Goodbye, Amir – His parting message: Toronto is a world-leading Jewish community, but we still have work to do reaching out to others
July 31, 2012 | Shlomo Kapustin - Correspondent
Five years have passed, and Israel’s consul general to Toronto and Western Canada is going home. But before leaving, Amir Gissin sat down with the Jewish Tribune on his last official day in office and reflected on his time in Canada with Tribune correspondent Shlomo Kapustin.
Shlomo Kapustin: During the last five years, how many nights would you estimate that you’ve had nothing on your plate, that you’ve just stayed at home, enjoying a quiet dinner or watching something on television?
Amir Gissin: I would estimate two nights a week.
SK: Including the weekend? Including Shabbat?
AG: I would estimate that in five years the amount of Sundays I didn’t work is around 20. Somebody in my office counted well over 1,000 speaking engagements in the last five years.
But I have to tell you very honestly that I get a lot of love from this community and I sense lots of appreciation. But in my case I feel that people mainly relate to what I said, not to what I did. I think that deeds are more important than words. The achievements came from the actions, the activities that actually happened. And I for one am not a big believer in spokesmanship, as opposed to many of my colleagues in Israel and my friends in the Jewish world.
SK: But you worked with Hasbara for five years before coming to Canada, as director of the public affairs department?
AG: That’s exactly the point. Hasbara is not just talking; it’s also strategy, it’s also crafting messages, conveying ideas and understanding what it is you want to achieve. To say the right words is usually not enough. If you want to change people’s perspective, you have to do better than that.
The classic example is you remember that I spoke fairly well, but if I ask you to memorize one thing that I said, that would be quite a challenge. And it’s true not just for me. It’s true for every spokesman that you heard. Many times you meet people and they speak wonderfully; after two hours the only thing you remember is that they spoke well, because that’s the way it is with spokesmanship.
You want to change people’s opinions positively about Israel, make sure that you’re relevant, that you reach them in different ways, not just linear, direct spokesmanship. Nobody’s being convinced only out of spokesmanship.
SK: Give me an example.
AG: One of the things that I can say as a fact is that for the last five years I’ve been in Toronto, we saw a huge change in the way the Canadian media cover Israel. Just to make it absolutely clear, it’s not because of me, certainly not just because of me. I was a part of the forces.
When I came here, we did consular committee research, and we checked for one whole month, in September 2007, the way Israel is covered in Canadian media, in the 19 leading papers in Canada and the three leading news channels in Canada. Every article or report about Israel was checked not from the regular perspective of whether it was good, bad, or neutral, but rather whether it was conflict related or not conflict related.
And 94 per cent of all media coverage of Israel was conflict related, and only 6 per cent was not conflict related. This is what I wanted to change; this is why I felt that spokesmanship was not enough. It’s not enough to speak nicely or convincingly about Israel. That doesn’t bring a change. We worked very hard to change perspective, to pass on to the media positive stories about Israel, to make sure that many people go to Israel – opinion leaders, reporters – and being exposed to Israel at its full spectrum, talk more about the Israelis.
So when we did this research, this check, again, several times – 2008, 2010 – we discovered that there are months where Israel’s coverage in terms of conflict or non-conflict is now 50-50. That’s the achievement.
SK: How do you always manage to say something different when you speak publicly?
AG: One of the interesting things about public speaking is the way you approach it. I never write speeches, and I never speak with notes. And I feel that every time, whether it’s two minutes or two hours, is a path you need to take. I don’t like public speaking. I do it. It’s part of my job. But it’s not something I need, so it will actually be quite nice not to talk publicly for a while.
But I make a special effort to speak from the heart. This is why things are changing, because I speak about what I feel. I hope that usually it comes out right.
SK: How do you see the responsibilities of the consul general?
AG: The consul general, as opposed to what people tend to think, is not the consul general for the Jewish community of Toronto. It’s the consul general for the state of Israel, and the aim is to work with groups and people to improve relationships on all levels between the two countries.
For me, the focus was developing relationships on all levels between the two countries. Making sure that the consulate will work…to get more Canadians to visit Israel, to get more positive mentioning of Israel in the Canadian media, to bring more Israeli cultural activities over here, to see more Jewish organizations involved with Israel.
The job of the consulate is to be the focal point, the one-stop shop of everything Israel in Canada. Working with the Jewish community is very important, not only because lots of work is being done with the Jewish community but because when you look for your friends when you need people to open doors for you, this is very important. Because of the enormous influence and connections of Jewish leaders in this city, the partnership with them helped me a lot in achieving my goals.
SK: What surprised you the most about the community?
AG: With my years, first as a diplomat – actually even before that, as a Jewish Agency emissary – I worked with many Jewish communities on five continents. And I always knew that Toronto was a very strong community. Only when I got here did I realize what it means, how strong it is. I can tell you clearly that in some areas – for instance, pride of Israel, efficiency of Jewish community institutions, instinct of cooperation among the community – this is the world-leading Jewish community. And I’m not just saying that. I experienced it. Nothing even comes close to being in a synagogue in Toronto – Orthodox or Reform or Conservative – and coming to an Independence Day event or attending a function. The love for Israel makes Toronto really the closest place to Israel.
SK: You mentioned some very positive things about the community. What can we do better as a community?
AG: I’ve said this on many previous occasions. I think that the community is not doing enough in reaching out to other ethnic communities. There are several organizations that are doing more than others. B’nai Brith, certainly, through its League for Human Rights are doing a lot. CIJA, as the organization that continues the work of Canadian Jewish Congress, are doing more and more. There are several – not many – other organizations, like JVS, Ve’ahavta that are doing work. That’s it.
In a community that has 400 functioning organizations, that’s not enoughWe have to be less insular. We have to give more advice, because during a time of need, if you feel for them, you can assume they’ll do the same for us.
SK: What are some of the reasons for not being interested in creating bridges?
AG: The way I see it is that the community…is focused on physical, financial needs, because to support Israel and support Jewish education and fight antisemitism at the level that this community does needs a lot of resources. And so the focus is on philanthropy and the needs of the community, and I can understand that, and I don’t think that should change. The priorities should be maintenance of the community, Jewish education and Israel. It doesn’t matter which order you pick; these are the most important.
But then that pushes you inevitably towards insularity and focusing only on you and yours. For the long run, if you want to help Israel, you have to do better. You have to maintain a certain segment of looking outside and helping others.
It’s also tikkun olam [repairing the world], this beautiful concept. You do it because you can. If members of the community will act as mentors for students of other communities, it doesn’t mean that resources from the Jewish community will go to other communities. The only resource that is going is knowledge and experience. But we don’t do it. I was trying very hard to convey this message. I think that in some areas I succeeded, and I can sense the change, but the change is still not going down into the grassroots. I hope that it will.
SK: Do you think an element here is adopting an “everyone hates the Jews” mentality?
AG: I found in my talks with members of the Jewish community many aspects of what you said. But I think at the same time, I have so many examples, so many personal acquaintances from other communities who actually really, really want to develop relationships with the Jewish community, and their hand is not rejected, but it is ignored.
SK: You’re almost a Canadian by now; you’ve been here five years. Have you become more Canadian? Is there anything that you take with you?
AG: Well, I’ll tell you what. I’m certainly not Canadian; I will never be. I was a professional stranger. But I really like Canadians.
And even though I’m not more Canadian, I’m certainly more of a Jew; I’m more Jewish. And this is as a sabra, sixth-generation Israeli, who grew up in a completely secular environment, there’s certainly much more appreciation in terms of Judaism and the notion of community, and becoming part of the Jewish community, that have influenced me dearly, and I think it will always stay with me. And I wasn’t like that when I came.
SK: Why do you think that happened?
AG: In Israel, where everyone around you is Jewish, there are many things you take for granted. The way the Jewish community conducts its life, the way it maintains its strength, is something that impressed me immensely. The strength of the community, the vibrancy of the community, it changed me and my perspective, and I would like to see myself remain a part of the Jewish community, and this is something that in Israel it’s not obvious, and it’s less a matter of faith. It’s more a matter of community.
So I will have to find my new perspective on that, but I will definitely – me, my wife, my family – would like to be a part of a Jewish community, something that we never had but we now, going back to Jerusalem, I believe we will find.
SK: But aren’t you automatically part of the Jewish community in Israel?
AG: You’re part of the country. Community is something else. Most Israelis are not part of a community. They have friends, but a community is a group of people who interact, have their own ceremonies, their own synagogues, their own community centres, have opportunities to meet, to do things together, to be happy together, to celebrate together, to be sad together, to get their kids together. This is something that most Israelis don’t have. I didn’t have that. Not as a young person, not as an adult. After being in Toronto, I feel that I want to have that. So I will have to find my community.
SK: After you leave Toronto, are you ever going to check the Maple Leafs’ score on the Internet? The Blue Jays?
AG: Ahhh…. The Raptors will be the team I will continue to follow. Israelis are very much into basketball; I’m into basketball myself. And let me say something I think a lot of Torontonians will connect with: it’s not all about winning.
SK: Not for the Raptors, right?
AG: [Laughs] I have a connection to the Raptors, and I would like to see them winning in the future. I will continue to be their fan.
This interview has been condensed and edited.