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Danny Ayalon: From No-Nonsense Negotiator To Popular Professor


Ambassador Ayalon with some of his students.

Ambassador Ayalon with some of his students.

The security guard at the front desk in Yeshiva University’s Belfer Hall said he never heard of the professor, but his students who were taking a class on statecraft spoke of the unassuming Israeli statesman with reverence, respectfully referring to him as “The Ambassador.”

Danny Ayalon, the former Israeli deputy foreign minister and ambassador to the U.S. who played a leading role in the U.S.-backed Road Map for Peace negotiations, spent the spring semester as Rennert visiting professor of foreign policy studies at Yeshiva University, teaching a class on statesmanship at both Yeshiva College and Stern College for Women.

While one student was overheard asking, “Do you think he can tell us what really went on behind all those closed-door meetings?” another student said, “I could read about it in the history books but then I wouldn’t have known what it looked like to sit across from Arafat and see his piercing eyes.”

Ayalon’s class, Statecraft Analysis: Israel’s Foreign Policy, explored the foreign affairs challenges Israel faces and was conducted in a two-part class session. Political science professor Dr. Hill Krishnan would open with a systematic examination of a particular issue, and then Ayalon would step in and discuss how that issue affected Israel and the important implications that could be drawn from this.

Never pushing any ideology, Ayalon stresses a few key thoughts – particularly that there is a division of responsibilities between Jews in Israel and the Diaspora.

“Jews in Israel,” he said, “physically defend the land and are responsible for the local political decisions as voting citizens; on the other hand, the duty in the Diaspora is to offer advocacy and international political support.”

Ayalon frequently makes the point that if Israel’s security is compromised, so is the security of every Jew and Jewish community anywhere in the world.

“There haven’t been any pogroms against Jews since Israel was established in 1948,” he said, “because the world knows there would be immediate and strong retribution.”

The opinions expressed by Ayalon’s students ran the full gamut; for example, one student called out, to the dismay of his classmates, “All price-tag criminals [settlers who damage Arab property] should be hung” before reconsidering and amending his statement to “Well, not executed but duly punished.” Some views were unexpected, as when a student, pointing to the biblical story of Samson, said the idea of suicide killers was not original to the Palestinians but was found in the Torah.

That same student said he was initially hesitant to take Ayalon’s class. “I really didn’t think I could respect someone with political ideas so different from my own, but now I’ve learned to truly respect the person who has committed his life to public service. It wasn’t easy at first; it really wasn’t easy.”

Although the university offered to provide a private car to transport Ayalon between its midtown and Washington Heights campuses, Ayalon opted to take the YU shuttle van together with students.

There were times, though, when Ayalon would rush from class to a waiting car that would take him to a speaking engagement. He’d often invite several students to come along. During the ride they’d have the opportunity to ask questions and discuss their career goals – until Ayalon’s phone would ring and he’d begin a radio interview or confirm dinner plans with an old time Washington friend, or a former secretary of state, or a congresswoman and the widow of an Israeli athlete murdered in Munich who was lobbying the International Olympic Committee for a moment of silence in honor of her husband and the other slain Olympians.

While teaching at YU, Ayalon participated in a three-way debate organized by YU students and held at Stern College, involving Jeremy Ben-Ami, founder of the liberal lobbying organization J Street. Vehemently opposed to J Street’s attempts at influencing U.S. government policy toward Israel, Ayalon had throughout his tenure as an Israeli government employee refused to sit down with Ben-Ami.

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