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7 Questions with Danny Ayalon

April 8, 2010 | by Rabbi Shraga Simmons

Israel’s Deputy Foreign Minister speaks about Jewish values, the Iranian threat, and evangelical Christians.

Born in 1955, Danny Ayalon holds a degree in economics from Tel Aviv University and an MBA from Bowling Green University in Ohio. In the 1980s he worked as a finance manager at large Israeli companies, but was looking to make a more direct and meaningful contribution to Israeli society. So he joined the Foreign Ministry and has served – among other roles – as Israel's ambassador to the United States and as negotiator in Palestinian peace talks. In 2009, he was elected to the Knesset and was appointed as Deputy Foreign Minister. met with Ayalon in his Jerusalem office, where he proudly displays the “Builder of Jerusalem Award” he received from Aish HaTorah in 2008.

Q1: Let’s get right to Israel’s most pressing priority in international relations. If you had your way, what would you like to see the world do in confronting the danger from Iran?

Iran will not be able to sustain crippling sanctions.

Ayalon: The international community has connected the dots and even the greatest skeptics agree that Iran is up to no good in a relentless fashion. But Iran has not yet crossed the point of no return. We still have 12-18 months where we can stop them, and I believe the sanction route is the most viable at this time. Iran is a very weak country and it will not be able to sustain crippling sanctions. I think it is possible to get them to change their behavior. They have political problems, social problems and economic problems. There is more there than meets the eye. With a unified front of diplomatic isolation and economic sanctions, we can succeed.

Q2: It has been said that Israeli security is threatened by a growing public perception of Israel as an illegitimate pariah state. At a recent talk at Oxford, you were heckled with shouts of “slaughter the Jews.” What can be done to counteract this?

Ayalon: This was unfortunately not an isolated incident by a bunch of teenage rabble-rousers. It is orchestrated from the highest echelons of the Palestinian leadership, as part of the campaign to delegitimize the State of Israel. We need to film and document all their activities, and turn that information over to the police. This removes their ability to act without regard for ethical norms or the law. This will deter them from crossing the line into murderous incitement.

Secondly, we need to train Israeli students to become roving ambassadors on the campuses, and concurrently launch programs to reach Jewish students on the campuses. This is not just “hasbara”; this is an integral aspect of our foreign policy.

Q3: It seems that nothing will ever change the fact that the State of Israel exists in a hostile region. What is our greatest weapon in this battle for survival?

Ayalon: In our short history, we have fought on many fronts. The Arabs outnumber us 100-to-1, but they could not defeat us militarily – and look where we are today, with the most powerful army in the Middle East. They also tried to destroy us economically with the Arab boycott; not only did they not succeed, but today our economy is among the healthiest in the world. We stopped the terrorism with our intelligence and other tactics like the security barrier. Now they are trying political and legal warfare. And they will not succeed there either.

But in the end, it is not our military or economic might that keeps us strong as a people. Rather it is our Torah and our tradition. This is the essential ingredient. But to harness this power we need to know Jewish history and be connected to the Torah. I know many secular Israelis who are opposed to religion. I think it is unwise. They are cutting off their own roots, the source of this strength.

Q4: You take time out of your busy schedule to learn Torah every week with an Aish HaTorah rabbi. Why do you do this?

Ayalon: I love Aish. They are reaching out and teaching not just about Jewish history and tradition, but they instill a pride in being Jewish. Aish is teaching Torah in a way that is appealing and interesting to everyone, young and old. I appreciate not only the religious tenacity, but also their national pride, which to me are really inseparable aspects of Jewish identity.

Jews cannot afford to be estranged from one another.

That makes Aish uniquely positioned to heal the rift between the religious and secular communities in Israel, which I am very concerned about. We have so any enemies from the outside, we cannot waste any energy and resources against each other. We cannot afford to be at odds. We cannot even afford to be estranged from one another. This is more dangerous than any Iranian nuclear program.

Q5: It is suggested that one of the greatest threats to Israel today is that many citizens no longer connect to the mission of Israel. They don't feel the burning commitment to make sacrifices to live in this country, with all its risks and limited opportunities. How can we re-ignite that idealistic spirit?

Ayalon: The government is working now to reverse that attitude. We have launched a major program to renovate Jewish heritage sites throughout Israel. For example, it is important to highlight our connection to the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron, which is the oldest Jewish holy site in the world, dating back 4,000 years to Abraham. This strengthens our own connection to the land, not only from the standpoint of diplomacy, but also our own sense of rootedness.

When I represented Israel abroad as Deputy Chief of Mission in Panama, I invited guests to have Shabbat dinner at our home. I had to study exactly how to make Kiddush, because at age 36 I never knew how. I saw how important it is to present ourselves to the world with pride in our religious heritage. In the Foreign Ministry Cadet Corps today, we include training on Jewish tradition and observance. And by the way, I now make Kiddush in my home every Friday night.

Q6: So much of the Middle East conflict revolves around the dynamics between Jews and Muslims. In your experience, how does the Christian community fit into this equation?

Ayalon: Evangelical Christians love Israel, based on Genesis 12:2 where God promises Abraham that “I will make you a great nation.” Israel has a lot of Christian Zionist friends and we should harness all that goodwill.

Actually, my wife is from a Christian Zionist background. As a child, her parents would take her to synagogue on the High Holidays to show her “their roots.” In the late 1970s, she was studying hotel management and tourism, and as part of her training could select one place in the world to get hands-on experience. Most of the students chose places like Hawaii, Paris and Tokyo. But she chose Israel.

To become married to me, she was willing to leave her family and her religion, and convert. Now years later, she is serving as a sort of an ambassador of her own, meeting with Christian groups and explaining to them exactly why it is important to support the State of Israel.

Q7: How has your own spiritual journey translated into your approach to diplomacy and governance?

Ayalon: Farming the land, establishing institutions, and defending ourselves were things that we Jews were missing for the 2,000 years of Diaspora. So applying ourselves to building the “physical” infrastructure was vital to reviving ourselves as a nation. Our success in these areas became a great source of pride for Israelis, and for Jews around the world.

But today I think more and more Israelis understand that you cannot be an Israeli without first and foremost being a Jew. And this is why I am so interested in studying the Torah. Our tradition carried us through so many trials and tribulations, it surely has applicability to today’s diplomatic challenges. The Torah is not only our past, but it is our future.

If you look at the foreign policy of Moses, of Joshua, of King David, you know that they were not subservient. We have to assert our national honor, without being apologetic for living in our land and defending ourselves. Of course, we need to do so with wisdom, in a way that tries not to provoke anyone. But sometimes I think we care a bit too much about what others will say. If you use the Torah as a guidebook, you cannot go wrong.

Israel and Tradition   Problems Facing Israel


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