SHUT UP I'M TALKING
And Other Diplomacy Lessons
I Learned in the Israeli Government
By Gregory Levey
Free Press, 257 pages. $28
In case you can't tell from the title, the new book by Toronto writer Gregory Levey is light reading. Very light.
Billed as an "insider" view of the Israeli government by a former speechwriter for Ariel Sharon, Shut Up I'm Talking is Levey's memoir of stumbling into a junior job at Israel's UN mission in New York. Eventually, he moves to Israel for a brief stint in the prime minister's office.
Levey's book is wickedly funny. But it is no more an insider account of international diplomacy than The Devil Wears Prada is of corporate America. It is the tale of a young, ambitious professional suffering his first disillusionments about the working world and the clowns who populate it.
In this case, the clowns happen to be Israelis, whose well-known rudeness and chaotic management style come as a shock to Levey, with his youthful delusions about rubbing shoulders with history makers.
Levey at 25 was a bored law student in New York when, moved by the news of terrorist attacks in Israel, he applied for an internship at Israel's UN mission and was offered a paying job instead.
The author has since parlayed his less than three years in the Israeli government into a career as a writer and journalist. He teaches at Ryerson University in Toronto and his writing credits include the online magazine Salon.com, The New Republic and several Canadian newspapers, including The Globe and Mail.
Levey met Sharon just once; the former prime minister offered his press aides some jelly doughnuts at a Hanukkah photo-op shortly before he suffered a stroke in January, 2006. Nor was Levey privy to the policy-making process of the politicians and diplomats he worked for. He was less a fly on the wall than a fish out of water - a polite Jewish Canadian amid brash Israelis.
Levey's caricatures of those Israelis, particularly at the UN mission in New York, are laugh-out-loud funny. We see a deputy ambassador adopt contortionist positions between his desk and his chair, and the mission's librarian routinely yelling into his telephone as if in emotional pain or mortal danger. A scene of Israel's former foreign minister Silvan Shalom in his underwear, rehearsing a speech at his New York hotel, is worthy of a Hollywood spoof.
It's fun to tour the UN building with Levey and share his relief when seated next to Ireland and Italy instead of Iran. And there are several good anecdotes, such as when he scrambled to figure out which way to vote on a UN General Assembly resolution when no Israeli delegates showed up.
But the author has such an inflated sense of his own role that he forgets to mention that he, as a Canadian, takes the UN body far more seriously than his Israeli colleagues do. I took particular glee in the latter half of the book, when Levey skewers his Jerusalem boss, Sharon's press spokesman Ra'anan Gissin. Levey describes Gissin clipping a fingernail while in a meeting with an American rabbi, just one of several unflattering portraits of Sharon's bulldog propagandist.
Levey also shines when recounting the arcane doings of Israeli security operatives as they dealt with his clearance for work. Revealing are the two courses he takes from a private firm associated with Israel's defence ministry, which offers instruction in areas such as "combat firearms" and "defensive driving."
"This last course offered training in shooting at someone who was chasing you while you were driving, not in avoiding skidding out on ice, which is how I remembered defensive driving classes in Canada," Levey writes.
Less hilarious for Canadian Jewish readers is when Levey's Israeli bosses take him to a briefing with Canada's UN diplomats. The Canadians, understandably, cannot figure out what a fellow citizen with no Israeli passport is doing on the other side of the table. Unfortunately, the reader can't quite figure this out either, because Levey never completely explains his motives. Nor does he offer many insights into the politics and culture to which he has temporarily attached himself.
Levey tells us at the outset that he bears "no grudge" against the Palestinians and believes they should have a state. Later, he was stunned by Israel's extra-judicial killing of Hamas leader Abdel Aziz Rantisi. And he supported Sharon's withdrawal of Israelis from Gaza.
These personal views make up but a few paragraphs in the 260 pages, and don't fully explain why Levey chose to be a spin-doctor for a country whose language he barely speaks.
The comedic narrative seems to suggest that the haphazard, disorganized manner in which the Israeli agencies conduct themselves points to why the country is in such a mess. One could easily argue the opposite: that being forced to lurch from crisis to crisis is what forged the haphazard, improvised nature of Israeli politics and diplomacy in the first place.
In short, the book is more about Levey than it is about Israel. And yet the main character is hardly more sympathetic than those he is parodying. Once in Israel, he turns from naive to cynical, entertaining himself by slipping references from the Seinfeld television sitcom into official speeches.
The humour eventually wears thin, and the final chapters degenerate into the kind of expat rant against annoying locals that one hears at dinner parties in Tel Aviv, Berlin and Beijing.
Ultimately, Levey decides to leave the government and leave the country. But it is a decision that seems motivated more by loud-mouthed taxi drivers and poor road manners than by a crisis of conscience.
Levey is both smart and funny. Still, by the book's close, I felt sadness for a writer who seemed to gain little from his Zionist adventure beyond the realization that, compared to living and working in the pressure cooker that is Israel, it is indeed sweet to be Canadian.
Surely, we already knew that.
Nomi Morris is a former Middle East correspondent for Knight Ridder Newspapers.