Israel's prince of public diplomacy

Eylon Levy credit: Haim Zach GPO
Eylon Levy credit: Haim Zach GPO

There is much more to spokesperson Eylon Levy than his eyebrows, which he famously raised last month to swat aside a ridiculous question from Sky News.

As a Jewish kid born and raised in London to parents who had moved there from Israel, Eylon Levy dreamed about serving as a spokesperson for the State of Israel. He would sit and watch the then Israeli ambassador to the UK Mark Regev on television and say to himself, "That's what I want to do when I grow up."

Today, aged 32, that is exactly what he is doing - battling day and night on screens to make the world acknowledge the atrocities and the reality forced on Israel since October 7, as a government spokesperson to the international media at the National Public Diplomacy Directorate in the Prime Minister's Office.

He tells "Globes," "Perhaps you won't believe it but it has always been my dream to act as a spokesperson for the state. It's a shame that it's in such painful circumstances. The legendary Mark Regev and myself have been working shifts on the TV channels worldwide and I remember how I watched him as a kid in London and wanted to do what he is doing."

Back in October few people had heard of Levy. But now sitting in a café in the Azrieli Mall in Tel Aviv to be interviewed by "Globes," passersby clearly recognize him and some even stop to take a selfie with him.

To filter out the bullshit

In recent weeks, interviews with Levy have gained massive exposure worldwide and the Israeli public has embraced the eloquent and quick-witted spokesperson who has been articulating Israel's point of view so admirably, with his English accent. With degrees from both Oxford and Cambridge, Levy received the greatest exposure in an interview with UK Sky News presenter Kay Burley, who asked him whether the fact that Israel is willing to release 150 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for 50 Israeli hostages indicates that Israel thinks that Palestinian lives are worth less.

Levy's spontaneous, shocked response saw his eyes open wide with surprise and his eyebrows shoot up. But within a second he had regained his composure and explained that Israel would release one Palestinian for each Jewish hostage if it could. "We did not choose to release these prisoners who have blood on their hands. That's a disgusting accusation."

The strange question aroused anger and criticism worldwide but Kate Burley did not apologize and even justified her question on X (formerly Twitter) by saying that interviewers sometimes present one side of an argument so that those being interviewed can refute it. She claimed that she was presenting a controversial opinion that she had heard to allow the interviewee to respond.

Levy does not accept this explanation. "It's true that the role of the media is to challenge speakers with controversial opinions but it is also to filter out the bullshit and to know when you have been told nonsense that requires no further comment," he says.

Levy posted the clip from the interview on his Twitter account and it received 16 million views and 15,000 shares (just from the Tweet). His number of followers has soared from 24,000 before the war to 140,000 after the Sky News interview. At the same time his look of astonishment and raised eyebrows have become a popular meme and WhatsApp sticker. "If you would have told me several weeks ago that people would make memes of my face I wouldn't have believed it. But joking aside, we are here to explain the story of Israel abroad, if along the way there are amusing moments that allow people to enjoy a funny moment amid all the darkness and gloom we are experiencing, then let the joke be on me."

Are you are asked many questions that smack of antisemitism, or lack of understanding and support for Israel's position?

How long have you got? I was asked by the BBC in a radio interview whether there is CCTV evidence that the hostages are in Shifa Hospital and what medical treatment were they receiving. I was asked by Sky News about why Yahya Sinwar was releasing hostages, even though Israel is bombing Gaza and I had to explain that it was because Israel is bombing Gaza.

"I was asked twice, in Ireland and by the Voice of America, why Hamas had been begging for five weeks to return hostages and we were only now bowing to US pressure to take back our children. I was interviewed by Piers Morgan in London who is very confrontational, who spoke to me about pictures from Gaza and said 'this the most shocking thing I have ever seen.' And I told him Piers, 'the most shocking thing we have seen in our lives was the slaughter on October 7.' Then he answered 'you are right.'"

From questions like these, do you get the feeling that everyone in the world hates us and they are all anti-Semites?

"It's not true that everyone hates us and they are all anti-Semites. We enjoy a great deal of support in the world. People understand that what happened on October 7 crossed a line with atrocities that cannot be repeated and for which there can be no excuse. This is what gives us legitimacy in this war against Hamas and the understanding that it not possible not to respond to this."

Why is it so hard for the world to understand this point of view?

"We are faced with difficult images coming out of Gaza. Israeli TV does not show what viewers abroad see of the destruction as a result of the military campaign to destroy the terrorist infrastructure built beneath houses, hospitals, mosques and schools. The world sees these pictures and wants to understand why we are doing this to civilians in Gaza. We are asked for how long? What's the limit? And we have to explain things that to Israelis sound self-evident, but in the world to those who do not live in our reality, they are incomprehensible. We must explain that this is a war imposed by Hamas through the most terrible massacre since the Holocaust, and it is a war that we must win because Hamas has repeated that it wants to carry out more October 7s until it murders every man, woman and child in our country."

Do the explanations produce greater acceptance?

"Yes. There is understanding that we must end this war by destroying the capabilities of Hamas, otherwise we will be in the same situation in another six months. This is something I explain a lot to the Irish, for example. The Irish have been pressing for a ceasefire for a long time and I explain to them that if we had taken their advice and stopped firing then little Emily Hand would still be in captivity, and if we take their advice now to agree to a ceasefire then Hamas will commit more atrocities, because it will feel empowered and it will come out of this war with a feeling that the world has its back.

"We are being asked difficult questions about the dead on the other side and we must remind them that everyone who was killed in the Gaza Strip over the last month would be alive today if Hamas had not started the atrocities on October 7, and then decided to fight in populated areas, while preventing people from leaving despite all of Israel's efforts for over a month to evacuate civilians from the battle zones."

Lies continue to echo

In recent weeks Levy, and all Israel's spokespeople and volunteers in the National Public Diplomacy Directorate, headed by Moshe Aviv, have been working around the clock. "We try to be available 24/7. Last Friday I was interviewed at six in the morning and I finished with a CNN interview the following morning at 2am. There was a Saturday when I did four interviews with the BBC and it's not just me. Mark Regev is doing interviews at all hours of the night as well as Tal Heinrich in the US who is being interviewed non-stop in prime time. I am part of an amazing team of professionals.

"The work is being done in collaboration with Israel Police, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the IDF Spokesperson, the Israel prisons Service, the Shin Bet, the National Security Council and the Ministry of Diaspora Affairs, which is responsible for producing items for digital channels. It's amazing to see every day when we all assess the situation, how all these bodies put their egos aside and I'm proud to be a part of it. If any channel wants an official spokesperson for the Israeli government, then we will be there because we cannot abandon the battlefield."

The world does not make life easy for Israel's spokespeople, to say the least, compared with the ease with which the Hamas narrative is adopted. "I remember an interview the day after the bluff about the Al-Ahli hospital, which the Palestinians claimed had been hit by an Israeli missile, killing 800 civilians, but in the end it turned out that it was actually by a splinter group of Islamic Jihad, and that no hospital was destroyed and certainly not 800 people were killed. I explained to them in Sky News that Hamas lies and makes up numbers and the reporter asks me almost speechless with surprise, if I doubt Hamas' numbers."

Levy describes these moments as intensely frustrating. He recounts, "In a BBC interview, the interviewer told me 'Hamas denies what you are saying,' and you see the frustration on my face when I tell her that of course Hamas denies this. Hamas denies that it is even holding hostages. Hamas massacres, beheads, rapes, burns families, and then, day and night, denies that it did this.

"Some journalists around world see that Hamas continues to lie about the biggest things when the whole truth is in front of everyone's eyes, and they continue to echo the lies. This is not only a kinetic war in Gaza, it is also an information war."

Two months now, Levy has been fighting in this arena with the tools at his disposal. "We are fighting to make it clear to the world that the information coming out of Gaza comes either directly from Hamas or from independent reporters and photographers that are part of the system in Gaza. Everyone knows that even if they are not affiliated with Hamas, they are not free to present the full truth, because they are not allowed to. There is not a single photo of a terrorist, there is not a single photo of a missile being launched from a densely populated area, from a mosque or a school, not even a single photo from the Hamas tunnels under Shifa. Why? Because these reporters, even if they are not explicitly on the side of Hamas, operate under a dictatorial regime and cannot provide the information even if they wanted to. And it is very important to continue reminding the world how much the information that reaches them is biased and does not reflect reality."

Despite all this, Levy feels he must stress that not everyone is against us. "I don't want to give the impression that all the interviewers are hostile and every question is delusional. Absolutely not. I have many interviews with reporters who understand what is happening here and simply want to get information and hear the Israeli side, which is completely legitimate."

George Galloway got up and walked out

Levy was born and raised in England and attended a private school in North London in an area with a large Jewish population. He has always taken an interest in news and current affairs and a student was active in the world of debating, including tournaments. "It would not be an exaggeration to say that I would sit in the bath reading The Economist. Arguing and opposing incorrect positions has always been one of my great hobbies. Alongside this, I grew up with a strong awareness of the importance of the State of Israel and its historical role in the history of our people. I have often had to explain Israel over the years."

The UK is currently in the headlines over anti-Israel and pro-Palestinian demonstrations and antisemitism. Did you encounter antisemitism in your childhood there?

"I did not personally experience antisemitism but I was exposed to it during debates and every time there was a round of fighting I found myself defending Israel's position."

One of the most significant occasions on which Levy was defending Israel was in 2013, when he was an undergraduate at the University of Oxford, and was conducting a debate with British MP George Galloway on his remarks about Israel. "Galloway is known as a notorious Israel hater. He arrived an hour late gave his crazy speech and sat down and then I spoke. In the middle of the speech I said 'we' referring to the State of Israel, and he stood up and asked me 'what do you mean we? Are you Israeli? When I answered yes, he said 'I don't do debates with Israelis. Goodbye' and left. It was filmed and the next morning all the UK media reported on it. It even made it into a cartoon in "The Times."

That was a moment that reverberates for Levy when he sees what is currently happening in universities around the world. "I look at what is happening on campuses around the world and tear my hair out, because I was there 10 years ago and tried to warn about the connection between antisemitism and anti-Zionism, how deep-rooted the hatred against Israel actually is and how many Jews are harmed by this blind hatred."

In 2014, on completing his master's degree in international relations at the University of Cambridge, Levy found himself at the crossroads that led him to Israel: "One option was to study law and work as a lawyer in London, and the other option was to go on a Zionist adventure. That summer I was on the March of the Living and I remember myself standing wrapped in a flag and crying, realizing that a decision had been made. I decided that I was immigrating to Israel and enlisting in the army at the age of 23."

The decision was made just as Operation Protective Edge (2014) began. "I wanted to enlist to help in the war. It was the scariest experience in my life. I remember a child who looked out the window and said, 'Dad, I think I saw a missile.'"

When I actually immigrated to Israel, the taxi driver told me that the war had finished six months previously. Even so I reported the next day to the IDF Induction Center in Tel Hashomer."

Levy served in the command center of the IDF coordinator of activities in the administered territories, which is responsible for civil policies and security coordination with the Israeli government in Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip. After his army service he worked as a newsreader for the English news on the Israel Broadcasting Authority and then as a newsreader for i24News. He served as foreign media advisor for President Isaac Herzog for two years until May 2023 and has translated some 30 books from Hebrew to English. He was also active in the protests against the government's judicial reform.

So how does that all fit together - one day you are at a demonstration against the government and the next day you are its spokesperson?

"Like many, I participated in the protests against the reform. It's no secret. There was Israel before October 7 and there is Israel after. Nothing will return to what it was before. There is now only one task: to win the war, and for that we must put the wars of the Jews aside and unite."

This is also the message with which Levy wants to conclude the interview. "It's amazing to see how Israeli society has come to its senses after the traumas. One of our strengths is that everyone works for everyone," he says proudly. "When I left synagogue on Yom Kippur after the concluding services and I saw what was happening in Dizengoff Square with all the shoving and the shouting, I found myself on the verge of tears. Today I miss the days when we were on the verge of a civil war because of a gender partition (in Dizengoff Square)."

"It's so ridiculous what we argued about and what we pulled our hair out over for before October 7, a date that reminds us all of the big picture, why we are here, why we owe each other and in the end also love each other. It's sad that it took such a tragedy to remind us of the importance of unity in the nation, but we must maintain it."

Published by Globes, Israel business news - - on December 3, 2023.

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd., 2023.

Eylon Levy credit: Haim Zach GPO
Eylon Levy credit: Haim Zach GPO
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