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A diplomat and her human shadows

What is life like for an Israeli ambassador posted abroad, under the constant watch of bodyguards?
Illustrative photo: Israeli bodyguards outside a Knesset committee hearing (Photo by Olivier Fitoussi / Flash90)
Illustrative photo: Israeli bodyguards outside a Knesset committee hearing (Photo by Olivier Fitoussi / Flash90)

Six years of my life were weighed by human appendages. From 1993 until 1996, as Israel’s ambassador to Riga, I was escorted by Latvian bodyguards. They were three in the unit and alternated daily. From 2001 to 2003, Israelis shadowed me in South Africa. They came for a month or two and were then rotated, for alertness. Before describing this forced intimacy with strangers, life with an amalgam of reduced privacy and increased safety, some words to explain the difference in nationality between the guards, and before that – why have one at all?

If threats inhibit a diplomat from functioning freely, it reflects badly on the host country. Israeli diplomats, especially ambassadors, are more threatened than many. Most countries allocate resources to safeguard them, as did Latvia. In addition to the daily bodyguard (who also joined me on my trips of two or three days to Estonia and Lithuania), a Latvian policeman sat outside my apartment in Riga, whether or not I was at home.

During my time there (probably also before and after), South Africa was considered high risk for us. Israel was criticized by elements in government and press, vilified in church and academia. There was a large Muslim community, including openly militant elements. Yet the local authorities did not provide me with security. After 9/11 they guarded the Ambassador of Palestine and me briefly. They explained, as though the threat was equal, that South Africa has a balanced policy on the Middle East, which must be both maintained and shown. Heeding repeated Israeli pleas, sometimes a rusted riot control vehicle appeared on the lawn outside my residence in Pretoria. No one was inside. We referred to it as Environmental Art; its main effect was to stop the grass under it from growing.

So, we had to fend for ourselves. We hired local guards to patrol the residence grounds, day and night. We also imported a bodyguard from Israel to guard the trophy target – me. He lived in a small unit on the ground floor of my big house. An emergency door between our homes was opened soon after I arrived, to be used in case of suspected danger, say if the security alarm went off. The bodyguard from Israel had a day off each week, and was replaced by someone from embassy security or from the Israeli airline. I was never alone.

N was the most memorable of the bodyguards from Israel. He was friendly and attractive. I too was charmed by that crinkly look from on high, dark brown eyes narrowing for a wide smile. He came to me from a stint in the Scandinavian winter, and arrived at the end of the southern hemisphere summer, with its skimpy clothes and expanses of tanned skin. One day off per week does not ease meetings between boy and girls. Some would be deterred by this coupling of temptation and immobilization, but not so the resourceful N.

Sometimes he told a girl where I would be. “We are going to a reception at such and such an embassy, meet me outside the gate.” Or, “The ambassador is invited to a braai (South African barbecue) at the home of the head of the United Jewish Appeal at this address in Johannesburg. Call me when you arrive.” She did, and out he went. Entire intelligence operations collect data on the schedules and whereabouts of potential targets, and he distributed it casually to strangers. True, most 20-ish women who are picked up in bars are not terrorist handmaidens, but all it takes is one.

I was new to this business, he was only my second. I assumed that he knew what he was doing. Also, he had gone to school with children of my close friends and we had less degrees of separation than is usual in intimate Israel, adding an element of discomfort to my situation. Moreover, while I rarely hesitate to share my opinions with superiors and equals, I try to be careful with those situated lower on the professional rung. I said nothing.

Passover was approaching. I accepted an invitation to attend the communal seder at Jaffa, the Jewish Home for the Aged, near my house in Pretoria. A nice Jewish boy away from home on the most family focused of holidays should not sit alone. I asked that N be seated with me at the main table. The proceedings were conducted from there, all eyes were on us. N’s phone rang, he got up. Watched by the gathering, he finished speaking and sat down with us, only to be interrupted again. Not by an urgent security alert, but by a call from another of his female admirers. Still, I did not complain to the embassy’s security department, and did not say anything to N.

When his cell phone was stolen, he provided his acquaintances with my unlisted home number. I can still hear the voices of Margaret or Anna, my household helpers, announcing that he had a call. The sound of his name carried from the kitchen, via the hallway, into the small downstairs study and through the newly created emergency door into his flat. Breathless and eager, he ran to the phone. Not through the front door, which would have kept her waiting a minute longer, but along the same invasive route. None of his successors abused that door. But for the remainder of my three years in South Africa, I was haunted by the memory of his imposition on what little privacy remained to me, unsettled by knowing that I could never be guaranteed of being alone.

Not only women skewed his judgment. Anything which hindered gratification was pushed aside. We were in Cape Town and he realized that he wanted a souvenir he had noticed when we walked in a market the day before. He did not ask that I join him for some minutes so that he could buy it. Instead, he locked the driver and me in the car. On the same trip, he instructed me to shout from the window of my 6th floor hotel room if anything should go wrong, as he really must try that sparkling pool below. Not wanting to cause trouble to the young man who would lay down his life for mine (would he?), not yet quite sure of what was professionally right or wrong (although my suspicions were growing daily), I remained silent, despite constant surprises and humiliations.

I was about to finish paying at the checkout counter of Pik-n-Pay of Norwood, a suburb of Johannesburg. N left me (probably against the rules) to go back for something, and then tried to jump the lines to join me. I had appeared on television and addressed Jewish groups so was easily recognized, especially among Jewish customers who came for an outstanding selection of kosher products. I offered to wait for N, or better – join him at the back of the line. To which, using crass Hebrew, he expressed his opinion of the patiently waiting patrons, members of a community which prides itself on excellent Jewish education, including the Hebrew language.

A few weeks after N left, Golan, director of embassy security, came to my house. He was in the upstairs passage, doing something to the alarm system, and I asked if I could say something about N. I think that was the turning point which made us friends, but we barely knew each other then. Having apparently been informed about my quirks by the fearless guard, he answered “He shouldn’t jump the line in the supermarket, is there anything else?” I remember his swarthy face stunned into paleness as he heard some of the else. A year later I heard that N would like another tour in South Africa. I made my objections known, and never saw him again.

In August 2003, towards the end of my term in Pretoria, I found myself with K. He had similar skills to N, but lacked charm, so it was easier to be angry with him. By then I had understood the obvious. Security is a means, not an end. It should be almost invisible. Unless objectively unavoidable, the guard must never hinder.

Minimal English was least of K’s shortcomings. Despite repeated explanations that we are guests who must respect the host country, its rules and officials, he habitually pushed uniformed policemen out of our way because “You are a protected personage.” He often woke late, thereby delaying me. If he arrived at my door on time, he regularly had to go back to his room to collect something, usually his cell phone. Once, he showered precisely when guests were expected. Only the most qualified – as he should have been – was entrusted with the weakest line, the key to the compound. I banged on his door for long minutes. Until he was dry, my wet guests could not enter.

The World Summit on Sustainable Development was upon us. Three Israeli ministers were coming to Johannesburg; my movements could not be hostages to incompetence. I asked Golan to keep K away from me. The embassy’s small security department was burdened by preparations for the event, but Golan juggled schedules and magically produced shifts. In only one or two of the meeting’s ten days was I burdened by that unsuitable young man.

Latvian guards disturbed me less than their Israeli counterparts in South Africa. They went home after the working day, and I was not bothered by knowing that someone is constantly lurking in the background. There was also language, or lack of it. I didn’t speak theirs, or they mine. A few shared words in Latvian, Russian, German or English were usually enough to communicate essentials, but not more. Most of my tour was over before cell phones became common, the car was relatively quiet. I could read, daydream or nap. Unlike in smallish Israel, I did not know their cousin’s neighbor’s daughter and had not grown up with their teacher’s friend. It was just work.

How was it, to live like that? Let me tell you about the time I forgot to pack underwear.

The embassy and my home were in Pretoria, the seat of government. A few times each week, I drove an hour to Johannesburg, the country’s biggest city and national center of business, press and Jewish activity. Parliament meets in Cape Town, a thousand miles away. This is because when the Union of South Africa was set up between four provinces and colonies in 1910; there was disagreement on where to locate the capital. Pretoria became the administrative capital and Cape Town – the legislative capital. Parliament used to sit continuously for six months each year, forcing a mass migration of officials, diplomats, journalists and assorted staff – some moved with their families, others left them behind and lived apart. Parliament now sits intermittently throughout the year and there are nine provinces in post apartheid South Africa. Everyone agrees that the historical split is irrelevant and inefficient, but it has remained as is.

Some governments, including Israel’s, maintain a second home in Cape Town. The arrangement may be cheaper and is certainly more comfortable than long stays in hotels. I kept basics in that apartment: casual clothes, sleeping stuff, underwear. All I had to take with me on the monthly flight from Pretoria to Cape Town was clothes for work. Packing them was almost automatic.

In addition to those three (Pretoria, Johannesburg and Cape Town), other cities in South Africa merit some ambassadorial presence. I visited South Africa’s third largest city, Durban, a few times. In one of those trips, I went to neighboring Pietermaritzburg, the capital of the province. I once took a few days for meetings in Port Elizabeth and East London, two neighboring cities on the Indian Ocean Coast, about half way between Cape Town and Durban.

Towards the end of my term in South Africa, I decided to visit Bloemfontein and Kimberley. They are an hour drive from each other and about half way between Pretoria and Cape Town. Kimberly is famous for its diamond mines. As part of the division between provinces, the top court sat in Bloemfontein, which was defined as South Africa’s legislative capital. When those traveling between parliament and government still drove or took the train, the city and its court were a vital stopping point for many. Its official standing shrank when the Constitutional Court was established in Johannesburg after apartheid.

I decided to do the trip by car – the way is long but the roads are good. Including the hassle of airports, driving would not take much longer than flying, and I would finally see the barren landscape over which I flew so often. As usual when leaving Cape Town, I repacked my work clothes and left the basics in the apartment. Driver, bodyguard and I headed north.

In the evening, after a few stops on our 550 mile journey, we reached Bloemfontein and settled in the hotel, to rest ahead of a long working day. An old diary reminds me that on Tuesday, September 16, 2003, I spoke to students and faculty at the local university, had tea with judges of the Court of Appeal, called on the Premier of the province (the city’s mayor must have been away), briefed editorial staff of the local newspaper, and spent the evening with the small Jewish community.

In the morning, I began to dress. There was no underwear. This was not a pleasant discovery. What would I do? Remain as is? Wash by hand and wear wet? Repeat on Wednesday morning for the drive to Kimberly, and again on Thursday, feeling icky until we reach Pretoria at midday? Drivers may run personal errands. To perform that one, I would have to explain to him in detail what I need. Also, the driver must be available for any emergency; the bodyguard must be told if he leaves. The undercover tale will become the stuff of legend among an international network of young men, who will share it with my colleagues in other countries. “Did you hear about Tova? She forgot to pack underwear!” Embassy staff will know. Maybe the embarrassment outweighs other options? After some minutes of panic, I came up with what I still consider the best possible solution.

I phoned the sleeping guard and announced that we will start the day earlier than planned, as I want to drive around a little before my meetings, to get an impression. He woke the driver and informed him of my odd reason to cut short his rest. We ate breakfast and set out, turning right here, slowing down there. Soon, a department store appeared, and it was open! Not overly elegant, at that moment it seemed to me like the height of luxury. “Look, Ackermans! I wonder if their stock here is the same as in the big cities! Let me stop to see!”

The guard followed me into the shop. He trailed me while I walked up and down along the aisles, carefully studying the goods. I casually bought pink ankle socks, used until the elastic weakened; picked up a shirt I never wore. And: underwear. We returned to the hotel because “I forgot some important papers.” The guard checked my room for signs of tampering and allowed me to enter. He shut the door behind him and waited outside. A minute later I joined him, clean and comfortable.

Even without absent undergarments, a bodyguard is discomforting. Think of being questioned about every private plan, all guests, who each person is, where I met them, how long the expected visit. Picture a man standing by me when I pray in the women’s section of an Orthodox synagogue – it mattered little if he was Jewish, as were the Israelis in South Africa, or not, as were the Latvians. Imagine a young stranger standing outside the changing room as I stretch my arm with discarded items to the saleslady, and understand why most of my clothes were bought in Israel. Visualize sitting with a friend in a garden cafe, the guard milling clumsily nearby, ignoring an empty table in order to save his allowance and eyeing an empty seat at mine. Should I invite him to join? Allow him to interfere, as some did, in my conversations? Tell him to stop circling? Pay for him? Not?

A guard for the day, loaned from the airline, accompanied me to dinner at a private home in Johannesburg. The conversation was strong when he opened the dining room door and announced that he had a flight to send out early the following morning. Should I be considerate and leave? Ignore him? Explain to him why staying is important? Report him? His airline colleague, who asked to watch when I had a pedicure, what was I thinking when I agreed, what has he done with that memory?

To be fair, those were exceptions, as were N and K. In Israel and presumably elsewhere, guards are carefully selected for their physical and mental abilities, and are trained rigorously. Most are smart, respectful and considerate. Their accompaniment had advantages.

A fellow human reveled with me at the sight of whales, dolphins and penguins in Africa, and tall trees reaching the frozen Baltic Sea. One helped with my computer, another taught me to stretch after a brisk morning walk together. In South Africa, where a trip to the automatic money machine was often an invitation to robbers, my wallet was safe. Hampered by a weak sense of direction, I never struggled with a map. At a boring event, my young man was ready company until it was polite to leave. If I had a free evening in Tallinn or in Vilnius, I often invited my driver and guard to the cinema, and ignored inquisitive looks from strangers.

From acquaintances, it was more than looks. A middle aged woman constantly followed by a younger man elicits curiosity, smiles and double edged comments, to which I responded in kind. When a female colleague said “Lucky you, can I also get one?” I chuckled that “They are only for dangerous women, like me”. If asked “Do they enjoy doing it?” I dutifully said with an implied wink “You know today’s young people, they do anything for money”. You get the idea.

Sometimes, I bump into one of my Israeli guards here in Jerusalem. One of my Latvians escorts guarded his president when she visited Israel. For a moment, I feel a little nostalgic, remember the times we spent together. Maybe they remember home-cooked food from my kitchen, or think of the sites we saw. We share a past, not all bad.

Then I recall the heaviness in my gut whenever I returned to Latvia or South Africa after an unhampered absence, remember my dread at knowing that a human shadow will soon set upon me. It felt like I was growing a second skin. What a relief it was to retire, and be free.

About the Author
Tova Herzl's book, Madame Ambassador; Behind The Scenes With A Candid Israeli Diplomat, was recently published by Rowman & Littlefield. She served twice as congressional liaison in Washington DC, was Israel's first ambassador to the newly independent Baltic states, and took early retirement after a tumultuous ambassadorship in South Africa.