After Beijing, Israel vice consul calls S.F. a new challenge

Working abroad as a representative of the government of Israel always has its challenges. For one, many Jews — as well as many Americans — do not necessarily support Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Moreover, many Americans, especially in the Bay Area, feel Israel's treatment of the Palestinians is unduly harsh. And now, to complicate matters further, a war in the region seems inevitable.

"The job of every Israeli representative, no matter what the situation is, is not easy," said Omer Caspi, the new vice consul of Israel. "Israel is a unique place, with a long history, unfortunately, of difficulties and challenges that we are facing. That makes our work here very important, and very challenging, no matter what the situation is. That is what we are here for."

San Francisco will be quite a change from Caspi's last diplomatic assignment abroad — he spent three years serving as the cultural affairs attaché in Beijing. But the new vice consul is excited to be here. "I knew I wanted to come here," he said, citing the Bay Area's multiculturalism and its history as the birthplace for so many social trends.

Furthermore, he said, "California is an important state in the U.S. economy and politics, as well as a great place to live. The things this city has to offer are the top."

Caspi, 36, arrived in November, and his wife, Ravit, a social psychologist, will join him soon. He replaces former Vice Consul Gil Lainer.

Last month, Caspi moved into his new home, an apartment on Telegraph Hill.

Raised in Herzliya, Caspi served in the Nahal unit of the Israel Defense Force, which meant spending nine months of his service on a kibbutz. At Hebrew University, he studied international relations and Asian studies, specializing in China.

"China held a real fascination for me," he said, noting that at that time, Israel and China had not yet established diplomatic relations. Before graduating, he entered the Foreign Ministry's course.

Israel and China established relations in 1991, and as soon as it was allowed, China became a very popular destination for Israelis.

"During my year of studies, there were 30 people studying about China, and the next year there were 120," he said. The three years he spent in China were at "the peak of our relationship," with many high-level delegations coming through and cultural as well as academic exchanges. Because the relationship was so new, he said, the Chinese people were very interested in learning about Israel.

Caspi returned home in 1998, and spent four years working in the Foreign Ministry's Northeast Asia Department. Then in 2001, he obtained an MBA and took a job in the private sector, working for a large Israeli high-tech firm. The boom had peaked by this point and was on its way out.

"It was both good and bad," he said.

He soon returned to the Foreign Ministry and knew it was time to go abroad. Caspi had only been to the United States once before, and that was a trip to New York. "I knew living in the U.S. would be an important one for me personally. Plus, there is a lot my wife can do here."

When asked about the Bay Area's reputed hostility to Israel, Caspi said, "It will make my job more challenging and interesting." Noting that the Bay Area has also been a solid friend of Israel, he added, "We hope we will overcome all the difficulties in Israel, but the support and friendship is tested during these difficult times."

When asked whether the current difficulties had anything to do with his decision to leave now, he said no. "The most interesting work in the Foreign Ministry is done outside," he said. "We usually don't stay in Israel for more than three or four years at a time."

Caspi spent the last year in Tel Aviv, and said despite the situation, "Life is stronger than anything. Public places are full, he said, "and people keep on living. If we let ourselves stay at home all the time, we surrender to the terrorists."

Caspi said he will spend his first few months getting acquainted with the Bay Area, as well as the Jewish community.

"China was easier," he said. "Here it's more complicated. There are so many organizations, people and movements. It's fascinating to learn about."

He said he hopes to strengthen connections with the Jewish community, as well as with the large number of Israelis living in the Bay Area.

From his short time here, he is already feeling welcome. He has visited many synagogues and gone to Shabbat services, something he did not do in Israel.

"I was surprised to see the numbers of people going to these ceremonies, and the involvement of the community," he said. "They have a very strong and emotional connection with the state of Israel; they really care."

Speaking of the people he's met in the Jewish community so far, he said, "They are such warm and nice people. They were so supportive and gave me the feeling that I was at home."

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."