TORONTO — Israel’s new consul general to Toronto and Western Canada says he wants to pick up where his predecessors left off in helping Canadians connect with Israel
DJ Schneeweiss assumed his post in August and has spent the last month learning about Canada’s Jewish and Israeli communities as he prepares to assert his vision on how best to make Israel relevant to Canadians.
Like his predecessor, Amir Gissin, Schneeweiss, 47, brings youthful energy to his role and comes equipped with a broad background in hasbarah, specifically on the file of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement.
“I am absolutely here to continue the work my predecessors started and help Canadians understand Israel,” he told The CJN at the consulate last week in one of his first interviews as consul general.
Prior to his new role, Schneeweiss spent several years as the Israeli foreign ministry’s primary tactician on all things BDS, travelling the world to fight the delegitimization campaign being waged against Israel. Before that, he was the country’s deputy ambassador to China.
Born in Australia, Schneeweiss grew up “very involved” in the Jewish community there before eventually making aliyah at 22 and joining Israel’s foreign service.
Although it’s early days in his new role in his new city, he said he hopes to help both the Jewish and non-Jewish communities of Canada better understand contemporary Israel.
“The conversation about Israel can’t only be about what’s important to Israelis. It has to also be about what’s important to Canadian Jews,” he said. “We want the discussion of Israel to be an inclusive one. That’s where I’d like to take [my role].”
He said one of his goals is to make people more aware of the “ordinary humanity” of Israel.
“When you promote the real Israel, it builds ties [to other communities] while ensuring the hostile agenda of anti-Zionists has less entry points than it normally would” to those who are less knowledgeable about the Jewish state.
However, the dialogue with others about Israel must be ongoing, and he knows it will “take a lot of effort by both the [Jewish] community and the consulate to get it into the Canadian bloodstream,” he said.
Asked about his feelings on being posted to Canada, Schneeweiss said that on the one hand, growing up in a Commonwealth country has made his transition here relatively easy, since much of the culture, values and speaking patterns are similar.
But he said he immediately felt the presence of Canada’s Jewish community of some 375,000 people – about 200,000 of whom live in the Toronto area – whereas in China, the community numbers in the low hundreds.
That difference is both inspiring and comforting, he said.
“When you get the nod for a job like this [in Canada], you immediately realize the size of the responsibility you have,” Schneeweiss said. “The Canadian Jewish community stands tall among others and you can feel that strength.”
On a personal level, he knows his job is sometimes hard on his family, but the rewards outweigh the detriments.
“It’s a challenging life,” he said. “You shlep your family around the world and force change on them… but it’s rewarding and enriching as Zionists,” he said.
His wife, a special needs teacher, is also still getting acclimatized and searching for potential work opportunities, while his twin children recently entered the Jewish school system in Toronto.
Aside from his excitement about figuring out the best way to contribute to the community and serve Israel during his term here, Schneeweiss said the Toronto posting also brings full circle a family history that traces back to World War II.
“My mom and grandmother were evacuated from England to Toronto in 1943. My grandmother, Eileen Jackson, lectured for Youth Aliyah while living here in those years,” he said.
But many of the details about his grandmother’s activities have become lost with the passage of time.
Schneeweiss said he’s hoping to have time to do research in the city’s old Jewish neighbourhoods to see if he can find out more about his grandmother.
In the meantime, he said as he settles into life in Toronto, he’ll continue to listen to the concerns of the community, evaluate its strengths and weaknesses and decide on “where my skills will be best deployed.”
Those skills, based on his background, will likely translate into an infusion of fresh anti-BDS strategies that the community can use to strengthen the case for Israel in Canada.
“We will find ways to articulate and re-articulate the Zionist message in the eyes of the world. We have to fend off those who are hostile to Israel’s existence. But we do ourselves a disservice if we allow ourselves to be defined by that battle.”