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Jewish Journal

Galit Dayan: Diplomat’s Wife a Woman With a Mission

by Danielle Berrin

January 22, 2009 | 7:40 pm

Galit Dayan. Photo by Dan Kacvinski

Galit Dayan. Photo by Dan Kacvinski

The phone rings, and it’s Galit Dayan calling. She sounds breathless and a bit tired, her voice gentle but distressed.

“We are living in a very difficult time,” she says with melancholy. “People are approaching me and asking me for help.”

This isn’t how she sounded on the September morning I first met her around the High Holy Days, when she was elated by the flag-raising event her husband, Consul General of Israel Yaacov Dayan, had organized at the Israeli Consulate on Wilshire Boulevard. Things were easier, happier just a few months ago.

“For me, as an Israeli and a Jew, it was like the country being born again,” she said in early fall, tears welling in her green eyes. Three thousand people had flooded the streets that day to witness the first Israeli flag raised outside a consulate in the United States. Dressed elegantly in a light-blue button-down, with an iridescent hamsa dangling from her neck, she described how they sang “Hatikvah,” Israel’s national anthem.

“In Israel, we don’t have this custom to sing it every time we gather. We, in Israel, sing only on sad occasions — you whisper the tikvah,” Dayan explained. “Here, for the first time in my life, I am standing with an amazing crowd singing so loud, I cried.”

These days, the crowds gathering outside the Israeli Consulate have changed. They are often protesters demonstrating against Israel, accusing her country of war crimes, genocide and apartheid.

“They think they are supporting a noble idea — the freedom of a people, creating them a state, all the values that we share in Israel,” Dayan says of those supporting the Palestinian cause. “But they have to understand they are supporting a terrorist organization that wants the extermination of Israel. It is very different to hear what Hamas is speaking and what protesters are thinking. It’s not the same issue at all. They don’t get it.”

As a diplomat’s wife, Dayan is accustomed to advocating for her country; she has spent much of the past 16 years living internationally — from Israel to Greece to Washington, D.C., to Los Angeles — acting like something of a diplomat herself. She believes strongly that her mission is to represent Israel as a country of values, a place that is much more than its military might.

“Whenever they perceive me, they perceive my country,” Dayan said over tea at her dining- room table in Beverly Hills. “When you understand that, and the impact it has, not that you are ‘the wife of’ but that you are also an ambassador of your country — for me, it’s the most rewarding thing I could do.”

When Israel is at war, it is a particularly fraught and difficult time for a diplomat’s wife, but Dayan said the strife, the sleepless nights, the constant sense of alert, began long before the incursion into Gaza.

Last October, when the U.S. economy suffered tremendous losses, she began receiving phone calls from Israelis desperate to go home. One woman confessed that her husband was suicidal. Another said there was no money in her checking account. A frequent lecturer, Dayan distributes her contact information all over the city, and with no other recourse, Israelis often call her, frustrated and despondent, asking for her help.

“I’m telling you, these phone calls that I’m getting ... you know it’s hard,” she said. “Emotionally I can tell you that it’s very hard because you want to help, but you can’t do it for all the people. To be in such a position that people expect your help — it’s hard for me, because I don’t know if I’m helping them. I’m listening to them. What I can offer is myself.”

Then the Bernard Madoff scandal shook the Jewish world to the core, and strapped foundations in Israel turned to Dayan to help find new donors in Los Angeles. With little time to act, many of these said that if they didn’t find money fast, they’d be forced to close their doors.

And since the war began, both Dayan and her husband have been called upon for round-the-clock duties. Yaacov Dayan has been speaking at events and rallies, meeting with public officials and holding regular press conferences.

Galit Dayan has been lecturing, talking to the media and carting her three children to every rally or protest she hears of. Though she and her husband are in constant contact, they haven’t seen each other much. During times like these, Dayan dutifully surrenders prized family time. “Israel is the most important thing, and all the family needs to be engaged in that,” she said.

While Dayan, 40, fits a glamorous profile, she is much more than just a diplomat’s wife. She is a leading Egyptologist, an expert in ancient Egyptian history, language, literature, religion and art (yes, she reads hieroglyphics). In recent years, she has also established a business in organizational development based in Israel, which she returns to every two months. And she does all of this while maintaining a community presence and raising three children, ages, 15, 12 and 6, and supporting her high-profile husband.

“People would say: ‘You have to choose.’ Do you want to be a mother raising your kids? — Then you have to give up your career. You want to be a good wife?” Dayan recalls. “I couldn’t choose. I wanted to have it all.”

Her ambitious idealism has only increased since she arrived in Los Angeles.

Her current goal is to re-brand Israel. She has formed a partnership between the Israeli Consulate and “LA’s Best,” an after-school care program in 180 Los Angeles public schools, where 80 percent of the population is underprivileged or from low-income homes. She helped implement an educational program that exposes non-Jewish children to Israel by teaching them about festive Jewish holidays — Rosh Hashanah, Chanukah, Purim and Tu B’Shevat. Last December, on a visit to Panorama City Elementary School, the school auditorium was transformed into a Chanukah party for 100 mostly Latino children, ages 5 to 10. Before that day, only one child had heard of Israel, but by its end, Dayan had the students playing dreidel and eating latkes.

While she always supports strengthening ties to Israel within the community — an open breakfast she hosted for six interested women a year ago has led to the launch of Mati, an Israel cultural center in Agoura, which celebrated its grand opening on Jan. 11 — she is just as committed to strengthening support for Israel among non-Jews.

“We have to look outside the community to find a way to reach the world,” Dayan said, surrounded by banners welcoming her and her husband to the school. “I really believe that if we’re open to other people, there will be more chances for peace.”

Born in Jerusalem to a family of scholars, her Moroccan-born father taught history at Hebrew University, and her Algerian-born mother was a French professor at the French Institute in Jerusalem. As a child, Dayan moved back and forth between Paris and Israel, and French was her first language — she did not learn Hebrew until she was 10.

Her father was a strong atheist, and her mother was religiously observant. Dayan, however, was an uncompromising dreamer whose plan was to be a doctor, an actress and an archaeologist. But, when she entered the army and met her future husband, the 19-year-old was persuaded toward “practicality.”

Following their army service, Yaacov Dayan went off to study classics and modern history in Tel Aviv, while Galit studied in Jerusalem, where she double-majored in archaeology and Egyptology. Every weekend for three years, the couple took turns commuting between cities to see each other. They discussed ancient languages and cultures and planned careers based on their passions and ideals. They married in 1992, and before Dayan completed her doctorate, they had two children.

She had planned to become a history professor at Hebrew University when her husband was accepted into the Foreign Ministry. When he was offered a position in Greece, she had to choose between her own ambitions and supporting her husband.

“I decided not to be ‘the poor wife,’” is how she characterized her decision.

“As a woman, one part of you wants to say, ‘I want to be there for him. I love him. I want him to succeed.’ And part of you says, ‘What’s going to happen with the kids? They’re so young,’ and then,” Dayan added, “you think about yourself.”

So she moved her family to Greece and returned to Israel the following summer to pursue a professorship. But the dream of following in the footsteps of her parents dissolved when she was told the department would close. She cried for weeks.

“It was like all my life fell apart. All the promises I got were worth nothing. You can imagine how disappointed I was — and angry,” she said.

Meanwhile, her husband’s career took off when he became chief of staff to Sylvan Shalom and Tzipi Livni.

“I kissed him the first day we landed in Jerusalem, and I saw him four years later,” she said.

Next, the family moved to Washington, D.C., where she studied organizational development at Georgetown University, and soon after, she went to Israel and hand-picked clients for her privately owned company.

When her husband accepted the prestigious consul general position (his first) in Los Angeles, her life changed again. “There is something in this city — it is the spirit — that is stronger than anything else, and I want to bring the spirit of this community to my country, to Israel. This is what I want — this is what we need in Israel,” she said.

Dayan is clearly so enthralled by the passion and purpose of Los Angeles’ Jewish community that she has set her sights well beyond the traditional role of hosting dinner guests and lecturing at fundraisers. She is a committed public figure who lectures and teaches and sparks new ideas. With the work she is doing here, she has truly become her husband’s partner.

“You never know when you meet the person that you love how you’ll evolve,” Yaacov Dayan said of his wife. “In a spiritual way, we grew up together. Everything that I do, every idea that I have, I’m sharing with Galit — she’s my closest adviser, definitely.”

“ ....And many times I even listen to her,” he added.

Meanwhile, Galit Dayan’s loftiest goal is spearheading One People, a project that she hopes will become an annual “gathering of the Diaspora” in Israel. She envisions a fanciful parade through the streets of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, weeklong learning workshops and community-building events, a celebration of Jewish love for Israel — L.A. style. She is planning a kickoff ceremony in July in Jerusalem, where a delegation of rabbis and cantors from around the world will convene in prayer.

She hopes to launch the first parade in 2010.

“I’ve never found this spirit in any other community around the world. There’s something here that is precious,” Dayan said. “The Jewish community in Los Angeles can lead the whole Jewish world into a better future — I really believe in that.”

“Los Angeles will be the leader of this,” she said. “In this city there is an industry of dreaming, and it motivates you to dream more. Here, I can say that I dream big.”

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