Shalom Scotland - on the road with Israel's ambassador Daniel Taub
Israel’s UK envoy headed north of the border this week. Marcus Dysch was with him:
Ambassador Daniel Taub meets a staff member at the CodeBase tech hub in Edinburgh
In the corner of a university classroom, Daniel Taub tucks into a shortbread biscuit, loosens his collar and removes his suit jacket.
Israel’s ambassador to Britain had just given an hour’s lecture to an international group of students in Edinburgh, and now he was taking a moment to relax before embarking on the next engagement.
Accompanying Mr Taub on his visit to Scotland was the JC, which had been granted special access to travel with the ambassador as he visited Edinburgh to meet politicians, business leaders and young people.
Away from the spotlight of London — his city of birth — Mr Taub discussed topics including the upcoming referendum on Scottish independence, academic links and Israel’s world-renowned technology industry.
Ahead of his first meeting of the day — with Edinburgh University’s vice-chancellor — a small group of anti-Israel protestors awaited Mr Taub. Security staff were out in force, with a mixture of the university’s own guards, police and embassy representatives positioned around the campus.
Builders and lecturers mingled in the spring sunshine, watching the security personnel in the Old Moray House courtyard and musing over the possible identity of the soon-to-arrive speaker.
As a lecture session for 30 students got under way, Professor Charlie Jeffery warned those in the hall about their responsibility to behave and the small print of the university’s code of conduct. The tension was palpable.
When the ambassador strolled in, he stood front and centre and exuded confidence. The presence of the security staff around the room’s perimeter appeared barely to register with him.
For the next half hour he recounted his experiences as head of Israel’s negotiating team at the Culture of Peace talks with the Palestinians in the 1990s. The postgraduate international relations students seemed hooked on his academic theories.
Mr Taub was persuasive on the challenges Israel faces and explained the value of controversial measures such as the Iron Dome missile system and the security wall. But he also adopted a conciliatory tone when it came to the Palestinians.
He said he understood the difficulties they faced and highlighted the balancing act Israel must perform to secure both security for its citizens and a normal way of life for the Palestinians.
With his smart blue suit, close-cropped greying hair and rimless spectacles the ambassador could just as easily have been a sales executive promoting a new product.
Taking questions from the audience, Mr Taub seemed unruffled by remarks about arms trading and international law. There were no protests in the hall, and as the session closed he received warm applause.
Daniel Taub at a bible study class in Stirling
In the neighbouring classroom Mr Taub huddled down with a group of Jewish students to discuss the difficulties they face on campus and their generation’s struggles to rally behind Israel.
“It’s important we don’t allow our relationship with Israel to be defined by our defence of Israel. Don’t let that be the core of your relationship. It’s not sustainable,” he explained.
He appeared to have morphed from the sales executive of earlier into a counsellor, working to boost the students’ morale. The noise of chanting protestors outside can be heard drifting through the windows.
How does Mr Taub balance the different aspects of the job — promoting his country despite constant barracking from the sidelines?
“What keeps me sane is meeting inspirational people doing inspirational things,” he said. “There are absolutely extraordinary developments being made.” He reeled off a list of young Israelis’ achievements, highlighting students who had started education enterprises and technology groups, and developed cultural ties around the world.
“Israel is a house of many doors, and our job is to hand out the keys to those doors,” he told the students – seemingly completing the metamorphosis into lifestyle guru.
After a West Wing-style dash through the university’s corridors, followed by his small entourage of advisers and security team, Mr Taub settled into his seat in the car for the journey to the next appointment — at the impressive CodeBase technology incubator.
Opened earlier in the year, it is Scotland’s newest tech hub, home to 20 of the country’s latest start-ups. It is a model based partly on similar Israeli groups.
The tone and atmosphere in the hub was a world away from the security concerns of the university. Mr Taub described CodeBase founder Jamie Campbell as the “godfather of Scottish high tech” and attempted to woo him and his staff with suggestions of link-ups with Israel’s world-leading companies and possible financial backing.
“This place is fantastic; it’s like a little Israel,” the ambassador enthused. “What’s great is that people in these businesses already have links to Israel. If only I could do this the whole time.”
Right on cue Yaniv Mazor, an Israeli technology expert based in the Scottish capital, appeared from amid the workers. Clearly delighted, Mr Taub broke off to speak to him, and Jewish Americans based at the centre, in a mixture of Hebrew and English.
“It’s lovely to see someone who can represent Israel in a British way,” said Mr Mazor. “The audience here at the hub are not political. They are very interested in the tech aspects of Israel. They know of Israel’s stature in this work. People here are fighting to get a higher profile. Today they will go home and say ‘wow, I met the Israeli ambassador’.”
For all his frontline diplomatic experience, Mr Taub operates as a very modern ambassador — not just explaining his country’s security concerns, but extolling the virtues of its technological developments. His eyes lit up as Mr Campbell told him about new software boosting national and personal security measures.
Back in the car Mr Taub explained: “I try to focus on five or six things on these trips: academia, business, politics, religion, the local Jewish community and perhaps also the local media.”
The afternoon provided the chance for a series of private meetings with think-tanks, religious groups and politicians. In the brief gaps between each session there was a chance to catch up on calls to the family — Mr Taub is a father-of-six — and events at the embassy in London.
But in a rare moment to pause and reflect on the day’s activity, the envoy sat in the sunshine on the hills of Holyrood Park, looking out over Edinburgh’s skyline.
“This is actually one of my least busy days,” he confessed. “Yesterday I was in Westminster giving evidence to a parliamentary committee. Last week for Yom Ha’atzmaut and Yom Hazikaron it was very busy every day.
“It’s nice to get out of London, but you pay for it when you get back — there are cables to answer and people want to speak to you.
“What I try to do on days like today is open doors. If I can lay the groundwork for other people from the embassy to come back and meet these groups again then they can do their own work.”
Days like this provide the mainstay of his work and are dotted in between the appearances on television news programmes, diplomatic receptions and Jewish communal events.
Mr Taub is adamant that Israel enjoys an excellent relationship with Britain and cited the visits by both David Cameron and Ed Miliband to Jerusalem earlier this year as proof. Britain’s Jewish community is also a “huge asset”, he said, helping to secure access to decision-makers.
The day in Scotland ended with a visit to Stirling and a bible study event at one of the country’s most pro-Israel churches. Its congregants regularly host events celebrating Israel, and the ambassador is regarded as a star guest. It was the warmest reception of his visit.
Mr Taub has at least 18 months left in the role and says he has made no plans for what comes next. Before arriving in the UK in 2011 the Oxford-educated lawyer was known for writing more than two dozen episodes of popular Israeli TV series HaHatzer, about a Rebbe’s rabbinical court.
Does a return to the small screen beckon? “That would be nice”, he chuckled. And no doubt more peaceful than his current day job.