I was Israel's ambassador to South Africa at the turn of the millennium, during the second Intifada, several years after the transition from apartheid to democracy. Comparison of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and black-white relations during apartheid was widespread. Many conversations with politicians, academics and others focused on this simplistic approach; I wrote articles and gave speeches in order to refute a stance that ignored history and complexity. We were subjected to demonstrations. It was not easy.
A year and a half into the post, my niece was murdered in a suicide bombing in Jerusalem. After a fortnight, I returned to South Africa, expecting that my interlocutors, certainly those with whom I had close working relations, would respond to my personal loss. But that hardly happened. It seemed that they believed that we are rightly paying the price for our wrongful actions.
Thus, several days after returning to Pretoria, I was at a reception, it may have been French Bastille Day. Pictures of participants holding drinks are misleading – such gatherings are not parties, but professional events. Over several hours, one encounters many people, and much can be done without having to schedule meetings. It is an excellent opportunity to deal with small issues, be they work-related, or any other. Many colleagues expressed their condolences.
But of the officials who were there, only the chairman of parliament's foreign relations committee, a Muslim who used every opportunity to accuse Israel of genocide, came over to me. To the hardship of working in an environment that was critical, even hostile, was added a personal element. I sensed that for many locals, I was transparent as a human being, my emotions were irrelevant. As a representative of evil, there was no problem if my family was struck.
In a meeting with the premier of one of South Africa's nine provinces, she insisted that like them, the Palestinians do not target civilians. But Al-Aqsa Brigades took responsibility for my niece's murder. No, she insisted, that is not possible. My response to a veteran journalist who described Palestinian paucity and distress, all naturally Israel's fault, was fresh data from a respected publication, which pointed to Yasser Arafat's position on the world's rich list. Without batting an eyelid, he explained that the money was inherited, and that Arafat uses his personal wealth to relieve his people's problems.
Recent events took me back to those days, and to the difficulties facing Israel's diplomatic representatives abroad. Go and confront idealization, which makes your interlocutors ignore facts. Try to prove to those who have already decided, less than a month after Hamas' unprecedented atrocities, that they are not clean-handed freedom fighters, that the organization directs its resources to arming itself and to personal enrichment of its leaders rather than to people's welfare, that they shoot whoever refuses to be a human shield, they eliminate rivals, kill homosexuals, and generally do not pursue the liberal values of their supporters in the West.
Israeli diplomats must now confront anti-Israel and anti-Jewish sentiment which has not been seen for years, and respond to criticism that ignores what preceded Israel's response. If that were not enough, many are parents and grandparents of soldiers, have brothers and friends who are serving, and all worry for those targeted by missiles. Their hearts are in Israel, but their minds, bodies and time are dedicated to the urgent challenges at hand.
I try to imagine the internal turmoil of a diplomat whose friends were murdered, whose daughter decided at the last minute to skip the Nova rave at Re'im, or whose son was called up, while duty demands that she answer the accusations of an interviewer who is unwilling to hear more than a minute or a slogan. I recall how difficult it was to function while mourning, knowing that for many of my interlocutors, my pain was irrelevant, and that for some, it was justified.
- Tova Herzl served as ambassador to South Africa, was the first ambassador to the Baltic countries after the breakup of the USSR, and was responsible for relations with Congress at the Israeli Embassy in Washington