Meet Israel’s new consul general in NY, who’s giving himself a crash course in diplomacy
The new Israeli consul general in New York is not a diplomat’s diplomat.
Asaf Zamir, a former politician who took office last month, prefers a burger over steak, once dressed up as a Disney princess, and is married to a famous Israeli actress.
He was also, until recently, a politician, a key player in the effort that led — after four elections — to the ouster of former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in June. He is not used to mincing words or presenting himself as particularly refined.
“Until this very day, I will prefer fast food over nutritious, fresh-made products,” he said. “I’ll skip a very high-end formal dinner to eat at Five Guys.”
But Zamir, 41, knows that he may have to change his ways some as he assumes the head of one of the most important diplomatic missions in North America, and where his portfolio is a complicated one: to represent the voice of American Jewry in Israel and to help those who feel disconnected from Israel to think of it as their home too.
Part of Zamir’s diplomatic makeover is a new Twitter account that he will soon activate, one on which he will likely be a bit more circumspect than he was with his old account. The banner picture on that older account was a screenshot of the alert he received to inform him that he was removed from the Netanyahu cabinet’s WhatsApp group. He hasn’t used that account since his appointment in June.
“I hope — this will be my personal win — to reach a point where my Twitter account can be funny and sarcastic when I want to, and important and serious when I want to,” he said in an interview at his Manhattan office, his first with an American Jewish media outlet since taking the job. “I still need to find my voice here,” he said.
He added: “I take this job very seriously.”
Get the Forward delivered to your inbox. Sign up here to receive our essential morning briefing of American Jewish news and conversation, the afternoon’s top headlines and best reads, and a weekly letter from our editor-in-chief.
Zamir says his American upbringing will help him connect to American Jews.
He was born here as was his mother, who is from Chicago, and he spent most of his early childhood — from kindergarten through third grade — in Sarasota, Florida. He traces his addiction to junk food to those years, when he made regular stops at Burger King and Denny’s on his way to school. He also can’t help mentioning his love for cholent, sweet peppery noodle kugel and the Hasidic overnight potato kugel. Zamir said he is trying not to gain weight during his American diplomatic tour.
He was educated in public schools, including — after doing well on an IQ test — the Florida’s Pine View School for the Gifted. He speaks a native’s English.
“It gave me a kind of dual identity, feeling with an oleh chadash (a new immigrant in Hebrew) mentality when I moved back to Israel,” Zamir said. “I feel that this country is a certain part of me.”
One of his most challenging tasks will be to rebuild bridges with American Jews who feel their voice is not welcome in Israel.
“There is no State of Israel without the diaspora, and the opposite,” though there are limits as to whom Israel will embrace, he said.
“You have to be inside the tent, which is believing that Israel has a right to exist, and the Jewish people have a right to self determination. If you’re preaching against that, it doesn’t matter that you’re Jewish, you are not part of the outreach effort.”
Since he arrived in New York, Zamir has met a number of mainstream Jewish organizations for freewheeling conversations about Israel and the diaspora. He also traveled to Puerto Rico to attend an annual conference hosted by members of the New York State legislature and Puerto Rican officials, where he introduced himself to Democratic politicians and schmoozed with policymakers, lobbyists and journalists. “I am at a point where I am starting to truly understand the problems and thinking about how to deal with them,” he said, four weeks into the job.
At a recent panel discussion in Manhattan, following the screening of a documentary about the diversity of Jewish life in America, an audience member commented on Israel’s controversial nation-state law, which defines the country as the homeland of the Jewish people, and how many non-Orthodox Israelis and members of minority groups feel alienated. Zamir, who sat with the crowd as a co-host of the event, grabbed a mic and acknowledged the complexity of the problem. He also said that past Israeli governments have done a poor job of reaching out to those who feel less than a part of Israel.
A career change
Zamir said he didn’t have to think twice when Yair Lapid, Israel’s foreign minister, offered him his new job, representing the new government in one of Israel’s largest diplomatic missions.
New York has the largest Jewish population outside of Israel and is the largest media market in North America. The purview of the Israeli consulate, on Second Avenue in Manhattan, extends beyond New York, to Jewish communities in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Delaware. “I don’t think there is a place in the world where I’d go to do this job other than here,” he said.
Zamir’s appointment recognizes in part his instrumental role in the effort to oust Netanyahu after 12 years in power.
Zamir first entered the Knesset as a member of the Blue and White alliance after 10 years in the Tel Aviv municipality as deputy mayor. Winning that seat meant he had to give up his U.S. passport because MK’s may not hold dual citizenship. In 2020, with Benny Gantz, who split from Lapid, he joined the Netanyahu-led unity government as tourism minister. A few months later, Zamir resigned from the cabinet in protest over the handling of COVID-19 and allied with the opposition to topple the government.
Israel’s new coalition government, he said, is already taking on issues of concern to U.S. Jews, including religious reforms and improving the lives of Palestinians on the West Bank.
In September, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett told Jewish leaders that once the Knesset approves his government’s biennial budget — which happened earlier this month and will help stabilize the coalition for at least the coming two years — the government will address the prickly questions of who gets to pray where at the Kotel, and whose rules should govern conversion to Judaism.
Zamir takes several controversial positions on related issues. He wants to see a full separation of religion and state, and the legalization of civil marriage and transportation on Shabbat. These things should be accomplished, he said, in a way that does not alienate the ultra-Orthodox community, who were until recently part of the government.
“I don’t think we should be at war with each other on these issues and I wouldn’t want to see these governments continue to be without representation of some groups of society, including the ultra-Orthodox groups,” he said. “Inclusiveness” means everyone has to make compromises “for everyone to feel a part of Israel.”
He knows that he’s going to be careful himself to avoid alienating various constituencies.
In a recent speech to leaders of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, Zamir quipped, “Don’t use the fact that I’m a new diplomat to make me say things that will get me in trouble. Give me a few months till I do that.”But Zamir-the-diplomat still looks like the more relaxed version of himself on his wife’s Instagram page, which has 434,000 followers.
He met Maya Wertheimer, the television and film actress and granddaughter of billionaire Stef Wertheimer, through social media, after she responded to a comment on his Instagram page.
Wertheimer has postponed plans to join her husband in New York after getting a new TV gig. In the near future, she expects to split her time between New York and Tel Aviv. He said he misses his family in Israel, but in New York’s crowded bustle, hardly feels isolated.
New York “is a hard place to be lonely,” he said.