HERZLIYA PITUACH, Israel – Jon Allen, Canada’s 17th resident ambassador to Israel, is floating on a cloud of bliss.
Jon Allen and wife Clara [Sheldon Kirshner photo]
“I’m having a wonderful time,” he said in an interview last month at his palatial rented residence just north of Tel Aviv.
“I’ve had a a number of interesting postings, but Israel ranks up there as the most fascinating in terms of the issues, the people, the culture, the travel. It has been a terrific learning experience.”
He added, “There is never a dull moment in Israel. You always live in interesting times in Israel.”
Allen – Canada’s third Jewish envoy to Israel after Norman Spector (1992-1995) and David Berger (1995-1999) – replaced his predecessor, Donald Sinclair, in June 2006, about a month before the eruption of the Second Lebanon War.
It’s his first ambassadorship.
Now 57, he is due to finish his three-year assignment next August, but he said he would be glad to stay longer, working to “further enhance” Canada’s friendly relationship with Israel.
“I’m a lucky guy,” he said after the official interview ended one recent Friday afternoon. “It’s one of the best gigs.”
A lawyer by training with a degree in international law from the University of London, Allen is the first Canadian Jewish ambassador to Israel to be recruited from the foreign service.
Prior to Israel, Allen, who was born and raised in Winnipeg, served in Ottawa, India, Mexico City and Washington, D.C., dealing with issues ranging from human rights to trade law.
Although he is not a Middle East specialist like Michael Bell, who was twice Canadian ambassador to Israel (1990-1992 and again from 1999 to 2003), he believes that his job as minister for political affairs in Canada’s Washington embassy prepared him for his current position.
“The Mideast was a fairly significant part of that job, so I followed Israel and the Mideast quite closely,” he explained.
And once he was here, he noted, it did not take him long “to get up to speed.”
Allen, whose sister has lived on Kibbutz Kfar Blum since the Six Day War and whose father was a strong Zionist, is not exactly a stranger to Israel. He visited in 1973 after his first year in university, he stopped in the Jewish state en route to a posting in India, and he returned yet again five years ago on a visit.
As ambassador, he is supported by a staff of 55, of whom 15 are professional diplomats. He went out of his way to praise the local Israeli employees, describing them as “the backbone” of the embassy.
On an average day, he arrives at his office in Tel Aviv relatively early by Canadian standards, between 7:30 a.m. and 8 a.m., so as to avoid heavy traffic.
He starts the morning by reading English-language newspapers (his Hebrew is less than impressive, despite having attended a cheder in Winnipeg) and perusing e-mails.
Then there are meetings with aides and Canadians passing through Israel. He has met Canadian cabinet ministers, politicians, business executives, academics, journalists, judges and Jewish community leaders.
Since Israel’s capital is in Jerusalem, he travels there quite regularly to confer with Israeli officials and politicians.
He also visits Israeli universities, Israeli Arab communities and Jewish Canadian projects such as the Canada Centre in Metulla.
On a regular basis, Allen submits situational reports to Ottawa, always striving to convey information not likely to be found, say, in the New York Times.
His biggest challenge is keeping abreast of Israel’s ever-changing political scene and its ramifications on the region.
He is not a one-man show. Allen’s wife, Clara, the daughter of Polish Holocaust survivors, works with Ethiopian Jewish immigrants to ease their integration into Israeli society. Last month, in recognition of her achievements, she was the subject of a feature story on CBC TV’s nightly newscast.
He is obviously proud of her. When the interview with The CJN ended, Allen called his wife, who was relaxing by the outdoor pool, and the couple posed for a photograph.
Their two sons live in Canada but visit on holidays and during the summer. One son is in third-year law at McGill University. The other is employed in health care in British Columbia.
Allen, whose grandparents immigrated to Canada from Russia, said that his father – a dentist who served in the Canadian army during World War II – became a Zionist after watching grisly newsreels about the Holocaust.
“He was a strong supporter of Israel and of the Hebrew University, the Weizmann Institute and the Technion. He must have been here 10 to 15 times, and loved coming here.”
His sister, having inherited her father’s zeal for Israel, has lived in Israel, on and off, for more than three decades. Currently, she is a masseuse at a posh resort in the Galilee. Some of her clients have been his colleagues, he chuckled.
Although he said he is not a Zionist himself, Allen considers himself “a very proud Canadian” who understands Israel’s significance for Jews.
In accordance with guidelines delineated by an aide, he declined to answer questions on political topics such as the state of Canada’s bilateral relations with Israel and the Arab-Israeli conflict. But otherwise, he spoke freely and easily.
He expressed surprised at Israel’s level of economic development, its building boom and its high-tech sector. “It is rather amazing. The growth rate has been 3.5 per cent for the past few years.”
Striking another positive note, he spoke glowingly of Israeli creativity, innovation, frankness, vitality and risk-taking. “There is not very much I don’t like about Israel,” he mused.
He does not, however, care for the driving habits of Israelis, whom he compared to Indians and Italians, and he said he is always taken aback when Israelis brazenly disregard queues for buses and at elevators.
Israel’s landscapes enchant him – the Galilee in spring, Mitzpe Ramon, Massada, the green patches in the desert, the drive to Jerusalem in the early morning, the Mediterranean Sea.
On his off days, he enjoys visiting art galleries and museums, swimming, playing tennis and discovering Israel.
He likes Tel Aviv, particularly Rothschild Boulevard and Sheinkin Street. He speaks highly of Israel’s restaurants, praising the quality of the seafood and waxing rhapsodically on the lowly fafafel.
Israel’s temperate weather appeals to him. “I love every minute of it. I never complain about the heat. I can’t get enough of it. It’ll be hard to go back to Canada in the winter. I spent 23 winters in Winnipeg, so I don’t miss the snow.”