1. Mr Arthur Lenk, what is your greatest responsibility as Israel’s ambassador to South Africa?
I am the face and voice of Israel in South Africa. It is my responsibility, and great honour, together with my outstanding colleagues at the Israel in South Africa team to share Israel’s story, its achievements, aspirations and challenges to a variety of audiences in South Africa. Many South Africans of all backgrounds have a great interest and affinity with Israel and the Holy Land or follow it closely in the international news. And others might not even be able to find my tiny country on a map but could be inspired and positively impacted by our successes and opportunities.
So we are telling Israel’s story:
- in culture (Israeli musicians performed at Joy of Jazz and Oppikoppi in 2015),
- in innovation (we cosponsored a contest for SA’s best start-up with Microsoft and the City of Tel Aviv and will do so again in 2016)
- about the horrors of genocide (we recently brought the Chief Historian of Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial to SA to lecture here)
- and chat nearly every day on Facebook and Twitter with just about anyone who wants to interact with me, Israel and our Embassy.
2. Mr Lenk, can you describe your role as an ambassador towards your Prime Minister, Mr Benjamin Netanyahu?
On the one hand, I represent Prime Minister Netanyahu and our government in its interactions here. I share views and interests of our government with senior officials in four countries in southern Africa. On the other hand, I don’t only represent the government but serve all eight million citizens of Israel. They are the people who pay my salary to work as a civil servant and to promote our interests in a wide variety of spheres in South Africa.
3. Mr Ambassador, what are some of your longer-term objectives?
I believe that South Africa and Israel have complimentary capabilities. I would like to see South Africa take further advantage of Israel’s strengths and to widen the conversation and cooperation between our two countries. Israel’s experience in water management and resolving the challenge of our arid environment which has been with us since the time of the Bible (see Genesis 47:4) has important applications in South Africa. Here is an article I wrote on the topic that was published late last year (link: http://www.iol.co.za/news/water-lessons-from-an-arid-country-1.1944230 ). Israel is also known as “innovation nation”, with a unique start-up ecosystem that many see second in the world only to California’s Silicon Valley. Here, too, there are great areas for partnership and I wrote about that, too.
4. Can you describe your job description as an Ambassador?
I think that I can describe my job in two non-traditional ways. And in both, in the end, form a conclusion like many executives, I am “in sales”.
Firstly, and perhaps more importantly, I am the regional manager for “Brand Israel”. It is true. Forget about the fancy-shmancy title, “Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary”. What I really do is promote the global agendas of Israel – in policy, in public affairs, in business – across southern Africa. We have about 100 other “branch offices” – actually Embassies and Consulates - we have 11 Embassies across Africa, by the way. Our offices range in size based upon a range of factors, some bigger and some smaller, but all of us working together, with our headquarters at Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Jerusalem, to promote Israel as a brand, as an amazing tourist destination, as a business partner and as a liberal democracy seeking to thrive and survive in an impossibly complex and dangerous neighbourhood, the Middle East in 2016.
Secondly, I am also a match-maker, working just like that person in an old-world village who tried to put boys and girls together. Who remembers “Yenta the Matchmaker” from the classic musical Fiddler on the Roof? It is the quite the same for promoting trade interests in a foreign country. Our Embassy trade team has developed experience in South Africa and we try to understand the trends, interests and opportunities here to share with exporters and investors from Israel. We also encourage our South African friends to visit to see for themselves how business with Israel is profitable. So often my role is to try to match business leaders from Israel and South Africa to try to get them to meet, to talk – to go on a business world version of a date. And if there is a “match”, an investment, a joint venture, a partnership… well, we all can dance at the wedding!
So here is a great example. If you shop at Woolworths, you will see that one of their best tomato varieties is branded as “Israeli tomatoes”. If you look carefully at the label in tiny letters you will see that the tomatoes are “product of the Republic of South Africa”. Well, those tomatoes are grown for Woolies by ZZ2, the largest vegetable grower in SA. ZZ2 has a wonderful partnership with Israel’s Hishtil, aninnovator in advanced veggie seedlings and the source of much of ZZ2’s seedlings, grown in nurseries in Limpopo and the Western Cape using advanced Israeli technology and know-how. Food security, knowledge transfer and jobs for South Africa, via a wonderful partnership with Israel. Israeli tomatoes, grown in SA!
5. Mr Lenk, how will you spend quiet time in anticipation of a tough decision?
One of the great things about South Africa in general and Pretoria in particular is that most of the year the weather is great. I can sit in my garden and listen to the Hadedas sing or take walks around my beautiful neighbourhood and focus on what needs to be done.
Something that is perhaps different for me, as a diplomat, is there is a certain formality and tradition to our activity. I’ve heard the joke that diplomacy is the world’s second oldest profession. But that brings a certain responsibility to my interactions. I have the honour and significant responsibility to represent my country, people and our leaders. So when I speak or act, it is not on my own behalf but an action of the State of Israel. So when I need to make that “tough decision”, potentially complex implications need to be considered.
6. Mr Ambassador, What is your negotiating style/approach/philosophy?
Diplomats know that our world is shades of grey. Even if the media and politicians more often speak in black and white, living for over 20 years as an expat experiencing different countries and cultures teaches a person to respect differences in perspectives and views. Thus, it is rare in the world of diplomacy that one side defeats another as might happen in a court of law. A much better situation is one that is win-win. A successful diplomat tends to be well aware of the interests and concerns of another side and seeks solutions that offer benefits for all. And it is a key part of my job, sharing that local point of view, with my decision-makers at home.
At the same time, it is important not to “go native”. A good diplomat knows who he represents, who pays his salary. In that regard, there is a wonderful story about the former American Secretary of State, George Schultz. Schultz kept an illuminated globe in his office and when he met with new, just nominated Ambassadors, he asked them to walk over to the globe and demonstrate that they can identify their country. And, inevitably, most would point out the country to which they had been assigned. The correct answer, of course for Schultz, was the United States — that was their country. For me, naturally, it is Israel. And Shultz’s moral was, “Never forget what country you’re representing.”
7. Why did you become an Ambassador?
For 2000 years the Jewish people did not have a home of our own. Many Jews were forced to wander the world from country to country but were nearly always outsiders. My people always looked toward Zion, towards Jerusalem and the Land of Israel. And far too often, intolerance for Jews, anti-Semitism led to great tragedies, pogroms, exiles and most horrifically, the Nazi Holocaust in Europe during the Second World War. In the wake of that experience, in 1948, merely three years after the end of the Holocaust, the State of Israel, our own country in our biblical homeland, came into existence. A modern miracle.
I am blessed with the opportunity to travel the world, meet wonderful people and tell our story on behalf of our ancient people. As troubled and concerning as our time is (and don’t get me started on the concerns Israel has…), it is a miraculous age when we have our own place, the one Jewish state among the 193 members of the United Nations. Israel has grown from a post-colonial developing country to a successful, diverse society that ranks high on international indexes for quality of life and development. And I am incredibly fortunate to be able to play an active role in that story.
8. Mr Lenk, what do you do during the first hour of your business day in office and why?
My day starts by listening to Israeli radio over the internet to make sure I am up-to-date. That is such a luxury of our modern age. Like any other expat manager, I connect to headquarters via email, phone or other modern communications.
However, the truth is there is no set rule. The life of a diplomat is unpredictable. I could be in meetings with business leaders in Johannesburg or speaking to an audience of students in Cape Town or visiting partners in Limpopo or the Free State. That is one of the best parts of diplomatic life – it can be anything or anywhere.
9. Mr Ambassador, what’s the single best piece of leadership advice that helped shape who you are as a person today, and why?
My second boss in Israel’s foreign service in the late 1990’s was our Consul General in Los Angeles, Yuval Rotem. He used to tell our team to just put our heads down and work. What he meant was don’t listen to the noise or to the naysayers. Don’t worry about promotions or posturing. Just do your job with all your heart and effort and good things will happen. I strongly believe that to be true.
I think that much of Israel’s success fits into this idea. There were always those who said that Israel can’t or shouldn’t do this or that. Had our first Prime Minister listened to those who thought that Israel was not viable or was surrounded by enemies, he might not have declared the State of Israel. He famously said that it does not matter what the world says but what Israel does.
10. What’s your favourite quote?
Here are two good ones:
All of us might wish at times that we lived in a more tranquil world, but we don't. And if our times are difficult and perplexing, so are they challenging and filled with opportunity.
Yes, I am a Jew, and while the ancestors of the right honourable gentleman were brutal savages in an unknown island, mine were priests in the temple of Solomon.
Sir Benjamin Disraeli answering being insulted in the House of Commons.