MONTREAL — As he prepares to return to Jerusalem after serving as Israel’s consul general here for three years, Joel Lion wants to leave the message that Quebecers are not anti-Israel.
In fact, he is convinced there is a deep reservoir of goodwill toward the country, and that Quebecers are genuinely interested in Israel and open to forming ties with it.
Lion, who leaves in August, has travelled throughout the province, probably more extensively than any of his diplomatic predecessors. From Rimouski to Chicoutimi to Rouyn-Noranda, he has made putting a human face on Israel a priority.
The affable French-born Lion, an ordained Orthodox rabbi who wears a kippah, says he has been met with warmth and openness wherever he journeyed.
He made numerous contacts at the political, educational, business and cultural levels.
Sure, francophones can be blunt about what they think and the French media can be indifferent to or sharply critical of Israel or other topics dear to the Jewish community, but Lion said it should not be forgotten that they are “good people with big hearts, who have a thirst to understand.
“I felt the love of Israel among French Quebecers – for our ingenuity, our innovation, for what we can do for them. Yes, they criticize us, because they think if you love someone, you can do that,” Lion said.
A blanket charge of media bias against Israel is unfair, he thinks. “The media here is very, very local. If it has no direct connection to Quebec, they are not interested.”
But any perceived neglect of Israel should not be interpreted as hostility, he warns.
During Lion’s mandate, the number of Israeli artists of all kinds performing in Montreal and films screened there and in smaller centres grew exponentially. A film buff, Lion spoke frequently about Israeli cinema, which has become increasingly popular in the province, and is well represented on the festival circuit.
Lion’s motto – which ruffled a few in the Jewish community – is that Israel should be celebrated, not defended. “What I mean by that is look at the positive side of things,” he said. “Show what Israel can do for the world, build on the connections and friendships that exist. Don’t be on the defensive.
“The way to fight anti-Semitism and BDS [the Israel boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign] is not to demonstrate, but to dialogue with those who want to understand and who will realize that the boycott is bad for Palestinians and Quebecers,” he said.
Lion also served the Atlantic provinces, and he made frequent visits to all four provinces, making contact with politicians, universities and businesspeople, as well as the small Jewish communities.
He will be succeeded by Ziv Nevo Kulman, a mid-career diplomat currently directing the foreign ministry’s training department. He was previously a cultural attaché in the Paris embassy and served in Prague and Tokyo, among other postings.
Lion believes the Israeli consulate in Montreal is secure for the foreseeable future. He also served as Israel’s permanent representative to the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), a United Nations agency headquartered in Montreal.
For a while last year, that appeared to be threatened when the Gulf state Qatar made a bid for ICAO. Lion believes his “corridor diplomacy” helped persuade certain African nations with which Israel is friendly to vote against the move, tipping the balance.
Israel has a higher profile at ICAO than before, Lion said. “Israel wants to be seen there, to show what it can offer, for example, in the way of aviation security or unmanned aircraft for non-military purposes.”
Lion, 50, has been away from Israel for five years now. Before Montreal, he spent two years at the New York mission, serving as a spokesperson. He expects to spend at least two years working at the ministry in Jerusalem, although he does not know what his assignment will be.
It’s a welcome change of pace for Lion and his wife, Rivkah, who have eight children. Six came with them to Montreal, although one left a year later to serve in the army.
The family has felt right at home living in Côte St. Luc.
Lion was delighted to come to Montreal from New York. First, because it was a promotion in rank, but equally because he felt he could make a difference as a French speaker who knows French culture.
His gratitude to the Jewish community is fulsome. “This is something special here, I’ve never seen anything like it elsewhere: the solidarity, the love of Israel. There is no snobbishness, even among the wealthiest, most prominent people. All wanted to do what they could for Israel,” he said.
There will be a change in the No. 2 post at the consulate this summer as well. Deputy consul general Alon Melchior will be replaced by Avi Lev-Louis, who is returning to the position he held until 2011.
Lev-Louis, a veteran diplomat, lived in Montreal from the age of 13, from 1963 to 1977, when he returned to Israel where he was born. Most recently, he has been in Albania where he has been working on establishing Israel’s first embassy in the capital, Tirana.