Brits in Israel for JN by Jenni Frazer April 18 2016
Lieutenant-Colonel Peter Lerner, 43, is the slightly unexpected sombre British voice of the Israel Defence Forces, spokesman to the international media and commander of the IDF’s social media activities.
Twitter users are accustomed to Lt-Col Lerner’s swift and informative updates whenever there is an operation or a terrorist incident. But it’s a long way from Northwick Park Hospital, where the future lieutenant-colonel was born, or his primary education at Kenton’s SinaiSchool.
The family were regular shul-goers and the young Peter Lerner was a member of B’nei Akiva. But when he was 12 and his younger sister 10, his father — a London taxi-driver — and his mother agreed that they should move to Israel.
When he was eight he had an unpleasant encounter with a neighbourhood kid; he wore a kippah while riding his bike. A bigger girl smacked him on the face so that he fell over, screaming: “You are a Jew!” For Lerner, “this was a wake-up call”, and he immediately enrolled in karate classes.
In the summer of 1985 the Lerners went to an absorption centre at Mevasseret Zion. “There were lots of people there who had difficulties, with Hebrew, with Israel… I never felt that. I felt right at home immediately, and so did my sister.”
The young Lerner went to school in Jerusalem and joined the army at 18, first serving in a military police unit, and then moving to be a liaison officer between the army and a variety of international organisations such as the International Red Cross, the UN and foreign embassies.
His command of English — refined from that of a 12-year-old by his voracious appetite for reading — soon led the army to pay attention. He became the spokesman for IDF Central Command and was then sent to study political science at Bar-Ilan.
After a stint at IDF Staff College, he assumed his current role, explaining the work of the military to the foreign press and running the army’s considerable online presence. He’s married to a lawyer and the couple have one daughter.
Was his job mission impossible? “No. Is it hard? Absolutely. But for me, this is not just a career, but something which is bigger than any individual. And I really think of it as a huge honour, to have been this Anglo-Jewish kid from Kenton and now speaking for Israel.”
Finchley-born Micky Rosenfeld, 45, is Israel’s police spokesman, again, the go-to man whenever there is trouble in the country.
He, too, attended Sinai School, then Hasmonean, and like Peter Lerner, was a member of B’nei Akiva.
At 16, in 1987, he moved with his family to Jerusalem: his father was in property and his mother was a lecturer in English. He has two sisters, one older and one younger.
“I finished high school in Israel, the Hartman School, taking advantage of the English teaching. Then I went into the army, in the Givati infantry brigade, specialising in training and operations”.
Initially he thought about going back to the UK to study, but instead decided to work with security organisations that had the most active units working on counter-terrorism. At 22, Rosenfeld joined the Israel National Police Counter-Terrorism Unit. “The training was very hard, and it was difficult to get into the unit”. But he succeeded, and spent 10 years there, from 1995 to 2005. During this time he took a first degree in Middle Eastern studies and a second in business management, and also worked with the Foreign Ministry.
He spent time training other counter-terrorist units. “I’d always represented the Israel National Police and the Border Police on visits from our counterparts, or when I’d be sent abroad. In 2005 I was offered the position of spokesman to the foreign press.”
Every criminal or terror-related incident in Israel eventually lands on Superintendent Rosenfeld’s desk. “Of course, I have operating experience on the scene, but my experience and English language skills are just as important. To do this job you have to understand the international perspective”.
Israel works with Interpol and police forces from Britain to America. “Our focus is on making sure we are one step ahead”.
The foreign press, he says, “know exactly what is going on. The Israel police work fast and furious, but accurately, wherever they can. We ensure that everything is instantaneous and online — and all the security organisations work together, so that there are no gaps in knowledge or response. Every operation has to be explained, and it is critical to do it. My duty and that of all the police is to protect Israel and its citizens.”
He’s married with three kids aged eight, 11 and 12 and a half. His wife is eighth generation of an Old City of Jerusalem family, and his two younger children study in the Old City. “Our lives [despite terrorism] continue as normal, and we continue to focus and function.
“I’m where I always wanted to be. I’ve always taken 100 per cent responsibility”.
Yair Zivan, 31,is the English-language public face of the centrist political party led by former journalist Yair Lapid, Yesh Atid. But before that Yair was the foreign press spokesman for Israel’s ninth president, Shimon Peres, so he, too, was in the thick of explaining a quintessentially Israeli role to the outside world.
Unlike all his British-born colleagues, Zivan was actually born in Israel, but his parents — both Israel-born — moved to Leicester when Zivan was five. “My father was in textiles and Leicester was then the European capital,” he says.
He lived in Leicester until he was 18, attending Maccabi — “there weren’t many youth groups in Leicester”, he jokes — and spending his gap year in Israel. His parents had already moved back.
“I always knew I wanted to return to Israel”, says Zivan, who read history at UCL and then became the energetic campaigns director for the Union of Jewish Students.
His huge advantage, of course,was that the family spoke Hebrew at home while he was growing up, so aliya did not present the language obstacle for him that it did for his UK-born colleagues.
But Zivan did not just “fall in” to a high profile job. In fact, he says, “my first job was as a waiter while I was waiting to go into the army. Then I taught for a few months in Israeli schools, and set up my own company offering seminars for tourists.”
Zivan’s army service was in the IDF spokesman’s unit and when that concluded in September 2011 he began doing a master’s degree at IDC Herzliya, the prestigious academic think tank founded in 1994. On spec, he sent in his CV to the President’s Office, and was taken on to spend the last two years of Mr Peres’s presidency with him.
He learned, says Zivan, “a huge amount” working with Shimon Peres, 92, whose secret, he says, “is that he doesn’t stop working”. And, he adds, “Mr Peres is one of the only people left from that generation of Zionist leaders and pioneers. To hear first-hand, for example, stories about Ben-Gurion, was just amazing”.
The day that Mr Peres stood down as president — in July 2014 — Zivan began woking with Yesh Atid as foreign policy adviser to Yair Lapid. Like his British colleagues, Zivan thinks of himself as “ideologically .driven. A lot of us came here very highly motivated. Perhaps our peers in the UK are earning more, but we feel we can make a difference.”
Karen Kaufman is Hendon-born and now works as part of a tight-knit circle running the Initiative for the Middle East office of the former British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, acting as his media and external relations adviser.
It’s a relatively new post, created after Blair stood down as Middle East representative to the Quartet — America, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations — in June 2015. Kaufman, 38, had been working as Blair’s Quartet spokesperson, but when he said he wanted to continue working for peace in the region, she chose to join him in his new venture.
She comes, she says, “from a Zionist traditional family”, and was born to parents who had moved to Britain from India in the 1960s. She attended Hasmonean School and “a couple of weeks after my A-levels” went to Israel, spent time volunteering with UJIA in Ashkelon, and then made aliya aged just 19.
The then Karen Saul threw herself into an immersive Hebrew course at Tel Aviv University before enrolling there to read political science and communications. All her studies were in Hebrew, which “massively” improved her command of the language; but her first job was working on the English edition of Ha’aretz.
“I was there for six years, during the worst of the second intifada, and it was incredibly intense”. When a position came up as spokesperson at the British Embassy in Tel Aviv, Kaufman applied and became the public face of the UK for many Israelis. She worked with three ambassadors and was there during the prime ministerial visits of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown to Israel.
Kaufman spent seven years at the embassy and then “decided to use my communication skills” by becoming head of international relations for ACRI, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel. It was, she says, “a chance to do something for an organisation I believed in”.
Two years after joining ACRI the Quartet job came up and Kaufman joined a 50-strong team working with Tony Blair. Now she is one of just five staffers, is married with two little girls but retains her strong commitment to Blair’s ambitions for peace in the region. The Initiative for the Middle East has, says Kaufman, three priorities: Arab-Israeli regional co-operation; a dramatic improvement in Palestinian living conditions; and Gaza reconstruction and opening. Talking to this whirlwind of a woman one is left with the distinct feeling that Blair is only going to be able to do the job with her on board.
Sharon Segel, by coincidence, was close friends with Karen Kaufman as a girl and the pair were in and out of each other’s houses in Hendon. Today Segel is press officer at the British embassy in Tel Aviv and liaison between the ambassador and the UK Jewish community.
Segel, 38, like so many of her colleagues, is ex-B’nei Akiva and comes from a modern Orthodox family. She attended Hasmonean Prep and Hasmonean School, and spent her gap year in Israel, with eight months at “sem” and four months on Kibbutz Lavi.
It was being in Israel and feeling the national outpouring of grief after a helicopter crash that decided Segel that she was going to make aliya, but her parents wanted her to go to university in the UK.
She read history and politics at Queen Mary College and became very involved in UJS. She was QMC J-Soc president and then became anti-racism officer at the University of London Union.
“I was in love with politics”, says Segel, who went on to do a master’s in US politics at Birkbeck College. She thought her future lay in political journalism but first worked with former MP Andrew Dismore before making aliya in January 2006.
“My Hebrew was not at all good at that point”, she says. After a five-month ulpan she began working for Hadassah, which she describes as “inspirational — politics stops at the hospital doors”.
After qualifying for a Legacy Heritage Fellowship — which supports outstanding graduates in America, Israel and Europe — Segel joined The Israel Project, an American-funded, Israel-based NGO. She spent four years there — and describes it as “rewarding but draining”.
She took a brief time-out to travel and when she got back to Israel the British embassy job beckoned. She joined its staff in June 2014 and plainly loves the work. “Israelis are actually very Anglophile”, says Segel, adding that Brits are recognised in so many fields as the arbiters of “best practice. We bring, I think, a whole different perspective to that of other English speakers.”
Jason Pearlman, 34, is “the last Pearlman born in Sunderland”, which has a resonance for the army of Sunderland ex-pats in Britain and Israel. Today he is the foreign media adviser for President Reuven Rivlin — and, like his other UK colleagues, arrived in post via a circuitous route.
The Pearlman family — some of whom helped to establish yeshivas in Poland and Russia — was one of the best-known families in Sunderland, but when the town’s kollel closed down, the family knew it was time to relocate from the sadly shrinking community.
At 17 Pearlman moved to London. “My father’s mother came from London — and her mother, my great-grandmother Rose, was sitting next to Herzl at the Sixth Zionist Congress in 1903. I have a picture of her on my desk at work.”
He was a member of B’nei Akiva but laughs when recalling that the Sunderland branch was basically him and two others. Once in London he finished his schooling at Immanuel College but insists he was a terrible student.
Nevertheless Pearlman made it to university — Brunel — where he read politics and social policy. In his second year he got married and thus, he says, had less to do with campus life or student politics than might have been the case.
“There were a lot of Israel debates at the time but there wasn’t really a strong Jewish student presence”. Startlingly, Pearlman recalls a Palestinian student who came back to Brunel after a summer break in Israel and told him: “I was completely wrong about Israel — it is not an evil entity as I had been led to believe.”
Knowing that he wanted to make aliya but aware that his Hebrew was “with a strong Ashkenazi accent and limited understanding”, Pearlman chose an unusual way of learning the language. He bought as many Israeli music CDs as he could — “from rap to rock” — and learned the lyrics. He also did a Jewish Agency ulpan in Stanmore Synagogue.
After 18 months working for the Board of Deputies and two years at the Israeli embassy in London, Pearlman and his wife made aliya in 2006 with their first child, Avishai (they now have three children).
Five months after their arrival came an event that transformed the young couple’s lives — Yael, Pearlman’s wife, was diagnosed with lymphoma. “She had to have emergency surgery and a Palestinian surgeon from Hebron, at Shaare Zedek, saved her life.” All too rapidly Jason Pearlman’s medical Hebrew improved.
What could have been a tragedy in fact anchored the family in Israel, because the medical options open to them were so much better than in the UK. They were stuck — but in a good way.
Pearlman’s first job was with NGO Monitor, and then he moved to the Government Press Office. After a stint in the private sector the opportunity arose to work with Reuven Rivlin. “I have the opportunity to witness some of the most influential events in Israeli society and I do feel very grateful and blessed. It’s very rare that I don’t think, you are a little boy from a coal-mining town in north-east England — and I am here, in a country that I am able to choose to be my home.”
Pearlman credits British success in Israel to youth movements, which have “social action and justice at their heart. And we Brits, I think, punch above our weight.”