Ambassador Arye Mekel, Israel's consul general in New York, describes himself as the embodiment of the wandering Jew. His parents and grandparents were from the Ukraine and Belarus, formerly Poland. Born on a moving train in Kazakhstan as his parents were returning from the Soviet Union to Poland after the Second World War, his 18-year-old mother gave birth on the floor of the train, without the help of a doctor or nurse.
Mekel, 58, whose grandfatherly appearance defies his youthful intelligence and articulateness, says he uses his appearance and his sense of humor to his advantage. “People see me like a grandfather, which I am happy to be. They may think I am a traditional diplomat, but I am not. I have spent much of my life in the media, as a journalist for 20 years and president of the Israeli State TV and Radio, and I have brought the skills gained through these experiences with me to New York .”
Holding the ambassadorial post since August 2004, Mekel is always happy to meet with journalists. His background includes advanced degrees in political science, English language and literature, mass communications and sociology, and service as a foreign policy advisor to Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir. He has dealt with diverse issues and portfolios over the course of his career, from combating antisemitism to presenting Israel's positions on international television, to serving as chargé d'affaires of the Israeli Embassy in Seoul , South Korea .
Mekel is a man on a mission and wastes no time in revealing his background and goals. He is charming and in command. This ambassador is sitting in the right seat…and he earned it.
“My grandfather and grandmother, two sons and a daughter on my mother's side, were murdered when my mother was 13 years old. She escaped and survived with two sisters. My 17-year-old father was caught on the border when the Soviets overtook Poland and was sent to the Gulag in Siberia. He later learned that 95% of the people in Yivie, his shtetl, south of Vilna, were murdered by the Nazis and their collaborators.”
Mekel's father met his mother when she was just 15. They married on June 15, 1945. A year later, in April 1946, they were allowed to return to Poland, where they stayed for six months.
"My father met people who had seen his father, brothers and sister. They found each other, as well as my mother's two sisters, and the entire group went to Germany. The family had to cling to each other. In 1949 the time came to move on. The refugees had two options: The U.S. was issuing visas for refugees of the Holocaust or they could go to the newly created State of Israel.
“My mother's sister went to America , settling in Cleveland, Ohio. I now have cousins in New Jersey and Florida . My father was a Zionist from his youth and wanted to go to Eretz Yisrael. He said, ‘I've been dreaming since I was a child of going to Israel .' But my mother was frightened. She said, ‘How can we go? We have a son. There is a war going on in Israel .” He smiles. “But my father was confident. He told her by the time their son grows up, there will be peace. In 1949, my father's side went to Israel and my mother's sister to America .”
He remembers living for one year in a ma'abara—a tent city—near Netanya, since there were no houses. He says, “In 1950, my parents were among the first to create the new town of Kiryat Yam, north of Haifa , an immigrant, blue-collar community where I grew up. My father had been a teacher. In Israel he became a policeman. He wanted to work in security and was a sergeant in Haifa until he retired.
“The family eventually moved to Kiryat Chaim and my parents had two more children—Shraga, also a former journalist, who is now the development director for the Friends of Yad Vashem, and Yaacov, who lives in Ma'alot and works for the Israeli military industry. My mother was a supermarket cashier for 25 years.”
Mekel feels blessed that his parents are still alive, his father now 82, his mother 77. “My parents consider themselves very fortunate. They beat all the odds,” he says with gratitude. “They have three sons, seven grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren. They still live near Haifa , have never owned a car and take buses or walk everywhere.”
While speaking with Lifestyles in his modern office on the 14th floor of a high-rise building in Manhattan , Mekel was enjoying the company of his parents' visiting New York . During their visit, he spoke at a dinner in honor of Yad Vashem to more than 1,000 people, including the Minister of Education of the State of Israel.
“Many of those there were survivors. I told them, ‘Each of your stories could be a book or a movie. They are all different, but all are heroic. You are all winners because you are here; you came out victorious. All of you built a new life.' I gave my parents as an example and they had such nachas from it.”
Mekel recalls his high school years in Kiryat Motzkin, an area that produced many future Israeli military, diplomatic and political leaders. After high school, he attended Hebrew University. “My father always encouraged me to study,” he recalls. “I studied political science and English language and literature. It was important to me to learn English well. I took it very seriously. I graduated in 1967, a few months after the Six-Day War.”
Mekel's interest in writing began at an early age, and by the time he was 8 years old, he had already been published in a children's magazine.
“When I was in Jerusalem, I saw an advertisement for a training center for broadcasters. This was before my military service and at 19 I became a broadcaster, at first assisting and later working with the big names in Israeli broadcasting. I would take a four-and-one-half-hour train ride on Monday morning to Jerusalem , stay until Thursday and be home in Haifa for Shabbat.”
Next, at the age of 21, he was assigned to Galei Zahal (Army Radio), where he spent three years as a military, and then diplomatic, correspondent. “I was in the field with paratroopers and artillerymen,” he recalls, “as part of the Karame Operation in 1968, when we entered Jordan and tried to get Arafat. Unfortunately, we did not.”
After more than a year as a military correspondent, Mekel convinced his superiors to send him to Jerusalem to become Military Radio's first-ever political and diplomatic correspondent. “I asked to report on the government and the Knesset and they agreed,” he recalls.
At this time, now 22, he married Ruth, his wife of 36 years, a fellow soldier and journalist whom he knew from his early broadcasting days in Jerusalem . They lived in Jerusalem, where he interviewed all of the big names in Israeli history, among them Golda Meir, Moshe Dayan, Abba Eban, Menachem Begin and many others.
“Because I was now well known in broadcasting, I was invited to join the Voice of Israel in November 1970 at 24 and soon became its diplomatic and political correspondent—the youngest ever to be in this position. I covered the 1973 Yom Kippur War. I remember that the government was silent until the sixth day; it was as though the government disappeared. Then Moshe Dayan spoke to the nation. Three reporters were asked to do the interview on live television, and I was one of them. I am very proud of that moment. It was a very dramatic interview.”
Mekel's education continued at Hebrew University, where he received a master's degree in mass communications. At one time, he considered becoming an academic and was encouraged to pursue his Ph.D. By 1976, Mekel and his wife had two children, Maayan, now 32, and Tal, now 28, and he was offered a position as community shaliach (representative) for the Jewish agency in Cincinnati, Ohio.
“I was one of the first to do this job, really kind of like a guinea pig,” he laughs. He spent three years there, organizing student trips to Israel and working as an adjunct professor at the University of Cincinnati , teaching a course about modern Israel . At the same time, he continued to broadcast for Israeli radio. “I reported on the death of Elvis Presley,” he says.
The family returned to Israel in 1978, after their son Nitzan was born, and Mekel returned to radio. “After a while, I was not happy with journalism,” he admits, “and I decided to change course. I received a scholarship to Columbia University in New York for graduate school in sociology. My goal was to get my Ph.D. at Columbia and return to Hebrew University to teach mass communication and sociology.
“At Columbia I worked on my Ph.D. during the day and was a reporter for Israel radio at night. When it was midnight here, it was 7 a.m. in Israel . I covered the Israeli Mission to the United Nations when Yehuda Blum was ambassador. But before I could finish my doctoral dissertation, I received an offer to join the Israeli foreign ministry. I was very excited at the prospect, and accepted the offer.
“It was a big change to go from journalism to the foreign ministry. After a year there, Yitzhak Shamir was looking for an advisor in his office and I joined his office as first secretary—a mid-level position. By 1985, I was an advisor to Shamir. The following year, he became prime minister and asked me to go with him, so I became a senior foreign policy advisor to the prime minister of Israel .”
Mekel's face gets animated as he recalls those times. “It was very exciting. I was right in the middle of everything. I met with [presidents] Reagan and Bush (Sr.). I was in the Oval Office. We went to Africa, Italy and to the United States many times. I was very close with Shamir and we often spoke Yiddish, which is my mother tongue. I still speak to my parents and one aunt in Yiddish,” he says smiling.
As his career advanced, another opportunity soon knocked. “In 1989, they were looking for a president for the Israeli Broadcasting Authority, effectively the czar of all broadcasting for the country,” he explains. “One day, Shamir says to me, ‘Weren't you a journalist?' I told him I had been for many years. He said that the broadcasting job would be a very important service to the state. I said, ‘I am a soldier and you are my commander. If you send me, I will be happy to go. So I became director general of the IBA. I was 43.” Mekel held the post for four years.
Once again on the move, Mekel decided to return to the foreign ministry. He was sent to Atlanta , as consul general, and represented Israel throughout the southeastern United States , as well as serving as a liaison with CNN.
Mekel recounts with amusement that he had first met Ted Turner a few years earlier, when Turner had visited Israel and Mekel was assigned to be his official host. “I told him that I was his Israeli equivalent,” he says, “just with a difference of about five billion dollars! The next time I met him was in Atlanta, where he referred to me as the Israeli ambassador to CNN.” While in Atlanta , the affable Mekel became friendly with former president Jimmy Carter, Andrew Young, Mrs. Coretta Scott King, the King children and Newt Gingrich, among many others.
Also at this time, he regularly took American governors, mayor, senators, congressmen and members of arts councils to Israel . He even took a theater group from Monroeville, Alabama, to Jerusalem, where they performed the play To Kill a Mockingbird. He recalls, “These were interesting times, and I had to explain government policy changes and try to promote them.” Soon, however, he was on the move again, returning to the Israeli foreign ministry.
“I wore many hats,” the congenial ambassador laughs. “I dealt with some 1500 journalists in the foreign media when the intifada started. I was a government spokesman for the foreign media, and appeared on CNN, FOX, ABC, NBC, CBS, BBC, as well as the Arab stations. I was also an advisor on combating antisemitism.”
“Though I had no prior UN experience, in early 2003 I was asked to be deputy permanent representative to the United Nations. I speak some Arabic, Russian and Polish, and served for one and one-half years, working closely with Ambassador Dan Gillerman. While there, we initiated some moves to become more assertive in the UN. We were not sent there to be quiet! When attacked (by other UN member countries), we responded—and responded fiercely.”
He paraphrases the Seinfeld episode about a “bizzarro world” and applies it to the UN. “Throughout the building, the bad guys are in control and the good guys are the minority. Then, after over 20 annual anti-Israel resolutions, they serve you the bill! The United States pays 22% of the UN budget.”
Eventually, he was approached by the foreign minister to take on the role of consul general in New York , which he accepted and began in August 2004. “There are nine Israeli consulates in this country,” he explains, “and this one, covering the tristate area of New York , New Jersey and Connecticut , is the largest.
The ambassador has already met with senators Hillary Clinton and Chuck Schumer of New York , as well as New York congressmen Charles Rangel, Anthony Weiner, Jerrold Nadler, Edolphus Towns, Gary Ackerman and others. He has met with officials in New Jersey, as well as Governor George Pataki, New York Cardinal Edward Egan, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Attorney General Eliot Spitzer and many other dignitaries.
Asked how he felt he could help bolster Israel 's image, the ambassador admits that it is a difficult job. “The last four years have not been easy. What is captured on TV doesn't always look positive. In 60 seconds you can't tell the whole story. But we have now entered a new phase in our relationship with the Palestinians. If the new Palestinian leadership is really ready to talk, and will dismantle the terrorist organizations, 2005 may well see historic progress toward peace.”
Asked about problems of Hasbara, which translates as public information combined with “spin,” the ambassador explains that it is “uniquely Israeli,” but a challenge that he hopes his role will allow him to overcome. He speaks to all media, news organizations and groups who request his presence and maintains that Israel must be open to all, including Christian fundamentalists who support Israel , because they are a true force to be reckoned with.
“Look at the impact that they had on the U.S. election,” he points out. “The 70 million Evangelicals in America decided the American presidency. And they support Israel . We accept this support happily. In Atlanta, and elsewhere in the South, I spoke before many churches and Christian audiences. Many of them go to Israel as pilgrims. We welcome them and their support.
“God works in mysterious ways,” Mekel continues, when asked about Israeli industry. “In our part of the world, there is only one little spot with no oil: Israel! So we develop our natural resources; we use our ‘Yiddishe Kop.' We are among the top-five countries in hi-tech and have more companies on the NASDAQ than any other country besides the U.S. and Canada . That is why education is so important. We must invest everything in the education of the next generation. Recently, for the first time ever, two Israeli scientists won the Nobel Prize for chemistry! This is our future. We must continue to educate our children in Israel and around the world.”
After several months in office, the ambassador often hears from observers that his assignment as consul general to the largest Jewish community in the world is a “natural fit.”
“It does feel right,” he smiles. “I feel this every day of the week. I feel it with leaders and everyday people. I am endlessly impressed by what Israel has accomplished in its short history. I am amazed and proud of what we have achieved, and Israel is proud of the great Jewish community in America and its remarkable achievements.
“I feel very fortunate to be here at this time in this position. I am very privileged,” he says humbly. Returning to the topic of his roots, he adds, “If only my grandparents knew that one day their grandson would be a representative in America of an independent Jewish state.”
Sources: Lifestyles Magazine , article written by Nancy Kleinbaum