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January 4, 2011 6:52 pm

Diplomatic Dilemma Impedes International Relations

avatar by Maxine Dovere

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Israel's Foreign Ministry Building. Photo: Zev Zamir.

Israel is in a diplomatic crisis.  This one is, however, different than most – there is no foreign power seeking to delegitimize the country, no terrorist attack against a ministry, no pronouncement of anti-Zionist resolutions.  This is a crisis in and of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, whose members are the international public face of the Jewish State.

“We cannot continue in this situation,” said Joel Lion, a senior consular officer based in the Consulate of Israel in New York.  On a salary that is less than what a beginning teacher earns – about $4,400 monthly – we have to pay for housing, school tuition, and car expenses in the expensive New York region, plus continuing mortgage payments in Israel.  “If I have to go to meet the Prime Minister, I have to take the subway” he says.  “I am not receiving funds for taxi or parking expenses.”

The strike has been on since August.  “No one noticed,” said Lion, “the strikers have been asked to be quiet, to continue working for the good of the country.” The accommodation has not been good of the diplomats. MOFA employees suffer financial hardship not only when they are abroad: their situations do not improve once they are back in Israel. Someone with 20 years experience, even a former ambassador, earns less than 13,000 shekels bruto (before taxes), about 9000 shekels “clean.”  With the exchange rate at 3.6 to 1, experienced diplomats assigned to posts in Israel, many at the optimum points of their careers earn only about $25,000 a year.  Family difficulties are further increased since diplomatic spouses can only work in limited areas (such as the consular mission) and generally receive minimal compensation.  With double expenses and only one source of income, about 12 % of MOFA’s employees live below the poverty line.

“Foreign Service is special; most of the people have basically only one source of income…Outside of the Ministry, they could earn thousands….In the United States, salaries have not been adjusted in years; in Europe, It’s better.  Diplomats now earn about 5500 E per month.  These are the representatives who “should be the glory of the State of Israel – its diplomatic service, and they earn about 43% of those in equivalent jobs – for example, in the Ministry of Defense,” according to this 20 year plus consular officer.

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“It’s not only a problem of salary. It’s a problem of who you want in the MOFA.   Do you want the best of the best or a group of jobnicks?  The head of the union of Ministry employees has said that “Either you are an idealist or simply foolish – metumtam,”  Says the married father of eight, “at a starting salary of 4000 shekels a month – about $1200 – if you don’t have rich parents, don’t join the MOFA!”

The struggle for salary is only part of the cost.  Families must move every four, lives are disrupted, children must change schools, spouses must find new jobs.  “It is the price that we are paying to serve the country,” said the Consul for news and media.

The diplomatic crisis that led to the cancelation of Russian President Medvedev visit to Israel actually began in August.  “People do not understand what we are doing.  Not everything is New York or Washington, D.C.   In many locations, Ministry employees live in constant fear, many cannot go home without guards.  “We are targets of our enemies,” commented this senior consular officer.

MOFA employees complain that the Minister of Finance fails to understand the importance of the role of the members of the MOFA, and why it is so important to maintain the highest level of personnel.  Much of the work of is hidden.  It is they who prepare papers involved in each diplomatic visit – doing the research, developing and refining the documents.”   The current level of pay creates hardships which are hurting the interests of the State of Israel.”

One Washington based diplomat, a leader in the MOFA strike says “Enough is enough. We have decided to take a hard line.”The salary increases offered by the Ministry of Finance have been categorized as “laughable.”  The increase is 4.4 % – earned after nine years.  The token amount fails to look at how much a normal person needs to live.  Lion says, “it’s not a greedy thing – not only a point of money.   It’s about having a decent life – not needing to have to think twice before inviting someone to dinner – not to have to work like a schnoror.”

Even though returning diplomats do receive support from within the ministry, the problem is not the “support.” The problem is money – or, lack of it – at the end of the month. Diplomats returning to Israel “are coming back to almost nothing.  Most of the time, says Joel Lion, the spouse cannot even find work.”  He is adamant about the need of the Finance Ministry to change the financial conditions of Israeli diplomats, both while serving abroad and when they return to Israel.  Lion, described by the Jerusalem Post as ‘inventive, moving and spiritual,’ joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1993,  diplomats like Lion who joined the government for “Zionist reasons,” are frustrated.  “The point is not to leave,” he says.  “The challenge is to change conditions so that dedicated MOFA personal can live a decent life, and not be forced to ask for family assistance.” The salary crisis has affected the development of future foreign officers: not enough people are coming into the Ministry to fill its jobs. “I am taking a stand for the good of my country,” he declares.

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