Ambassador Dani Dayan recently returned to Israel after four years of service as the Consul General of Israel in New York. Dayan was the chief diplomat representing Israel in New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, and Ohio. His work with a diverse array of Jewish and non-Jewish communities, organizations, politicians, activists, and civil society groups from across the political, racial, ethnic, and religious spectrum earned universal plaudits. While his accomplishments garnered much praise, the one word I and so many others could use to sum up Ambassador Dayan is mensch.
As a student at Pitt, I had the privilege of getting to meet Ambassador Dayan twice in person at the Hillel Jewish University Center of Pittsburgh. In October 2017, I was given the honor of interviewing the ambassador at an event sponsored by Hillel’s Israel club, Panthers for Israel. In what was one of the highlights of my college experience, I got to speak with Ambassador Dayan about relations between Israel and American Jewry, Jewish pluralism, Israeli politics and foreign policy, and his work at the Consulate General in New York. Ambassador Dayan was nothing but gracious and respectful during our interview and the subsequent Q&A session. While I disagreed with some of his positions, Ambassador Dayan’s willingness to address any topic, honesty, and deep commitment to Jewish peoplehood were evident.
A day after the tragedy at Tree of Life, dozens of students gathered at Hillel to cry, talk, pray, or just attempt to breathe. A few hours before the community vigil at Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall, Ambassador Dayan and a few members of his team came to Hillel. There were no cameras, reporters, or events planned for that cold and dark afternoon. He did not have to come to a place where students, those with no positions of authority or influence or on the boards of the countless Jewish organizations he had built relationships with, congregated, let alone speak with any of us there. But he did because he is a true mensch.
I got to speak briefly with the ambassador that day. It meant the world to me as a Pittsburgher, student leader at Hillel, and above all else a fellow Jew to know that Ambassador Dayan and the government and people of Israel were with us. Am echad b’lev echad, one nation with one heart indeed.
Ambassador Dayan’s acclaimed work with Jewish communities and organizations across the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic, was, in some ways, a surprise. Born in Argentina, Ambassador Dayan is a secular Jew and security and diplomatic right-wing hawk. He lives in Ma’aleh Shomron, a West Bank settlement in the Samaria region, and previously served as a leader of the settlement advocacy Yesha Council. However, Dayan is a prime example of never judging a book by its cover. He is socially liberal and a true advocate for pluralism in the Jewish state and creating a deeper and stronger relationship between Israeli and American Jews in which each side recognizes the importance and necessity of the other. So much for the religiously conservative right-wing settler stereotype.
I believe Ambassador Dayan represents exactly the kind of Israeli that we as American Jews need to cultivate as political and civil society allies: security and diplomatic hawks, but those with broadly liberal views who could become advocates for greater Jewish pluralism and peoplehood in Israel. When it comes to the relationship between Israel and American Jews (or at least those among us for whom the Israeli rabbinate, rabbinical courts, and oftentimes disparaging views of non-Orthodox Jews and movements elicit sadness, anger, and frustration), too many on the Israeli political right discount many elements of our community because of its majority non-Orthodox composition.
The dwindling Israeli left might say all the right things when it comes to pluralism but has little to no influence on government policy (the traditional left-wing Zionist parties have a grand total of six seats in the 120-seat Knesset; two members of the Labor Party joined the current coalition government and serve as ministers). Also, many in this camp do not know how to speak “Jewishly” on these issues because of the overwhelmingly secular nature of the left.
The growing Israeli political center and parts of the right are where we as American Jews need to build strong relationships centered around peoplehood and mutual responsibility. We will likely never change the minds of those in the Haredi parties, among conservative religious Zionists, or even the ruling Likud party. However, I am hopeful that positive changes can happen.
Besides better-known centrist leaders like Alternate Prime Minister/Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Opposition Leader Yair Lapid, there are political figures on the right like Dayan who could become true partners in creating a new 21st century relationship by influencing Israeli government policy and public opinion.
Diaspora Affairs Minister Omer Yankelevich of the Blue and White party, the first female Haredi government minister in Israeli history and on the right-flank of her party; former IDF Chief of Staff and Defense Minister Moshe “Bogie” Ya’alon (number two in the opposition Yesh Atid-Telem); Avigdor Lieberman, the chairman of the right-wing Yisrael Beytenu party and former government minister; and Communications Minister Yoaz Hendel of the Derech Eretz faction, are just a few examples of current political figures who are further to the right than most American Jews vis-a-vis the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and who are not household names, but as members of a broad center-right ideological camp could be just the partners we need.
Ambassador Dayan leaves behind an American Jewish community deeply divided in an election year. We argue about who should win in November, Israel, Jewish identity, denominational differences, and just about everything else. Some point to overarching chasms between Israelis and American Jews and fret about the future of this critically important relationship. However, I believe Ambassador Dayan personifies a vision of hope about what can be when we remember kol Yisrael arevim ze baezh, all of Israel is responsible for one another.
Kol Hakavod, Mr. Ambassador! You will be missed. PJC
Brian Burke is a Pittsburgh native and 2019 graduate of the University of Pittsburgh, where he studied political science, history, and Jewish studies. In college, he was involved with Hillel and the David Project, holding several leadership positions including president of the Pitt Hillel Jewish Student Union in 2018. Like many early 20-somethings, he is figuring out what comes next amidst the health and economic uncertainties of these times.