In any other country, or any other situation, Gregory Levey’s first career as a speechwriter for the Israeli government seems improbable at best. But as the 25-year-old Levey tells us time and again in his new book Shut Up, I’m Talking, Israel is no ordinary country. Unfortunately, he doesn’t mean that in a good way, as the subtitle, “And Other Diplomacy Lessons I Learned in the Israeli Government” illustrates right on the cover.
The premise could make for a good suspense thriller, but as we learn through Levey’s experience, a lot of this stuff simply can’t be made up.
Muddling through law school and looking for something to take him out of his doldrums, Levey decides to take a year off and applies for an internship with the Israeli government.
Unfortunately, the office to which he sends his résumé, the Israeli Mission to the United Nations, doesn’t offer internships, so the deputy ambassador offers him a job instead. As speechwriter.
We’re only on page 12 at this point, and already we’ve learned how much effort it took on Levey’s part just to get a call back from somebody — anybody — who might be able to point him in the right direction. But he takes the job anyway.
Levey goes out of his way to tell us how far out of his element he is — he doesn’t even speak Hebrew — and he uses that initial naïveté to give readers a look into what anyone who has had to wait in line for any Israeli government services knows already: Mess with the bureaucracy at your peril.
The “little-fish-in-a-big-pond” schtick that serves as one of the book’s central themes gets old fairly quickly. That doesn’t, however, make the story less entertaining. And it certainly doesn’t overshadow Shut Up’s more central theme: the frustration everyone, Levey in particular, has in dealing with getting anything done.
Thankfully for the reader (though not necessarily for the government), Levey is not afraid to name names or air the dirty laundry of his adopted country. That includes the foreign minister, Silvan Shalom, who holds late-night meetings in his underwear and must have his English-language speeches written in sentences six words or fewer. Shalom’s continued bungling, during rehearsals of a Yom Kippur speech, of the word “atonement” is nothing short of hilarious.
“In a country full of English-speaking immigrants, should such a person really be the FOREIGN MINISTER?” Levey thinks to himself (italics his).
The book’s foreword gives us a pretty good idea of what Levey had to deal with on a day-to-day basis: On the day of an important vote at the U.N., one that directly affects Israel’s weapons policy, nobody at the Mission knows it’s even happening. With Levey as the only staffer at the U.N. that day, he must therefore vote on a resolution he knows nothing about, without guidance from the ambassador, since he can’t get cell phone reception in the building. Only afterward, when he is one of two countries to vote against the resolution (the U.S. being the only other), does he receive notification that he had done the right thing.
As if that’s not enough, things then start to become even more interesting. After a year and a half of constant late nights, and the daily frustrations of dealing with government inefficiency, Levey decides to move on — from afar. But then the Prime Minister’s office comes calling, so, Levey, seeing an opportunity even more unprecedented than the one he’d just given up, becomes the head speechwriter for Ariel Sharon. During disengagement from Gaza.
The bureaucracy in Jerusalem would make just about anyone want to start a love affair with cheap, imitation tequila, as Levey nearly does as various obstacles keep him from starting his position. Then come the people he must deal with once his job finally starts: Ra’anan Gissin, Sharon’s frenetic foreign advisor and Levey’s direct boss, who regularly juggles conversations on three different cell phones while using the sidewalk as a route to subvert traffic; or Yaacov Yerushalmi, the man in charge of distributing cell phones and pages who “ruled his domain despotically,” are just two. Levey’s predecessor had mentioned that Yerushalmi “would be the worst person I ever met in my life,” and after upon their initial meeting, when Yerushalmi spits sunflower seeds right into Levey’s face, you might tend to agree.
And those are just a few of the characters that turn the Jewish State into a caricature of itself. For anyone who holds up Israel as the utopian vision of the Jewish people, reading this book might make you think twice. “When I told an Israeli friend of mine about the various frustrations that I’d encountered in [my] daily life in Israel, as well as in the government, he joked, ‘That’s why they call it the Zionist dream. Because it doesn’t really exist,’” Levey writes.
At the same time, with the future of Israel’s leadership in the balance as it becomes obvious that the coma Sharon has slipped into will likely be permanent, Levey truly feels a “we’re all in this together” moment.
After reading Levey’s harsh critique of his bosses, a reader might wonder how a government held together with popsicle sticks and glue could last 60 years. And though Levey and his fiancé, who moved to Israel with him, ultimately decide that their lives would be better spent in the States, Shut Up, I’m Talking is a great look at the inner workings of a country that even now is still unsure of the direction it’s heading.