Jewish Journal

No. 1 goal for new consul— telling L.A. ‘what Israel is’

by Tom Tugend

Posted on Dec. 6, 2007 at 7:00 pm

Yaakov Dayan

Yaakov Dayan

Yaakov Dayan, the new Israeli consul general for the Southwestern states, has just moved into his high-rise office on Wilshire Boulevard.

The walls are bare and pockmarked with nail holes, but leaning against a chair are the first two pictures to go up. One is a head drawing of David Ben-Gurion, surrounded by the signatures of the state's founding fathers and mothers, affixed to Israel's 1948 Declaration of Independence.

The second is a childish drawing on cheap paper from a Muslim refugee girl in Kosovo, decorated with hearts to convey her gratitude to Dayan and Israel.

During Dayan's 13 years as a career diplomat, including sensitive negotiations with Palestinians, Jordanians and Syrians; service in Athens and Washington, and as top aide to foreign ministers, ranging from Shimon Peres, Benjamin Netanyahu and Ariel Sharon up to the present Tzipi Livni, the Kosovo experience stands out.

In the spring of 1999, masses of refugees were fleeing the "cleansing" of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo by Serbian forces. One day, while on a brief vacation inside Israel, Dayan got a call to leave immediately as second in command of a massive Israeli relief mission to the embattled region.

"I left on a plane with 80 Israeli soldiers, nurses and relief workers, and two days later, we had set up camp for 20,000 refugees, planted a huge Israeli flag and organized an airlift involving 16 Israeli planes," Dayan recalls.

"This effort made a huge impression on the refugees and on myself," he adds. "I couldn't help thinking that 60 years earlier, my people had been refugees, too."

Dayan, 41, cuts a fine figure of a diplomat. Leading-man handsome, 6-feet-2, he is lean to skinny, weighing 155 pounds, the same weight as during his army service 22 years ago.

"Good genes," he says, but he does work out on the tennis and basketball courts, when time permits.

One of the first decisions he had to make as consul general was to decide which first name to print on his business card. It's "Yaakov" on his birth certificate in Tel Aviv, but while serving in Washington, he went as "Jacob," and he is likely to do the same here.

Actually, among friends, colleagues and the Israeli media, he is universally addressed as "Yaki." Unfortunately, this is pronounced as "yucky," and he has decided to forgo the nickname when dealing with Americans.

Unrelated to the Moshe Dayan family, he owes his surname to his Lithuanian-born father, who, as a boy during World War II, saw his own father killed by Lithuanian fascists. The boy escaped and joined the Russian army. Later, he met and married the consul general's mother, who was born in Warsaw and spent the war years in a Soviet gulag.

Dayan's own marriage to Galit represents the Israeli melting pot in action, he observes. Her father came to Israel from Morocco, her mother from Algeria and her own accomplishments are impressive. She holds a doctorate in Egyptology from Hebrew University, a degree in organizational development from Georgetown University and does consulting for high-tech companies and financial institutions.

The Dayans have three children, Daphne, 14; Tal, 11; and Itay, 4, all attending Jewish schools in Los Angeles.

As a career foreign service officer, Dayan is strictly neutral on the Israeli political scene but notes that he comes from a secular-Zionist background.

Since meeting his wife and her Sephardic family, he has become more involved in religion, which "is now an inseparable part of our life," he says. The family celebrated Daphne's bat mitzvah at a Conservative synagogue on Mount Scopus.

In Israel's Foreign Ministry, career officials actively compete for desirable appointments, and when it came to Dayan's turn, he requested appointment as either ambassador to Turkey or consul general in Los Angeles.

Granted our pleasant weather, Dayan was asked why would an ambitious young diplomat, who had been deeply involved in some of the most crucial negotiations affecting his country's future, opt for a post devoid of far-reaching policy decisions?

In the past, The Journal has put the same question to Los Angeles-based diplomats from other countries, and, as Dayan's answer confirmed, Angelenos may be underestimating their own importance in foreign eyes.

"Our presence here is the seventh-largest Israeli mission in the world," he says. "Southern California and the Southwestern states wield great economic power and technological know-how, are home to an influential Jewish community and the concentration of Israelis is the largest in the Diaspora."

From his Los Angeles headquarters, Dayan directs a staff of 60 and has just added the position of police liaison.

"I admit that it was very challenging to deal with hardcore strategic issues, and I still have the virus in my blood," he says. "But there is a different kind of excitement in serving here, and the potential is completely different."

During their initial meeting, he told staff members that they were lucky to work among such a loving outside community but also warned them not to take United States' support for granted.

Dayan has set himself three immediate goals. One is to build on Israel's 60th anniversary celebrations next year to educate, or re-educate, the Jewish and general communities as "to what Israel is."

"Most people under 55 don't even know about the Six-Day War in 1967," he observes. "Few realize that every American interacts, from dawn to dusk, with Israeli technological contributions, from cellphones and computers to medical advances.

"Even among Jews, not all know or care about Israel, and many have just drifted away," he adds. "We need to open a dialogue with them, and if that leads to arguments, that's fine."

A second priority is "to raise awareness of the danger posed by a nuclear-armed Iran, not just to Israel, but to neighboring Arab states and the Western world."

He believes that diplomatic and other pressures on Iran can have an effect. "To the present regime in Tehran, the one thing more important than nuclear capability is its own survival," he says.

Dayan, like his last two predecessors, will continue to build close ties with other ethnic groups, particularly the Latino community, and with the Hollywood entertainment industry. His extensive experience in dealing with Arab officials may also prove useful in connecting with the local Muslim community.

On his third goal, Dayan reserves comment for the time being.

Although Dayan is already inundated with speaking invitations, he has cleared his calendar to address one small, but historically significant, group on Dec. 9 at the American Jewish University. It consists of a few dozen local survivors among the American volunteers who left their homes in 1947 and 1948 to fight for the independence of the Jewish state.

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