Israeli, Turkish diplomats featured at CCLP Washington lunch

Arnold Zeitlin, a visiting professor at Hong Kong University’s Journalism and Media Studies Centre, discusses the “small-world” coincidences of life as experienced during one of CCLP’s “First Monday” Washington D.C. lunches.

(C) BRIAN CARLSON

A small pleasure of living close to Washington, D.C., is the opportunity to sample the smorgasbord of public affairs conversations staged almost daily by the numerous think tanks and lobby groups in the capital. They provide a continuing education program allowing me to keep fresh the knowledge I’ve accrued in a career of seeking information. They also provide a social function, since many of these conversations involve friends I have known for years in other countries.

I was reminded of all this the other day at a luncheon meeting presented by the USC Center on Communication Leadership and Policy and the Public Diplomacy Council, a monthly lunch which brings together U.S. foreign service officers, international journalists and academics to an office a few blocks from the State Department building in Washington’s Foggy Bottom. The occasion was a little unusual for me because it did not directly deal with particular areas of my interest, South Asia and China.

Instead, two diplomats, one from Israel and one from Turkey, sat at the same podium to discuss the topic of public diplomacy. The idea of these two men together charmed me, although I recognize that Jewish Israel and Moslem Turkey have maintained for many years a civil relationship that lately had come under severe pressure. The combination of nationalities was not one often on view in Washington these days.

The men made their presentations without a direct reference to Syria, a considerable accomplishment since Syria was by far the number one topic in DC and is a country that borders both Turkey and Israel. Timur Soylemez, the deputy chief of mission at the Turkish embassy, made an oblique reference to his war-torn neighbor when he said Turkey was unfortunately unlike the United States, which had Canada and Mexico as neighbors.

When the subject of Syria arose during the question period, program moderator John Brown of Georgetown University could not elicit a further response than, “We cannot be blind to what is happening in Syria.”

Soylemez displayed flashes of wry wit of the sort that I’ve rarely seen in other Moslem diplomats and politicians. When a questioner asked about the failure of Turkey to persuade European neighbors to allow it into the European Union, Soylemez said, “Thank you for the softball question.” He went on to say that “I am a diplomat so I don’t deal with failure.” During a discussion of academics, he confessed, “I never stayed at university longer than I had to.”

Noam Katz, the Minister of Public Diplomacy at the Israeli embassy, attracted me for a reason beyond humor: Katz served as Israeli ambassador to Nigeria and Ghana from 2002-2007. I started my overseas reporting work in Nigeria and served in Ghana with the very first Peace Corps volunteer group. I try to keep ties to both countries, if only through my Ghanaian neighbors in Virginia and my Nigerian-born son, now associated among many other interests with the Nigerian sovereign fund. We chatted briefly as I vainly tried to remember the name of the shrewd Israeli ambassador with whom I became friendly when I was the AP correspondent in Lagos in 1966-69, well before Katz’s time.

The name came to me as I typed these notes: with the help of Google, I dredged the name Ram Nirgad from my otherwise fading memory. Nirgad was a slick article who became a useful source of information. I’ve retained a fond memory of the two of us, with me in a white dinner jacket, having dinner alone at a table in a garden at his residence.

The evening after the public diplomacy lunch, I chatted at a Columbia Journalism School reception with another alumnus, Mindy Reiser, Class of ’69, to whom I mentioned meeting an Israeli diplomat earlier in the day.

“You mean Noam Katz,” she said. And so ended another day with the kind of small world coincidence that has dogged my life for decades.

Arnold Zeitlin is a visiting professor at Hong Kong University’s Journalism and Media Studies Centre, and he has lectured and consulted at Beijing Foreign Studies University, Renmin University and Tsinghua University, Beijing; Shanghai International Studies University and Fudan University, Shanghai; and Shantou University, Shantou. He also serves as managing director and chief executive officer of Editorial Research & Reporting Associates.

The next CCLP “First Monday” Washington D.C. lunch, focusing on East Asia, will take place on November 4, at the American Foreign Service Association.