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Bernie Bellan with Deborah Lyons

By BERNIE BELLAN
(Note: My meeting with Canada’s Ambassador to Irsael, Deborah Lyons, occurred before news began to appear about the most recent violence on Israel’s border with Gaza - and well before Prime Minister Trudeau issued a statement that was strongly critical of Israel’s actions on May 14.)

On Monday, May 14 Canada’s Ambassador to Israel, Deborah Lyons, visited Winnipeg and spent part of the day meeting with community representatives at the Asper Campus.
Unlike her sometimes controversial predecessor, Vivian Bercovici, who had been appointed by Stephen Harper in 2014, Lyons is a career diplomat, having served most recently as Canada’s Ambassador to Afghanistan. (Bercovici, by the way, ended up making aliyah to Israel following her term as ambassador there; she now lives in Tel Aviv and is an occasional contributor to the Jerusalem Post.)

While I did interview Ambassador Lyons, prior to my turning on my recorder I told her that I didn’t want to do the kind of interview to which she was probably accustomed. I said that she was probably used to being asked questions about furthering trade ties between Canada and Israel, about tourism, perhaps about Canada’s position vis-à-vis the Palestine-Israel conflict. But, I said to her, I didn’t expect her to say anything more than the usual niceties about expanding trade and tourism ties, and Canada not willing to move its embassy to Jerusalem.

So, instead, I said to Ambassador Lyons: Let’s just talk about what it’s like being an ambassador in Israel. I also asked her whether she happened to know another Canadian ambassador by the name of Matthew Levin, who was a childhood friend of mine and who has served as Canada’s ambassador to Columbia, Cuba, and Spain. (As you might guess, Matthew is fluent in Spanish, also French and Italian.)

Ambassador Lyons immediately perked up, saying: “Matthew? I’ve known him for years.” I told Ambassador Lyons that, back a few years ago when I had wanted to interview Matthew while he was Ambassador to Cuba, apparatchiks in External Affairs wouldn’t let me speak with him directly. Instead, I was asked to email any questions to Ottawa and officials there would vet them first before considering sending them on to Matthew. I told those officious bureaucrats to forget it – and, rather than oblige them, I said I would write a story about how I was being prevented from interviewing Canada’s Ambassador to Cuba, who was, after all, a former Winnipegger with deep roots in our Jewish community here - and that’s what I ended up doing.
It was a change of pace, therefore, to be able to speak one-on-one with Canada’s Ambassador to Israel – without her having any handlers present to intervene.

I asked Ambassador Lyons how long she’s been in Israel? She said she was appointed in September 2016.
Before that, as I noted, she had been Canada’s Ambassador to Afghanistan. “I went there for one year (in 2014), because that was the length of my assignment – and I ended up staying for three,” she added.
“So I threatened Prime Minister Netanyahu that I’ve come to Israel for three years, but I might end up staying for a decade,” she added.

We talked about Afghanistan a bit. Surprisingly, Ambassador Lyons said she loved her post there. “I got out quite a bit. I felt completely safe,” she said.
“How much of Israel have you seen?” I asked her.
“Well,” she answered, “I’ve been up north, I go to Jerusalem three or four times a week, I have been to the desert many times. I would say I’ve covered a lot of it, but not as much I’d like to.”

While Ambassador Lyons does not include the Palestinian territories in her mandate as Ambassador to Israel, she did say that she has been to Ramallah (where Canada has a “special representative”).
“The (Canadian) people there do the development work, work with UNRWA. There are also  some security people and a couple of political staffers.”
“I was just there a week ago,” Ambassador Lyons noted, “because it’s important to know what’s happening in the West Bank – and in Gaza.”

“Do you meet with any NGOs (Non-Governmental Organizations)?” I asked her.
“Absolutely,” Ambassador Lyons answered.
“Have you met anyone from the New Israel Fund?” I asked.
“My staff have met people from there and I’ve met a few – but not lately,” she answered. (The NIF, if you didn’t know, is quite active in lobbying for social change in Israel and has a strong Canadian presence, although primarily in Toronto.)
“I met with pretty much all the NGOs in my first year there,” she said. “Also think tanks, the IDC (International Development Corporation). I don’t meet with them all so much  now, but depending on what the issue is, either my staff meets with them or I meet with them.”

“Do you get out as much as you want?” I asked.

“Get out? I feel as safe in Israel as I would feel in Canada,” she answered.
“You don’t have to have an escort?” I asked.
“For the most part Israel is a very safe country,” Ambassador Lyons said. Considering that we were having this conversation the same day protesters were attempting to storm the fence between Israel and Gaza, she was mindful that tensions were running higher in Israel at the moment - although, as noted, word of how violent the clashes were that day had not yet reached us.
“With all this happening right now people are a little more constrained in their movements,” she noted.

I asked her whether she drives in Israel.
“Yes – I have a driver, but I do drive as well.”
“Isn’t that the scariest part of living in Israel?” I asked. “You don’t have to be diplomatic.”
“I suppose,” she answered. “Israelis have a tendency to be, how shall I say: ‘nicely forceful’….I joke that I’m becoming more Israeli. I’m becoming more forceful. I tell Israelis that they should visit Canada more, they don’t know as much about Canada as they should. But I like the openness and the frankness and ‘you’re going to hear what I’m thinking, you’re going to get my opinion,” she said.

At that point, I switched gears and began to give Ambassador Lyons some information about how many Israelis have come to Winnipeg in recent years.
“Did they (the Jewish Federation, which had welcomed Ambassador Lyons) tell you how many Israelis have come to Winnipeg in the past 12 years?” I asked her.
“I heard it was quite a few,” she said.
“Over 5,000,” I pointed out.
“That’s incredible,” she said.
“But, I’ve been writing  somehat critically about that,” I said to her. “I call this ‘Little Tel Aviv on the Red’.”

“Why are you critical of it?” Ambassador Lyons asked me.
“Because our Federation has been inducing Israelis to come here and the whole concept of Zionism is for Jews to move to Israel. But, let’s be honest, these are mostly Russian Israelis who have been coming here. They used Israel as a convenient exit point when they left Russia because they weren’t able to get into other countries  – like Canada or the US. So, it took them a little bit longer to get here.

“But,” I added. “They’re great people – very talented, very entrepreneurial. I still think it’s a shame that Israel couldn’t offer them enough to stay there. Not that the Canadian government has done anything in particular to lure them here. If anything, it’s been the Province of Manitoba – through its Provincial Nominee Program, along with the Jewish Federation, that’s made it very tempting for Israelis to want to come here,” I suggested.

“And what’s the problem with that?” Ambassador Lyons asked me.
“To me, it’s a bit of a betrayal of their own country,” I said. “Did you know, for instance that, since 1948, only 90,000 Canadians have emigrated to Israel? It’s very few –relatively speaking. And the vast majority went prior to the 1980s when the economic downturn in Israel made it very tough to live there.”

“I’m fascinated,” Ambassador Lyons said. “I had no idea there was such a large Israeli community in Winnipeg.”

I admitted that our conversation had probably taken a different twist than perhaps Ambassador Lyons had been expecting, but she said to me that she thoroughly enjoyed it. Before I said good bye – and it was unfortunate, because Deborah Lyons seemed positively eager to continue the discussion, yet she had another meeting to attend, I asked her one more question. I told her that when I was in Israel a few years ago I had met a senior representative from the Canadian Embassy when I was in Beer Sheva – who told me that she had also been serving in the Canadian Embassy in Afghanistan prior to being posted to Israel, but I couldn’t remember her name.
I wondered whether Ambassador Lyons might have crossed paths with that individual, who I described as a young, tall blonde, English-speaking woman. Unfortunately, Ambassador Lyons said, the only woman who might have fit the bill had dark hair and was a Francophone.

I went on to describe a fascinating day the two of us had spent in the company of a former Winnipegger by the name of Vivian Silver, who had taken us on a tour of a Bedouin town and school in the area. Vivian, I said to Ambassador Lyons, had been an important figure in something called AIJECS-NISPEED, which works with Bedouin women to provide them job training.
“Vivian Silver?” Ambassador Lyons responded. “She’s one of my best friends in Israel. The next time you’re in Israel,” she continued, “Vivian and I are going to take you out for lunch.”