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Making Friends, Influencing People for Israel
As a native of Argentina and a lifelong Zionist, Daniel Kutner had spent most of his life being pessimistic about Judaism's long-term prospects for survival in the Diaspora.
But after four years serving as Israel's consul general in Philadelphia, along with a previous stint in Manhattan, the 57-year-old diplomat has come to appreciate the vitality of Jewish life here -- and has grown more confident that the community will continue for generations.
What he appreciates, above all, is "the openness of America to accept different identities. Americans today are perfectly able to be Americans and something else. Today, that is seen in a positive light."
At the same time, he's concerned about the apathy he sees in the younger generation, not just regarding the Jewish state, but towards Judaism in general.
"I fear not the different opinions about Israel, but apathy," he said, adding that, by turning their backs on their Jewish identity, many young people are also turning "their backs on Israel."
On the eve of Israel's 64th birthday, the Jewish state's top diplomat in the region sat for a wide-ranging interview at the consulate's offices on John F. Kennedy Boulevard. Kutner is planning to return to Israel sometime this summer where, for a time, he'll be stationed at the foreign ministry's Jerusalem headquarters.
His departure won't be the only change at the consulate. Kutner's right-hand man, deputy counsel general Raslan Abu Rukun -- the first Israeli Druze to hold a diplomatic post locally -- is also slated this summer to wrap up his two-year stint in Philadelphia.
Under Kutner, the consulate entered the realm of social media and expanded its cultural reach. It also has assumed a larger role in promoting economic ties between the Jewish state and the Keystone State.
Just last week, the America-Israel Chamber of Commerce honored Kutner and Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter with its Yitzhak Rabin award for efforts at facilitating bi-national cooperation. Kutner was cited for raising public awareness of Israel's hi-tech sector in civic, academic and business circles.
During his time here, he used his first language, Spanish, to promote Israel to Hispanic leaders in Philadelphia. In fact, Kutner was one of 50 people who received the 2011 Delaware Valley Most Influential Latino Award.
"Our mission is to make friends and influence people for Israel," he said, adding that Hispanics are a fast-growing segment of the U.S. population who are potential key allies for Israel.
The married father of two grown children explained that Israeli diplomats spend most of their time either "in a crisis or preparing for a crisis."
Some of those have struck close to home, such as in January when the consulate received a package marked anthrax that contained white powder, although according to consular officials, the substance turned out not to be harmful. And just last week, the local consulate's website was taken down by hackers for the good chunk of a day.
His tenure here has overlapped with some global public relations challenges, including Israel's offensive in Gaza, known as Operation Cast Lead, during the winter of 2008-2009; the fallout two years ago from Israel's raid of a Turkish flotilla; and, last year, the Palestinian effort to unilaterally declare statehood at the United Nations.
These days, Kutner spends a huge amount of his time explaining why Israel cannot allow Iran to develop a nuclear bomb.
"We thought that the existential threats were over when it became clear that Arab armies would not be able to destroy Israel, and we learned that terror can make our lives miserable but it won't destroy us," he said. But the Iranian nuclear program, for many Israelis, he said, has raised the prospect of annihilation.
"I think Israel and the U.S. are quite on the same page regarding the assessment of the threat," he said, acknowledging that American and Israeli officials have slightly different perspectives on how quickly Iran will get the bomb and whether sanctions can still derail those efforts.
The Iranian issue has dominated headlines, but last week the Israeli-Palestinian issue got some ink and Web hits when the Palestinian leadership delivered a letter to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu laying out conditions for renewed negotiations.
Kutner said that the document -- which reportedly called for the release of all Palestinian prisoners held by Israel -- wasn't a serious olive branch.
"As long as the Palestinians continue to insist on preconditions, it will still be obvious that they are procrastinating and looking for any excuse not to engage in meaningful negotiations," he said.
Kutner said he is not troubled that some American Jews would like Israel to be more aggressive in pursuing peace talks since, above all, he wants Americans to be engaged with Israel.
He said that the Israeli government is involved in a "critical dialogue" with J Street, a group that favors American pressure on Israel regarding negotiations.
But boycotts, even the partial one advocated by former New Republic editor and author Peter Beinart, cross the line, he said.
"Once Jews begin making calls for society to punish sectors of Israeli society," Americans start down a slippery slope that will end with all of Israel being ostracized, he said.
Questions about whether it's proper for Diaspora Jews to criticize Israel aren't new, he said.
"If I can make a personal confession, I did have my opinions about things that were happening at that time in the early '70s in Israel, but I was torn between my loyalty to the idea of the Jewish state and opinions I may have had," he recalled.
One of the reasons he made aliyah at the age of 18, he said, was because he wanted to be able to express his opinions about Israel as an Israeli citizen.
"Then I joined the foreign service and imposed upon myself another sort of limitations," he quipped. "Now I am not a private citizen anymore. Whatever opinions I have, I cannot express them freely."