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The wages of diplomacy: Too low

Striking Israeli Foreign Ministry employees are not paid nearly enough to manage the unique demands of foreign posting
The Foreign Ministry offices in Jerusalem (photo: PD care of WikiCommons)
The Foreign Ministry offices in Jerusalem (photo: PD care of WikiCommons)

I love my job. I am astoundingly blessed to be Israel’s Ambassador to South Africa. After making aliyah to Israel as a teenager, I could not have imagined that I could one day not only represent Israel abroad but have the opportunity to meet presidents and kings on behalf of the Jewish State. To do this is an honor that is almost beyond comprehension. I get paid to travel the world and promote the interests of the people of Israel. I have hosted President Peres in Azerbaijan and attended the funeral of Nelson Mandela here in South Africa with the Speaker of our Knesset. Amazing.

These days, however, with the deepest regret, I – along with hundreds of my colleagues in Israel and around the globe — have stopped working. We are in the midst of a bitter work dispute with the young men and women who control Israel’s ministry of finance, who have basically told us that they have no appreciation for what Israel’s professional diplomats do. After a year of negotiations and seven months of mediation by the former president of Israel’s labor court, the finance ministry side has returned with an offer that was not only insulting to those of us, and our families, that quite literally fly the flag for Israel across the globe, but shows a clear misunderstanding of what Israel loses without international representation.

Israel’s diplomats work in incredibly difficult places like Angola, Uzbekistan and Albania. In the last month alone, we face challenges such as staying safe during violence in Kiev, Ukraine, boxed in by large protests at the gate of our Embassy in Amman, Jordan and for the small team at my embassy in South Africa, responding to obscene calls and mischaracterizations at the heart of BDS activities during “Israel Apartheid Week.” In recent years the media has reported on terrorist attempts targeting Israeli diplomats in India, Thailand and Georgia. I, personally, was targeted by Hezbollah terrorists while I served as our Ambassador in Azerbaijan. Sure, we also have colleagues in New York and Geneva. But they face, every day of the week, the challenge of United Nations forums which single out Israel for unique and hostile treatment like no other country.

We are all understaffed and underpaid. We have to pick up our families, pack our lives and start again every few years. Our spouses have to give up any hope of a career (or a pension) as they follow us around. When we returned to Israel from my last post in 2005 it took my wife a full year to find a new teaching job in Jerusalem. After three years, she gave it up to come with me to South Africa and it has taken nearly another year for her to find a new position here. The wife of one of my colleagues in South Africa is a trained lawyer but is working – part time — in our consular department because her Israeli Bar membership is irrelevant here.

The impact on our kids is complicated, too. Try finding quality daycare that a junior diplomat can afford in Europe or the US (our government only pays from age 3). They live with extreme pollution in Beijing, driving for more than an hour each way to school in Moscow, and no Jewish community in Vietnam. They study in a foreign language, have to make and lose new friends every few years and then come home to Israel, basically as olim, to reintegrate into Israeli public schools.

Our oldest daughter is currently in officers school in the IDF and another daughter is in 12th grade finishing her exams in Israel and getting ready for the army with us thousands of kilometers away. I am likely to miss my soldier-daughter’s graduation from Officers School due to our Independence Day ceremony and our twelfth-grader’s high school graduation because of a delegation planned for those dates here. Our youngest daughter is with us and is studying in her fourth different school in the past five years and has had to live with the security limitations that exist in South Africa.

Salaries of diplomats abroad have not been updated in a decade and we have a unique tax bracket (48%) regardless of our final salary and expenses. The situation has caused many of my colleagues to have to seek help from their families to be able to serve Israel. Others have, in significant numbers, reached the conclusion that they just cannot afford to live in Washington, Brussels or Brasilia and have ended their tours early. Many young diplomats have left the foreign service, in dangerously high numbers, taking their degrees, training and experience to places that allow them to make a decent living. This has resulted in a situation where there are almost no candidates for midlevel jobs in our key embassies – last summer in both New York and London there was a need to actively recruit within the Ministry. In “harder” posts like Moscow and Abuja, Nigeria, the posts lie empty or we need to find non-professionals to keep our missions running.

No one joins Israel’s public service to get rich. Nearly all of us have advanced university degrees (I have two law degrees from Hebrew University and am a member of the bar in Israel and New York), speak multiple languages have international management and public relations experience and would do just fine in the private sector. We represent Israel because of a burning desire to stand and be counted – to be a voice that tells the Jewish communities of South Africa and Ukraine that they are not alone, increase exports to 21st century giants like China and India and to deepen strategic ties with neighbors like Egypt and Jordan.

Israel’s foreign relations is a strategic asset for our country just like an F-15 jet flying overhead, our navy who stops weapons coming from Iran and our various security services. We use words, relationships and negotiation skills to create opportunities and thwart dangers every day. We save Israelis in danger in South America and South Asia.

Israel is an amazing success story. We have survived multiple attacks, made the desert bloom and are world leaders in hi-tech, innovation and in the humanitarian work of tikkun olam. We have real dangers and vital interests around the world. We need trained, confident professionals to tell our story and promote our national goals. We need, more than most, high caliber diplomats to represent us every day. If we don’t act now to save our foreign service, the cost to Israel will be so much higher than modest standard of living concerns and respect for our diplomats.

About the Author
Arthur Lenk is Ambassador of Israel to South Africa, Lesotho and Swaziland. He is a career diplomat who has previously served in India, the United States and as Israel’s Ambassador to Azerbaijan. He was born in the US and made aliyah to Israel in 1983. Follow him on twitter: @ArthurLenk