For three years, Vivian Bercovici served Canada as the ambassador to Israel, and for all of us who saw her in action, she had a huge impact. As a skilful lawyer turned diplomat, and without all of the baggage of the career foreign service, she represented the government articulately and forcefully, in ways that most foreign emissaries are not accustomed to hearing.
She brought a unique energy level and electricity to what is often a grey, invisible (and largely male) profession. In Canada, her appointment was criticized because she was not a career diplomat, but rather a political appointee, but this turned out to be a major asset. Bercovici had direct access to former prime minister Stephen Harper, former foreign minister John Baird, provincial and business leaders and other key Canadian players. And in her many public appearances, Bercovici’s skills as a top Toronto litigator were put to effective use in explaining Canada’s support for Israel.
Unfortunately, in Israel, including in the Foreign Ministry, Canada has generally been relegated to a minor player inhabiting the same continent as the United States. But Ottawa has been a key ally, particularly during the Harper years, and during her tenure, Bercovici raised Canada’s profile significantly. She was often featured in the local media, and hosted events attended by Israelis – Jews and Arabs – from across the social and political spectrum. Invitations to these events, including the Canada Day receptions, were coveted during Bercovici’s tenure.
In the political realm, she doesn’t reduce Israel to the one-dimensional image based entirely on the Palestinian conflict, unlike the old-school Arabists that continue to push outdated slogans in Ottawa and at the Globe and Mail. She made life difficult for lazy journalists (including Canadians) who follow the pack, repeating the artificial narrative of Palestinian victimization and aggressive Israeli power.
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During the July 2014 Gaza war, which began a few months after her appointment, Bercovici had to deal with missiles aimed at Tel Aviv, including, on one occasion, an attack that coincided with the approach of an Air Canada flight coming from Toronto – a contingency not usually included in the standard diplomatic portfolio. From the politically correct crowd in Canada, she was attacked for rejecting the standard Israeli “war crimes” myths that were pumped out in much of the media and by NGOs claiming to promote human rights. Speaking to a packed auditorium at Jerusalem’s Menachem Begin Center during the war, she joined Australian Ambassador David Sharma in expressing Canada’s solidarity and presenting Israel’s strong moral case.
Perhaps most importantly, Bercovici made a major (and successful) effort to understand what makes Israel and Israelis tick, as well as our complexities, from the ancient debates on how to mix ancient religious texts with modern democracy, to the fast pace of the “start-up nation.” While many ambassadors to Israel, particularly the Europeans, spend most of their time in the artificial environment of Herzliya and central Tel Aviv, Vivian – as many Israelis refer to her – has been everywhere, and she knows her way around Jerusalem’s many neighbourhoods and cultural sites. Her dynamism woke up the button-down diplomats, moving them away from gossip and small talk, often mixed with snide and de rigueur put-downs of Israelis.
In her last official event, at the Canada Day reception, Bercovici announced that for professional and personal reasons, she was staying in Israel – another non-standard move among foreign envoys, to understate the case. For Israel, this is very good news, and means that her voice, skills and energy will continue to be heard and seen.
For the past three years, Canada and Israel both benefited significantly from Bercovici’s contributions, and while she will no longer be ambassador, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Foreign Minister Stéphane Dion and the Liberal government would do well to listen to her. A return to the old slogans and diplomatic myths about Israel will not benefit anyone.