After four frenetic years, Israel’s envoy to the UK, Daniel Taub, packed up and returned home this week. He spoke to Jenni Frazer about his busy posting
There are cardboard boxes stuffed with books all over the floor, and on the computer the ambassador is writing his last report to his as-yet-unnamed successor. Outside the Israeli embassy gates, the policemen speculate on who may come in his place. Daniel Taub is going home.
The British-born Israeli ambassador to Britain spent the last weeks of his posting not knowing whether he was returning to Jerusalem or, like his erstwhile counterpart in Tel Aviv, Matthew Gould, signing up for a further year.
But finally the call came and now, amid a flurry of farewell parties – “my staff say I am like Frank Sinatra with his goodbye concerts” – the ambassador and his wife Zehava are returning to Israel.
They will find, he jokes, a slew of pop-art posters in their home rather than the artistic paintings which they favour because their eldest two children, out of the close family of six, have “turned the house into a hippy commune” while serving in the IDF. A third Taub offspring is due to join the army soon.
“We phone on Fridays to ask what they are doing for Shabbat,” says the ambassador, “only to be told, no, don’t worry, we are having 30 people for dinner.” Things may change, one senses, once Taub Senior takes the reins again.
The ambassador, a fit 53, arrived in London in 2011, having left in 1989. He marvels at the difference in the way the community functions now compared with the Anglo-Jewry of his youth. “Today we have Limmud, the Film Festival, Book Week, Mitzvah Day, Etgar, Gefiltefest – it’s really different. And as an embassy we have tried to plug into that.”
Taub’s four-year posting has been special for several reasons, not least that his enthusiasm for improving trade and hi-tech links was mirrored in Israel by Gould. “His passion has created opportunities and we have been able to do wonderful things together,” Taub says. “But I think Matthew is reflective of a British government committed to advancing a positive agenda with Israel.
“You just have to look at the number of senior ministers including the prime minister and their shadow counterparts who have visited Israel over the past four years. We are on the map.”
The ambassador darts to his desk to retrieve a pithy press release on the highlights of his posting. They range from improved bilateral trade figures to high level research and tech co-operation, from cultural opportunities to piquant engagements such as the modern Orthodox ambassador’s Hebrew and Bible study sessions with church leaders at Synod and Westminster Cathedral.
Perhaps the most notable of his visits was the one he led to Bradford after its former MP, George Galloway, declared the city an “Israel-free zone”.
Many of his encounters, he acknowledges quietly, have been less public and below the radar. He has had many meetings with newspaper, TV and radio editorial teams, carefully and determinedly putting Israel’s case and often able to make his point precisely because he was not doing it in the spotlight.
If he has regrets, one might be his inability to persuade the Queen to hop on an El Al flight, but Taub says the absence of a royal visit “is not reflective of the quality of the relationship between Israel and the UK. If you were to compare me to other ambassadors, I probably have more access to the leadership of the country”.
That, he says, has to do with the importance attached by the UK to Israel – “and I think it’s a shame it’s not given expression in a symbolic way by a royal visit. The people of Israel have enormous admiration for Britain and if there were to be a royal visit it would be met by an outpouring of affection.” If Kate and William were to visit, I say, they would be mobbed. Yes, smiles Taub: “I would be in the mob!”
As a son of the community, it is right and proper Ambassador Taub has a special place in his heart for Anglo-Jewry. “One of my main messages is to realise how exceptional this community is in terms of its creative thinking. If I have an area of concern, it relates to what the community might look like in 10 or 15 years, and whether we are doing enough to raise a new generation of youngsters who are literate about their Jewish heritage and have the passion to take up positions of leadership.”
He also believes that the traditional Israel-diaspora relationship needs to undergo “a significant rethink. It used to be that there were dialogues between Israeli Jews and diaspora Jews on different sides of the table. More and more I have come to the conclusion the table isn’t square, it is round. There are all sorts of models for engagement with Israel”. He points to Israelis who commute to Britain and vice versa, and says he believes UK Jews have a healthy and viable future.
If he could wave a magic wand, Taub would like to identify the 1,000 most influential British leaders of the year 2020 and bring them to Israel. “The asset that we have is our reality, problems and all.” Nothing, he insists, beats showing visitors the facts on the ground.
With that, the ambassador turns a weary eye on his packing. He has yet another farewell reception to attend, and a farewell note to write. He has had a wonderful time – but he is dying to go home.