Britain’s new Israel ambassador talks about being Jewish, his time in Iran, and answering to critics
Matthew Gould arrived at Ben-Gurion International Airport on Sunday to take up his position as the new British Ambassador to Israel.
In a chat with Haaretz two days before his departure, right before his meeting with Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg and Rosh Hashanah services at his West London synagogue, Gould talked about being the first Jewish ambassador ever sent by Britain to Israel, his two years as Deputy Head of Mission at the British Embassy in Iran, five months of which he was acting ambassador, his time as the principal private secretary to former foreign secretary David Miliband, being Jewish, being young (he just turned 39 ) and his plans for his time in Israel.
Gould. “I think I was chosen on my merits. Not because of, or despite the fact that I am Jewish.”
How has your background prepared you for being the new ambassador to Israel?
The most important part of my background is that I spent two and a half years living in Iran, trying to figure out what we do to deal with the threat from that regime. I suspect I may be the only person in Israel who has negotiated with the Revolutionary Guards. Number 2, for the last three years I have been the chief of staff of the foreign secretary. So although I am a career diplomat I am coming in with a political understanding and political connections, and this can only be useful. The third area of my background which is relevant is the fact that I am Jewish. If nothing else I think it gives me a visceral understanding of why Israel is so fixated on its own security and why security and peace mean so much to Israel and why it’s a country which feels so keenly that it lives on the knife edge.
Why does being Jewish give you that understanding? Can you elaborate?
Two reasons. One is that you don’t grow up Jewish, at least not in my family, and not know at a very early age about the threats to Israel, the wars it has had to fight and the problems it has faced. As I was growing up I was introduced to all this. My grandparents took me to Israel at a very young age and I have second cousins in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. The other reason is this. My paternal grandfather was one of 10 siblings. He and two of his siblings left before the war – all the other were killed by the Nazis. This means – I don’t want to make too much of it … but there is at least a sort of common understanding about the threats that face the Jewish people.
Tell me a little more about your family background.
On my father’s side, my grandparents were born in Warsaw and came over to Britain in the 1920s. Mum’s side was also from Poland but came earlier to England. I grew up in Northwest London. We were largely secular household, but I went to cheder every Sunday. And we went to synagogue, of course – first to Harrow and Wembley Liberal Synagogue and then to Middlesex New Synagogue.
Do you think there are some in Britain who might feel that your being Jewish will hurt your objectivity?
It would be natural if there was a certain amount of suspicion or skepticism that, given my background, I am going to be entirely objective in my reporting. But I am absolutely clear that my number one task is to understand Israel and give objective and honest advice back to the prime minister and the foreign secretary so they can make policy as effective as possible for the region.
A lot of Israelis feel Britain is increasingly critical of Israel. How does the choice of you as ambassador play into that balance?
First, I think I was chosen on my merits. Not because of, or despite the fact that I am Jewish. But, also, in the knowledge that being Jewish brings with it certain advantages and certain risks. I firmly believe that the British people do support Israel’s right to exist and understand keenly the threats that Israel faces. I think where people tend to have a question, is over the commitment of Israel to finding peace. And where they have a concern it is over Israel’s actions in the West Bank and Gaza.
Don’t you think that is putting it mildly?
There is definitely a vocal group supporting boycotts and sanctions who are heavily critical. But I think its very important to separate those people who will criticize Israel no matter what it does, which I think is a small minority, and those who, I basically think, have goodwill toward Israel but are still critical of some of the things that Israel does. There is an important point about anti-Semitism here, there is a view that the Jewish community in Britain is under siege, and I have to say, coming from that community, I feel very strongly it is a proud, viable community. Yes there are anti-Semitic incidents. but for me, it’s a measure that this is not a fundamentally anti-Semitic society that those incidents are taken so seriously.
Have you ever had an anti-Semitic experience?
At school there was one or two times when people made anti-Semitic remarks, but I can count those occasions on one hand. All of them were upsetting, but none of them really said anything more than the people I was talking to were immature idiots. If they were not anti-Semitic remarks they would have been remarks about my height.
How did being Jewish play out in Iran?
It was very interesting. I would go to synagogue. In Tehran there are at least two, very flourishing synagogues, completely packed on a Shabbat morning and all filled with Iranian Jews. By and large I think I was the only foreigner. And I would see the leaders of the community – I think it sent a very positive message to the community, which said, there are foreign governments concerned with their welfare. I think it also sent a positive message to the Iranian authorities, showing that how they treated their own minorities was being watched by the world.
Have you shared and discussed your observations about Iran with Israelis before?
I went straight from Iran to Washington [where he served as a foreign policy counselor and representative of the UK’s Joint Intelligence Committee] and spent a lot of my time there talking to the Americans about exactly these questions as, not having an embassy means they don’t have a cadre of people who really know from personal experience how to evaluate what is happening there.
Over all, how was your experience in Iran?
It was fascinating. Extraordinary. The people of Iran are immensely cultured and hospitable and civilized and welcoming and the country is extraordinary. Like Israel it has an amazing history, extraordinary archaeological and historical sites. It blows you away. It’s a country not spoiled, or which has not benefited, from globalization.
How does being so young factor in? Do you think you’re a bit young to be an ambassador to Israel?
I think coming at my age means I have an enthusiasm and energy which I intend to devote to my job and the relationship I am going to be the guardian of. The other thing I should say is the chancellor of the exchequer[George Osborne] is 39, the prime minister is in his early 40s – and so this is not a country in which age, being young, disqualifies you from senior office.
Are you excited about living in Israel? What parts of Israel do you like?
I have been to Israel half a dozen times, and there are so many places I love – Jerusalem. Masada, I always find very moving. Old Jaffa is spectacular. Haifa is beautiful. I love the desert and I think parts of the north very beautiful. As for Tel Aviv, we are totally excited and are going to work our way around the restaurant scenes, see as many films as we can and are going to be energetic enjoying everything Tel Aviv, and Israel, has to offer.