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New Israeli Diplomats Arrive
Sitting in his bare Center City office -- save for a portrait of Israeli President Shimon Peres -- Israeli diplomat Yaron Sideman compared himself to "a very excited and somewhat anxious first-grader."
The 45-year-old from Rehovot began his post on Monday as Consul General of Israel to the Mid-Atlantic Region, the head of the Jewish state's diplomatic corps serving Pennsylvania, Delaware, Ohio, southern New Jersey and West Virginia.
The 17-year veteran of the Israeli Foreign Ministry is eager to learn the terrain, get to know the Jewish community, make new allies for Israel, defend the Jewish state from her critics and present the vibrancy of Israeli society in all its complexity.
He arrived in Philadelphia late last week along with his wife Tammy, a teacher, and their 3-year-old daughter, Tal.
He is taking over from Daniel Kutner, the Argentinian-born Israeli who spent four years in Philadelphia. The former consul general returned to Jerusalem last week to become deputy director of the North American Division for Israel's Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
A new No. 2 at the consulate also recently arrived. Elad Strohmayer, 31, is the new deputy consul general. He replaces Raslan Abu Rukun, who spent three years in Philadelphia and was the first member of the Druze minority to represent Israel in the region (see Representing Israel, From Angola to Philly).
Sideman begins his tenure at a challenging and uncertain time as Iran is reportedly moving ahead full steam with its nuclear program and speculation is running rampant over whether and when Israel will launch a pre-emptive strike.
In the event of a confrontation, Israel will doubtless have to wage a public relations war every bit as fierce as any physical battle against Iran's nuclear sites.
"Iran isn't just Israel's problem, but it is, of course, a direct threat to Israel," said Sideman, adding that while he expects to spend plenty of time talking about the Iranian threat, he also hopes to shift the focus to other areas, such as Israel's resilient hi-tech economy.
"This is the best of times and the worst of times. We have to be able to portray the full spectrum of Israel," he said.
Both Sideman and Strohmayer have ample experience working in North America and are familiar with the American Jewish community. Each said in separate interviews that they consider deepening ties between Israelis and American Jews to be among their top priorities.
"Eighty percent of the Jews in the world are residents of Israel and North America," Sideman said. "It behooves us to exchange in a cross-pollinating dialogue" in part because the two communities are jointly responsible for the future of Judaism and the Jewish people.
Both diplomats said that working on college campuses and engaging in dialogue with students who have some criticisms of Israel will be a major aspect of their work.
Sideman said he rejects the notion that pro-Israel activism is facing a crisis on college campuses, but he acknowledges there are challenges.
"Previous attempts to use campuses for fertile ground for Israel-bashing have failed," he said.
Sideman was born in New York to Israeli parents; the family returned to the Jewish state when Sideman was 5, and he grew up in the Tel Aviv area.
After completing military service and earning a bachelor's degree in psychology, he said, he decided to join the Foreign Ministry because he wanted to serve his country. While part of the diplomatic corps, he managed to achieve one of his dreams and complete a second degree in classical guitar.
Most recently, he spent a year studying politics at the Israel National Defense College, which offered him a broad, strategic view of Israel and the region and prepared him for his current post, he said.
During his career, Sideman has overseen from Jerusalem the North American Department of Congressional Affairs at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He's also been stationed in Nigeria and was the consul for public affairs at the Consulate General of Israel in New York.
He was serving in that capacity on Sept. 11, 2001. Being in the city during the attacks was one of the most profound, powerful and troubling experiences of his diplomatic career, he said.
"I think that's one of the things that brings us closer together," said Sideman, referring to the fact that both the United States and Israel have experienced terrorism firsthand.