Yinam Cohen, the new consul general of Israel to the Midwest, has arrived with goals.
He said he’d like to reach Americans who have drifted away from the traditional United States-Israel alliance. He wants to oppose antisemitism. He wants to better connect the Midwest and Israel economically.
And having arrived in Chicago this summer with his family, he wants to take his mega-sports-fan son, 14, to see the Milwaukee Bucks.
“I’m definitely coming to watch the Bucks with him, hopefully sometime soon. Being able to see Giannis is going to be amazing,” he said. “Just to think that we are an hour drive from an NBA champion.”
The Consulate General of Israel to the Midwest office is in Chicago. The office processes Israeli passports, issues tourist visas, accepts information from Israelis abroad like a change of name, and so forth. Cohen now leads the office, which he said is staffed despite the pandemic.
Cohen is a career diplomat and he, his wife, Ayelet, and their three children are living that lifestyle. Between 2015 and 2018, Cohen served as deputy chief of mission in the Embassy of Israel in Madrid. Prior to that, he represented Israel in at posts in Berlin and in Bogota, Colombia. The children have been able to adjust well to all the changes, he said.
“They are very excited,” he said. “There were very excited to arrive here.”
Cohen said he wants to connect Israel with the Midwest economically.
“It is an area with so much commercial potential to Israel,” he said. “Israel is a very advanced economy but it’s small.”
On rising antisemitism, he said that’s a matter of great concern. “It is our duty to fight antisemitism all over the world and we do it,” he said.
Cohen said he wants to reach Americans who have drifted away from Israel. He said he understands that are some are unreachable but added that others are “on the edge.”
Some criticism of Israel is normal, he said. “This is OK. This is how democracy works,” he said, adding that he’s not going to say Israel is always right. In fact, he said the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is “a two-sided story.”
But he said he’s aware that some in America have turned sour on Israel. He noted that people have an instinct to feel for the weaker side, and Israel is stronger than the Palestinians. But he recommends viewing the news with history and context in mind.
For example, consider that Israel is truly not an exclusively Jewish state.
“Israel is not just about Jews.” Cohen said. “Israel is a very diverse country. Many people don’t know that.”
More than 20 percent of Israelis are not Jews, he noted, and “they take an active role in our government.” He has diplomat colleagues who are Arab and there are Arab officers in the Israeli Defense Force.
Also, Cohen said, not only is Israel the only democracy in the Middle East, it’s a strong one. Israelis have held four elections in recent years, he said, “but we are strong enough to maintain it.”
Israel shares Western values with America and this has meant LGBTQ Palestinians sometimes arrive in Tel Aviv seeking refuge, he said.
“This government for the first time has Jews from all over the spectrum … but also we have the government with the highest number of women ministers in the history of Israel. For the first time in the history of Israel we have an Arab Islamist party that makes part of the coalition.”
The current coalition government, made up of disparate groups, was approved in the Knesset by a thin margin. But the coalition could hold.
“They started with no illusions. They started very realistic,” he said. “They know they hold very different views on certain issues. The decided to focus on the 90 percent of the issues they can agree on.”
The work, he said, can focus on employment, security, education and health. “COVID has changed everything,” he said. “We live in a new world, a new reality.”