Like many Israelis, Galit Baram once associated only three things with Canada: Anne of Green Gables, hockey, and maple syrup.
Then, she was named Israel’s consul general in Toronto and Western Canada, and a crash course began.
Five years later, Baram, her fellow diplomat husband and their two children are packing whatever Canadiana they amassed during her term and returning to Israel in early July to await her next posting.
Since the start of her job in the summer of 2016 as Israel’s first female consul general in Toronto and points west, Baram was everywhere at once, it seemed. Whether at large community-wide events, meeting with political, business and religious figures, or at synagogue gatherings, her smiling face was a fixture every place where the Israeli colours needed to be flown.
She arrived armed with a master’s degree in American studies, and while she found many similarities between Canadian and U.S. Jews, she also noticed differences when it came to Canada generally. One of those was Remembrance Day services at Toronto City Hall or the provincial legislature, where the attendance of foreign diplomats was customary.
“They moved me deeply because they reminded me very much of remembrance ceremonies in Israel,” Baram, 53, told The CJN in a wide-ranging interview about her tenure. “The solemn approach, the music, the poetry… I attended every year. It was important for me.”
One thing that surprised her was the influence of the Commonwealth on Canada. “I didn’t expect it to this extent the structure of government (has) many similarities borrowed from Britain.”
This country’s love affair with hockey was another new encounter. For Baram, it was “uncharted territory,” and she admits, “shamefully, that even after five years, I don’t understand much about hockey. But I respect it.”
Normally, consuls general serve four-year terms but Baram’s was extended to five so her children could complete school here. Her son, 18, has graduated from Community Hebrew Academy of Toronto (CHAT), while her daughter, 14, has finished at Bialik Hebrew Day School. Her husband, Nissan Amdur, served as deputy consul general.
A career diplomat who has spent 27 years in the foreign service, she brought experience to the job, having worked previously at Israeli missions in Moscow, Cairo and Washington, D.C. Prior to her Toronto posting, Baram was director of the Department for Palestinian Affairs and Regional Cooperation in Israel.
A highlight of her tenure, she said, was the consulate’s move from 180 Bloor W. to its current location at 2 Bloor St. E.
It was a long process that began with her predecessors and involved teams from Canada and Israel. But it resulted in “a state-of-the-art consulate. We’re very proud of what we have here.”
A little-known fact, she let on, is that Israel’s mission in Toronto is No. 3 in the world when it comes to providing consular services. “We functioned pretty much as a consular factory,” Baram said. “We cover a very vast area.”
During COVID, the consulate, as did Israeli missions around the world, channeled equipment and protective gear to diplomats from other nations. These operations were conducted through Israeli offices because they are considered so active, Baram said.
Over the years, Baram oversaw a slew of activities, whether it was new joint programs between Canadian and Israeli universities, economic cooperation between Israel and the provinces, cultural events featuring Israeli artists, interfaith relations, and Holocaust remembrance. She traveled to every western province (but not to the northern regions).
“I put a lot of time and effort into strengthening relations on the political level with the Ontario government and other provinces,” she said. “When it comes to representing Israel, the main purpose of diplomats is to build bridges (and) create the necessary networking that brings countries together.”
But she believes that at a certain point, diplomats and elected officials have to step back “and leave it up to the people themselves to build bridges. That’s the way it should be. People find their own connections to Israel through subjects that interest them.”
Another highlight, she noted, was hosting Israeli President Reuven Rivlin in 2019. Baram escorted him to a place that tends to bowl Israelis over: Niagara Falls.
“It’s a very moving experience for any Israeli,” she said. “I come from a desert country. We rely heavily on desalination and water treatment. To go to Niagara Falls and to see this vast amount of water—this generosity of nature—was overwhelming for him and me as well.”
During Baram’s time, the consulate organized three ceremonies honouring Canadians recognized as Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem.
“Every one offered a unique opportunity to discuss courage and the humane approach in a very dark chapter in human history,” she said. “It’s an opportunity to bring countries together, not necessarily around a political issue, but when it comes to activity that is relevant for Canadians.”
She also maintained positive relations with Christian churches. A “disappointing” exception was the United Church of Canada, which abides by its “Unsettling Goods” campaign that calls on followers to avoid anything produced in Israeli settlements.
“I believe this is a serious mistake,” Baram said. “I believe that many don’t know enough about the complexity of the situation in Israel and don’t take the time to learn the facts and hear Israel’s perspective. This is a shame.”
A more menacing sentiment arose toward the end of her term. This spring witnessed a sharp rise in hate, vandalism and incitement resulting from the violence between Israel and Hamas.
“It’s very difficult for me as an Israeli diplomat to hear such chants and calls,” Baram said. “It’s difficult to see a democracy, the only democracy in the Middle East, being singled out, especially here in Canada, which is a friendly country.
“I do believe that presenting the situation in terms of good versus evil is oversimplification of issues that are complex,” she continued. “I would hope that Canadian citizens, at least those who participated in these protests against Israel, will take the time to actually learn the subject and do it seriously.”
Prior to entering the foreign service, Baram was an archeologist. So when she heard people denying the indigenous Jewish connection to the land of Israel—“when I know this connection is proven over and over again, not only in documents and the Bible but also in archeological finds, I find it infuriating. It’s very difficult for me to accept.”
Despite that, she said she’s going out on a high note.
“I hear strong statements of elected officials in support of Israel. I see how I have been received here, with warmth and open arms… the curiosity and interest in Israel, the very clear messaging when it comes to anti-Semitism. I know that Canada is one of Israel’s closest allies.”
She found Toronto Jewry’s level of commitment to Israel “very impressive. I see the devotion, the love, and interest in Israel. This is really heartwarming.”
Baram stressed the importance of shoring up ties between young Israelis and young Canadian Jews. “They need to meet each other and learn from each other. I would like to see more young Canadian Jews visit Israel, and finding their own personal connections to the country.”
Personally and professionally, her time here has been “a wonderful chapter in my life. I can’t thank the Jewish community enough for their love and support. We will miss Canada very much.”
Back to hockey: Baram hesitates only slightly when asked if she’s leaving as a Toronto Maple Leafs fan. “I will say that,” she agreed. “Definitely.”
At a meeting of Israel’s cabinet earlier this month, Idit Shamir was confirmed as the next consul general to Toronto and Western Canada. She’s a former head of Special Projects, Economic Division, Abraham Accords Task Force at the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs. She begins later this summer.