interview and photography by Anthony Georgieff

Israel's ambassador on Jews, Bulgarians and the importance of not twisting history

irit lillian_0.jpg

After spells as an increasingly senior diplomat in Singapore and France, and a variety of positions at the Israeli Foreign Ministry, Irit Lillian came to Bulgaria last year to take up her first job as an ambassador. From the very beginning, it transpired that she would not be your "ordinary" ambassador who talks about "bilateral relations" and avoids any issue of controversy. Being educated in archaeology, classical studies and Egyptology, and having had a spell as a journalist, Irit Lillian has a much wider view on politics and life than the ordinary foreign office type would. Speaking with her is a pleasure as her mind ranges from current affairs in the Balkans and the Middle East (quite uneasy stuff) to traditional rugs to good (vegetarian) food and wine. Apparently, Irit Lillian has many things to look forward to during her sojourn in Bulgaria.

Each and every ambassador who comes to a new place would say that he or she would like to see relations flourishing, economic ties growing stronger and general improvement politically. These wishes are always accurate. However, the relations between our two countries should go far beyond these aspirations. Keeping Israel and Bulgaria close together in a period of global and regional challenges is a complicated task, making sure that the basic friendship of the older generation will be passed on to the younger one is of no lesser importance. One would not doubt that the trade figures should be improved, that more investments should be made – both ways, that the experience gathered in both countries in the fields of science, technology and innovation should be shared more vastly and that new cultural ties should add fresh flavours to existing ones. All these are high on the embassy's agenda, but I am also looking for the "fifth element" that would preserve the uniqueness of our friendship.

This special ingredient could be found in an open dialogue between members of our two civil societies on issues that are of mutual concern, mainly in the social field. Exchanging views on mutual challenges and targets will create a new space for more dynamic and innovative relations. I am looking forwards to be a witness of this space growing more meaningful, to see more projects that are mutually initiated: more young researchers working together, more people investing together in ideas that will make life better in both countries, and more artists collaborating in each and every possible field of the arts.

What will you be cautious with in Bulgaria?

On the day-to-day level, an Israeli ambassador to Bulgaria does not have any reason to be cautious. Bulgaria is a very friendly partner and even if there are differences of opinion or problems that should be tackled, many paths are open to overcome them.

After six months in Sofia I can feel that there are some "rough edges," mainly for people in the business community who are not always satisfied with the working environment in Bulgaria. Fortunately, there is a growing awareness in the different local institutions for these obstacles and a clear willingness to discuss them openly and cut the rough edges.

Europe is going through a very demanding period. In many countries several phenomena that echo bad times in the past are on the rise: growing xenophobia, racism and intolerance.

As a "long-term guest" in Bulgaria there is always the risk to adopt some bad local habits, like the Bulgarian tendency to complain. I fully understand the difficulties that people in Bulgaria face these days and it is not easy to accept it all peacefully. Nevertheless, coming from a country in which existential challenges are a daily routine, I cannot stop asking myself why Bulgarians are so unhappy. Bulgaria is a beautiful place. It is like a huge box full of very pleasant surprises, tastes, landscapes, history, arts and most of all – wonderful people.

If you ask me what I should be cautious of, the answer would be: taking all this good part for granted.

Irit Lillian, Israeli Ambassador to BulgariaThe Jews, as well as the Bulgarians, seem to be preoccupied with history. What are the differences and what are the similarities?

Being preoccupied with history is both a blessing and a curse, quoting our former president Shimon Peres, who famously said: "The future is known, it is the past that keeps on changing." Both our peoples are looking at the past as a source of knowledge, as our old Jewish sages said "Know where you come from and where you are going." However, by dealing with the past one might end up himself trying to adapt history, the past in general, for present or future purposes. Needless to say that this risk is common for both peoples.

Both Bulgarians and Jews try to find comfort in the past, but both have to face present-day reality that is very often complicated and challenging.

As someone who majored in history and archaeology I do not believe in dwelling on past glory. The reality of times gone by is rarely reflected in the present-day narrative. History is very cunning and it keeps on changing… nostalgia is always too sweet. Therefore, the future is more interesting, it is very much within our hands to create and shape it, and it is more exciting by far.

The Jews have a long history in the Bulgarian lands. What are the current sentiments in Israel about the Bulgarians?

The history of the Jewish community in the Balkans in general and in Bulgaria in particular is a fascinating one and not very well known in Israel. The Israeli sentiments towards the Bulgarian people were shaped by the story of the rescue of the Jewish community during the Second World War – as well as the deportation of the communities of Thrace and Macedonia. The deep sentiment of gratitude is a very important feature in the feeling of Israelis towards the Bulgarians, and it is an important pillar in our bilateral relations, as much as the sorrow for the fate of the other two communities always exists.

Since many Bulgarian Jews came to Israel after the establishment of the country in 1948 the image of Bulgaria in the Israeli mind and heart was created through acquaintance with those immigrants, who were the best ambassadors Bulgaria could opt for. They are considered very tolerant and peaceful people with a real passion for life, good voices (mainly the older women) and talented doctors (which is always a blessing in a Jewish family). This was a very good ground to build a beautiful friendship that lasts for the past 70 years.

Imagine you have a friend visiting from Israel. What will you tell them to do and what will you tell them to be careful about in Bulgaria as a visitor?

Although only six months have passed since we arrived in Bulgaria we have already had many visitors and it is a pleasure to discover together with them the treasures of this country, specially the hidden ones. The pleasure is twice as big knowing that we have at least three more years of discovery.

I would warmly recommend all my visitors to get out of Sofia (although the city is beautiful and fascinating), to go to one of the small monasteries, not necessarily Rila Monastery but rather the modest ones. To taste homemade yoghurt and honey (preferably together) and if it is summer to have a fresh tomato and understand what is the real taste of this fruit and how good it is.

Israeli guests and tourists are happy here, they come in growing numbers each and every year. I would not like to be a "party pooper" but if I have to send out a warning I will tell them not to order the whole meal at once if they prefer their soup hot and the starter before dessert.


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