WINNIPEG — Torontonian Gregory Levey who as a 25-year-old student served as a speechwriter for Israeli Prime Ministers Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert, entertained an audience of about 75 people at the Shaarey Zedek Synagogue on Oct. 23.
Gregory Levey [Rhonda Spivak photo]
Levey is the author of the comical new memoir Shut Up, I’m Talking: And Other Diplomacy Lessons I Learned in the Israeli Government, which was published last April by Simon and Schuster/Free Press.
Levey told his unique and at times bizarre story of how he accidentally stumbled into the “nerve centre” of the Israeli government from 2004 until 2006.
Levey, a Canadian citizen, was studying in law school in New York when he applied for an internship at the Israeli consulate there. After an Israeli named Yaron –who called him “George” – did a security check on him, and another Israeli did a further check on him, including asking him “Why I didn’t break up with my girlfriend earlier,” he was called to the consulate.
There, he was told that “we don’t have an internship.”
However, the Israeli government needed a speechwriter, so he was hired.
Levey said, “But I’m a Canadian. I can’t work in the U.S.”
In response, he said he was told by the Israeli diplomat, “I can hire anyone I want. All we do is call the U.S. State Department and say you’re an Israeli diplomat.”
Levey began writing speeches for the Permanent Mission of Israel to the United Nations in New York and went on to serve as senior foreign communications co-ordinator and English speechwriter for Sharon and Olmert.
“I worked for the Israeli government from the time Ariel Sharon formed Kadima, through the disengagement, his [Sharon’s] two strokes, the rise of Olmert, until two days before the war in Lebanon,” he said.
As Levey recalled, “A few weeks before I was going to leave work [at the mission], I got a call that Ariel Sharon was coming to New York and he was going to be giving a speech to back [the Gaza] disengagement to the United States government. It was an important speech… I was asked if I would do the first draft. [Later] I was stunned to see that he [Sharon] gave my speech pretty much word for word.”
After that speech, Levey agreed to go to Jerusalem to become Sharon’s speechwriter.
“The prime minister’s office made the Israeli UN mission look orderly,” said Levey, who is now an assistant professor of communications at Ryerson University and working on his PhD in creative writing.
The most shocking story Levey told was how he was asked to represent Israel at the UN General Assembly just minutes before a vote was to be taken.
Levey tried to communicate with the Israeli UN mission by cellphone, but couldn’t get through to anyone He didn’t know what the vote was about or how he was supposed to vote, so he decided to approach the senior U.S. diplomat in attendance, guessing that he should do whatever the Americans did.
“I said to [the American diplomat] that I didn’t really know how I’m supposed to vote. I told him there had been some miscommunication in the Israeli mission today. Anyways, I asked him, ‘How are you going to vote?… He leaned in… ‘We’re voting no,’ he told me, and I fought back the urge to give him a high five,” Levey said.
Levey said he didn’t have the guts to tell the American diplomat that he didn’t know what the vote was about.
“So I decided to try calling again, and this time I got through to someone at the Israeli mission who was senior enough that he should have known what the vote was about. He said he didn’t know, but he’d try to get back to me.. But the vote was called [before he did]… I put my earpiece in and pressed the red button, [for] ‘no’ …There were over 90 votes in favour [of the resolution] and only two votes against it, those of the U.S and Greg…
“[Afterward], I got a call from a senior Israeli diplomat who said he had found out what the vote was about, and I should vote against it… Later I found out that the vote was about weapons of mass destruction.”
When asked if he ever considered living in Israel, Levey answered “It’s not for me. I like North America.
“Ultimately [my book] is about culture clash… I was a fish out of water.”