INTERVIEW: Dani Dayan on Jewish Community Engagement

As the presidential campaign continues to dominate the news cycle, new Israeli Consul General in New York Dani Dayan finds some parallel between the nomination of Senator Tim Kaine as the Democratic vice presidential candidate and his appointment as Israel’s chief diplomat in the Big Apple.

“I am proud to be the first Hispanic-Israeli Consul General in New York,” Dayan told Jewish Insider in an interview at the Israeli Consulate in Midtown last Thursday. “When I watched reports about Secretary [Hillary] Clinton choosing Senator Kaine as her running mate I saw that the great importance was given to the fact that this was for his fluency in Spanish. I never spoke with Senator Kaine – in Spanish or in any other language, but I suppose my Spanish is not less fluent as his. If that’s an asset for a certain candidate, it should be an asset for us in New York City.”

According to Dayan, “One cannot ignore the growing importance of the Hispanic community in this country, who according to projections will be close to a third of the electorate in a few decades. It will be our highest priority, and I will dedicate a large chunk of my time in outreach to the Hispanic community.”

But Dayan was quick to note that he hasn’t been in contact with any representatives of the presidential campaigns or with candidates running for political office. “I am very cautious in doing that until November (8th),” he said. “I will not do anything that people could see, even if it’s not that way, as an intervention in American politics. Therefore I will be very cautious, not only regarding the presidential campaign but also senatorial and congressional campaigns until November. I will refrain as much as I can from that kind of contact. Sometimes a very innocent photo can people see as an intervention. I wouldn’t like to do that.”

Dayan, 60, who assumed his post last month, explained that his approach to dealing with the various communities in the cities and states as well as engaging with the different factions within the American Jewish community would be one of dialogue, but also addressing the tough questions about Israel’s government’s policies on the diplomatic front.

He served as the Chairman of the Yesha Council (an umbrella organization of municipal councils of Jewish settlements in the West Bank) from 2007 to 2013.

Dayan called it adding a “storey” on top of the good work his predecessor, Ambassador Ido Aharoni, did in focusing on the positive technological, medical and scientific achievements of the Jewish state rather than concentrate on the political conflict.

“This is Israel’s largest diplomatic nation all over the world, and the largest diplomatic mission of Israel all over the world has to deal with the issues that are at the forefront of Israeli diplomacy, namely the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Iranian issue, the legitimization of Israel, etc. I intend to do that,” Dayan stressed. “I don’t think that saying that Israel is a start-up nation is an answer to every question we are asked. There are questions that merit detailed and sincere answers, and I am here to provide them. I didn’t come here to preach to the choir. I could spend my tenure here by engaging with convinced audiences that will flatter my ego with standing ovations and applauses in every sentence I would say. I didn’t come here to do that.”

In engaging with those who are disenchanted or disappointed with Israel’s policies, Dayan’s motto is “anashim achim anachnu” (After all, we are brothers). “I didn’t say I come here to convince them. I came here to have a dialog with them,” he said. “I came here to present them with the facts, enlighten them with rational, and leave it up to them to decide. I came here to maintain dialogues. The first precondition, of course, is to talk to all people.”

To this end, Dayan said, he has invited liberal and progressive Jewish leaders for breakfast at his official residence later this month. Talking to one another and trying to understand each other better will result in the government accepting that the positions of groups like J Street and other social justice organizations are legitimate, and understand the responsibility of embracing them, Dayan said. But it also places the burden on these groups not to break the special bond between the U.S. and Israel and not to engage in activities that undermine the sense of unity in support of the Jewish State. “A Zionist position that is legitimate in the Israeli Knesset – like Meretz (on the left) or Bayit Yehudi (on the right) – is legitimate for American Jewry,” he emphasized.

Dayan’s relationship with J Street got off to a rocky start. In a March interview with i24News, Dayan made a comment that was initially interpreted as a characterization of J Street as “un-Jewish.” Dayan later acknowledged that his comments were “somewhat undiplomatic.” But he maintained that he was just responding to a commentator on the program, who suggested that certain AIPAC attitudes contradict Jewish values. “Mistakenly, along with the gong to end the program, I used the short and undoubtedly wrong form,” he said. J Street president Jeremy Ben-Ami accepted the apology, tweeting, “@dandayan really appreciate this. Have always valued engaging with you. Look forward to continuing to disagree in NY as we have in Israel!”

Sitting with the reporter who first published his comments at the time, Dayan seemed eager to get it off his chest. “By the way, I never referred to them as un-Jewish,” he said. “That’s a fact. I referred to a certain action, a very specific issue, as un-Jewish, as I already explained that at length. I also had an exchange of e-mails on that with Jeremy Ben-Ami, who is a personal friend, and that issue is behind us.”

“I also consider myself progressive,” the former settler leader boasted in myself, pointing to a recent speech by NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio, in which he emphasized that his defense of Israel stems from his belief in progressive values. “I share that belief,” said Dayan. “I am a person that human rights, individual rights are important to me, and moral considerations are very important to me.”

One of the sacrifices Dayan had to undertake in his new role as a diplomat is dining at a vegan restaurant. “I am Argentinian. I was born in Argentina,” he said. “Argentinians like meat and Italian food because a lot of Argentinians are actually Italian immigrants. But one of the leaders of the American Jewish community is vegan (paging William Daroff). He invited me to dinner at a vegan restaurant. So the level of my commitment to the mission is also to have dinner at a vegan restaurant.”

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