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Australian by birth, Israeli by choice

By Sneh Duggal      

Toronto consul general immigrated to Israel when he was 22. But he’s got a bit of Canuck in him too (he cheers for the Jays).

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DJ Schneeweiss calls himself an “Israeli by choice.”

Born in Australia, the Israeli diplomat still carries with him traces of an accent, which often leads to curiosity about his story.

“I address it quite intentionally and proactively and I explain that I may not sound like an Israeli, I may not have the accent of the native-born Israeli, but I’m an Israeli by choice,” said Mr. Schneeweiss. He’s been part of Israel’s foreign service for 21 years and now sits as the country’s consul general in Toronto. The envoy, who is here with his wife Jo and nine-year-old twins, has been in the post since August 2012.

Mr. Schneeweiss was born in Sydney in 1964. His father moved to the country as a 12-year-old refugee from Nazi Germany.

“I always felt proudly Australian, but also knew that I was a particular type of Australian. I was a Jewish Australian, and that meant that culturally I was not always exactly mainstream,” he said in a Sept. 3 interview at his downtown office.

He made his first trip to Israel when he was 17.

“I felt at home there even though it was a brand new place,” said Mr. Schneeweiss. He immigrated to Israel on his own when he was 22.

“I still love Australia, it’s a wonderful place. My parents are still there and I visit once a year. And I still happily support Australia’s sporting achievements,” he said, smiling. “Even as a teenager, I realized that Israel was my home; Israel was where I wanted to spend the rest of my life.”

He joined the Israeli foreign ministry in 1994 and by the end of the following year, he was a policy assistant for the foreign minister. When current prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu won the 1996 election, Mr. Schneeweiss became the language interpreter for the new foreign minister.

“Here I was 18 months in the job and suddenly I’m in the cockpit of Israel’s diplomatic activity, in the room when the prime minister and the foreign minister are in the highest-level discussions, negotiations with the Palestinians, interactions with the United States,” he said. “I received a mix of on-the-job training that is unparalleled.”

He then left for his first posting abroad in London where he worked as the press secretary and also met his wife.

He returned to his foreign ministry as a desk officer for the United Kingdom before joining the minister’s staff again, but this time as a policy adviser. He has also served as deputy ambassador to China and director of civil society affairs at the Israeli foreign ministry.

Promoting relevance

The Israeli consulate, which covers Ontario and all the western provinces, includes three diplomats, a head of security from Israel and locally engaged staff. It is among the five largest Israeli consulates in terms of the consular files it addresses each year.

Mr. Schneeweiss said his key goal has been to create platforms for concrete interaction between Canada and Israel.

“It’s not so much about standing up and giving a speech or talking to an audience and talking about Israel in the news, but actually trying to identify what of Israel is relevant in this place to the different audiences that we meet,” he said.

Israel is doing great work in stem-cell research and developing medical and agricultural technologies, he said. Promoting scientific work between universities is another focus.

Much of the business focus has to do with promoting how Israeli technologies and innovations, such as those related to cyber security, may be relevant to Canadian businesses.

The consulate has also worked to build bridges between Israel and communities here by hosting joint events, such as with the Indian consulate or with the German consulate to mark 50 years of diplomatic ties this year.

And, of course, there is much interaction with the large Jewish and expat Israeli communities. The consulate has helped the Canada-Israel Cultural Foundation in its Spotlight on Israeli Culture event for the past two years.

With the focus often being on violence in the Middle East, “people then don’t necessarily think about who you are as a person or they don’t necessarily think about what connects you,” said the consul general, adding that culture is a great engine for people to see beyond the conflict.

As for anti-Israel sentiment, he said there’s a lot less of that here than what he saw in the United Kingdom. It would be a mistake to focus on this and lose the broader perspective, he said.

“The broader perspective is that to whatever degree there is opposition to Israel here in Canada, that is immensely outweighed by the amount of opportunity that there is here,” he said. “You can argue all day long with those that don’t like you, but those arguments won’t get you all that far.”

Toronto-based journalist and former Embassy staff writer Sneh Duggal writes columns for Embassy on foreign consulates in Canada.



Rapid fire with Israel’s consul general

Favourite restaurant?

I have to be honest, I’ve probably eaten in less restaurants than most of my colleagues for various reasons, but I like the Israeli restaurants here. There’s no specific one, but it’s that food from home…there’s a whole bunch of laffa restaurants, which is these large pitas which are then filled with the meat, the falafel and the salads, and all the flavours are phenomenal. Nice, quick, street kind of food, but really good stuff.

Favourite pastime in Toronto?

We’ve connected very strongly with the Blue Jays—my family, my kids, they love it; they love the excitement, they love the statistics. We’ve been to a bunch of games and we’re excited about their prospects for this year, so we’re very much on the bandwagon.

If you could have any other job, what would it be?

I’d be in some form of communications. I like communications. I like the talking, I like the writing. I like finding the right words that will really bridge between my world and whoever it is that I’m talking to.

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