After five happy years, the diplomat gymnast has got to split
At the end of July, I bid farewell to the Little Mermaid, to Strøget, to Tivoli, and to Islands Brygge. I said goodbye after five years in which I felt I was steadily becoming more and more Danish. On my Facebook page you might find congratulations to Noma on being voted the best restaurant in the world, cheers to Kronprinsparret on the birth of their twins, and a celebration of the fact that the Danes are the happiest nation on the planet. My family and I assiduously separate our rubbish into compost, paper, glass and plastic (with and without pant), and hazardous materials, and continuously remind each other to squash it all as flat as possible. Our car music system plays Medina and Burhan G, we have all built Lego castles, and I enjoy a good Carlsberg with my smørrebrød and drømmekage. On weekends my children demanded to be taken to Tivoli, Bakken or the Experimentarium, or we strolled along Nyhavn or around the Lakes. I have grown accustomed to leaving work at 5pm and not feeling guilty about it, and when no-one calls at the weekend with work issues, it now seems completely normal to me.
I came to Denmark from a hot, energetic, exciting and excitable country. I thought I would be coming to a cold, reserved place. I was pleasantly surprised to discover a warm, family-orientated culture, a place where both community values and personal liberties have a pride of place, and a small nation that participates in global efforts to improve the quality of life of all peoples while striving to preserve its unique identity. Above all, I discovered a place where people care.
In the five years I have spent among the Danes, I have found out that it is not only history that has brought our people together: in fact we have quite a lot in common. On the brink of leaving, I recall some shared moments and some unusual events that exemplify our special relationship.
One of the best known rescue operations of the Second World War is that of the saving of the Jews of Denmark in 1943 by their countrymen, who gave them safe passage to Sweden in fishing boats in the dead of night. Next year we will commemorate the 70th anniversary of this unprecedented operation, both in Denmark and in Israel.
Later, in 1947, Denmark was immensely influential in drafting and promoting the United Nations Partition Plan for Palestine as embodied in UN General Assembly Resolution 181, calling for the creation of two states, Jewish and Arab, in the territory of Mandatory Palestine.
Even before its official foundation as a state, Israel was a laboratory for new ideas in many fields. One of the most noted experiments was the Israeli kibbutz, an attempt to create a socialist society in which the members give according to their abilities and receive according to their needs. Over 40,000 Danes worked and volunteered at Israeli kibbutzim during the 1960s, 70s and 80s. Many of those who worked crops, milked cows and washed dishes in communal kitchens were captured by the lens of photographer David Einav. In 2010, these photographs were curated by Yael Nitsan and exhibited by the Israeli Embassy in Copenhagen at a reunion for hundreds of kibbutz volunteers from Denmark, who celebrated their shared yet unique experiences over a long night of art, music, and memories. Israeli kibbutz-born dancers performed amongst hundreds of tomatoes at Dansehallerne and socialist-style kibbutz posters were exhibited in the building.
Culturally, there have been many highlights, including visits by the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra to Tivoli; authors such as Amos Oz, David Grossman and Lizzy Doron to major book events; Eran Katz to teach the Danes how to improve their memories; Amir Asor to use Lego bricks to teach science and technology; and the gay community of Tel Aviv, which in the summer of 2009, when Copenhagen hosted the World OutGames, was invited to construct a beach on Islands Brygge. For a whole week, Danes and tourists could experience Israeli music, beach games and (Danish) beer on ‘Tel Aviv Strand’. Among the guests of honour was the organiser of the OutGames, who is today the current minister of culture of Denmark.
If I had to single out one event, it would be ‘Six Days of Peace’, a project initiated by Gregory Rockson. This young rotary ambassadorial scholar from Ghana sought to bring together Israelis and Palestinians. With the support of the Israeli Embassy and the Palestinian Mission, he organised a reception held at Copenhagen City Hall in May 2012, led by Pia Allerslev, which included food prepared by Israeli, Palestinian and Danish chefs. Later that same day, Gregory brought an Israeli-Palestinian-Jordanian-Norwegian-American ensemble, My Favorite Enemy, to the Tivoli stage. In Gregory’s words: “We’ll start with six days of peace, who knows how many will follow.”
Israeli-Danish co-operation during my time wasn’t just limited to culture, though. We’ve welcomed Nobel prize winners; introduced Israeli and Danish businesses to each other, including Shai Agassi’s electric car project to Dong Energy; and helped facilitate continuing co-operation between our countries in research and development.
And I’ll never forget the high profile political visits! Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the then Danish prime minister, received an honorary degree at the University of Haifa and opened a marine science centre there, and Shimon Peres, the president of Israel, came to Denmark at the head of a large delegation at COP15. That particular occasion turned much of my hair white: imagine trying to find hotel rooms for your delegation with 100 other heads of state here, all at the same time – not to mention a taxi!
When I bid farewell to the Little Mermaid, I told her I would return. Maybe in a few years as the Israeli ambassador to Denmark, but certainly sooner as a tourist and visitor. The Little Mermaid managed to contain her excitement at this news and stayed as immobile as ever, turning her face away from me towards the blue-grey sea. I promised her this reaction would not deter me from returning.