The Jewish State of Bureaucracy


And Other Diplomacy Lessons
I Learned in the Israeli Government
By Gregory Levey
288 pages. Free Press. $24.

Shut Up, I’m Talking, Gregory Levey’s often hilarious, generally fast paced, and ultimately troubling new memoir, starts out with Levey as a second-year law student at Fordham Law School and ends, a (very) few years later, with Levey in Israel, writing speeches for Ariel Sharon. Levey’s rapid rise, as he'd be the first to point out, had less to do with his personal expertise and the quality of his writing (although his writing is generally strong) than with the utter inanity of the ridiculous bureaucracy that is the Israeli government.

Levey's stumble into the world of Israeli politics begins when he applies for an internship at Israel’s U.N. mission in New York. After numerous calls to the mission, Levey is invited to the Israeli consular building for an interview with a number of senior members of the mission. Once there, he is told by Aryeh Mekel, Israel’s deputy permanent representative to the U.N., that “we don’t offer internships.” Angered and confused, Levey has to restrain himself from “yelling incoherently out of sheer frustration.” And it is a good thing he does—because Mekel then invites Levey to join the mission as a full time speechwriter.

Full disclosure here: During my first year of law school, which coincided with Levey’s last year at the mission—he took the job, of course—I was sent an email about a summer internship at the Israeli mission to the U.N. I applied and, like Levey, was summoned for an interview—where I was told , “We don’t offer internships.” When the woman I can only assume is the same grinch Levey describes from his interview as “the biggest bitch you’ll ever meet” spent 20 minutes grilling me on why I wanted to drop out of law school to take the job (something I never had intended to do) and strongly implied (though "implied" might be too weak a word) that I was quite possibly mentally challenged, I decided against taking the mission up on their eventual offer.

After reading Levey’s memoir, I’m quite confident that I made the correct decision.

Don’t get me wrong. Levey had quite a thrilling, and certainly a singular, experience. To cite one example, Levey learned through a foreign dignitary that an important vote was to take place, and was sent to the General Assembly to vote in Israel’s stead. Problem was, nobody told him how to vote, or even what the vote was about. After making numerous frantic phone calls to the Israeli Mission—calls that no one seemed to take seriously—Levey, in a desperate attempt not to get things wrong, asked the American Ambassador how he was voting, assuming Israel would probably want to vote in tandem with her closest ally. Levey ended up voting, with America, against the resolution. Only later did he find out the resolution he voted on was about weapons of mass destruction.

The funniest part of this story—or perhaps the saddest , depending on how you read it—was Levey’s description of the American Ambassador response when Levey, meek and clueless, asked him how he was voting: “He’d clearly had experience dealing with the Israeli Mission, because [Levey’s cluelessness] didn’t seem to surprise him at all; he just nodded.”

The second section of the book has Levey, who evidently was a pretty good speechwriter, being offered and taking a job with the Prime Minister’s office in Israel, writing speeches for Ariel Sharon. This sounds like a plum job, but it doesn’t quite turn out to be one. I could think of, for example, far greater pleasures than being made fun of for your accented Hebrew and then physically spit on by an Israeli man who is supposed to be supplying you with a government phone.

Levey’s troubles at the U.N. mission, and his later, exacerbated troubles at the offices of the Prime Minister in Jerusalem, make for entertaining reading, but they are also intensely troubling. Levey cites with disturbing detail—after all, he did have a first-hand view of the events and the people behind them—about just how feckless the Israeli bureaucracy is. One usually hopes (at least, before reading this book, I hoped) that, while Israeli politics and society are clearly fractured, there are at least some people who know what's going on, that the captains of the ship at least understand which course they are sailing. But if Levey’s perceptions are correct—and there is no reason to believe that they’re not—the Israeli State is in trouble. The upper levels of the Israeli government are no Elders of Zion; if anything, Israel’s government often operates like the blind leading the blind.

When Levey, disillusioned and somewhat broken by the primordial political atmosphere as well as the great social void between Israeli and North American life, quits his job with the Prime Minister and decides to return to America, his break with the nation he spent years working for is both depressing and illuminating. He refuses to look out the airplane’s window – to “say good-bye” to his supposed homeland. And, when the plane touches down at JFK, “it felt like I had finally come home.” These are stark words, which, coming from Levey, a man who clearly desired to love and protect his people’s homeland, become all the more meaningful. And they make his story—which is, for the most part, a hilarious pleasure to read—ultimately a sobering one as well.