April 18, 2002
Without much fear of contradiction, Mark Paredes observes, "I think I'm the only biracial Mormon representing the state of Israel abroad."
Paredes, a personable bachelor in his early 30s, appointed earlier this year as press attaché at the Consulate General of Israel in Los Angeles, has other claims to distinction.
He speaks seven languages fluently (English, Italian, Russian, Hebrew, Spanish, French and Portuguese), served as a U.S. foreign service officer in Mexico and Tel Aviv, and studied at Brigham Young University, University of Texas and the Moscow University of Steel and Alloys.
Paredes was born in Bay City, Mich. (otherwise famed as Madonna's birthplace), the son of a white mother and a black father, though he was raised by a Chilean stepfather. He joined the Mormon Church at age 11, later served as a missionary in southern Italy, and, in line with his religious upbringing, has never had an alcoholic drink, never smoked a cigarette and doesn't swear.
However, it wasn't necessarily the latter virtues that convinced Consul General Yuval Rotem to hire Paredes as spokesman and liaison to the African American and Christian communities.
"When I first came to Los Angeles in September 1999, I realized that to promote Israel's interest in as diversified an area as this city and the southwestern region of the United States, I had to reach out beyond the Jewish community," Rotem says.
The need to add to his staff people with a natural feel for non-Jewish communities struck Rotem when he visited Utah, where the Mormon Church is a key influence, during an initial trip to the states within his jurisdiction.
His first non-Jewish hire was Dr. Lauren Foster, whose roots are in the Mormon Church. Foster was selected as Rotem's liaison to Utah, on top of her job as the consulate's director for academic affairs.
Next, Rotem turned his attention to Los Angeles' Latino community, the largest in the United States, which is playing an increasingly crucial role in California and national politics. He appointed as his community affairs specialist Naomi Rodriguez, a young woman savvy in the ways of Latino culture and politics. One of the fruits of her labor was last month's yacht cruise, which brought together 100 Latino leaders, and an equal number of their Jewish counterparts, for a casual evening of Jewish and Mexican cuisine, Israeli and Latino music and transethnic networking.
One of the participants was Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who observed, "It's funny how it took a foreign diplomat to put this together."
Rodriguez is leaving to work for Mayor James Hahn, but Rotem has been so impressed by the effectiveness of her work, that he is already interviewing for her successor.
Paredes got a quick start on his job when he arranged for the consular staff to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day at the AME Church, the city's premier black church.
Police Chief Bernard Parks and other top African American officials participated in the event. "We received a terrific welcome, it was unbelievable," Rotem says.
Paredes, who worked in the economic section of the U.S. embassy in Tel Aviv between 1994 to 1996, after taking an intensive six-month Hebrew course, may be the only person who can compare the working styles of American and Israeli diplomacy from the inside.
"In the U.S. foreign service, the rules are very clearly defined," he says. "The Israeli service is less hierarchical, more open and has more flexibility."
This flexibility is clearly part of Rotem's modus operandi. Since his regular budget does not provide for the special community liaisons, he pays their salaries through some judicious local fundraising.
He says his unorthodox initiative has been warmly endorsed by his boss, Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, and, following his example, the Israeli consulates in Houston and Miami are considering the employment of Latino liaisons. Rotem notes: "I think it reflects Israel's growing sense of maturity that there is room for non-Jews to represent us."