One might think that after diplomatic postings in Japan, Thailand, and China, Toronto might compare as a little, well, bland.
Not so, at least in the opinion of Idit Shamir, a 51-year-old single mother of three teenage sons, who replaces Galit Baram as Israel’s consul general in Toronto and Western Canada. Shamir’s eyes widen when her newest home is brought up.
Among her initial impressions: “I’m wowed by the diversity,” Shamir told The CJN in an interview at the spacious Toronto consulate shortly after her arrival. “I was at Canada’s Wonderland with my kids during the weekend, and you just see people of all nationalities. And we know they’re not tourists because the borders are closed. So, they’re all natives. They’re all speaking their own languages. They’re all feeling comfortable. So, it’s almost utopic, in my mind. I love it. I’m really super impressed with it.”
She even had a nice thing to say about Canadians’ vaunted niceness.
“I think that’s a big thing. I think it’s a huge thing that Canadians are nice and wholesome and have this set of values.”
She tallies a long list of exotic former jobs and postings she feels have stood her in good stead to work in Toronto, home to the third-busiest Israeli mission in the world when it comes to providing consular services.
Born in Rishon LeZion, just south of Tel Aviv, Shamir earned law degrees from Bar-Ilan University and Hebrew University, fulfilling a childhood dream of becoming a human rights lawyer.
She went to work for the Israeli National Council for the Child, a non-governmental organization dedicated to safeguarding children’s welfare. She also apprenticed at the Association for Human Rights in Israel and in the legal department of the Knesset.
After opening a private law practice, her dream became less than pleasant.
She specialized in representing victims of domestic violence. “I was doing human rights (work) as the core of it. But basically, it was just helping battered women get divorced,” she recalled. The job “was not glamorous.”
When the opportunity arose to join the foreign ministry, she thought, “instead of fighting with people every day, I want to create bridges. I want to make connections. I want to do the opposite.”
Her first foreign posting was to Japan. It wasn’t to an Israeli mission but to a small rural village outside Osaka—“two hours away from the nearest Starbucks,” she quipped—to spend a year learning the language and drinking in the culture.
“It was a fascinating year,” she recalled. Today, her Japanese is passable but “isn’t as good as it used to be.”
Moved to Israel’s embassy in Tokyo as a political officer, “all of a sudden, I found my calling.”
Mainly, it was because she could utilize all her skills, “from writing analytical reports, to making speeches, to cooking a dinner for 30, to project management, to production of cultural events.”
Back in Israel for a two-year stint in the human rights department of the foreign ministry, she was then posted to Thailand, a place that was both “fascinating and hard. I went through two coups out of the 20-something that they have suffered. It was such a different culture.” Her three sons were born in the country.
She served as deputy ambassador at Israel’s embassy in Bangkok for five years, at the same time representing Israel to neighbouring Cambodia.
She then took a break from foreign service with a job in the Thai capital with the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific, where was a “gender specialist” in education, working with Asian countries like Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan on gender mainstreaming of government staff. “It was fascinating,” Shamir recalled. “It was super challenging.”
She then returned to her old diplomatic job in Bangkok for another three years, Altogether, she spent 10 years in Thailand.
For Shamir, the country was “a complete love affair. I really enjoyed it. And until today, I consider it like a home away from home. But I feel Canada will be the same. I already feel a connection to Canada.”
Next was China, where she arrived to the shock of minus 20 degree weather and a society so futuristic that even street beggars in Beijing had QR codes one could scan to transfer money.
In Beijing, Shamir focused on economics as head of the Israeli embassy’s innovations department.
Her most recent postings included the Economic Division of Israel’s Foreign Affairs Ministry. Nearly a year ago, she was tapped to join one of the teams that arose from the Abraham Accords to forge economic ties with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.
“For us, it was unbelievable,” she said. “It’s basically starting something from nothing.”
Shamir’s fresh diplomatic start in Toronto is mirrored in Montreal, where Paul Hirschson recently started work as consul general in that city and points east. And last month, Ronen Hoffman, a former member of the Knesset, was named Israel’s new ambassador to Canada.
Shamir sought out her new posting. “When I had the opportunity to come to Toronto, which is a huge international city, so diverse and so friendly, I was just super excited.
“I said that I’m ready for a new challenge, that I think the potential in Canada is tremendous. And I feel the excitement in the business communities, in the cultural communities, and academic communities. There is so much that we can do.”
Shamir is encouraging people to follow the consulate on social media.
While Canada may still yield shrugs among Israelis, “I think things have really changed and people’s interests have widened,” Shamir said. “I think this is the age of Israel-Canada relations.”