Israel's Consul General in New York Asaf Zamir speaks at a JNF-USA event on October 28, 2021. (Shahar Azran)
Israel's Consul General in New York Asaf Zamir speaks at a JNF-USA event on October 28, 2021. (Shahar Azran)

Israel’s new man in NY: Bring on the broad — but legitimate — criticism of Israel

Consul General Asaf Zamir says providing US youth with tools to sell both progressive and Zionist identities requires explaining conflict’s complexity more honestly than in past

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

Israel's Consul General in New York Asaf Zamir speaks at a JNF-USA event on October 28, 2021. (Shahar Azran)

HOLLYWOOD BEACH, Florida — Israel’s new consul general in New York touched down in the US three months ago with his work cut out for him.

“I told my predecessors that I received a New York that is much more difficult than what they experienced,” said Asaf Zamir in an interview last month.

“During their tenures, Israel was only a positive buzzword,” he said, positing that the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020 and the Gaza War the following year intensified the intersectionality framework’s prominence among progressives who now tie the Palestinian struggle “to all other issues.”

While Zamir clarified that the support for Israel he has encountered in recent months both within and beyond the local Jewish community has been “overwhelming,” the new era in the US now features “politicians of all wakes who allow themselves to comment in such extremes on [the Israeli-Palestinian conflict] — some of it legitimate criticism, and some of it crossing [the line] into antisemitism in my eyes.”

In this newly challenging environment, Zamir fears that young Jews arriving on college campuses are particularly vulnerable.

In a wide-ranging discussion on the sidelines of the Israeli American Council’s annual conference in Florida, Zamir revealed that one of his main goals in his job as consul general is to provide these students with the tools to be able to defend their Zionist identities on what has become at-times hostile turf.

Asaf Zamir speaks at a New York City event with the Jewish Federations of North America on September 27, 2021. (Shahar Azran)

The outreach efforts of previous governments may have been similarly motivated, but the new diplomat indicated that the message so far failed to resonate. With the most politically diverse coalition in Israel’s history sworn in last June, though, Zamir argued that Jerusalem was uniquely suited to make inroads with the next generation of Americans.

He admitted that the new government’s policies still won’t satisfy many of the skeptics he’ll be serving in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Delaware.

“Because life is complex, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is complex,” he said.

This may have been the same line used by Israeli diplomats before him, but Zamir insisted that “those who said this until today had the wrong buildup, the wrong choice of words and the wrong general energy.

“If you come at it with a sense of self-righteousness, if you weren’t willing to really listen until now and if you’re inattentive to criticism, you create an environment in which only those who are blindly supportive of Israel will accept what you have to say while everyone else is deemed an enemy,” he said.

So Zamir is seeking to create a new environment — one that embraces complexity and does not shy away from pushback. He draws a line at those who object to the “Jewish people’s right to self-determination in a Jewish and democratic state in the land of Israel,” but beyond that argues that engaging with American constituents in 2022 requires “broaden[ing] the tent of legitimate criticism of Israel.”

Serving with class

Zamir, 41, is arguably the most prominent individual to assume the position of consul general in New York. A year before his appointment, he was tourism minister in the unity government led by Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu and Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz. That coalition fell apart after less than a year, and Zamir didn’t stick around until its final days, resigning in October 2020 citing mistrust in Netanyahu. Before the cabinet posting, he served for a decade as deputy mayor of Tel Aviv.

The freshman diplomat now heads the Israeli mission serving the largest constituency in the world, including 50 percent of American Jewry.

Zamir speaks fluent English, which he picked up from his mother, a Chicago native. His family lived in Sarasota, Florida, for four years when he was in elementary school. It was then that Zamir developed a fondness for American diners — though not the classier kind.

“My favorite things as a kid were the burgers and hash browns that they’d serve right after taking them out of the freezer,” Zamir said. “I agree that it’s gross, but when you’re that age, you don’t really know what’s good.”

“So when I visit a city now, I have to make one visit to get it out of my system.”

It’s what led him to drag his entourage to iHop in Union Square at 4 a.m. upon landing in New York last October, and it’s why he skipped the Diplomat Hotel breakfast for Denny’s the morning of the interview.

He was a sought-after attendee at the IAC confab, and the hour-long interview at the conference center café was interrupted five times by fans asking for a selfie. Most of them were more interested in inquiring into the whereabouts of Maya Wertheimer, Israeli actor, model and wife of Asaf Zamir.

The consul general greeted each of the kibbitzers warmly. He admitted that his ability to smile through such interactions — which occur pretty frequently — is partially dependent on the amount of sleep he clocked in the night before. At the same time, Zamir said he appreciates the excitement, given that for many of the Israelis he meets abroad, he represents the lone point of contact they’ll ever have with their government.

A revolt to the middle

Despite the light demeanor, Zamir did not mince words regarding the challenges he faces in his new posting.

“Bipartisanship was significantly damaged in recent years,” he said, referring to the previous governments’ handling of the US-Israel relationship.

The consul general avoided getting too specific but noted that his views on former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu — whom critics have mockingly called “the Republican senator from Jerusalem — are well documented.

Indeed, a quick scroll through Zamir’s personal Twitter page leads visitors to a post roughly six months ago in which Zamir marvels at the fact that Netanyahu is now opposition chairman rather than premier.

But beyond what he views as the damage caused by the former prime minister, Zamir pointed to polarization in the US as another factor complicating what once was a cushy job in the New York Consulate.

US President Joe Biden receives a standing ovation from both Republicans and Democrats as he begins his first address on April 28, 2021 in Washington, DC. (POOL / GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA / Getty Images via AFP)

Engaging with area lawmakers on both sides of the aisle is now a taller task, with a politician’s positions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict gradually becoming a reflection of their party affiliation in a divided Albany and Washington.

“When the reactions are so extreme from each side… [lawmakers feel] that they have to be the most pro- or the most anti- because those who try and stay in the middle are canceled by both sides,” Zamir said.

However, he speculated that the current political environment could well lead to backlash by politicians sick of the black-and-white approach: “Their revolt is a return to the middle,” said Zamir, whose three-year stint in national politics was with the centrist Blue and White party.

He referenced a recent trip to Israel taken by New York Rep. Jamaal Bowman. While the tour was organized by the Middle East lobby J Street, a frequent critic of successive Israeli governments, and Bowman used the opportunity to call out Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, the congressman still took significant heat from progressive backers outraged over his “normalization” of ties with the Jewish state.

“This leads people to feel that there are too many shackles on them, and it could backfire in the end,” Zamir said.

Selling complexity

No less challenging than engaging with politicians is outreach with young American Jews, whose relationships with Israel have deteriorated over time, according to Zamir.

The consul general said he was in the early stages of crafting a strategy for engaging with this key constituency — “one that explains complexity.”

Zionism is the struggle for the indigenous rights of Jews. It’s no less a progressive struggle in its own right. It’s just that it succeeded while other [progressive struggles] haven’t

“This is very difficult in today’s binary world of zero or one, when the entire conversation takes place in three seconds when everything is black or white and you’re either for or against,” said Zamir.

“In this context, [my goal is] to try and infuse terminology [into the discourse] so that when a Jewish student arrives on campus as both a progressive and a Zionist he can explain both of those identities.”

Pro-Palestinian and pro-Israel demonstrators at an Apartheid Week event at the University of California, Berkeley, in February 2012 (photo credit: CC-BY James Buck, Flickr)
Illustrative photo of pro-Palestinian demonstrators facing pro-Israel demonstrators at an Israel Apartheid Week event at the University of California, Berkeley, in February 2012. (CC-BY/James Buck/Flickr)

Zamir argued that there is no contradiction between the two ideologies. “Zionism is the struggle for the indigenous rights of Jews. It’s no less a progressive struggle in its own right. It’s just that it succeeded while other [progressive struggles] haven’t.”

But Zamir lamented that young Americans are “missing the tools to be able to stand up on college campus and say that you can be both” a Zionist and a progressive.

He expressed hope that the “toolbox” he creates will be used by Israeli emissaries in the northeast and beyond, saying he was recruiting professionals, volunteers and young influencers to take part in the effort.

Asked how he envisioned such a toolbox being utilized, Zamir pointed to an October interview Axios conducted with Ben & Jerry’s founders Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield about their ice cream maker’s decision to cease sales in West Bank settlements.

The pair were asked why they were continuing to sell ice cream in the US state of Georgia, which passed legislation aimed at restricting voting access, and in Texas, which passed legislation restricting abortion access.

Neither said anything for several seconds before Cohen piped: “I don’t know. It’s a good question… I think I’d have to sit down and think about it for a bit.”

Israel in recent years caused lots of damage by pushing out not only politicians who were initially supportive of Israel but young people as well

“What it showed is that there isn’t always a good response when you ask the hard questions,” Zamir said. “The conflict is complex. It’s not a one-sided story, and it’s not that there isn’t peace because of only one side alone, but people don’t know how to talk about all of this.”

But in order to sell this argument to young American Jews, the consul general argued that Jerusalem would have to do a better job at responding to critique.

“We’re willing to take criticism in Israel that here we’re not prepared to listen to here. This is not okay, and when people see that, they detach,” Zamir said. “Israel in recent years caused lots of damage by pushing out not only politicians who were initially supportive of Israel but young people as well.”

Pressed for an example, the consul general pointed to Israel’s ties with the Reform and Conservative religious movements in the US, whom Haredi members of previous governments went as far as to paint as not Jewish.

The heads of the eight parties making up the prospective new government meet in the Knesset on June 13, 2021. Left to right: Ra’am head Mansour Abbas, Labor chief Merav Michaeli, Blue and White head Benny Gantz, Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid, Yamina chief Naftali Bennett, New Hope head Gideon Sa’ar, Yisrael Beytenu chief Avigdor Liberman and Meretz leader Nitzan Horowitz (Ariel Zandberg)

While members of the new government have spoken to the importance of repairing those ties, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s decision to shelve plans to implement a long-frozen agreement to formalize a pluralistic prayer pavilion at the Western Wall drew considerable backlash from the non-Orthodox movements in the US.

“These are very supportive communities who need to feel that Israel is as much theirs as any other Jew. And you cannot expect even the most basic support if you don’t play your part in this agreement,” Zamir said.

Making peace yesterday

The new government may be led by a prime minister who opposes Palestinian statehood and a foreign minister — Yair Lapid — who is a backer of the two-state solution, but Zamir indicated he had little difficulty in broadcasting Jerusalem’s position on the conflict to those he engages in New York.

“If the question is, ‘did this government make peace yesterday?’ it did not. But the Palestinian Authority and Hamas are also not capable of making peace yesterday. Within this reality… we are taking steps to improve the reality on the ground,” he said, pointing to the record number of work permits approved for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza along with rare meetings between senior Israeli ministers and PA President Mahmoud Abbas.

Asked how the new government envisions an end to the conflict, Zamir said Jerusalem is still building its policy on the matter, but “for sure has done more in this sphere than the previous government.”

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas (center) meets with Meretz ministers Nitzan Horowitz (center-left) and Isawi Frej (center-right), on October 3, 2021 (Meretz)

“This is by far the most [politically] diverse government ever, and the issue on which members disagree with the most is this one,” he said.

“I think those in the US can appreciate this more than anywhere else,” Zamir added, pointing to the political polarization that has paralyzed much of Washington.

He admitted that forming the government in Israel forced members to compromise on issues they believe in. “The upside is that it’s better than the alternative where you don’t compromise on your values, but nothing gets done.”

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