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Danoch says ‘shalom’ to the Southland

Israel's consul general reflects on the highs and lows of three years as an Angeleno

by Tom Tugend

September 27, 2007 | 8:00 pm

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Ehud Danoch. Photo courtesy Israel Consul

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Ehud Danoch. Photo courtesy Israel Consul

When a 34-year-old Ehud Danoch arrived in Los Angeles three years ago as Israel's new consul general, he had to learn three things -- real fast.

One was how to make sense of a new community, including not only multiethnic Southern California, but also all the rest of the Southwestern states and Hawaii. Another was how to explain, defend and promote an Israel facing rapid political changes and external threats. And the third was how to be a first-time father.

Danoch and his wife, Miki, had had to delay their trip to the United States until their newborn daughter, Daphna, was old enough to travel.

Now, like a second bookend marking the end of their stint here, the Danochs once again have to postpone a departure, this time to allow their second child, due Oct. 2, to make the flight to Israel.

Last week, sitting in his high-rise Wilshire Boulevard office, which overlooks a stunning view of the city north to the Hollywood Hills, Danoch talked about the highlights and low points of his three-year tenure, the lessons learned, as well as his future plans to run for a seat in the Knesset, Israel's parliament. Impeccably dressed in a dark blue suit and tie, which is how he can be found even on hot days and during informal meetings, the slim and curly- haired Danoch measured his words as he spoke and occasionally pondered whether a given remark should be off the record.

One of his accomplishments, however, hits the visitor right in the eyes. Hanging on his wall is a framed full-page ad that ran in the Los Angeles Times in August 2006, signed by Hollywood actors, producers, writers and studio chiefs. Included in the list are Nicole Kidman, Bruce Willis, Michael Douglas, Sylvester Stallone, Danny DeVito, William Hurt and James Woods, as well as moguls and studio chiefs Rupert Murdoch, Sumner Redstone, Haim Saban, Amy Pascal, Ron Meyer, Sherry Lansing and Meyer Gottlieb. The ad ran soon after the beginning of last year's Lebanon war, and the signatories were denouncing the terrorism perpetrated by Hamas and Hezbollah and demanding support for democratic societies to stop terrorism at all cost.
Danoch and his wife Miki speaking with Sharon Stone

After it was published, the ad received a huge amount of press coverage worldwide and marked a break in Hollywood's customary silence in the face of anti-Semitic and anti-Israel attacks.

For Danoch, who composed and initiated the ad, it was the payoff for his intense cultivation of the entertainment industry, which started the day he arrived in Los Angeles.

"I realized the tremendous global impact of Hollywood movies and television stars, but past attempts to mobilize them on behalf of Israel had largely failed, and many people thought that Hollywood was a lost cause," he said.

The key to activating the stars, he felt, was through the old-fashioned, laborious method of intense personal contact, in particular by establishing continuing one-on-one relationships.

In meeting after meeting and letter after letter, Danoch conducted private tutorials on Israel, invited name-brand celebrities to visit the Jewish state to see for themselves and urged studio chiefs and producers to consider Israeli locations for their next movie shoot.

He summarized one key to his successful method as "I simply don't accept 'no' for an answer."

He has been a good listener, too, as has been well noted by the Jewish community. Rabbi Gary Greenebaum, the Los Angeles-based national director of inter-religious affairs for the American Jewish Committee, described Danoch's service as "extraordinary."

"When Ehud first arrived, he called on me and asked me to tell him about the Jewish community here. I must have talked for an hour straight, and I could see that he really wanted to understand the issues and personalities.

"Ehud challenged the Jewish community to be its best. He, and Yuval Rotem before him, represented a new generation of young Israeli diplomats who face problems head on."

Danoch was also popular in the Israeli expatriate community. Moshe Barzilay, editor of the Hebrew-language weekly Shalom L.A., noted that "Danoch was here during an extremely difficult wartime period, had to deal with anti-Israel demonstrations and performed well.

"He was of considerable help to Israelis here, listening to both their community and individual concerns."

Danoch's grandparents arrived in Israel in 1950 as part of Operation Magic Carpet, the mass airlift of Jews from Yemen, bringing with them their 3-year-old son, who became the consul general's father.

Both of Danoch's parents were tapped by Israel's education ministry to serve as overseas shlichim, or envoys. As a result, young Ehud spent three years in Montevideo, Uruguay's capital, where he became fluent in Spanish.

That linguistic skill has proved handy in tackling another priority, to strengthen ties between the Latino community in the western United States and Israel, and by extension, with the American Jewish community.

"Latinos here, and in South American countries, do not distinguish between Jews and Israelis; to them they're one and the same," Danoch said. "So by bringing Latinos closer to Israel, we bring them closer to American Jews."

Looking at the demographics, Danoch also believes that it is inevitable that Latinos will play an increasingly influential role in United States politics, and as the United States is Israel's closest ally, this is a crucial strategic relationship.

"Jews make up 2 percent of the U.S. population, and Latinos 15 percent, a proportion that will rise to 25 percent in 20 years," he said. "While some Jewish organizations, like the American Jewish Committee and AIPAC, are active in Jewish-Latino relations, it is time for the entire Jewish community to get more involved."

Danoch feels so strongly about this subject that he is finishing an as-yet-untitled book on Latinos in the United States, taking Los Angeles as his laboratory. The book will be published in Hebrew and then English, but Danoch's target audience is Israeli policymakers, "who need to understand the internal changes coming in the United States," he said. "So far, the Latino community is focusing mainly on domestic issues, but I believe that within less than a decade, they will play a role in foreign relations."

Danoch ticked off other areas in which he believes he has made a difference, with the help of favorable trends."During the past three years, private American investments in Israel, especially in high-tech industries, has gone up 7 percent, with a large share coming from California and the West," he said.

"Tourism from the region has increased 40 percent during the same period," he added. "While in a few places, like Sderot, there are attacks, our emphasis is that overall Israel is one of the safest places in the world to visit."

He has taken a special interest in homeland security, a joint concern in Israel and the United States. Israel can contribute both experience and technological know-how, and Danoch has furthered visits and exchanges between experts from both countries.

Danoch, as might be expected, has warm praise for the support of the local Jewish community, especially in time of crises, as during the Lebanon war. He has been particularly impressed by the spirit of the area's Iranian Jews, and recently he became the first Israeli official since the shah's fall to address the people of Iran directly via the Voice of America.

However, he is concerned about the younger generation of American Jews, especially college students, and their fading sense of Jewish identity.

"I am a Jewish Israeli, not an Israeli Jew," he emphasized. "I am very proud of my Jewish identity, and I try to convey that pride whenever I talk on college campuses."

Danoch is not a man to show much emotion or anger, but what really sets him off is to see Jews attacking Israel.

During the Lebanon war, protests against Israel in front of the consulate were organized by mainly Muslim groups, but among them was a small Jewish contingent.

Witnessing this apparently proved a traumatic experience for Danoch. "Here were radical Muslims screaming for Hezbollah, and there was a minority of Jews screaming along," he said. "What can I say? There are only 14 million Jews in the world; they contribute to Israel's survival, and then [there] are these people attacking us."

Danoch also expressed his unhappiness with the Los Angeles Times.

"Just this month, 65 Israeli soldiers were wounded by Qassam rockets and there wasn't a word about it in The Times," he said. "That's unbelievable."

He feels much better about the many politicians he has met and befriended here, among them Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who has been his regular guest at Rosh Hashanah dinners at his home.

Danoch is very reluctant to talk about any negatives or low points during his tenure here, but one came in the fall of 2005, when the FBI confidentially warned him about a homegrown terrorist cell of American converts to Islam. High on their target list was the Israeli consulate and some of its officials.

While Israeli diplomats are always aware of potential threats as a kind of background noise, the concrete warning was something else.

"It hit me fully that I had the responsibility for the safety and lives of my entire staff," he said.

The cell was broken up and its members arrested before they could carry out any of their plans.

Danoch, now a mature 37, holds MBA and law degrees and served as chief of staff to former foreign minister Silvan Shalom before coming to Los Angeles.

Shalom, a Likud stalwart, named his protégé consul general in a so-called "political" appointment, outside the ranks of the regular foreign service, so Danoch will not remain in the diplomatic service.

On his return to Israel, he may go into the private business sector and said he has had a number of "very interesting" offers from Israel, the United States and Europe.

However, his long-range ambition is to become a member of the Knesset on the Likud ticket, and he has close ties to the party's leadership.

Regular elections are not scheduled until 2010, but with the volatile situation in Israel, most experts anticipate an earlier date, possibly as soon as next year.

In any case, "even if I go to work in the private sector, I will be involved in Israeli politics," Danoch said.

He will hand over his responsibilities as consul general in the middle of October to Yaakov (Yaki) Dayan, a career diplomat, but will not depart until late November, to give the new baby a chance to grow a bit.

In the meanwhile, friends and organizations will honor Danoch and his wife at some 30 private and public farewell parties. {--Tracker Pixel for Entry--}

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