Is it a light-hearted tell-all about the inner workings of the Israeli Mission to the United Nations or a gross exaggeration of the facts and a betrayal?
Gregory Levey, who for a year-and-a-half was a speechwriter there, insists that his just-released book, “Shut Up, I’m Talking: And Other Diplomacy Lessons I Learned in the Israeli Government” (Free Press), is his honest recollection of what happened.
Israeli officials declined comment, but others insist that much of it is a distortion just to get laughs. And the story that is arguably the highlight of the book is said to be so preposterous that no one at the Israel Mission believes it.
As Levey tells it, he found himself at the age of 25 sitting alone in Israel’s seat in the United Nations General Assembly just minutes before an important vote. And what’s more, Levey — a Canadian and not even an Israeli citizen — had “no idea how Israel wanted to vote, and very little concept of what the vote was even about.”
He tells of being unable to get his cell phone to work in the UN and eventually going over to the head of the American delegation to find out how he was going to vote.
“[I] thought that maybe I should just vote however he did, since Israel often followed the lead of its closest ally,” he writes. Levey insists the incident actually took place and that he really did push a button to cast Israel’s vote.
In a phone interview from Toronto, Levey insists that his version is accurate.
Ben Harris, Levy’s predecessor and now a reporter for JTA, writes in a book review: “It’s not hard to read Levey’s memoir as a colossal act of betrayal.”
Harris writes that Levey portrays Israel’s diplomatic efforts as “ferociously inept and staffed by such insipid characters that no one should ever wonder why Israel seems incapable of convincing the world of the basic justice of its cause.”
But Levey defends his book, saying it was a “humorous take” about his experiences.
“I was just trying to bring light and humor to a situation that too often is taken too seriously,” he said. “It’s my own personal story and all I meant to do was to entertain. Everything in the book is true. Every incident is true, at least as I remember it. None of this should be taken negatively at all.”
Levey says he felt like a “fish out of water” when he found himself working with Israelis both at the UN Mission here and later in Israel as a speech writer for then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
“It was a culture clash,” he explained. “I was thrown into Israeli society. It is not criticism.”
Asked about the section of the book in which he recalls walking into then-Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom’s hotel suite and finding him working in his underwear, Levey said is simply shows that Israelis “have a more informal way of doing things. It is not something I would imagine in a Western government — someone in his underwear. It comes from a kibbutz culture and it is endearing and charming.
“I don’t want anything to be taken as an attack; it’s just foreign to me. … It’s poking fun a little bit in a light-hearted, friendly kind of way.”