A Q-and-A with Philadelphia’s Daniel Kutner

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By Lou Baldwin
Special to The CS&T

PHILADELPHIA – Daniel Kutner, based in Philadelphia, is consul general of Israel for the Mid-Atlantic Region of the United States. He is the official representative of his country in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Delaware, Kentucky, West Virginia and Southern New Jersey.

Born in Argentina, he emigrated to Israel in 1973 and has held various positions in his country’s foreign service since 1983. As a consul general, he promotes economic and cultural relations between Israel and the U.S., assists Israeli nationals and Americans interested in Israel within his region, promotes good relations between the two countries and brings the Israeli perspective to issues that might arise.

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Full text of interview with Israeli Consul General Daniel Kutner
(Conducted in Philadelphia, March 12)

I wonder if you could clarify for our readers just what a consul general does?
In general, a consul general represents his country in a region that is not a capital city of that country. We have one embassy in Washington and we have nine other delegations in the United States which are consulates general because they are headed by a consul general and usually they are staffed by other consuls.
In a specific country of the world sometimes the stress is on economic situations, sometimes its consular affairs, sometimes it’s taking care of the nationals of that county living in this place. Here there are consulates of people from neighboring countries to the United States who are living here that attend to hundreds of people all day. We do all of that. We try to promote economic affairs between the area of our jurisdiction and Israel, and that includes Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia, Kentucky and Delaware and even the southern tip of New Jersey too. We promote cultural events and artists, so from my perspective people will get to know Israel from this angle too, which sometimes is not very much stressed. We try to make Israel better known in the different spheres of American society; in universities, in different communities, denominations, minorities. That’s what we do.

I assume you assist Israeli citizens in this country who have different issues.
Of course. We have a consular section that deals with consular services like things related to their documentation, military service, etc.

And do you provide visas for persons who need them?
Yes, luckily Americans do not need visas. But we have residents who are not American who require visas, so we deal with those issues too. We are aware that we have a big Israeli community in the Greater Philadelphia area, and sometimes we have to deal with emergencies too, so we have to be able to facilitate things. Luckily, it hasn’t happened to me since I arrived, but those things can arise. It’s usually at the worst times; in the middle of holidays or weekends. My colleagues in far-away places have to deal with backpackers that get lost or Jewish mothers who call the consulate and say “My son hasn’t called in three days, you go look for him.” I don’t have to deal with that kind of thing, but it may happen too.

I assume you also promote good relations, explain Israeli positions to Americans who might not understand everything.
Right. That’s an important part of my job, to bring an Israeli perspective to things. I would like to be able to concentrate on bringing Israeli culture and music and promoting economic affairs, but really, a lot of my time is spent on bringing an Israeli perspective to things that are happening right now. Regretfully we are very much in the news. We are a very attractive subject. I wouldn’t say very sexy, but we see a lot of coverage and we are not sure it always reflects the whole complexity of the situation. So we spend a lot of effort to make sure our voice is heard more clearly on those issues.

Our interest is very much on the relationship between our church, the Catholic Church, and the Jewish community both here and in Israel. Can you say something about the state of that relationship?
Well, of course these are two issues. First; relations with the Jewish community. Of course we are very interested and we help and take part. This is an issue between the Jewish community and the Catholic Church in America. But with regards to the State of Israel, which I represent, we have seen in the last decade a great advancement in relations between the Vatican and Israel. The opening of the Israeli Embassy in Rome to the Vatican, I don’t know if it was a great change. De facto relations existed forever, but the formalization of relations was a great step that normalized something. There are a lot of issues still to be resolved, pending from the fact that the presence of the Church in the Holy Land actually precedes the State of Israel. It precedes the British Mandate, you can say it precedes the Ottoman Empire, and it goes at least back to the time of the Crusades. So there are a lot of little issues related to the status of the holy places and different representatives of the Church that are residents of the State of Israel that are being discussed.

One of the concerns among not only Catholics, but all Christians, is what is perceived as a flight of Christians from that area. Is their presence is diminished?
I think, generally speaking, we see a diminishing number of Christians. We see that very patently in the Palestinian territories where the situation has been very bad because of fighting and the intifada, the uprising that triggered a lot of negative processes too, so that Christians actually suffered twice. Once, as the rest of the population, because of the violence. From my perspective as someone who has been following Palestinian affairs for the last decade, it was a very, very tragic error on the part of the Palestinians to revert to violent struggle in the end of the year 2000.What happened it has brought back the wheels of history to a point where we thought we had overcome.
What it brought about among other things was a lot of hardship. So Christians suffered those hardships as all Palestinians did, but apart from that this decade has seen a strengthening of the Islamic movement in the Palestinian territories. The Palestinian national movement was traditionally led by what could be called, more or less, secular nationalist parties. The influence of Islamic parties has increased and that has put increased pressure on Christian communities that were sometimes placed in crossfire. For example, in Bethlehem, which in the past was historically a Christian community. It is not so any more between Bethlehem and Bejallah. There is a clearer Muslim majority.

What are the relations between Jewish citizens of Israel and their Christian neighbors in Israel?
In general, in Israel as separated from the Palestinian territories, which is another story, Christian citizens enjoy full citizenship rights. They vote, they can be elected; they have the same freedoms and privileges of all Israeli citizens. Their proportion in society is also diminished. I don’t know in this case if it is because of emigration as it is in the Palestinian territories. I don’t know if there is an emigration from Israel itself, but demographics. They have fewer children, they are like Jewish families in this sense, while Muslim families have more children, so that’s why a place like Nazareth is losing its Christian majority, if it hasn’t yet.

Do Christians participate in the military?
Christians in general do not. That stems from the fact that most Christians are Arabs. After the condition of the State of Israel coming out of war between the Jewish community and the Arab community, Arabs were exempt from military service. So Christian and Muslim Arabs are not required to serve in the army. They can volunteer if they want to, usually they don’t.
Another kind of Christian community that is new and developed in the last 20 years is Christian who immigrated to Israel with Jewish relatives from Russia and Eastern Europe. Some of them were of Islamic derivation. Of course, the last majority of immigrants were Jews but a considerable number of immigrants were relatives of Jews. In general they strengthen the Orthodox Christian community.

I note that you like to promote tourism to Israel. Is it in decline or steady?
Tourism goes up and down according to the political situation and how it is pictured in the press. But the truth is I have always admired the Christian pilgrims who didn’t stop coming, even in times of upheaval. Sometimes it was quite moving to see, even in times of fighting, you would have Christian pilgrims visiting the Holy Land. Of course, when the situation is calm, as it is now, generally speaking, we have increased numbers. But even when tourism is down you still have lots of pilgrims coming to the Holy Land. Now we are in a period of increased tourism, the situation is calmer.

I have heard people say they would be afraid to go. How would you address that?
Somebody told me their travel agent told them the most dangerous part of their travel from here to Israel and back would be their trip to the airport. As somebody who lives in Israel, I can tell you that the country is safe. The cities are safer, and from the point of view of personal security, they are safer than many areas where people come from. Agencies and people that organize the tours are ever aware of the sensitivities of pilgrims and tourists in general. They won’t, of course, organize trips to areas that are sensitive from a security point of view. The country in general is safe and we are glad to see tourism is recovering. People that will travel to Israel will see something quite special. It is a small country and within hours you see how the climate changes, the landscape changes. The history is incredible. And besides there are places of religious and spiritual meaning for people from all over the world.

You specifically mentioned Bethlehem and Jerusalem. Are there problems in visiting these two places which are of great interest to Christians?
Jerusalem and Bethlehem at this time are quite …

I’m sorry, I meant to say Nazareth.
Nazareth. Well, there are no problems at
this moment in either Nazareth or Jerusalem. It would be quite safe to visit them. Arrangements could be made also from Jerusalem to visit Bethlehem, It involves crossing a sort of terminal – it can be done. Special arrangements are made of course, during Christian holidays when big numbers of pilgrims come. We totally collaborate with the tourism ministry of the Palestinian Authority in order to make things easier on those occasions. But with regard to Christian places inside of Israel, in Galilee, the Sea of Galilee, in Jerusalem, it’s very, very safe and I thing there are people from different Christian groups from Philadelphia that would be able to give witness to that effect.

The most recent flare-up between the Catholic Church and the Jewish community as a whole, not just in Israel concerns this bishop (Richard Williamson) who has not been properly ordained who made some remarks to the effect that the Holocaust never happened. It seems to me there was misunderstanding on both sides, perhaps as to what a bishop is, and of course, sensitivity to Jewish feelings on the Holocaust. Do you think this has been properly settled?
Well, I read His Holiness’s declaration from today or yesterday (March 11). I think Pope Benedict shows sensitivity to the way things were interpreted. I don’t think I can d better than he did. It (Williamson’s remarks) was indeed a step that regrettably raised a lot of questions because of the personality of Bishop Williamson. The Pope said himself maybe things were not checked before things were done. I hope we will be able to put those things aside. I personally think that Pope Benedict is a great friend of the Jewish people and I hope that we will be able to take additional steps in the future to bring the Church and Israel, and the Church and the Jewish people closer together, continuing the great steps that have been taken in the past by Pope John Paul II and his predecessors.

His Holiness will be visiting Israel in the near future (May 11-15). What is the general reaction in Israel to this visit?
I think that there is a lot of enthusiasm. The President of Israel has expressed that enthusiasm very clearly in his declarations. We are thrilled that he is coming to visit us in what is called an official visit to the Holy Places. We are doing everything possible to make sure that the visit will be good and productive and fulfill everybody’s expectations. We are happy that he will be able to visit places of religious significance for the Jewish people too, and he will be visiting places of importance to the Muslim community. He will be meeting with Israel’s religious leadership, Jewish, Muslim, too, and of course the Catholic and other Christian denominations’ leadership. I have seen the program and think he will have a great time, and all Israelis will be happy to welcome him to the Holy Land.

What is your message for Catholics in Philadelphia?
The consulate of Israel represents the State of Israel which, of course, is mainly a Jewish state, but we represent the whole of our population and that includes not only Jews but Muslims and Christian, including Catholics. We attribute a lot of importance to the Catholic community and we would like the Catholic community to know that we are available for them for anything we will be able to do together to present Israel to the Catholic community. We are not brothers in faith, but cousins in faith. We have a lot in common. I personally grew up in a Catholic country (Argentina) so I feel comfortable in the presence of Catholics. My message is a message of freedom and brotherhood in our common quest for peace in our area in particular, and actually, in the whole world. We would want to be part of that.

Lou Baldwin is a member of St. Leo Parish and a freelance writer.