No matter one’s opinion on the policies of Israel, and the Middle East, most people would agree that in many issues it is a different country – not just of its neighbours but different from any country. But on the long run, is it Israel’s ambition to be “less different”?
I think that we will probably always be different because we have such an unique story and an unique history. I do not think there is any other nation that has lost its territory and sovereignty and regained it 2000 years later – it is really the uniqueness of the story of the State of Israel. Also, by the fact we are the sole representants of the Jewish state, of its civilization. Of course, this brings us always to the complex notion of Judaism as nationality, as religion, as civilization… it is all of the above, and each one can pick which elements one feels comfortable with.
One of the core issues in the conflict with the Palestinians is that even the pragmatic ones refuse to recognize the right of self-determination of the Jewish People, even in a portion of this land. They always claim that they will not recognize Israel as a Jewish State. And I want to make it very clear: when we ask to be recognized as Jewish State, It is not a confessional State, but a State that represents the Jewish People, the expression of this basic right of self-determination. The same what the Palestinians were seeking for years for themselves, asking the world to recognize it. But when it comes to this core issue and we talk to them, they say “no, we will never recognize Israel as a State of the Jewish People”. And I believe this is the core issue, and until there is a Palestinian leader that is a courageous leader and stands up and says “we need a compromise” – and the compromise should say that “even that we [the Palestinians] claim part of the territory, the national movement of the Jewish People deserves to also have its portion”. And this is the idea behind the “two States solution”.
Ten years ago, the American Council on Foreign Relations posed a question: “How is it that Israel – a country of 7.1 million people, only sixty years old, surrounded by enemies, in a constant state of war since its founding, with no natural resources – produces more start-up companies on a per capita basis than large, peaceful, and stable nations and regions like Japan, China, India, Korea, Canada, and all of Europe?”
This question is directly connected to the publishing, here in Portugal, of this iconic book – “Start-up Nation” – which helped branding Israel as a start-up Nation and I am very glad for the possibility of publishing the first edition of this book in Portuguese. We did this special edition for Portugal with a new preface by Saul Singer, one of the co-authors, especially for the Portuguese edition of this book, that was a New York Times bestseller for a long time. The book tries to explain “how come”? How come this small country, 73 years old now, a modern State but with deep roots in History, has managed to remain kicking and alive?
There is indeed a very high level of creativity in Israel. I think the explanation is that this creativity has to do with the fact that there is something very fundamental in the Jewish way of thinking: asking questions, challenging the obvious, and even challenging authority!
I think it was Golda Meir who once, replied to the American President: “Mr. President do you appreciate what it is to be the prime minister of five million prime ministers?”, because each one believes he or she has the right solution for the country. This way of thinking, while questioning, while challenging the obvious, is very much embedded in the Jewish civilization. If you go to the Talmud, the basic Jewish philosophy, it’s based on a permanent duo, between to sages, one says A and the other one contradicts him and says B!
I think it goes back even more: the first person to recognize the monotheistic idea, Abraham, who was tested by God. Now, if you go to the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, in your Old Testament, God reveals to Abraham that Sodom and Gomorrah were to be destroyed for their sins. And Abraham started to bargain with God! Challenging him on this idea of collective punishment, and he negotiated – “What if there are fifty righteous people in the city?”, “What if only forty are found there?”. This challenging is so embedded in the Jewish, and there for the Israeli, mentality, the idea that you never take things for granted, you challenge even the obvious, you ask questions. I believe this is the foundations where the Israeli creativity lays.
Luckily, I may add, this creativity is not exclusive to the majority of the population, that is Jewish, but we have now quite a number of start-ups from Israeli Arabs.
Some Israeli solutions, and even inventions, could potentially be need in Portugal. For instance, when we think of Climate Change, management and technology of water economy could be vital for Portugal in the future? Do you see interest of Israeli companies in Portugal?
Yes, I definitely believe that in a few areas the collaboration between Israel and Portugal exists already, but it should improve and be given a much higher boost, including by the Government. I am referring to the water issue but also to cyber. Regarding water, there are already Israeli companies active here, and I believe it should be extended, also on the State level. On the visit of our Israeli prime-minister, in December 2019, the matter of water desalinization was mentioned… on that year there was a drought in Portugal, namely in the Algarve, and I believe that Portugal should consider seriously water desalinization. Recently one of the Governments economic documents mentions it as an option to be examined. In neighbour Spain this is already under way and I sincerely believe Portugal should consider it seriously, namely with climate change.
Regarding cyber security, some very good Israeli companies are already involved with some Portuguese infrastructure companies, like RDP among others, and we are willing to help Portugal protect itself and its strategic infrastructure assets – also by planning and helping organizing formation for the Portuguese to protect your assets.
In the past year, during the global pandemic, Israel was one of the fastest countries to vaccinate its population, how was this possible?
I think it was possible because when Israel was born, it was a socialist state, and our Public Health System was organized in such a way that every citizen is a member of a Public Health provider – this was a great achievement at the time and the more important providers were, at that time, connected to labour unions. Since the 1990’s, more free market oriented, each citizen is covered and has, at least, a basic cover – that can be upgraded by individual insurance. Each of these providers have important health data, that is valuable to a company like Pfizer, and we could offer them more clinical information and data in exchange for the large vaccination. This became an issue because public debate is our national sport, of course, about the privacy issue and the government had to assure that all the data, provided to Pfizer, was anonymized, and protected each one’s privacy.
In the beginning of the year, 2021 meant rehabilitating the country, and restoring jobs, routine and family life after a year of COVID-19. Unfortunately, this year is so far marked by the confrontations with the Palestinian Hamas, the Operation Guardians of the Wall, but also within Israel between Arab and Jewish citizens. Adding to this, for the first time, Arab political parties in the Knesset are vital for a stable political government solution. Focusing on this, how can these problems inside the Israeli society be addressed? Isn’t work and rehabilitation needed there as well?
This is very worrisome. There are mixed cities, were there was lynching, stone-throwing, burning. This is issue that concerns me more than any other because we live together, and we will always live together. And during the confrontations with Hamas, when more than 4000 rockets and missiles were launched against Israel, we had these pogrom-like incidents against Jewish citizens in some cities. Of course, when you have extremism in one side it always nourishes the extremism from the other side – then we had also some Jewish gangsters that went out to the streets to beat Arabs citizens. And this is the most awful thing – that you pick someone just because you are Jewish or only because you are Arab, and beat them, as if they had to pay for the errors or sins of others. And I must say that PM Netanyahu said he will not accept violence, either Jewish or Arab violence. And our chief of Police, called them rioters and terrorists on both sides. He was courageous enough to label them as terrorists, both Jews and Arabs.
So, this concerns me a lot and, I believe, all Israelis. Luckily, there was also a lot of positive reactions and initiatives form Jewish and Arabs who wish together and to have a normal co-existence.
To this point I would just like to add that an Arab political party in the Knesset – the Israeli Parliament – might be an important ingredient in a future coalition, and I see it as a very positive development, as a normal participation of the Arab minority on our political life.
Regarding the recent 11-day conflict in Gaza and from Gaza, do you think it has escalated antisemitism in Europe? What is the responsibility of the International Community in addressing the resurgence of anti-Semitism?
When there is a clash between Israel and other countries this happens in Europe, but also in the United States. I think that the Governments should be very vigilant and alert, to protect their own Jewish citizens and Jewish institutions. I would call to the attention of the Portuguese Government not to be idle, there are phenomena already of anti-Semitism, in a variety of expressions of hate. Portugal has joined the IHRA – International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, and that brings some obligations regarding education. And then, of course, securing the normal life of the Portugal’s Jewish citizens, because they deserve to have a normal life like any other group, and they do not have to bear any sanction. If someone is angry with Israel then there is an Israeli Ambassador to respond to criticism, not the Jewish Portuguese citizens.
In Portugal, we have a long practice of inter-religious dialogue. The Lisbon and the Porto Jewish community have been an example, together with other Faiths, of cooperation and peacebuilding. In Lisbon with the Patriarch, the Muslim Community of Lisbon, and the Aga Khan Development Network; in Porto with the Catholic Bishop, delivering aid for the foodbank, for instance. How do you see these efforts possible, in Portugal?
I think this is a very important inter-Faith dialogue that, luckily, exists here. I follow the activities of the Jewish Communities in Porto, they do a lot, with the local catholic Diocese and with the Muslim Cultural Centre. I see it as the most natural thing – the Embassy here represents the Israeli State on all its variety, Jew, Muslim, Catholic, Druse, etc. – and this is how the future should look like.
There is no doubt that the knowledge of the Other is essential to foster understanding between Peoples and fight hate and discrimination. On this note, the Holocaust Museum in Porto has had over 10.000 visitors in on month and in Lisbon The Tikvah Museum is going to start to be built. How do you see these efforts and the interest that has sparked?
I think that what the Porto Community has done recently, with both museums (the Jewish museum and the Holocaust Museum) is extremely important, also letting people to enter and see the beautiful Synagogue in Porto is also very important. This is the way to build a relationship, to share with one another.
And with Tikva as well, the future Jewish Museum of Lisbon is an amazing and very important initiative, that will tell the story of the Jewish in Portugal and their contribution in different periods. There were times of shadows, like the inquisition and the expulsion, but there were also other periods of extraordinary achievements, and there were Jews in Portugal even before the country was established. They were and are part of the common history of Portugal.
After a long and distinguished diplomatic career, what will tell your friends about Portugal, when you return to Israel? What have you discovered in your mission here?
Well, Israelis are in love with Portugal, they feel very comfortable here, they love the people. I have received a lot of requests, here at the Embassy: “when could I come, when is Portugal available again?”. So, I don’t have to bring the testimony of an unknown country, it is known and it is popular and loved!