In the year since his appointment as Israel’s ambassador to Britain, Daniel Taub has barely drawn breath.
It is not unusual for Jerusalem’s envoys around the world to have a rocky road to travel, what with the Middle East hardly being a by-word for peace and quiet. But Taub’s is one of the most difficult posts in his country’s diplomatic service — as this week’s events in Edinburgh show (see page 7).
Over the past 12 months, a large part of his attention has had to be given to the almost endless boycott-related events for which Britain has become notorious. From the barracking of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra at the Proms last September, to May’s attacks on the Habima Theatre Company at the Globe and the more recent demonstrations against the Batsheva Dance Company; from the closure of the Ahava cosmetics store in London’s Covent Garden to the demonstrations outside the Sodastream shop in Brighton, Jews and Israelis in Britain have been facing a torrent of boycott activity.
But the ambassador, nevertheless, is upbeat and optimistic. When he first took up his post, he says his strong feeling “was that we needed to see Israel as a house with many doors, and to open as many different channels of engagement as possible. I think in the past year we have made some interesting and important progress.”
In the last week alone, he has opened a conference between Israeli and British cardiologists; organised, together with the Anglo-Israel Association, a round-table event bringing together experts from Britain and Israel in renewable energy, and hosted a group of 20 Israeli mayors who had come to the UK to meet their counterparts. “And trade between the UK and Israel now stands at £8 billion, which in the current climate is remarkable,” he says.
Taub points to the success of the Innovate Israel conference, which brought together more than 30 Israeli internet companies with 70 British firms; and to the Dragons’ Den-style competition for young start-ups which took place at the Google tech campus. In nearly all of these events — including, for example, Birax, the British Israel Academic Exchange Partnership — Israel’s ambassador to the UK has the rare good fortune of having Matthew Gould as his opposite number in Tel Aviv. Ambassador Gould is strongly committed to technological co-operation and dialogue between the two countries, and the commitment is more than mirrored by Taub.
It is not just business and technology matters which have filled his diary. As a one-time TV scriptwriter, he is naturally interested in cultural dialogue, and cites joint events with his Greek and Spanish colleagues as well as the plethora of cultural exchanges between Britain and Israel.
The joint UK-Israel film treaty has led to the making of a new feature film, Zaytoun, which will be screened at this year’s UK Jewish Film Festival, along with 31 other Israeli films; and Israel TV has had a good press in Britain, with the success of Homeland on Channel 4 and of the series on which it is based, Prisoners of War, on Sky Atlantic.
Though he acknowledges the almost constant attempts to derail this sunny picture — “it is unfortunate that a few extremists, committed to making a large amount of noise, can do a great deal of damage” — the ambassador is convinced that for the most part the British public resents the boycott activists. In evidence he calls in the JC’s own YouGov survey which showed that an overwhelming majority of Britons oppose a cultural boycott of Israel. “Yes, there are challenges of hostile demonstrations — but the survey shows that the public resents the way in which important cultural dialogue is being hijacked. So we are working very hard, and making it a priority to confront the demonstrators. It’s very important for us to try to drown them out with positive activity.”
Nevertheless, he adds: “I do think there are areas of particular concern that we need to keep focused on. I am concerned at the atmosphere on some campuses, and that some university administrators don’t always seem to remember that they are the custodians of an important academic space, and that they have to take care that every view, including those supportive of Israel, can be expressed freely and without fear of intimidation.”
As an Oxford-educated lawyer Taub is well used to picking and choosing his words with the utmost care. So it is a slight surprise when he says robustly that the recent case of Moti Cristal, the negotiations consultant who was “uninvited” from speaking at a Manchester NHS seminar because of the objection of the Unison union, was an occasion when “a political platform actually becomes a mask for simple, old-fashioned prejudice. Here was an Israeli expert who was invited to give a professional lecture and was rejected solely on the grounds that he holds an Israeli passport. That is why we have raised this issue to the highest levels.”
The dilemma, he acknowledges, is that “public legal proceedings can give those hostile to Israel the stage they seek to spread hatred and intolerance.”
It is not just boycott, of course, which occupies the ambassador. He has a Sisyphean task dealing with the portrayal of Israel in the British press, acknowledging that there is “a significant gap between the reality of Israel and the way in which it is perceived by the British public. I think the media has a key role to play in that. And one of the key pieces of evidence for the gap is that whenever anyone actually comes to Israel, he or she regularly has his or her preconceptions challenged. So on the one hand, we have to bring as many people as we can to Israel. But the ones that we can’t bring, we have to bring Israel to them. The reality of Israel is our greatest ally.”
Precisely because Israel is not currently the major story in the Middle East — easily overtaken by Syria, Lebanon, and the fall-out from the Arab Spring — the ambassador sees an opportunity to show off other aspects of the Jewish state, “and have people reconsider some of their assumptions. With good journalists, pretty much every issue is open for discussion. With diplomats, it’s harder. There’s a wonderful diplomatic phrase — ‘you can change my opinion but you can’t change my instructions’. So you work within the realm of the possible.”
Does that apply to him? He grins. “Coming from Israel, there are plenty of instructions.”