New envoy’s a passionate horse-loving Zionist

MATTHEW GOULD could scarcely be classed as an old-school gentleman’s club type of ambassador.

Relaxed, friendly and talkative, the 38-year-old, who takes up his post as our man in Israel in September, is a journalist’s dream interviewee.

And gone are the days of patronising the locals.

He wants nothing more than to immerse himself into everything Israeli — as well as representing Her Majesty’s Government.

“You cannot do this job without being a passionate Zionist,” Mr Gould said on a visit to the Jewish Telegraph’s Manchester office.

“It is like making aliya — without actually making aliya.”

Mr Gould, who will be the first British Jewish ambassador to Israel, says that’s a quote from Tom Phillips, Britain’s current man in Tel Aviv.

And there is no masking his excitement about his new tour of duty, which should last four years.

He even hopes to celebrate his barmitzvah in the Jewish state.

Mr Gould, who has just returned from a brief visit there, said: “Israel is a fantastic country.

“My wife Celia and I were sitting on the Tel Aviv beach front with all the vibrant things going on around us and we talked about how we cannot wait to be there permanently.”

Joining Mr Gould and his wife — who converted to Judaism on marrying him in October — will be their dog and two cats.

His previous post was as Principal Private Secretary to former Foreign Secretary David Miliband.

He is not afraid to hold back on certain issues and is particularly honest when it comes to the location of the British embassy, which is located on Tel Aviv’s Hayarkon Street.

Mr Gould revealed: “Nothing would give me greater pleasure than seeing our embassy — and America’s — move to Jerusalem.

“That, however, would be dependent upon any future peace settlements.”

British officials are in Tel Aviv because the government believes that Jerusalem’s status has yet to be determined.

Already a high-flying diplomat, he was awarded an MBE at the age of 26 after helping to write the Foresight Report — a series of recommendations for improvement of the foreign service — and for helping Foreign Secretary Robin Cook to convene the first London Nazi gold conference in 1997.

However, I couldn’t help but wonder whether, as a Jew, Mr Gould would encounter any conflict of interest in his new post.

“I thought long and hard about applying for the position,” Mr Gould recalled.

“I then thought it might just be all too difficult, but then thought to myself, ‘why should Jews rule themselves out of important positions?’

“I am going to serve in Israel to pursue British policies and interests, but I think being Jewish gives me a really good basis to do the job.

“Israel and the region and all its worries and difficulties is never going to be an easy job for an ambassador — whether they are Jewish or non-Jewish.

“But what I will say is Britain will continue to support Israel, its security situation and we will continue in pursuit of peace.”

Comforting, but maybe naďve words we come to expect from a diplomat?

Before jumping to conclusions, it should be pointed out that Mr Gould spent nearly four years serving in Pakistan and Iran.

He moved to Islamabad in early 2002, before heading west to neighbouring Iran a year later.

Mr Gould, who was the British government’s political counsellor in Pakistan, remembered: “It was a turbulent time when I went out there, being just months after 9/11.

“Obviously, I did not make a big deal out of my being Jewish.

“It wouldn’t have been the cleverest thing to do.

“Soon after I arrived in Islamabad, we had to evacuate the embassy and there was a grenade attack on the church that some of the diplomats used, so it was a dangerous time.”

Not surprisingly his mother Jean was terrified about her nice Jewish boy living in a country full of Islamic militants and Al-Qaeda operatives.

After all, it was a long way from his early days growing up in Wembley, north London, and attending cheder every Sunday, the youngest of three brothers.

Mr Gould continued: “I really wish I had concentrated more on my Hebrew at cheder, because I am now struggling with Ivrit, which I have been learning — or trying to — a couple of hours every week.

“I am not, unfortunately, a natural linguist.

“My parents belonged to various Liberal and Reform synagogues.

“My dad’s parents came from Poland in the 1910s and 1920s and met in Birmingham.

“My grandfather actually took part in the Battle of Cable Street in east London, something I am really proud of.

“The family’s original name was Goldkorn, but my dad, Sid, changed it when he went to read maths at university.”

Family members, he revealed, had died in the Holocaust and Mr Gould has visited Krakow, Warsaw and Auschwitz.

His maternal side had also come from Poland, but a generation earlier and he has cousins in Manchester, as well as in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

After reading philosophy and theology at Cambridge, he gave his mother even more to fret about when he decided to spend a year living in rural, northern Zimbabwe.

Mr Gould said: “The tribe I lived with didn’t know anything about Judaism, when the topic came up.

“They just thought that the Jews were people who had sent Jesus Christ to his death.

“It was a great experience though, and I learned a little bit of Shona, the language they speak.”

He joined the Foreign and Commonwealth Office soon after returning from his travels and was soon off globetrotting again, this time as second secretary at the British embassy in Manila, in the Philippines.

Once back in the UK, he worked as a speechwriter for Mr Cook.

There is no doubting that the Foreign Office has had Arabist persuasions over the years.

So how did he feel about going to work in Whitehall?

Mr Gould explained: “Family and friends warned me that it would be a nest of antisemitism, and full of old blokes who had spent their whole careers in Arab countries.

“Nothing could be further from the truth — it is a friendly and welcoming place.

“Christian Turner, who is a close friend of mine, is the FO’s director for the Middle East and North Africa.

“He is not anti-Israel or antisemitic in any type or form.

“I accept that perhaps as recently as 25 years ago, the FO favoured the Arab countries more, but I have never come across any anti-Zionism or antisemitism.”

Mr Gould probably did his worrying mother no favours when he accepted the post of deputy head of mission at the British embassy in Tehran in 2003.

He encountered a vibrant Jewish community in Iran and spent many Shabbatot in various shuls.

Mr Gould recalled: “What I found were proud Jews — and patriotic Iranians.

“Some actually managed to go and visit relatives in Israel, they went through Turkey, but they always came back.

“They were the ones who stayed after the Islamic Revolution in 1979 and they want to stay.

“There is actually very little antisemitism on the ground in Iran and the people are much less hostile than the government.

“In fact, they cannot understand why they give so much money to Hezbollah rather than to its citizens.”

But because of many Iranians’ hostile attitudes to Britain and America, Mr Gould had security agents with him whenever he left his home or embassy.

It was claustrophobic at times, he admits, and he revealed that he would not have that much protection once he is in Israel.

“I won’t have a problem strolling down to the shops,” Mr Gould added.

While encountering little antisemitism in the Islamic Republic, Mr Gould was on the end of some fierce anti-British sentiment.

He said: “There are deep-rooted suspicions about the British, even more than the Americans, in Iran.

“There is a view that the Revolution and the ascent of Ayatollah Khomeini was a British plot.

“I remember having lunch with various ayatollahs in Qom, which is a very holy city, and they even believed it and that it was all done in the name of oil.

“But we do no business with Iran oil-wise these days, it was done during the days of the Shah — before the Revolution.”

Mr Gould has a passion for riding horses, scuba diving and skiing — interests he can pursue in Israel.

But with so much to do and see, will he have time to get down to the nitty-gritty of everyday business?

“Of course, and I want to cement more relations between Israel and the Palestinians,” Mr Gould stressed.

“The British government has to be effective and lead the way, while maintaining that America is the most important player in any peace talks.

“I want to see the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank have more capabilities.

“But I want to get the message to Israel that it is not alone, that Israel and Britain share many of the same values and that Israel has many friends.”

He knows the immense importance of America and has a good knowledge of the country’s government thanks to his two years there from 2005 as the embassy’s foreign and security policy counsellor.

Mr Gould recalled: “What was amusing to me was that whenever I met American Jewish leaders and told them I was a British Jew, they would commiserate me.

“They thought it was really brave being Jewish in Britain.

“Of course, there are too many antisemitic incidents in our country and we should be vigilant.

“But the British Jewish community is a strong, proud and vibrant one and we should not feel that we are under mortal threat.”

And, although he is evidently proud of both his Jewishness and Britishness, Mr Gould does not see himself as a solely Jewish representative in Israel.

He puts it succinctly: “I am there as the British ambassador to Israel, not the Jewish one.”

© 2010 Jewish Telegraph