Diplomat has traveled the world, but Pittsburgh holds special place in his heart

Diplomat has traveled the world, but Pittsburgh holds special place in his heart

Shimon Mercer-Wood

Photo courtesy of Shimon Mercer-Wood
Shimon Mercer-Wood Photo courtesy of Shimon Mercer-Wood

Listening to Shimon Mercer-Wood is an auditory delight. As spokesman and consul for media affairs at the Consulate General of Israel in New York, Mercer-Wood gives voice to Israel throughout the northeastern United States, including Pittsburgh. Whether reflecting on his work in foreign ministry or his prior visit to Pittsburgh, Mercer-Wood articulates — in a British accent, no less — anecdotes of resonance and resilience.

That’s what makes some recent advice of his so quixotic: “As a spokesperson, the safest thing is to be quiet,” Mercer-Wood said last week during a visit to the Steel City.

If that strategy is adopted, he added, “then you aren’t doing a good job. As spokesman, you have to take risks, and as the Americans say, ‘If you can’t take the heat get out of the kitchen.’”

Mercer-Wood met with The Chronicle several hours before participating in a panel discussion at the Duquesne Club on the Iran nuclear deal (see page 4).

Representing Israel on a myriad of issues is part of Mercer-Wood’s daily activities. Over the past 18 months, since he began his post in New York City, the Israeli- and British-educated civil servant has seen journalists as his “main interlocutors.”

Having this responsibility, and being stationed in perhaps the epicenter of American Jewish life, is “a huge privilege, which I’m very grateful for,” he said.

Though he joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 2008, this is Mercer-Wood’s first American placement. He previously served as a political officer in the Embassy of Israel in New Delhi, a desk officer at the ministry’s headquarters and a press officer at the Embassy of Israel in London.

Like his professional trek, Mercer-Wood’s personal history is well traveled. His great-uncle, James Mercer-Wood, came to Israel as Ghana’s ambassador in 1965. Accompanying James was Philip Mercer-Wood, James’ nephew and Shimon’s father. Prior to the 1967 Six-Day War, when others left fearing a demise of the Jewish state, Philip Mercer-Wood elected to remain. Eventually, he converted to Judaism and joined the Israel Defense Forces.

Shimon Mercer-Wood grew up in Israel, attended Hartman High School in Jerusalem and Yeshivat Ma’ale Gilboa. He eventually earned a master’s degree in international relations from the London School of Economics. And yet, one of the “high points” in Mercer’s life was a trip to Pittsburgh more than 15 years ago.

“Some kids did football or swimming,” he said. “For me, it was debate.”

As a high school student, Mercer-Wood participated in the World Schools Debating Championships, an annual English-language tournament for high school teams.

Mercer-Wood had competed in Buenos Aires, London and Israel, but no event is more haunting than the one he experienced at Duquesne University in 2000.

“I still wake up in the middle of the night thinking about it,” he said.

Posed with the motion, “This House believes that the ends justify the means,” the Israeli team lost to England in the semifinals of the international competition.  

“We could have definitely been more specific,” said Mercer-Wood.

In the years since that fateful day in Pittsburgh, Mercer-Wood has kept specificity at heart.

“You can be more effective the more you are specifically willing to frame the debate,” he said.

And while serving as spokesperson entitles Mercer-Wood to continue debating, these days he spends far more time conversing.

“I use discussion to build friendships and relationships,” he said.

Unlike being a lawyer, where the job is to “win arguments,” being a diplomat requires one to “win friends,” Mercer-Wood explained.

But making sense of their realities is a pursuit.

“The American Jewish life is so diverse and dynamic that you’re constantly learning,” he said. “I don’t think I’ll ever get to the stage where I say I get it.”

Part of what could aid Israelis in better understanding America and its people would be an opposite type of Birthright trip, he said. “Now it’s important to have a reverse program to have Israelis come to America. It’s important because we’re part of one people, and keeping Jews together is strategically necessary for the Jewish people.”

Mercer-Wood also offered some advice for those seeking to exit a cultural familiarity: “Be aware of how big the world is and how different experiences are and remain curious on them,” he said. And lastly, “learn languages.”

Adam Reinherz can be reached at adamr@thejewishchronicle.net.

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