July 26, 2011
Galit Dayan speaks what’s on her mind — and in her heart
When Galit Dayan first met her future husband in 1987, both were serving in Israeli army intelligence units and she realized right away that nothing would come of the encounter.
It wasn’t so much their different backgrounds, though his Ashkenazi parents were Lithuanian and Polish, while her Sephardic parents were Moroccan and Algerian.
More important, “We had nothing in common,” she reminisced, sipping coffee in a small, French-style café on Canon Drive in Beverly Hills. “I was a naïve girl from Jerusalem; he was a sophisticated guy from Tel Aviv. Politically, I leaned to the left; he leaned to the right, and so on.”
Fast forward 24 years, and Galit and Jacob (“Yaki”) Dayan have been married for 19 years and have three children. He is his country’s consul general in Los Angeles; she is a leading scholar of Egyptology, with a doctoral degree from Hebrew University. And while Yaki served at the Israeli embassy in Washington, Galit obtained a certificate in organizational development from Georgetown University.
Furthermore, they testify, fervently and frequently, that they are one another’s best friends and advisers and form a close partnership in everything they do. In conversation, both are intense, but while he focuses on the immediate topic, she pumps out ideas and projects like a rapid-fire Gatling gun.
Though no mere mouthpiece for the Israeli government, Yaki conveys his standing as his country’s top diplomat in the southwestern United States. Galit, too, is a proud Israeli representative, but she also is not afraid to speak of her country’s shortcomings.
On the Middle East situation, for example, she observed, “It’s not about agreements, but a problem of building trust among leaders. … We have failed to build such trust before signing treaties, so they are just pieces of paper.”
Israel’s spokesmen, media and supporters are effective in telling the world about “our capabilities and accomplishments, but not in showing our character, integrity and good intentions,” she added. “That’s not easy, but we have to find a way.”
A small example of her own efforts on this path could be seen at a party she gave for the wives of diplomats from 45 countries who were stationed in Los Angeles.
Among them were spouses from Muslim countries, which have no diplomatic relations with Israel. The party was a success, Galit said, “because it wasn’t about politics, it was about people.” She was especially pleased when one of the guests from an Arab country called later to ask for the recipe for her banana cake.
Galit grew up in an academic family. Her father, professor Michel Abitbol, served as chairman of the African Studies department at the Hebrew University, and her mother continues to teach French at the Institut Francais in Jerusalem. Both parents lived in Paris before coming to Israel, and Galit’s first language was French, although she was born in Israel.
Home discussions were enlivened by her father, an atheist, and her mother, who observed Sephardic religious tradition. “I have parts of both,” Galit said.
Her own education is a similar mixture of apparent opposites — ancient history and modern management techniques. Drawing on both, plus a sense of humor, she recently wrote for the Huffington Post on the similarities between hieroglyphics and digital texting.
After her studies at Georgetown University, Galit established a consulting business in Israel, teaching leadership and management skills to executives on their way up, mainly in high-tech industries and hospitals. During her four years in Los Angeles, she flew to Israel every three months for two weeks of intensive consulting.
In parallel, she has immersed herself in the Los Angeles scene.
“When I arrived here, I knew nothing about the city and its Jewish community,” Galit said. “I wanted to help but didn’t know how, so I asked for a list of Jewish organizations. I took one look and was overwhelmed by the sheer number.”
She quickly learned the ropes and found that people who might be intimidated talking to a consul general would come up to her. She also learned that, as “a kind of extraterritorial entity,” the consulate could on occasion bring the often-competing Jewish organizations in Los Angeles together in a common project.
As she became more involved, she discovered similarities between Los Angeles and Israel, such as that it usually takes a crisis to unite people. Another common characteristic is, “If you’re not happy with an organization [or political party in Israel], you leave and start a new one.”
Though a great admirer of what she calls the Los Angeles spirit, Galit wishes for an “updated” long-range vision, at home and here, especially on the joint future for Israel and the Diaspora.
“Life in Israel is very intense,” she observed. “We’re always on alert, there is no time to reflect, to analyze and to strategize.”
One obstacle to a joint Israel-Diaspora vision may be a mutual ignorance of the other. Some 80 percent of American Jews have never visited Israel, and even many of those who go on “missions” never meet “the common Israelis,” she said.
On the other side, she noted, “Most Israelis have no clue about the Diaspora,” and the Israeli media doesn’t pay much attention to the subject.
Aside from her role as her husband’s adviser, Galit focused on a number of specific projects.
The long-standing program initiated by former Mayor Tom Bradley provides after-school recreation, education and enrichment for 28,000 mostly Latino kids at 180 elementary schools.
Galit worked with Carla Singer, president and CEO of the organization, to link the program to Jewish day schools and to the consulate staff for joint holiday celebrations and cultural exchanges.
With the same emphasis on strengthening Latino/Jewish/Israeli ties, Galit was instrumental in bringing together the Mexican-American and Jewish communities in 2009 to celebrate their shared roots in Boyle Heights.
ISRAELI CULTURAL CENTERS
To help Israeli expats and their children maintain their bonds with their homeland, Galit mobilized Israeli women to create MATI, the Hebrew acronym for Israeli Cultural Centers. The centers, first in the San Fernando Valley, and a second this year in Beverly Hills, offer Hebrew classes, lectures, entertainment and a sociable meeting place.
Last, but first on Galit’s priority list, are the three Dayan children — Daphne, 17 1/2; Tal, 15; and Itay, 8.
“Whenever Yaki gets a new assignment, we ask the kids if they want to go. If one says no, then we don’t go. And later, if they are unhappy in the new place, we go back to Israel,” Galit said. “Fortunately, the kids are very mature and responsible and feel that they, too, are part of the family mission to represent Israel.”
During their stay here, the Dayan children attended Sinai Akiba Academy and Milken Community High School, had a great time and say they will miss their friends.
How does Galit juggle all the responsibilities?
“I’m very focused on what I’m doing, and I’m good at time management,” she said. “I started my own consulting business, and joined with a partner, so I could decide how many projects I could take on.”
But there is little risk that any extra time will hang heavily on the Dayans when the family leaves Los Angeles on Aug. 1. “I know Yaki will work until the minute the plane takes off,” Galit said. “And my calendar is full for the next two months after I arrive in Israel.”
Naturally, she’s taking back with her a little project, dubbed “One People.”
The plan, as she enthusiastically unfolded it, calls for a march of Jewish people from all over the world, retracing part of the route of the Exodus, from the southern Negev to Abraham’s Well in Beersheba.
Locally, Galit has been working with Metuka Benjamin, director of education at Stephen S. Wise Temple and Schools, on the project, timing the march for October, around the Sukkot festival.
When not packing their personal belongings, the Dayans have been attending multiple farewell tributes, ranging from the mayor’s office and Christian pastors to Hadassah and the Israel Cancer Research Fund.
As the family heads home, they leave behind a dual legacy, as Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky put it at this year’s Independence Day celebration.
“Yaki and Galit,” he said, “your presence here has made a difference for Israel and has made a difference for Los Angeles.”
Video highlighting consulate events during the past four years: