israel to stand & be counted
No one joins Israel’s public service to get rich. Nearly all of us have advanced university degrees (I have two law degrees from Hebrew University and am a member of the bar in Israel and New York), speak multiple languages have international management and public relations experience and would do just fine in the private sector. We represent Israel because of a burning desire to stand and be counted – to be a voice that tells the Jewish communities of South Africa and Ukraine that they are not alone, increase exports to 21st century giants like China and India and to deepen strategic ties with neighbours like Egypt and Jordan.
Israel’s foreign relations is a strategic asset for our country just like an F-15 jet flying overhead, our navy who stops weapons coming from Iran and our various security services. We use words, relationships and negotiation skills to create opportunities and thwart dangers every day. We save Israelis in danger in South America and South Asia.
Israel is an amazing success story. We have survived multiple attacks, made the desert bloom and are world leaders in hi-tech, innovation and in the humanitarian work of tikkun olam. We have real dangers and vital interests around the world. We need trained, confident professionals to tell our story and promote our national goals. We need, more than most, high calibre diplomats to represent us every day. If we don’t act now to save our foreign service, the cost to Israel will be so much higher than modest standard of living concerns and respect for our diplomats.
- Arthur Lenk is currently the Ambassador of Israel to South Africa, Lesotho, Mauritius and Swaziland. He is a career diplomat who has previously served in India, the United States and as Israel’s Ambassador to Azerbaijan. He was born in the US and made Aliyah to Israel in 1983.
Service delivery comes last in race for power
We are less than three weeks away from a local government election, and it’s likely to be our most chaotic and fractious since 1994. The country has been under lockdown for 18 months, and this has had a direct effect on voter registration and political campaigning. Voter turnout will probably reach a 15-year low.
Ironically, just as political participation and education has been declining, the need for clean, accountable local government has never been greater. The vast majority of municipalities – including the City of Johannesburg – have unacceptably high levels of financial risk and service delivery failures.
The long-term decline in national government’s finances plus the persistent corruption and maladministration at municipal level has resulted in infrastructural backlogs, above-inflation increases in service tariffs, and cash shortages in many municipalities.
Municipalities’ core function is to provide basic service delivery (water, electricity, sanitation, and rubbish removal). In addition, larger municipalities provide basic health services, police, firefighting, emergency medical services, and more. Municipalities are also tasked with the spatial development of communities, working with other spheres of government to formalise housing and drive local economic development.
It’s critical that voters make an informed choice in the elections, and vote for candidates and parties with a track record of community service and good governance. Unfortunately, voters have less information than ever about their political choices: parties have been unable to campaign effectively under lockdown, and new candidates are mostly unknown to their wards and communities.
Our electoral system also leads to a few practises that make it harder for voters to make an informed choice. For example, many political parties take advantage of a legal loophole to field the same ward candidates across multiple wards. This is done in order to maximise a party’s votes and increase the number of seats it can win in council, but it leads to parties fielding candidates who are weak and not representative of the wards where they are standing.
In the City of Johannesburg metro alone, there are 54 parties and 44 independent candidates. At least 25 of these parties have registered ward candidates in every ward across the metro. Many – if not most – of these candidates have been chosen to make up the numbers, not because they have experience in government or are dedicated to serving their communities. Most voters in the metro will have to choose from more than 25 ward candidates with little to no information about them.
Basic service delivery isn’t an exciting idea for most voters or parties, and parties tend to campaign on issues which have nothing to do with local government or service delivery. Many parties make promises or commitments which are completely unrealistic and unachievable. This just adds to voters’ confusion, and increases their apathy towards political participation.
Many voters, including members of the Jewish community, make ballot choices based on ideology and gut feel. In past elections, the African Christian Democratic Party has been touted as a viable choice because of its pro-Israel stance. ActionSA has incorporated xenophobia and border control in its 2021 campaign, parties like the Patriotic Alliance and the Cape Coloured Congress have appealed to racial identity, while the African National Congress (ANC) and Economic Freedom Fighters have used populist slogans and messaging to appeal to voters. Even the Democratic Alliance, which has a proven track record of service delivery in the Western Cape, has resorted to negative campaigning and comparisons with the ANC’s governance failures.
None of these issues have a link to service delivery and clean, accountable government.
What should voters and communities consider before casting their votes? Unfortunately, there’s not much time to learn more about candidates, and there is little information available. The Electoral Commission’s website does have a portal for the 2021 local government election where voters can download candidate lists. These lists are in PDF format, and are difficult to navigate.
Even if voters can create a shortlist of the parties and candidates in their ward, there’s not much that they can do to learn about those candidates. It’s possible to google the candidates’ names and research their social-media presence, but not all candidates have an online profile. Some candidates have done their best to campaign in recent weeks and reach constituents, but they are in the minority.
The truth is that the hard work really begins after the election date. It’s highly likely that there will be more coalitions in Johannesburg and Pretoria. The track record of coalitions over the past five years is poor: many coalitions have collapsed and others have been sabotaged. Ordinary South Africans will need to become more involved in political life beyond the election cycle in order to improve governance and service delivery.
At The Third Republic, we are dedicated to the research needed to hold local government more accountable, to track public spending, and council decisions. We invite you, the reader, to work with us over the next five years to ensure that local government improves and that communities are able to participate in the decision-making that affects service delivery and local development.
- Paul Berkowitz is a director at The Third Republic, a non-profit organisation working to deepen democracy and political participation across South Africa.
Arab-Israeli gangsterism a massive security threat
The current violence in Arab-Israeli cities is a greater threat to the state of Israel than Hamas and Hezbollah. The comparison might sound dramatic, but since stating it earlier this week, Israeli Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar has only reinforced his concerns.
As many as half-a-million illegal weapons are estimated to be in the hands of the Israeli-Arab sector. Their prevalence is widely attributed to the killing of more than 90 Arab citizens since the start of this year in shootings and stabbings. Though some of these deaths have been the result of warfare before mafia families, others involved unlucky bystanders struck by a stray bullet or female victims of domestic violence. Of these cases, less than a quarter have been solved so far, compared with more than 70% in the Jewish community.
Many Arab Israelis say the identities of killers and crime families are well-known to residents and authorities. They complain that the lack of arrests reflects a double standard when it comes to Israeli police dealing with Arab communities.
The problem is further compounded by the lack of faith many Arabs have in the Israeli police’s will and ability to address the problem. A recent survey found that only 17.4% of Israeli Arabs said they trusted the police. The result is a Catch-22, as this lack of faith leads to fewer people being willing to risk co-operating with the police, who in turn have a more difficult time enforcing law and order.
For months now, the Israeli government has been trying to get a grip on the deteriorating security situation. Even the head of the United Arab List, parliamentarian Mansour Abbas, this week again stressed his concern about crime and violence in Arab communities.
But how to deal with it has created problems, with Arabs divided over Jerusalem’s recent announcement that it plans to involve the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) in assisting the Israeli police. While some Arabs firmly oppose the idea, others are desperate for any solution that could help quell the escalating violence.
It’s difficult trying to gauge opinion on the Arab street. Most people I approach are afraid to comment. Should they be seen to support the Shin Bet, they could face reprisals in their communities; and should they be seen to publicly oppose its involvement, they could – they tell me – be targeted by Israeli security authorities. The best answer, encapsulating what most people feel, is what one elderly man told me, “I’m doomed if I support the move, and I’m doomed if I don’t!”
As for the Shin Bet itself, its officials say they prefer not to be involved in anything beyond their more regular counter-terrorism missions. These are usually across the Green Line, in Palestinian territories, where suspects can be held for years without charge and prevented from meeting with lawyers.
Jerusalem has consistently argued that such measures are necessary to prevent Palestinian terror attacks, but implementing them against Israeli citizens, albeit against those who are engaged in criminal activity, is a completely different ball game. The major concern, for Jews and Arabs alike, is that it could turn Israel into a police state. Many also question how a technologically advanced country like Israel, that was recently able to catch six escaped Palestinian prisoners within a week, has been unable to break up a few local criminal gangs. Some Arab citizens even suspect the government of deliberately letting the violence run amok in order to weaken the Arab minority in the country.
Several Israeli officials have expressed a popular view among the Israeli political right that “as long as they are killing each other, that’s their problem”. But this violence often spills over into Jewish neighbourhoods, often into nationalistic crimes, as was witnessed in May this year.
At the time, I visited mixed Arab-Israeli cities in the heart of the country that resembled battlegrounds. Car tyres were burning on the streets, shops and homes were barricaded, and many Arab citizens walked around armed. The concern was that those weapons, often stolen from the Israeli military, or smuggled across the border from Jordan, or manufactured in the West Bank, could be turned against the Israeli public. The police were quick to quell the unrest as quickly as it unfolded, leaving many to point out that when the security forces really wanted to deal with the violence, they could.
The new government insists it’s prioritising dealing with the situation. It says it has a detailed plan to improve access and trust in Arab communities that it is ready to put into action after the state budget is passed in November. It calls for recruiting an additional 1 100 police officers, legislative changes to deal more efficiently with economic crime, more use of technology, and an improved witness-protection programme.
The situation has become so bad that in some cases, police are afraid to enter neighbourhoods. The hashtag #ArabLivesMatter has caught on, inspired by the #BlackLivesMatter movement and among those embracing the hashtag is the country’s public security minister who faced stormy protests outside his home after seven shooting incidents rattled the Arab community in a single week. But although there’s growing public awareness of the problem, it won’t easily disappear. It’s been around for a long time, and will take some time to dissipate.
- Paula Slier is the Middle East bureau chief of RT, the founder and chief executive of Newshound Media International, and the inaugural winner of the Europcar Women in Leadership Award of the Absa Jewish Achiever Awards.
Twentieth anniversary of anti-Israel hate fest a spectacular flop
Twenty years ago in September 2001, a week before what became known as “9/11”, the United Nations (UN) hosted what it called the “World Conference on Racism” in Durban.
Non-governmental organisations, human-rights activists, and representatives of scores of countries gathered in Durban for this auspicious event.
It soon became apparent, however, that an Orwellian cloud had passed over the sunny skies of Durban. The conference against racism turned out to be an antisemitic hate fest against the Jewish state.
At the turn of the 21st century, five decades after the Holocaust, the infamous Durban conference became the latest hotbed of antisemitism against the Jewish people.
Some “human rights” activists in attendance distributed the crude antisemitic polemic of a century earlier known as the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Some Jewish human-rights activists who attended were intimidated, abused, and taunted with the insult that they “don’t belong to the human race”.
A Pro-Palestinian march where thousands rallied in the streets of Durban included pro-Nazi flyers with the text, “Hitler Should Have Finished the Job” and proclaimed that if Hitler had only won the war, Israel wouldn’t exist.
The outcome of Durban was the launch of a global, organised, and funded antisemitic machine, mouthing the language of human rights and masquerading in the guise of anti-apartheid activism. We know it as the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement and various activist organisations affiliated to it. These include university chapters that target impressionable university students and future leaders with the annual hate fest known as “Israel Apartheid Week”, academic boycott campaigns, Palestinian “solidarity” organisations, and factions within mainstream political parties.
BDS falsely characterises Israel as the current manifestation of evil in the world that needs to be eliminated.
It’s no coincidence that South Africa was chosen as ground zero for promulgating the apartheid smear on Israel in order to give an air of respectability to the crude prejudice underneath. The BDS movement hijacks South Africa’s painful history as the heart of its hateful agenda because it’s symbolically strategic to use damnation of apartheid to stain and ultimately eradicate the Jewish state.
It’s a grotesque travesty that certain political, media, and intellectual elites in South Africa, where apartheid was real and perpetrated, are misled by this blatant propaganda and actively work to mislead others.
Their goal is to vilify the Jewish state as an evil pariah that must be obliterated through political and economic warfare, and their weapons are the tools of mass deception and propaganda.
Indeed, Israel is everything that BDS claims it isn’t: a beacon of democracy and human rights in contrast to the rest of the Middle East and much of Africa. No less than 14 members of the current Israeli government are Arabs, and Israel’s world-renowned judiciary includes an Arab Supreme Court judge. Israel offers affirmative-action policies, remarkable opportunities (obviously including the right to vote) for Arab women that aren’t available anywhere else in the Middle East, and redress for discrimination where it occurs. That’s not to mention decades of attempted peace-making with the Palestinians.
If Israel was able to make peace with Egypt, Jordan, and now a very warm peace with much of the Arab world, then perhaps she isn’t the one to blame for lack of a resolution with the Palestinians.
But facts shouldn’t get in the way of the big lie (a propaganda technique gleaned from Hitler’s Mein Kampf) that the haters have learned to use with alacrity. Israel isn’t perfect nor does she proclaim to be, but simply expects to be treated fairly among the nations of the world. BDS is an anti-peace movement with no real interest in bettering the lives of Palestinians besides exploiting and weaponising them against Israel.
Last month in New York, the UN commemorated the 20th anniversary of the Durban conference. An international body that claims to be serious about combating prejudice and racism should surely have banished the conference as an embarrassing memory, but the UN is best known for failing to uphold the values it proclaims in its charter.
As it turns out, the event was a spectacular flop. Thirty-eight of the most important countries, including the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Germany, Poland, France, Italy, Sweden, Australia, and of course, Israel, declined to participate due to its antisemitic undertones.
It’s not surprising but still shocking that South Africa remained one of the few participants in the conference, making vainglorious statements to almost nobody, further undermining our country’s credibility and influence in international affairs.
South Africa’s participation, besides aligning itself with the anti-Western bloc, also implicated it in an international campaign of hatred against the Jewish people.
Fortunately, there are many South Africans citizens who are supportive of Israel, represented by members of South African Friends of Israel who recently protested in Durban against the conference.
The legacy of Durban is a global and systematic effort to undermine Israel’s right to exist as an indigenous and self-determined Jewish state.
Like the commemoration event last month, this effort is destined to be a spectacular failure. History will place the current variant of the antisemitism virus on the scrap heap. And the Jewish people will outlive and overcome their self-declared adversaries. Twenty years on from Durban, Israel is stronger, securer, richer, more loved, and more respected than ever before.
- Rowan Polovin is the national chairperson of the South African Zionist Federation.
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