In his new book, Shut Up, I’m Talking: And Other Diplomacy Lessons I Learned in the Israeli Government, University of Toronto graduate Gregory Levey describes how, at age 25, he was unexpectedly propelled into the role of speechwriter for the Israeli government. Two years later, he became a speechwriter for Israeli prime ministers Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert. Dissatisfied with law school in New York, Levey went looking for an internship to alleviate his boredom. He ended up at the Israeli Mission to the United Nations, where he was offered a position – not as an intern, but as a speechwriter.
Under tight security, Levey wrote speeches for the Security Council, took Hebrew classes with Jewish grandmothers and courses in combat firearms, and attended meetings with an Israeli foreign minister who once showed up in just his underwear.
Government officials were impressed with a speech Levey wrote for Ariel Sharon (then Israeli prime minister) to deliver in New York, and in 2005 recruited him to come to Israel and write speeches for the prime minister’s office. Levey took the offer, despite his uneasiness about many aspects of Israeli policy, including the route of the security barrier Israel was constructing to separate itself from the West Bank Palestinians.
“I’m fundamentally supportive of Israel’s right to exist, and its safety and security as a Jewish state,” he says. “[But] when government policies and actions made me uncomfortable, what I did, and what a lot of people inside the Israeli government did, was temper it down a bit.” He says that his contribution was to offer a more moderate perspective; he even slipped the occasional Seinfeld reference into his drafts.
It was not just government work that challenged Levey, but also life in Tel Aviv. “Every day was some new absurdity,” he says. “I didn’t speak the language properly, and I didn’t understand everything, even beyond the language.” He returned to Toronto in the summer of 2006, and was hired to teach speechwriting and intercultural communication at Ryerson University, which he acknowledges is far removed from the excitement and unpredictability of his former life.
Levey finished law school in night classes while working at the Israeli Mission in New York, but has no desire to practice law or work in government in the future. His ambitions include more teaching and possibly writing other books. He has remained engaged in Israeli affairs by filing freelance stories from Toronto about the Middle East, an area in which he “accidentally developed a specialty.”