Ofir Akunis ready to fight antisemitism as Israel’s new consul-general in N.Y.

The top item on Akunis’ agenda is to push back against ‘lies,’ he tells Jewish Insider, calling on the Jewish community to stand united with Israel


Ofir Akunis at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, Israel.

When Ofir Akunis arrives in the U.S. on Wednesday to begin his tenure as Israel’s consul-general to New York, he will be, like many of the envoys Jerusalem has sent to the city in recent years, on his first diplomatic posting, but with many years of political experience under his belt. 

But unlike some of the other Likud politicians sent to the Big Apple, who were popular with the party base but headaches for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for various reasons, Akunis, 50, spent most of his political career being identified closely with the prime minister. 

The role of consul-general in New York opened up after Asaf Zamir resigned in protest over the government’s policies in March 2023. Netanyahu first attempted to name May Golan to the role, before the offer was withdrawn in part over comments Golan had made about African asylum-seekers. He next considered conservative columnist Caroline Glick, who was dropped because of her fierce criticism of President Joe Biden, before ultimately nominating Akunis.

Though his most recent cabinet post as science and technology minister is one that often took him abroad – he reached dozens of scientific and innovation cooperation agreements with other countries in his six nonconsecutive years in the post – Akunis is not necessarily known in Israel for his engagement abroad over the years. Instead, he’s been a longtime player in Likud, with strong ties to Netanyahu and the party base.

After a brief stint as a journalist, Akunis worked in Likud’s media relations and then was a spokesman for Netanyahu in his first term as prime minister in 1996. Akunis returned to positions representing Netanyahu as finance minister and the Likud party in the media over subsequent years, until his election to the Knesset on the Likud slate in 2009, where he remained until earlier this year.

Akunis managed to strike a balance and be seen as more than speaking for his party’s leader, while not falling out with Netanyahu as many of his other former advisers have. As Likud has become more and more centered around the prime minister, Akunis was not among those who succumbed to the party’s increasingly populist bent. He was not one of the Likud lawmakers and ministers who accompanied Netanyahu to the courthouse for the start of the prime minister’s corruption trials in 2020, in what has since become an iconic image. At the same time, he has been a reliable surrogate for Netanyahu and Likud’s policy positions and a pugilistic parliamentarian pushing back against their political opponents.

Now, Akunis will be a surrogate for Israel, going from veteran politician to rookie diplomat in one of the most challenging times in decades for the Jewish state. He spoke with Jewish Insider during Passover, three days before he was set to begin his new role, saying that he will not be cowed by the increasing antisemitism in the city that he will call home in the coming years. The conversation has been condensed and edited.


JI: You’re arriving in New York when there’s a war in Israel, but the Jewish community in the U.S. is facing threats on campus and off. What will be at the top of your agenda? 

Ofir Akunis: I feel that I am starting in a historic era, with what is going on in the entire West, not just in the U.S. and New York and college campuses. I spoke and met with almost all of my predecessors, and I think that it is the most challenging time in the last 30 years, if not more, for a consul-general of Israel in New York. 

I like challenges. When I’m challenged, I know how to express our stances. Our position is just as Zionists and Israelis. When I resigned from the government, I said I am doing so as a Jew, a Zionist and an Israeli, in that order. Zionism comes from Judaism and being Israeli comes from Zionism. That is how I plan to act – as a proud Jew. I don’t plan to apologize to anyone…certainly not for the chain of events beginning on Oct. 7.

JI: So what is your mission in New York, as a proud Jew?

OA: There are a number of missions, not just one. Certainly, the current events require an immediate intervention in what is happening on campuses. I view the incitement and the violence with horror. They are built on antisemitic foundations, not only anti-Israel ones… It’s clear as day that this is organized and funded. We see students who have no idea what they’re talking about when you ask them what “from the river to the sea means.” If you support Hamas and Islamic Jihad, you’re saying you want to destroy Israel and establish a Muslim caliphate instead. 

We have to fight them off, with basic unity with the Jewish communities and groups of Israelis who live there. We have to operate as one body. That is how I plan to act. I feel that this moment requires unity. I visited New York less than a month ago and felt there was unity between the Jewish community establishment and the Israelis on this, and I hope it will be preserved. When we stand united, we will succeed.

Another mission is to try to influence public opinion in New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware and Ohio. These are states with large, established Jewish communities, and their leaders have an important influence on public opinion. 

I need to explain what is happening in Israel day to day and what led to Oct. 7 to members of Congress, senators, governors and mayors. The political leadership at all levels should stand up against these images that take the Jewish people back 90 years to Germany in the early 1930s. You can’t ignore them and say this is a regular part of democracy. Someone can express their position – but this is not just speech. When someone calls to kill all Zionists, that is not legitimate speech, that is a call for violence against Jews, Israelis and Zionists. I expect a response from the political leadership and the heads of the campuses. Where are the presidents of the universities?

JI: I think they’re afraid –

OA: That’s not a good answer. They’re not in a totalitarian country. There’s the rule of law; there are courts. They can make it stop. 

I expect a response without fear. Containment will not make things better. If you show weakness and lower your head, this phenomenon will grow.

But what happened in the 1930s won’t happen now. We won’t let it happen. Today is the opposite of the 1930s because the Jewish people are stronger. We have a democratic, independent state, a powerhouse of innovation and technology with the most moral army in the world. There is great unity [among Jews] in the U.S., across the Diaspora and in Israel. We need to act together in the coming years.

JI: Is there legal action that Israel can take to help Israelis in the U.S. who are facing hostile and discriminatory treatment on campuses?

OA: I spoke with Foreign Minister [Israel] Katz on the eve of Passover and we agreed that the Foreign Ministry will put together a plan with a budget behind it to fight these phenomena, including in the legal arena, as well as public diplomacy.

JI: You say you encountered a united front in NY, but you’re coming from a government that is not very popular among a large swath of American Jews. Did you encounter criticism from them, as someone who was until very recently a Likud minister?

OA: I have been for democracy my whole life. I believe that no one in public service and elected office is immune from criticism. I too have criticized people in key stances throughout my life.

I think that now is the time for broad unity. You can criticize, that’s fine, but we need a broad consensus in Jewish communities even if they have legitimate differences of opinion. There will be a time to work out the disagreements. If we show that we are divided in different areas, people will try to drive a wedge between us, but we need to stand united to fend off their lies.

JI: What are the messages that Israel and Diaspora Jewry need to unite behind?

OA: We see great lies, like using the term genocide. They don’t even know what it means. The Jewish people underwent a genocide. My family was in this genocide [in Poland and Thessaloniki]; you don’t have to lecture me about it. What did Hamas want to do on Oct. 7? Genocide. They said it. 

There’s the lie of humanitarian aid. I ask whoever brings up this argument: When, in the last 100 years, did a country at war, including Israel in past wars, take such steps to allow humanitarian aid to reach its enemy? And the enemy is cynically using it, not giving it to the population. That’s what Hamas has been doing since they took over Gaza. They used Qatari money and built tunnels longer than the London Underground and the New York subway, and not for public transportation, but for terror transportation. 

These are lies that we have to stand up to without apologizing. There is no hasbara with apologies. If you apologize, you lose. We need to tell the Americans that we didn’t start the fire. We were in a kind of a cease-fire, then [Hamas perpetrated] a terrible massacre, the rape of women, kidnapping citizens and infants and Holocaust survivors. Entire families were murdered, burned alive. What are we doing? We are defending ourselves. Why? Because we want to live, we want to exist. 

JI: Israel has been preparing to enter Rafah for weeks, and until that happens, it feels like the war effort is stuck. What can you tell people who want to understand what is going on, why Israel is standing in place instead of continuing or stopping the war?

OA: Israel doesn’t have to volunteer information to its enemies. Not in the north, the south or in Judea and Samaria [the West Bank], where there is increasing terrorism. When Israel is ready to act, it will act. That is the only way to stop our enemy from killing us. The endless chatter in the Israeli media doesn’t contribute to this. We need to talk less and do more.

Our goals are clear and they will be fulfilled. There will be no Hamas control of Gaza, not civilian or military, and the residents of the north evacuated in October [will return to their homes].

Since Oct. 9, when the funerals began, I have visited 60 bereaved families and attended dozens of funerals as a representative of the government, and met with dozens of hostage families in the Science Ministry, the Knesset, at their homes and even in my private home. I told every hostage family that every hostage is like a son or daughter to me. The message from the bereaved families was that they want victory over Hamas and the hostage families want to bring their loved ones home, and that is what we will do.

I don’t have to volunteer more information. Our enemies don’t have to know everything.

JI: You mentioned Qatari money earlier. There was some hesitation among Israeli officials to criticize Doha earlier in the war because of their role in hostage talks – what do you have to say about them?

AO: Unfortunately, they are the worst kind of two-faced. In the past almost 20 years, they funded the existence of Hamas as a terrorist organization. The money transferred by Qatar was sent to the destruction machine, for technological equipment and weapons and not for the benefit of Gazans. The vast majority of Gazans remained poor and in intolerable conditions and the whole world saw it was Hamas’s fault, not Israel’s fault.

I recently saw senior Qatari figures lecturing Israel and the prime minister about the way we are negotiating to free the hostages. I suggest, in a friendly way, that those who are preaching to us look in the mirror and understand how we reached this situation. They can also stop the campus protests in a second.

Qatar enjoys its status as a mediator, with its access to the U.S. They’re playing a double game, with the heads of Hamas living in luxury hotels in Doha while the Palestinian Gazan public is in a totally different situation in Gaza.

JI: What about the argument that Netanyahu shouldn’t have let Qatar send money to Hamas?

AO: Most of that criticism comes from people who pressured Israel to let the money in. People have a short memory. It’s an incoherent argument. Israeli money certainly did not get into Gaza over the years. 

I have expressed my opinion in internal forums. There should have been a better system to control how the money is funneled into Gaza. But the moment it reached Hamas, there was no control. If anyone wants to stop the funding in the future, I agree. That goes for the international community, as well. If they want to stop funding going to Hamas, just remember how you’ve been criticizing Israel since Oct. 7.

JI: The consul-general in New York covers Pennsylvania, as well. What do you think about Sen. John Fetterman’s (D-PA) heightened pro-Israel stance since Oct. 7, which surprised many?

OA: I think the events of Oct. 7 shocked every freedom-loving person, everyone who loves democracy, because we saw a barbaric, cruel and vicious act. No one who grew up like me and you and these senators and members of Congress can stay indifferent to this terrorist attack that was barbaric at its core.  

I was by the Gaza border a week after Oct. 7. Survivors, and military officers who took me there described how terrorists came with gallons of gas, tied people up and lit them on fire. It’s barbaric. And I ask all those students who are yelling [against Israel], is that what you want? Is that what you support, burning people alive? Fathers, mothers and little children? They came with gasoline and they burned them. They would do it to you too. They don’t care about you. They shout “Death to America.’ 

JI: How do you want to introduce yourself to the Jewish communities in your purview?

OA: I am very excited for my first diplomatic job. I am proud as someone born in the State of Israel and the land of Israel, whose family on one side survived the Holocaust in Poland and on the other side came from Greece in the 1930s. I’m proud to be the father of Yoni and Roni, a son in the IDF and a daughter who will enlist in the IDF in the coming months, and that my wife, Adi. and I served in the army.

I plan to act as a patriot and a Zionist. I stopped my political activity even before my nomination was officially authorized on March 17, because I am on a national mission. When I look at the history of Zionism, I see that most of the great leaders went on missions abroad: Herzl, Jabotinsky, Ben-Gurion, Golda Meir, Abba Eban, Yitzhak Rabin, Netanyahu. I am wearing these very big shoes. They powerfully reflected pride in their Judaism; Ben-Gurion would walk around with a Tanakh, and the first book I plan to put on my desk in the consulate is the Tanakh. I am there as a proud Jew and a proud Israeli.

JI: Do you think you have relevant experience to be a diplomat?

OA: I have diplomatic experience as science minister for over six years, not consecutively. I was the longest-ever serving science minister. 

There was a lot of great domestic activity, bringing more science [education and jobs] to the periphery, to Arabs and other minorities – something I initiated, no one forced me to do it. I thought all Israelis should have equal opportunities to be part of the Israeli lighthouse of technology.

But I also had a lot of diplomatic activity. We signed 30 international agreements to strengthen scientific cooperation, the final one was an unprecedented agreement with the U.K. government.

JI: The job of the consul in New York usually involves making business and trade connections. Will the connections you made as science minister help there?

OA: I hope to meet with American investors and convince them to invest in Israel in the areas that are the future of the world – AI, food tech, cyber, agri-tech and water tech. It’s an important goal.

But the first thing is to fight off the antisemitism and the lies of our enemies that are reaching a naive population that believes it because of funded propaganda.

Subscribe now to
the Daily Kickoff

The politics and business news you need to stay up to date, delivered each morning in a must-read newsletter.