Although I lived and worked in New York City, this woman--I’ll call her Heather--was one of the few Americans I interacted with during the course of a typical workday. While in law school, I had applied for an internship at the Israeli U.N. Mission. Instead, despite not even being Israeli, I was offered a full-time job as the Mission’s speechwriter. I spent my evenings in law school, my nights frequenting bars with my American friends, my weekends playing softball in Central Park--and my days engaged in diplomatic warfare with half of the Arab world.  

One of the perks of being a U.N. “diplomat” was free lunchtime language lessons, and I elected to take Arabic. I chose it simply because it seemed interesting, and at the time I was naïve enough not to anticipate that someone from the Israeli delegation taking Arabic classes at the U.N. might encounter some awkwardness. When the course started, I found that--save a couple of Scandinavians and Heather--everyone else served on delegations that refused to speak to Israel: Malaysia, Pakistan, Iran.

We all wore U.N. passes listing our countries, but I would tuck mine behind my tie, turn it backwards, or push it beneath my suit jacket. I wouldn’t blame Israelis for finding that unfair or cowardly, but all I was trying to do was study a language, and I didn’t relish the idea of bringing international politics into it. In truth, I was tired of international politics. I’m actually from Toronto, and had barely spent any time in Israel, but when I was at the U.N., the tag around my neck made it impossible for certain other diplomats to interact with me. During tedious meetings, I would sometimes amuse myself by looking in the direction of the Syrian or Lebanese diplomats just to see the efforts they would make to avoid eye contact with the Zionist entity.

Once, I was sitting alone at Israel’s seat at a U.N. committee, and because of the absence of the Irish delegation, Iran was slated to sit directly beside me. When they broke U.N. protocol by refusing to do so, I mentioned it to my Israeli superiors. Accustomed to U.N. dynamics, they jokingly suggested that Iran had no problem sitting beside Israel, and simply didn’t want to sit beside me.

If only their joke were true. I had experienced doors being slammed in my face, diplomats refusing to shake hands with me, and even disdainful remarks from Secretariat staffers. So, when my classmates asked me where I was from--sometimes in English, sometimes in our shared pidgin-Arabic--I would honestly answer “Canada,” even though I knew that wasn’t what they meant.

Anyway, on the subway that night, I forced my way through the throng of people separating Heather and me--they were jabbering in half a dozen languages, the train’s daily snapshot of New York. When I greeted her, she was startled, unable to quickly place me out of context. After a bit of small-talk, I leaned in conspiratorially and told her that I wasn’t from the Canadian delegation. I explained to her how I had stumbled into my job, and why I had not been forthright with her, our classmates, or our Egyptian teacher. She seemed to empathize. Although no delegation was as lonely an outpost as the Israeli one, isolation was not unknown to the Americans.

Still, she told me she thought that since all the people in our class seemed so kind, I could comfortably tell them which country employed me. She spent the next few minutes trying to convince me that person-to-person contact could transcend politics. It was a hard sell. One Israeli diplomat I knew had recently tried to strike up a friendly conversation with someone from an enemy country, and was greeted with the response: “If you want me to be killed, continue talking to me.” On the other hand, after a recent U.N. meeting, a diplomat from a country with no diplomatic ties to Israel had approached one of my superiors to compliment Israel’s speech. We were astounded. Not only did the two countries not converse, but this other country had also officially railed against the Israeli position.

In any case, by the time we reached my stop, Heather had begun to persuade me. So, in a one-on-one conversation with our teacher before the next class began, I casually let slip which delegation paid my salary. He politely tried to disguise his surprise, but it was noticeable. Then, a few minutes into class, he brought Hebrew up for the first time, comparing phrases in the two Semitic languages and looking directly at me. (He didn’t realize, of course, that my Hebrew was not a whole lot better than my Arabic.) Everyone in the class seemed to follow his gaze. Later, he brought Israel up again, noting, apropos of nothing, that one of the former Israeli ambassadors to the U.N. had taken the same Arabic class years before. “Sometimes he would have his bodyguard standing outside the door,” he said, looking at me again. Then he asked me if I knew this former ambassador personally.

By this point I thought it had been made clear to everyone that I was at least somehow connected to Israel or its government. I slinked in and out of class, trying to avoid any hostility or political discussion, and felt like a self-conscious high school outcast. But in the classes that followed--during many of which the teacher would find ways to mention Israel again--I was not made the target of the animosity I had feared. On the contrary, I was treated to almost saccharine affability by my teacher and classmates, who never overtly mentioned Israel or Middle East politics, but began awkwardly bombarding me with friendly smiles and small talk before and after class. Suddenly we were chatting about the weather, life in New York City, and the difficulties we were all having learning Arabic.

It all felt almost too congenial--and, in a strange sense, more uncomfortable than the harsh treatment that my colleagues in the Israeli Mission received during regular U.N. business. Weighed down by years--centuries--of dismal history and politics, I just couldn’t convince myself to trust their friendliness. We were, I thought, hopelessly trying to wallpaper over decades of hostility. But as the class progressed and eventually ended, and the good cheer of my classmates never wavered, I began to think differently. Maybe, just maybe, there was something to what Heather had said about human relations trumping politics. Small interactions like this might be how people begin to forgive--or at least understand--each other.

Inshallah.

Gregory Levey is the author of the new memoir, Shut Up, I’m Talking: And Other Diplomacy Lessons I Learned in the Israeli Government. He is on faculty at Ryerson University, and blogs at www.gregorylevey.com.

By Gregory Levey