Paul Hirschson was one of the first two Israeli foreign ministry officials in the United Arab Emirates 17 years ago, playing an unofficial diplomatic role that planted the seeds for last year’s historic Abraham Accords.
“What we did will probably be classified until 10 years after I’m dead,” he tells The CJN, only half in jest, about those three years.
This month, Hirschson became Israel’s consul general to Quebec and the Atlantic provinces, replacing David Levy, who left after three and a half years.
Strengthening ties between Quebec and Israel, he hopes, will take much less time and surely be more transparent than his experience in the Gulf.
From 2015 to 2018, Hirschson was ambassador to western Africa, based in Dakar, Senegal; previous to that, he was a foreign ministry spokesperson.
High on his agenda in Montreal is to revive the idea of opening a Quebec commercial office in Israel, announced in 2017 by Premier Philippe Couillard. The news capped the trade mission he led—the first official visit by a Quebec premier to Israel—and was made in the presence of former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Numerous agreements of cooperation were signed during that trip by the 100-plus participants with Israeli companies and academic and research institutions. Most significant was a $12-million accord between the province and the Israel Innovation Authority for technology research.
The Liberals were defeated the following year and Couillard left politics. Nothing was heard again about a Quebec delegation in Israel. (The province currently has 33 representative offices in 18 countries—the closest to Israel is in Rabat, Morocco.)
The Coalition Avenir Québec has no history with Israel, but that does not dissuade Hirschson. “I don’t believe any premier who wants to make things better for everyone is not focused on jobs and prosperity… [and] won’t exploit opportunities,” especially emerging from the pandemic, he says.
Hirschson adds that it is essential that anyone wanting to do business with the “startup nation” be on the ground. “Israelis have no patience. If a guy with a good idea from Ohio knocks on their door, or an investor with an offer from India, they will go for it.”
Israel’s high-tech industries today have “25,000 more jobs than talent,” a reversal from only a few years ago, he adds. Quebec, with its strength, notably, in artificial intelligence and aeronautics could benefit from the export of those jobs through joint ventures.
Hirschson knows the field well. Before he joined the foreign ministry in 2004, he spent a decade in the private sector developing high-tech businesses abroad, including in the Arab and Muslim world, which made him an ideal candidate for the UAE mission. His first business contacts were in Egypt, Jordan and the Gulf states, later elsewhere in Africa and Asia, including Indonesia and Malaysia.
He is South African, with such deep roots in the country that he can claim “my grandparents’ grandparents are buried there.”
His grandfather, Issy Wolfson, who died in 1980, was a trade unionist who chaired the South African Communist Party in the 1930s and ran unsuccessfully under that banner in 1948. He spent his latter two decades as a “banned” person.
He was more of an anti-racism activist than revolutionary, says Hirschson, whose parents were also opponents of apartheid.
They were not a particularly Zionist family, but young Hirschson was excited by the potential the young Jewish state represented when he was growing up and he made aliyah at age 21 in 1985. He earned an MBA through a joint Ben-Gurion University-Boston University program.
Previously, Hirschson had only been in Canada for a couple of hours at Niagara Falls years ago. He met a lot of Quebecers while serving as a consul in Miami, he notes.
Yet Hirschson was eager to be posted in Montreal, vying with seven other candidates.
“I’m interested in North America generally, but Quebec has that little bit of political intrigue… Being here gets me out of my comfort zone a bit,” he says. As consul general, he is also Israel’s permanent representative to the International Civil Aviation Organization, a United Nations agency.
Hirschson admits his French is not strong, limited to what he picked up while in Senegal, but he is learning.
Less than a week settled in, he was enjoying exploring the city on foot, even in a heat wave that he actually found quite chilly.
He lists his favourite pastimes as walking and coffee. He is grateful to the Montreal tourism board for tweeting to him, by way of a welcome, its recommendation for the best cafés in town.
“My goal is to go to each of them by foot,” Hirschson says.