Just off Oxford Street, in an anonymous office block seemingly stuffed with book-keepers and brand managers, a pro-Israel organisation goes about its business quietly, writes Stephen Oryszczuk. Blink and you’d miss it. Fine, they’d probably say.
This is BICOM, and boss Dermot Kehoe is sandwiched between conferences. Just back from AIPAC in the States, about to fly off to Herzliya in Israel, he’s in London for one day, talking to me in the small conference room, an afternoon of conference calls lying ahead of him.
“I’m supposed to be on leave,” he says, relaxing in jumper and jeans. In an office full of sharp edges, swivel chairs and speaker phones, Dermot and his team add personality to a characterless office, which – at this stage – somehow seems mismatched.
I’m positioned on a cluster of desks shared by Stefan Kerner and Carly Maisel who, together with JJ Hodari, handle the press. Despite not really knowing them, they somehow seem strangely familiar – sitting next to easygoing Stefan is like sitting next to my dad, while former embassy girl Carly is essentially my sister’s southern double.
Not even the team’s carefree adherence to corporate phraseology (favourites include ‘key discussion points’ and ‘value added’) can stop me feeling like I’m sat round the breakfast table. I’m even convinced that JJ would remind me of my brother, if I had one.
Behind us sits a combination including Tony Fineberg, who keeps an orderly eye on money, administration and all things office-related, Prof. Alan Johnson, a senior researcher who seems quiet despite hailing from the north-east, and Dermot’s new PA, who is just finding her feet when I arrive (not literally).
Off to the side of the main office, purposefully buried in a side room, is Jules, a young PhD student helping with the research. You can’t miss Jules – he could play basketball for Chicago Bulls – and nor would you want to. He offers an intelligent take on a range of current affairs, whilst sizeable holes in his ear lobes (which he calls ‘battle scars’) together with a playlist featuring Massive Attack hint at the extra-curricular interests of this future academic star.
“It’s a quiet day,” Stefan says, as he hands me a coffee in a little white cup, on a little white saucer. I only get coffee like this at my grandparents’ house!
I’m sat at absent Events Manager Ruth Fisher’s desk. By 9.30am her fancy phone records 14 missed calls. I assume she’s either popular or conversationally reluctant, but either way, her desk contains a selection of wonderfully colourful sheep, most of which have been somewhat cruelly speared with an Israeli flag cocktail stick.
It’s not long before Carly – on crutches due to a recent fall – hobbles into the conference room, beckoning JJ and I to follow. Dermot is patched into the call, and Richard Pater (director of BICOM’s Israel office) then connects from Jerusalem. We’re all set to go.
It’s a planning meeting. BICOM is taking a selection of senior UK journalists to Israel and the team are finalising details, such as who will meet who at the airport, and which restaurant to book. JJ spends the hour silently shuffling in the corner. Carly meanwhile is bright and buzzy – taking notes, checking itineraries and occasionally asking odd questions, such as “isn’t he terribly international?”
Elsewhere, Jules is chasing book reviewers for the third edition of Fathom, BICOM’s quarterly magazine, whilst simultaneously working on the Spotlight section of the website. This week he’s focusing on Obama’s visit, he says, and is pleased he can research the topic in-depth.
Back in the main office, Alan is putting the finishing touches to his House of Lords presentation, which he’ll shortly be sharing with a committee convened by Lord Greville Janner. We get our coats and head out into the rain, estimating that it will take 20 minutes to get to Westminster. “If the queue for security’s bad, we might be late,” admits Stefan to a worried looking Alan. “But not too late…”
As it happens, we’re three minutes late, enough for Lord Janner to greet us like naughty school boys. Inside and settled, Alan quickly sketches Israel’s political landscape, informing attendees about Yair Lapid’s surprisingly successful election, the stalled reconciliation efforts between Fatah and Hamas, Egypt’s security situation and assorted other topics. He survives the questions, and after the mandatory corridor mingling, we’re off back to base.
Later that evening, Carly is in full flow outside the Millbank venue for a BICOM debate on Iran, every so often breaking away to give directions to a taxi carrying one of the four speakers. “They’ve now driven past three times in the last five minutes,” she says, exasperated. Wearing gold-studded black leather boots, she can’t understand why she’s difficult to spot.
Inside, a combustible mix of commentators, politicians and diplomats drink wine and pass time in the lobby. Two journalists get excited about assassinated scientists and nuclear-stalling software, while an Israeli official says he’s spent all day dealing with questions about Prisoner X (a mysterious Mossad man who died in a secret Israeli jail).
The last speaker pulls up, and as the crowd files in to hear of the ayatollahs’ intentions, I slip away, off to another engagement.
As I go, I reflect on this supposedly anonymous organisation, and in particular, what it does so very well and very quietly, admitting that what had earlier seemed dull and boring now seemed slick and professional.
Maybe they’re in the right office after all…