“This is the story of a typical 20-something New Yorker who accidentally stumbled into the nerve centre of the Israeli government, and an account of all that I saw along the way before realizing that I really had no business being there.”
This bracingly candid paragraph succinctly sums up Gregory Levey’s comical memoir, Shut Up, I’m Talking And Other Diplomacy Lessons I learned in the Israeli Government (Free Press).
Levey, in fact a Torontonian, wrote speeches for Israel’s United Nations mission in New York City and served as a speechwriter for two successive prime ministers, Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert. Currently on the faculty of Ryerson University in Toronto, he was an employee of the Israeli government for 21/2 years, until Olmert succeeded his incapacitated predecessor in January 2006. Levey describes his brief career as “sometimes rocky” and “always very strange.”
The book, by turns sardonic and funny, exposes ineptitude, and skewers foibles and inappropriate behaviour. In an author’s note, he observes: “Israelis frequently deal with their difficult situation by laughing about the absurdity that surrounds them. There is no reason outsiders should not do the same. Sometimes it is in the comic details that best reflect the gravity of the larger picture”
A graduate of Bialik Hebrew Day School, he took his position during his second year of law school, when he badly needed a break from boredom and tedium. He originally considered joining the Israeli army, signing up online for a program designed for foreign volunteers. In the meantime, though, he applied for an internship at Israel’s UN mission to help pass the time until his departure date.
An atheist who grew up in a somewhat observant family from South Africa, he soon learned that internships were not actually available. Much to his surprise, however, the deputy ambassador, Arye Mekel, now the foreign ministry’s spokesman, hired him.
The tone of Shut Up, I’m Talking is established in the foreword. As a result of a bizarre series of events, Levey, then 25 and not even an Israeli citizen, found himself representing Israel at the UN assembly minutes before a vote was to be taken on a resolution. He neither knew what it was about nor how he should cast his ballot. If nothing else, the incident left an indelible impression: “It continually astounded me that things were done in such a haphazard fashion in the Israeli government.”
Returning to this theme, he says, “Nothing was ever really planned out ahead of time, even when it was clear that other countries were working on their speeches weeks in advance.”
Levey’s pen portraits of the rather eccentric staff at the Israeli mission may seem damning. At his first official meeting with Mekel, he expected a serious discussion of the situation in the Middle East and at the United Nations and an explanation of his responsibilities. What he got instead was “an incredibly dirty joke” from Mekel, who had a habit of contorting his legs into incredibly improbable positions.
Levey eventually discovered that a few of his colleagues resorted to comic relief to take the edge off the pressure at the United Nations. After awhile, he admits, he emulated them.
Thanks to Mekel, he acquired a knowledge of doublespeak. “When a diplomat says yes,” he told Levey, “it means maybe. When a diplomat says maybe, it means no.” And if a diplomat says no, he should not be a diplomat, period.
Usually, Levey was called upon to compose straightforward speeches on current events. But in one odd instance, he had to write a speech refuting an accusation that Israel’s occupation of the territories was causing acne among Palestinian teenagers.
On at least one occasion, Levey was almost thrust into an unpalatable situation. When PLO leader Yasser Arafat died, the United Nations decided to honour him, placing Israel in an awkward position. Israel viewed Arafat as a terrorist and was inclined to boycott the event. On the other hand, Israel did not want to snub the UN. Levey was delegated to represent Israel, a task he resented. He was greatly relieved by Israel’s decision not to send anyone.
In another case, Mekel informed a group of diplomats from Canada that Levey was a Canadian. “They both looked at me, confused and scrunching their brows.” When Levey said he was not an Israeli and informed the Canadians that they represented him at the UN, they were utterly perplexed.
Levey pokes fun at Silvan Shalom, who was then Israeli foreign minister. Levey was told that he could not handle sentences more than six words long. Later, he learned that Shalom was challenged by the simplest monosyllabic word. When he finally met Shalom, he was wearing only his underwear. Shalom continued to wear this as he conferred with Israel’s ambassador to the UN, Danny Gillerman, and the director general of Israel’s foreign ministry, Ron Prosser.
Levey usually agreed with Israeli policy, but in his book he lays out dissenting views. He disagrees with Israel’s murder of high-ranking Hamas leaders, saying that targeted assassinations “fan the flames of animosity.” He also believes that the route of the security barrier should follow the old Green Line rather than jut into the West Bank.
Levey became a speechwriter for Sharon after one of his aides asked for a speech. He was shocked when Sharon delivered it nearly as it had been written. When Levey was subsequently offered a job in Sharon’s office in Jerusalem, he considered rejecting it because his girlfriend and wife-to-be, a student, was not enthusiastic about the idea.
Having decided to accept what could be the chance of a lifetime, Levey told Gillerman he was leaving New York. Gillerman’s response was couched in black humour: “You know, I can get you the name of a good psychiatrist.”
Levey got little face time with Sharon, whom he refers to “an invincible force of nature.” Levey’s boss, Ra’anan Gissin, a loud, frantic individual partial to Abba, the Swedish pop band, once swore at a pedestrian while conducting an interview with CNN in his car. And Gissin conspicuously clipped his nails while hosting an American delegation.
Yet Gissin was hardly the strangest character Levey encountered. He assigns that dubious honour to a particularly disgusting fellow who was in charge of dispensing cellphones. He mocked the way Levey spoke and spat the shells of sunflower seeds directly into his face.
By that juncture, Levey knew that his days in Israel were numbered. In the aftermath of Sharon’s massive stroke, Levey wrote short speeches for Olmert, but Olmert, a good English speaker, rarely used them. However, after giving Gissin notice that he was leaving, he was asked to write Olmert’s speech for his first trip abroad. “Only a smattering of my first draft remained recognizable in the final version, but I was flattered to hear that some of my lines had stayed in because [Olmert] had liked them.”
Shortly afterward, Levey and his girlfriend left Israel. When he arrived in the United States, he virtually let out a sigh. “When our plane touched down at JFK Airport, it felt like I had finally come home.”
Despite the close connections he had forged with Israel, he had no intention of becoming an Israeli.