From Yeshiva to Diplomacy: An interview with Consul General Dr. Hillel Newman
By Sarah Pachter
Now more than ever, Israel is in the headlines —for making historical peace agreements, rapidly administering COVID-19 vaccinations, and for technological breakthroughs, among other achievements. Recently, The Jewish Home was privileged to have a conversation with Consul General of Israel, Dr. Hillel Newman, to learn more.
Sarah Pachter: Thank you Consul General for taking the time to speak with the Jewish Home. Please tell us a little bit about yourself and your early life.
Consul General Newman: I was born in South Africa, and my father was a rabbi who established one of the largest Orthodox communities in Johannesburg, the Waverley Synagogue. Eventually we moved to Cape Town, where he was the rabbi of the largest community in South Africa, at the time. The majority of Jews in South Africa were very Zionistic, but not extremely religious. I grew up in the home of a rabbi, which had a lot of meaning, as I was one of the few religious Jews living in a secular country. From birth, I could sense that I was a little different.
We made Aliyah when I was a teenager, and my life changed. In Israel, I went to a Yeshiva high school in Netanya, and then served in the Hesder program of the military, which combined military service and Yeshiva studies for five years.
SP: Can you tell us any stories about the Hesder program or your military experience? Please expand on this path from Yeshiva bachur to diplomat.
CGN: It was quite unique that I served in the army alone, as a medic. I accompanied convoys that went to Lebanon. Then they wanted me to be an officer of the medical corps. Since you can’t be an officer and simultaneously stay in the Hesder program, I had to make a decision. Was I going to continue in the Hesder Yeshiva path or break away and go into the military full time?
I took counsel at the time with different rabbis and with my father, and in the end, I decided to stick with the Hesder program and not to become an officer. You never know during these crucial moments where each path is going to lead you. In the end, I think the decision to continue the Yeshiva path gave me the background and the foundational skills for life onward. I don’t know what would have happened if I had chosen the other route. Ironically, I believe this choice ultimately led me to diplomacy.
SP: At what point did you decide to become a diplomat? Was this a childhood dream?
CGN: Being a diplomat was not a childhood dream. In fact I came to the idea at a later stage in life. I thought I would be an academic. The Hesder Yeshiva lasted five years, and at the end of the program, I needed to decide on my path in life. People thought I would become a rabbi, but I pursued academic studies instead.
I attained a PhD in Jewish History and taught at Bar Ilan University in Israel for approximately five years, and I became involved in student politics. I was voted into the Student Council and spent two years in a leadership position. I was then voted into the National Union of Israeli students, which is a very powerful political body in Israel, because they represent the entire student population in Israel. I was appointed as “International Relations Officer”.
In that position, we organized unprecedented collaboration with a few countries, places we had never had student exchanges with before. One of them was Turkey. We worked on a few projects like these with the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs [the Israeli State Department], and then one of them suggested to me “Why don’t you submit your credentials in as a cadet at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs?” This was quite a shock to me, since I was teaching already, and I had never thought of going in that direction. I submitted my candidacy, and I was accepted. That changed my life, and suddenly I became a diplomat. Truth is, I’m very happy with that decision, because I prefer to play a part in history and influence it, rather than teach it.
I’ve been very lucky. I worked with three Israeli foreign ministers as a policy advisor, and I spent time in intimate circles, at the policymaking table. Later I was appointed Ambassador to Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, two Muslim countries in Central Asia. Now I am fortunate to be the Consul General here.
SP: Can you expand on being the only religious child in your school growing up, and then shifting to life in Israel surrounded by Jewish people?
CGN: Allow me to stress that while I was raised Orthodox, I attribute great credit and merit to the Conservative and Reform communities, in the way they contribute to the preservation of Jewish identity, especially among communities that might have otherwise lost their Jewish identity.
My Orthodox upbringing gave me a unique experience, in which I also learnt to value the knowledge of Jewish tradition and texts, and wasn’t afraid to be alone or unique. Even in Israeli diplomacy, not many religious people go in that direction. The percentage of religious people in diplomacy, both in Israel and the world, is lower than average. There are difficulties, both in keeping Shabbat and kashrut.
For example, it was very difficult to get kosher food in Uzbekistan. There was time that there was no Shochet in town. So on one occasion we paid from our own pocket to bring a Shochet, and then we bought live chickens in the local bazaar, and brought them to our courtyard in order to do shechita to have kosher meat. Many religious people try to avoid the problem, but because of my upbringing, I don’t avoid it, rather I view it as a challenge to be met and overcome.
Even in my military service, most of my Hesder colleagues were drafted into platoons serving together. My case was different. They needed medics, so I volunteered. As a medic, I was detached from my environment, and served in the medic corp. I was fine with it.
Perhaps there is a common thread that connects these life experiences, from Yeshiva to diplomacy. From my upbringing I was in a unique situation and environment, during my military service I again found myself on a solitary path, and in diplomacy as well. That is the challenge—to be who you are in different societies while being part of those societies. This is a common feature that has guided me throughout my life experiences, not to scare away from challenges but to meet them head on.
SP: What exactly is the role of Consul General? Additionally, is it a fair statement to assume that you are different from other consul generals in the sense that you don’t just serve the Israeli community, but rather the Jewish community at large?
CGN: The Israelis think that the Consul General is there for them, and the Jewish people think that the Consul General is there for the Jews. The truth is that we are there for everyone. Our main mission is the bilateral relationship between Israel and the United States and influencing public opinion positively towards Israel. That has many aspects: meeting people on an individual level, cultural events, social media, economic ties and reaching out to communities. It’s a multifaceted mission, where we also reach out to different religions and ethnic communities. Everyone is part of our mandate, including the Jews and the Israelis. Israeli diplomats are different from other Consul Generals in the time devoted to the Jewish community and its needs.
SP: What types of activities are available to the general public?
CGN: Activities have changed dramatically due to COVID-19. Usually, much of our activity includes evening galas and big public events. That has all fallen away. Now I hold all appearances via Zoom, which include political briefings on Israel and the relations with the US, cultural events, economic sessions and other events. If I take recent activity as examples – I opened a special session on Economy and Policy, we screened the Israeli entry to the Oscar’s (Asia) to audiences, I was interviewed by two major Christian media outlets and gave a few political briefings. Since Covid19 we’ve initiated solidarity activity and humanitarian assistance. We set up billboards on the I-10 expressing solidarity on behalf of the people of Israel to the people of the Los Angeles region and first responders. We’ve organized many humanitarian projects in the area. If people are interested, they should join our email distribution list (by sending a request to join to firstname.lastname@example.org) or check our site “Israel in Los Angeles” to receive updates on events. We have also organized virtual cultural events, lectures and briefings, which are certainly open to the public.
SP: Do you feel optimistic about your opportunity to make a difference and increase goodwill for Israel, given the anti-Israel propaganda in the media and college campuses? Historically, Jews have been unconditionally supportive of Israel. Today, many Jews are turning against Israel due to politics. How can we counteract this?
CGN: Polls show that the backbone of both American political parties is pro-Israel, and so is the majority of the American people. There are extreme Anti-Semitic and anti-Israel elements in all parties. Extremists are in every camp. Withstanding this, BDS has not enjoyed great successes, and most of their resolutions have failed. We are concerned about the damage to the image of Israel by people spreading misinformation and lies. Many innocent people are swept up in the idea of BDS, while not understanding that this is not legitimate criticism of Israel, but an organization that de-legitimizes Israel and singles it out in a discriminatory manner. The founders are against the existence of the state of Israel, period, in any borders.
My advice is to take an interest, learn the facts, get involved and make contact with us in the Consulate to get clarifications. There are many reasons for optimism. As we see, the normalization of relations between Israel and the Arab world is moving forward. Israel is not isolated, but BDS is. Israel is a leader in innovation and ingenuity, and as a result is an important global player and in high demand. Israel is going from strength to strength. We are moving forward in many ways. We still have enemies, and we must be wary. We also have many allies.
SP: I read up a bit on your accomplishments, especially the new peace treaties you were a part of forming. Normalizing relations with the UAE and Bahrain is unchartered territory; can you explain just how pivotal this is?
CGN: I was really lucky to play an active part in this, as I visited UAE with Israeli Foreign Minister Katz in 2019. It was one of the last high-level meetings and was confidential at the time. Now such meetings are public and transparent. This process took decades to reach fruition.
The Abraham Accords are ushering in a new era in the Middle East. It reflects the disintegration of the Arab League resolution of 1967, breaking the taboo on relations with Israel, and expanding the peace to a wide ideological circle. This peace is not just an armistice or ceasefire agreement. It will be a warm peace between peoples. You can see the warmth and promise of relations in social media, tourism, and diverse fields of cooperation that are being developed by the countries. There have been unprecedented direct Israeli flights bearing Israeli identification. Teams from both sides have drafted dozens of agreements. In a period of two months, or so, we have already set up diplomatic missions in the respective counties of Bahrain, UAE and Morocco. We are moving forward at a rapid pace.
These developments highlight what has always been the true root cause of conflict between Israel and the Arab world. The root has always been the rejection of Israel. When they accept Israel, there is peace. The same is true with the Palestinians. Israel, since its re-establishment in 1948, and even before, extended its hand in peace and friendship to the entire Arab and Muslim world. They declined, and adopted the resolution known as the “3 no’s”, refusing to come to terms with Israel’s existence. When they accept our existence, there will be peace. Very simple.
The Abraham Accords will also have an impact on the peace paradigm. The conventional paradigm of “land for peace” failed. It failed – Israel relinquished territory and did not receive peace. Israel vacated the entire Gaza Strip and since then has been attacked with thousands of rockets. The veto power given to the Palestinians gave them the feeling that time is on their side, and all they need to do is pressurize Israel. The Abraham Accords demonstrate that there is a paradigm of “peace for peace”, and the veto power on development in the region should be removed from the hands of the Palestinians.
SP: What do you think the next series of peace accords will be? What new partnerships do you look forward to creating? Can you tell us a bit about this process?
CGN: We have a short list of countries that have the greatest potential of normalizing relations with Israel. We have witnessed five move forward in the past few months. We are hopeful that additional counties will join. We do not name the countries, because we leave it up to them to make the decision and publicize it. It takes courage on their part. We do encourage them behind the scenes. For the process to move forward and succeed we do need an American Administration that places this issue of normalization on a high priority, encourages behind the scenes and supports the process. Israel stands ready. Our hand is extended in peace and friendship to any country that comes forward.
SP: I’m sure after your appointment as Consul General, the Israeli government had goals in mind for you to achieve here. Additionally, I’m sure you have personal aspirations. What are these objectives?
CGN: I would say that when I embarked on my mission here, one of my biggest goals was to build a strong bi-Partisan relationship, reaching out to different communities and minority groups, like the African-American and LatinX communities. My ambition is to reach out and touch them in a positive way. Create positive associations with Israel. We have already started implementing this idea.
Most recently, we gave out computers to African-American children and to the LatinX community together with “Champions for Peace”, which is a body set up by Bishop Kenneth Ulmer. We also partnered with Telacu in setting up a [COVID-19] testing site for the Latino community in East LA, in Boyle Heights. We also gave out computers to LatinX veterans, together with Telacu.
We are currently in the process of setting up a computer hub, which will serve a Catholic church, a school and the community in South LA, in partnership with the LAPD Youth Foundation and an NGO Human-I-T. This will be executed as part of a program reaching out to at-risk youth. Weprioritize these projects both in budget and our professional teams. Outreach and building partnerships and relationships with these communities is paramount to our mission here.
SP: What’s the most interesting incident that happened to you in your career?
CGN: One anecdote from my service as a diplomat occurred in Uzbekistan. The President of Uzbekistan is most powerful in his country. All seek his proximity due to the fact that he is the decision-maker. He was giving a speech on Shabbat. As I don’t travel in a car on Shabbat it required a two-hour walk. I decided I would do it, out of respect to the leader and because of the significance of being absent from such a speech. So, we set out walking, with my car and driver travelling alongside for security. The problem is that there are several circles of security around the President, and as you get closer, the circles of security get stricter and stricter.
I had Israeli and Uzbek personal security walking with me, and the car driving alongside me. We passed the first and second circle with my diplomatic credentials. We came to the third round, which is already the security of the President himself. At the blockade I say, “I’m the Ambassador to Israel, going to the speech of the President.” The security guard replies, “Well, why don’t you drive in the route of the car?” We told him, “We can’t do that, it’s Shabbat, and we don’t drive in the car.” So after some persuasion, he let us through. At the next circle of security, which is really the private Presidential guard, they refuse us, stating “you must drive in the car on the path, you cannot walk.” Trying to explain and presenting my credentials he responds “No, no way.” We asked who can approve and he responds pointing to a military jeep and says, “My commander.” We looked at each other and said, “Okay, we’ll try it. What can we lose?”. Approaching the commander he gets out of his jeep and asks, “What’s the problem?” We tell him the story. After some time he looks at me with a big smile says, “Shabbat!” And I said, “Yes, Shabbat.” And he says, “Of course, you’re Jewish, you keep the Shabbat.” With that he responds “Go through!” Not only did he allow us through, but he gave us an envoy that accompanied us all the way to the President’s palace!
It turned out he had been on a special humanitarian course in Israel by Mashav—Israel’s agency for international development cooperation under the MFA – and thus was introduced to the Jewish culture and tradition. He developed a warm place in his heart for Israel, and understood the issue.
SP: That’s amazing! Do you have another?
CGN: Another story from Uzbekistan. There were no matzot or wine for Passover. So, we worked together with Jewish organizations like Habad to bring matzot for the Jewish community. You don’t see many Ambassadors around the world dealing with matzot for their population, but we did that. When the matzot got stuck at the border, I traveled all the way to the border and presented myself as the Ambassador of Israel. After a lot of persuasion, they were convinced that it is a religious item, not a food item. They compared it to Christian Mass, where you eat the cracker and the wine, and we said, “Yes, just like that!”. We got it through.
SP: What do you think it is about Israel that fascinates Americans and others so much?
CGN: We are a miracle State, and miracles are hard to believe or to swallow sometimes. It’s a miracle that we’ve survived. We are the only nation in the world to renew our existence with the ancient Biblical language, in the Holy Land of Israel, after thousands of years of exile, fulfilling the Biblical prophecy. We have not only survived, but prospered, becoming global leaders in many aspects.
This is something which is very difficult to understand. There are those who find this contradictory to their ideology or theology. Some suffer plain and simple anti-Semitism. Those that look at it positively see it as a miracle state.
Even now. Israel is the number one country in the scope of vaccinations administered per capita, and we hope to be the first country to eradicate coronavirus. We are a leading power in innovation and ingenuity worldwide, number two to Silicon Valley. We’re number one in R & D investment in innovation. We’re leading some of the most important technological innovations of the world.
SP: How can people support Israel after reading this article? Can you provide a few tips?
CGN: My recommendations are learn the facts, care about the issues and take a stand. Be connected. Preserve your Jewish identity and strengthen your connection with Israel. If you have any questions, or any problems with the policy of Israel, ask us for clarifications.
Understand that Israel is crucial not only for Israel, but for yourself and your Jewish identity. Really, for everyone’s identity. Ahad Ha’am famously said, under the inspiration of our sages, “More than Jews have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jews.” This is a mutual relationship. The more you think that you are helping Israel, Israel is also helping you.
The number one correlation for preserving Jewish identity is a connection with Israel. That’s why Birthright is such an important venture. Birthright brings people without any connection to Israel, and it can become one of the strongest, most powerful elements influencing their life. We mourn the loss of Sheldon Adelson, who [generously] supported Birthright.
SP: Is there anything else you feel is important to tell the Jewish community and Israelis?
CGN: American Jewry should know that Israel cares. Israel is there for them. We must understand that our fate and destiny are bound together. We must stand and support each other.