The unsung heroes of Israeli diplomacy: Speaking for Israel
Reviewed by Bonnie K. Goodman, BA, MLIS
Speaking for Israel A United Nations Speechwriter Defends Israel’s Policies and Battles Public Opinion
By Aviva Klompas
Publisher: Skyhorse (May 2019)
Length: 264 pages
Late in February 2019, the United Nations inferred in a report that Israel committed “possible war crimes and crimes against humanity” when Israel Defense Forces shot at Palestinian protesters in 2018. Foreign Minister Yisrael Katz responded calling the report “hostile, false and incorrect.” A month later Israel the UN Human Rights Council adopted the report in a vote in Geneva. In response, Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs called the UN out, saying their “bias is most evident in (its) absolute failure … to make recommendations concerning Hamas.” [i] Two weeks later the UN voted to condemn anti-Semitism and Islamophobia after the Christ Church, New Zealand mosque shooting. Israeli Ambassador Danny Dannon remarked, “This is an Israeli achievement at the UN and a crushing loss to the forces of hatred. However, it is very unfortunate that we had to fight to include anti-Semitism in the draft resolution. I remind the world that denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination in their land and being anti-Israel is no different from anti-Semitism. The time has come for the world to act uncompromisingly against hatred and anti-Semitism.” [ii]
Those two polar opposite resolutions represent the typical ups, downs, and battles Israel has to wage at the UN. The UN and Israel have a complicated relationship, with the UN singling out and demonizing Israel more than any other country in the international body including the many with ties to terrorism. The complicated and rather infuriating relationship is at the heart of former Director of Speechwriting for Israel’s Mission to the UN Aviva Klompas’ new book, “Speaking for Israel: A United Nations Speechwriter Defends Israel’s Policies and Battles Public Opinion.” Klompas book is at the same time a memoir of her over two years working as the chief speechwriter for Ambassador Ron Prosor (2011–2015) and a recounting of the UN’s bias towards Israel in the first part of the twenty-first century.
Speaking for Israel, who in the galley version was aptly titled “Undiplomatic,” summarizes the day-to-day experiences of Israel’s mission at the UN and the repeated onslaught of resolutions against Israel. Klompas book bucks the traditions of negative tell-all known for political memoirs, she clearly loved her job, her boss, her colleagues, and their mission, declaring in the introduction, “I was immensely proud to go to work each day to represent the Jewish state in one the world’s most anti-Israel institutions.” (6) During the two years Klompas worked as a speechwriter, she witnessed a frenetic pace of events, “The collapse of four Middle Eastern states, faltering Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, waves of Palestinian terrorism, stop and go nuclear negotiations culminating in the Iran deal, an attempt to push Palestinian statehood through the Security Council, the Palestinians bid to join the International Criminal Court, the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers — Eyal, Gilad, and Naftali — and fifty days of war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza.” (6–7)
All these events required Israel’s mission to respond and Klompas to craft those important speeches, statements, and editorials. Klompas wrote 100 speeches delivered by Prosor and other Israeli diplomats at the UN. Although, Klompas did not receive authorship credit, she says, “Every time, no matter how exhausted or cranky or stressed I was feeling, I felt a sense of exhilaration when I heard words I had penned being delivered by Israel representatives to the United Nations.” (35) Klompas was responsible for writing the bulk of speeches for Prosor creating the powerful words defending Israel on the world’s stage. Interspersed, Klompas divides the book between her experiences speechwriting, the speeches, and reactions with chapters that delve into recounting the facts, history, and politics surrounding the UN’s unfair treatment of Israel. Brief and easy to comprehend for the non-expert, former Israel Ambassador to UN Dore Gold’s Tower of Babble: How the United Nations Has Fueled Global Chaos (2004) gives the historical context to UN’s continued singling out of Israel.
Klompas memoir has precedent, her counterpart Gregory Levey wrote a memoir in 2008 Shut Up, I’m Talking, And Other Diplomacy Lessons I Learned in the Israeli Government — A Memoir recounting his own time as a speechwriter for the Israeli government for the Israel Mission and then for Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Klompas alludes to Levey’s memoir in her book, “Around the office, Greg was spoken about in hush terms and whispers and described as ‘the guy who wrote the book.’ They were not happy he wrote a memoir that poked fun at the Israeli government and many of its officials.” (66) Levey plays a small role as a sounding board as Klompas starts out. Even while working she made light about the possibility of writing a memoir to a new diplomat, who was worried about the prospect, “I would jokingly, ask ‘are your sure? This could end up in my book.’ It was enough to get him to think twice.” (66)
The writing style is lively and fast-paced especially the second half of the book, reading it you feel the urgency and time constraints Klompas and her colleagues experienced as they prepared each speech. The style is reminiscent of that she used in Prosor’s speeches, witty, sharp and humorous. At times, Klompas seems like a friend chatting with her audience making her and the experiences relatable. However, in Speaking for Israel, Klompas strikes a balance between the personal, humor, and the seriousness of her work, the events in Israel and the UN’s harsh treatment that is missing from Levey’s memoir.
Klompas mentions the Alan Sorkin TV show the West Wing (1999–2006) as glorifying speechwriters but they are often forgotten, the unsung heroes, it is their long hours and dedication that gives the president, politicians and ambassadors’ their memorable words. Klompas wrote speeches for Prosor and six other Israeli diplomats on committees and she wrote “opinion articles, letters, press releases, and a fair amount of social media content.” (40) Dealing with far-ranging and “challenging” topics included among others, “sustainable development, counter-terrorism, peacekeeping, global health sports, outer space, forestry, road safety, and renewable energy.” (40)
Surprisingly, the diplomats’ input was minimal and conflicting even from Prosor, who was often not clear, she learned that being a speechwriter at the Mission required her to be a mind reader, “because his instructions could be downright cryptic.” (39) Klompas had to learn to replicate Prosor’s style and “unique language,” (24) which she describes as “speaking candidly and colorfully in defense of the Jewish state, using sarcasm and humor to garner attention.” Klompas also describes Prosor as “forthright, charming, articulate, and has a penchant for liberally sprinklings his remarks with puns, rhetorical questions, and cynical retorts.” (13) But Prosor also “loved, and I mean loved, cheesy one-liners and insisted on having them in almost all his speeches,” and he “was adamant he would never be accused of the ultimate crime: being boring.” (26, 56) Klompas learns to reign in many of Prosor’s puns and rhetorical embellishments and not to let Prosor get carried away, although, at times, she admits she did as well. With instructions to be more aggressive early on, Klompas wrote a letter to the UN Security justifying Israel response on a Syrian military post after they attacked an IDF jeep. When Prosor read the letter, he said, “Klompas, I think you have declared war on Syria with this letter.” (27)
Klompas would accompany Prosor to his speeches whether at the UN or out in the Jewish community. Sitting behind Prosor, Klompas often was making changes and additions to the speeches at the last minute. Klompas often highlights key parts of the speeches she wrote. Reading them the reader cannot help but want to revisit the speeches whether the text or the video to see in real time what she recounts and see the whole context of her impactful sound bites. With all the speeches, editorials and statements Prosor and the other diplomats were the ones with the kudos and bylines.
There were some moments, where Klompas gets her due. In the summer of 2014, when Hamas and Gaza barraged rockets on Israel and Prosor had to defend at the UN Israel’s military response, Klompas came up with the idea to include the rocket-warning siren from the Red Alert cell phone app in the speech as a prop. During Prosor’s speech, Klompas handed her cell phone set to ring, her videoed part garnered her attention and a few moments of fame. In the speech to the UN Security Council on July 10, 2014, Prosor pointed out, “In the last three days, 442 rockets have been fired into Israel — that’s one every ten minutes. Fifteen seconds [play sound of siren]. That’s how much time you have to run for your life. Imagine having only fifteen seconds to find a bomb shelter.” (116) Klompas recalls after the speech, “That fifteen second siren became my fifteen seconds of fame. The clip was played and replayed on international news stations. I got emails and phone calls from dozens of people saying they had seen me on television handing my phone to the ambassador.” (116)
Not all the times was the attention and cameras wanted. In December 2014, the Palestinians were looking for the UN Security Council to recognize them as a state. Coming into work on December 30, Klompas never believed she would have to attend an emergency session at the UN, it was vacation time and she came in wearing jeans, and a “generally unkempt appearance.” (166) With little time, she and fellow diplomat Dafna put together a short statement for Israel-the-diplomat, Israel Nitzan to deliver. Klompas did not have time to change, while Ella in disbelief remarked, “You have to be kidding me.” Ella was not the only one to disapprove, self-conscious Klompas recalls, “The American diplomat gave me up and down elevator eyes, clearly wondering how an out-of-breath, jeans clad disheveled lunatic was permitted into the Security Council chamber.” Although she tried to hide her jeans, they made it to Twitter with a tweet and photo for social media posterity, “Official response by @IsraelinUN to Pal. Statehood bid yesterday @UN … w/Israeli diplomat in jeans, on her phone.” The tweet led Klompas to let out a “What the hell?” when she saw it,” at least it did not go viral. (168)
There was affection for her job and towards her boss and colleagues, and the feeling is returned as she forged friendships and Prosor even affectionately refers to Klompas as “Aviva-leh and throughout the book, Klompas refers to all her colleagues by their first names. Her colleagues include among others Dafna, Prosor’s “closest adviser,” Ella, his chief of staff, Israel-Nitzan, referred to as Israel-the-diplomat and the various interns that come in and out of the picture at the mission. After her first summer Klompas’ speechwriting intern Avishai put together, a book of all their speeches, asking Prosor to “inscribe” it, the inscription indicates the family-like relationship Prosor had with his employees and appreciation for Klompas’ work. “Dear Aviva, I will be the first to admit that it is not easy mastering the art of ‘Prosorism!’ With time, devotion and a ‘little bit of tough love!’ you are beginning to learn the three ‘s’’s — sense, sensitivity, and sensibility, coupled with humor. Thank you for all your hard work. I hope we will fill many more volumes together, which will speak volumes! Big hug Ron” (85)
Klompas saves her negativity in Speaking for Israel for the UN and their policies and their repeated assaults and resolutions against Israel. Kompas calls the UN’s actions, anti-Semitic and biased, writing, “Criticizing Israel’s actions or policies is by no means anti-Semitic but when the condemnation is grossly disproportionate, or Israel alone is repeatedly singled out or the language of denunciation vile or tinged with libelous stereotype, then it’s hard to see how the action is not discriminatory and anti-Semitic. Questioning or denying Israel’s right to exist as an equal member of the global community also points to a deeper bias.” (48)
Otherwise, any complaint Klompas has is about the brashness of her Israeli colleagues whom she learns to love and become good friends. Although, mostly in jest and good humor and from the point of view from a Canadian, where Canada is known for its politeness. Her biggest peeve towards her time at Israel Foreign Ministry was the meager pay, which she often mentions at the start of her journey although the experience outweighs the salary. Even in negotiations for the job, Klompas recounts, “I would bemoan, the fact that the salary was impossibly low, the benefits non-existent, that moving expenses were not covered, and the fact that they had no intention of providing me with a cell phone despite the expectation to be on call 24/7.” Klompas calls “the expectations unreasonable and the parameters outrageous,” and went as far as to say, “I can think of at least one person, who is currently enslaved by the State of Israel,” although it was in good humor. (18, 41) Klompas is not alone in her complaints about the pay she includes Israel’s Foreign Ministry’s March 2014 general strike, which did not achieve anything and only cost the workers docked pay and overtime. However, in the end, the long hours and the pay were the main reasons she leaves the mission after two years.
There is a definitely ideological pro-Israel slant to Klompas book, she reveals little about her politics aside from ardent support for Israel, her support for a two-state solution, and her leading Taglit Birthright Israel trips to Israel. In the introduction, she makes her position clear, “I believe Israel is more than a country. I see it as a living testament to a small people’s capacity to overcome impossible odds through the sheer force of their commitment to knowledge, freedom, and compassion.” (6) Although subtle, Birthright plays a prominent role in her memoir, she meets Charles Bronfman through a friends’ introduction and through Bronfman interns at the Israeli consulate, and it is on her way to leading a trip in December 2012 that she receives the call from Israel’s mission to the UN for the speechwriter job interview. Klompas even headed a Birthright trip, her eleventh during her tenure, explaining, “I wanted to go to Israel while I was the Mission speechwriter.” (86)
Klompas’ ties to Birthright make her book a must-read for pre and college-aged Jewish students as they enter university and embark on their own group trips to Israel. American Jewish youth are becoming less religious and more politically liberal. Birthright is facing a revolt from the leftist Jewish youth and the activist organization IfNotNow. Beginning last summer, INN supporters have infiltrated Birthright trips protesting what they perceive as the lack of Palestinian perspectives on Birthright trips. Since 1999, Birthright’s mission has always been about educating, introducing and connecting Jewish youth to Israel and Judaism through a free ten-day trip. According to Birthright, they are “an apolitical organization” that “provides a multifaceted view of Israel, Jewish heritage and Jewish values,” as well as “discussions of the geopolitical realities in Israel, including the conflict, and meetings with Israeli Arabs and other minorities in Israel.” [iii]
There is a growing divide between American and Israeli Jews, with American Jews distancing themselves from Israel especially millennials. According to a 2018 American Jewish Committee survey, only 40 percent of American and Israeli Jews consider each other as extended family, with 31 percent Americans and 22 percent Israelis going as far as to say each other is “not part of my family.” [iv] According to a the Pew Research Center 2013 survey’s section examining American Jewry’s “Connection With and Attitudes Toward Israel” only a quarter of Jews aged 18–49 feel very attached to Israel, 36 percent feel somewhat attached but 28 percent feel not very attached with 11 percent are not at all attached. The numbers are similar for millennial Jews aged 18–29 the age group that attends Birthright trips. [v] Now over five years after the Pew survey millennials are not only disagreeing with Israel’s policy they are uncomfortable with Israel’s existence.
Unfortunately, when Klompas headed her Birthright trip in December 2013, the Jewish youth attending was excited, interested, and awed by her work at the Mission, as opposed to the rebellion that recently seems to have infiltrated the positive educational experience. Klompas recalls, “As we crisscrossed Israel on our bus, I told them stories and described how my work at the United Nations overlaid the political situation they were learning about.” (86) Then one evening Klompas saw on Twitter that Prosor was set to deliver one of her speeches. She asked to use the hotel lobby computer to watch the speech and then asked her Birthright group if they wanted to watch, their excitement was evident as she recounts, “They jumped up, followed me into the lobby, and gathered around the monitor…. As Ron delivered the remarks, I watched my group as they watched the speech. We were joined by some of the hotel staff and they nodded in appreciation at Ron’s words. It was a much-needed reminder of why my work mattered.” (86–87)
Speaking for Israel is an important book that can counter and explain to American Jewish youth, and help them gain an understanding of Israel’s political and military decisions and the bias the country faces on the world stage and her need for a “voice to be heard.” (186) Klompas has “immense pride” for her time working at the Mission, which is visible, declaring, “In my eyes, Israel isn’t just a country, it’s the embodiment of the values I stand for, and am proud to give voice to… nothing has matched… waking up every day in the service of the State of Israel.” (189) In Aviva Klompas, Jewish youth have the millennial and relatable role model and with Speaking for Israel, they have the facts laid with the string of biases Israel faces, undeniably listed and footnoted. Reading Speaking for Israel the reader cannot help but become caught up in Klompas’s enthusiasm for Israel; hopefully, some of it can rub off on an increasingly critical American Jewry and cynical youth, and reignite their love for Israel.
[ii] Adam Eliyahu Berkowitz, “Israeli Ambassador Forces UN to Acknowledge Anti-Semitism,” Breaking News Israel, April 3, 2019.
[iii] “15 Jewish college students arrested protesting outside Birthright offices,” JTA, April 5, 2019. https://www.jta.org/quick-reads/15-jewish-college-students-arrested-protesting-outside-birthright-offices
[v] Pew Research Center, Chapter 5: Connection With and Attitudes Toward Israel, “A PORTRAIT OF JEWISH AMERICANS,” October 1, 2013. https://www.pewforum.org/2013/10/01/chapter-5-connection-with-and-attitudes-towards-israel/
Bonnie K. Goodman has a BA and MLIS from McGill University and has done graduate work in Judaic Studies at Concordia University. She is the author of “Silver Boom! The Rise and Decline of Leadville, Colorado as the United States Silver Capital, 1860–1896,” and contributed the overviews and chronologies to the “History of American Presidential Elections, 1789–2008,” edited by Gil Troy, Arthur M. Schlesinger, and Fred L. Israel (2012). She is a journalist, librarian and historian and a former Features Editor at the History News Network and reporter at Examiner.com where she covered politics, universities, religion, and news. She has a dozen years of experience in education and political journalism.