Ambassador Judith Varnai Shorer fought the closure of the Israeli consulate general in Atlanta, paving the way for a new diplomat to take up residence last month.

The newly arrived Israeli consul general in Atlanta must have no shortage of items on her agenda, from continuing interfaith dialogue to deepening investment ties between Israel and the Southeast. 

But as recently as last year, the consulate’s very existence could not be taken for granted. 

Anat Sultan-Dadon, a veteran diplomat, arrived in July from her previous posting as deputy chief of mission at the Israeli embassy in the Australian capital of Canberra. 

She inherits a mission that survived multiple threats to its operation due to budget cuts during the tenure of her predecessor, Judith Varnai Shorer, who is retiring back to Israel after 40-plus years of service, including an ambassadorship in Hungary. 

Ms. Sultan-Dadon told the Atlanta Jewish Times in an interview shortly after her arrival that these fears have been put to rest. 

Anat Sultan-Dadon took up her new post in July. Global Atlanta is working to schedule an interview with the new consul general.

“As far as I’m concerned, there’s nothing in the air about closing the consulate. It is important to have, and retain, the consulate here,” the newspaper quoted her as saying

As for Ms. Shorer and her husband, Oded, who ran economic affairs here, they described to Global Atlanta in an reflective interview the dispute with their own foreign ministry about the value of the local presence after it was reportedly shortlisted for closure in both 2016 and 2018.  

The consulate survived a restructuring that shut down the consulate in Philadelphia, albeit with a slightly diminished territory of seven not-so-cohesive states. The Atlanta mission gained Kentucky (and its staunchly pro-Israel Gov. Matt Bevin), while losing Alabama and Mississippi to the Miami consulate. 

The bigger story, from Ms. Shorer’s perspective, was how her team and the Jewish community persevered to prove that Atlanta — an “unknown territory” to many Israelis — was indispensable among the more than 100 missions around the world. 

Faced with an almost non-existent discretionary budget, she made it a personal mission to continue with what she viewed as vital community functions. 

“There was no one event that we didn’t carry out,” Ms. Shorer said, taking particular pride in last year’s Independence Day reception, which was complete with flowers and kosher wine. “I raised a lot of money and we had the most beautiful reception that we had in the four years.” 

Before that, she’d hosted a Yom Hazikaron memorial day celebration with some 1,000 attendees, an intimate Holocaust “Memories in the Living Room” event at her home, and a dinner with evangelical Christian community leaders who have been staunch supporters of Israel. 

For these activities she gave credit to the Jewish community, which stepped up to offer venues and other in-kind services after finding out that she was strapped for resources. She also praised her team at the consulate for working tirelessly amid uncertainty. 

But of course, the outspoken former ambassador would rather not have had to wrangle with her employer, which she saw as making cuts in one place only to spend in another. The closures were threatened in part to provide pay raises to foreign-ministry workers.  

“I had to go through quite humiliating moments and efforts to get what I wanted,” she said, noting that her reaction to initial rumors that Atlanta office might close was: “Over my dead body.” 

“When you want something and you fight for it, you get it,” she said, though she noted that budget constraints made it challenging to travel throughout her full territory, which includes states like Missouri and West Virginia

Global Atlanta spoke with Ms. Shorer in mid-June at her office, as items were being packed up and her days here were dwindling. The goal was to look back on her four final years finishing out a four-decade career in a place that is off the radar for many high-ranking Israeli officials and where the understanding of Israel is in many cases lacking. 

Yet Atlanta and Georgia have been a hotbed for Israeli investment, particularly in the technology sector, as well as for research collaborations between Israeli and U.S. companies. 

The interview meandered into topics like the news media, where Ms. Shorer believes Israel faces the blessing and curse of heavier scrutiny — “We don’t need a blanket, we are so covered we could die of heat” — and into a discussion on what she feels publications like Global Atlanta should be paying more attention to: namely, rising anti-Semitism.

Combating Anti-Semitism

The Anti Defamation League, which compiles a list of anti-Semitic incidents in the U.S., says that in 2018 they remained near the record levels tracked in the previous year, when Ms. Shorer was already sounding the alarm in a Consular Conversation interview with Global Atlanta.

This year, Jewish communities have been on edge due to two deadly synagogue shootings, comments by congressional Democrats slammed by Republicans as anti-Semitic and a resurgence of white supremacist groups and gun violence rooted in racism. There are also voices in the U.S. supporting the Boycott, Divest, Sanction (or BDS) movement, which calls for isolating Israel economically over alleged human rights abuses in Palestine.

Despite the shortcomings of lists like the ADL’s, Ms. Shorer said it’s not hard to see the evidence that anti-Semitism is on the rise. 

“The phenomenon exists, as-is. It exists in campuses and universities. We cannot take it away. It’s what’s happening on the ground,” Ms. Shorer said. 

She noted that non-Jews have a powerful role in speaking out against expressions of prejudice. 

“There is nothing more real than when non-Jews are turning to their neighborhoods, teachers, schools, churches and speaking against this thing. It’s effective. It cannot be immediately, but it’s effective,” she said. 

The problem hits home with the daughter of Holocaust survivors from Hungary, who has spoken out against the country’s historical collaboration with Nazi Germany, including while she was ambassador there. Ms. Shorer’s maiden name is Varnai, which her grandfather changed from Weiss before the first world war. 

“Even in 1914, people wanted to change names not to be identified too much,” she said, but a century of reckoning with the grim realities of anti-Semitism hasn’t yet stamped it out. “It shouldn’t appear. In 2019, it shouldn’t happen. This phenomenon should have been abolished altogether.” 

She welcomed the growing trend toward interfaith engagement in Atlanta, including events like the Unity Seder put on by the American Jewish Committee’s Atlanta office before Passover in April. 

“If I want to bring Israel to the table of others, I want to introduce to people how I see Israel, I speak to anyone who is ready to listen to me,” she said, taking pride in the fact that many of her engagements were outside the Israeli community.

At the Unity Seder event, Ms. Shorer joined her diplomatic colleagues in reading from the Seder’s Haggadah text in their various languages. 

Tending Economic Ties

Ms. Shorer sees as a loose end the re-establishment of a nonstop flight between Atlanta and Tel Aviv, a goal she hopes her successor can achieve. She urged the Israeli business community and local economic development officials to fight for such a link, suggesting that it would lead to more business as well as more visits from high-ranking Israeli oficials. 

Atlanta may be a Delta Air Lines Inc. stronghold, but Ms. Shorer’s husband Oded said during an interview that Jewish communities in other cities have persuaded El Al Airlines to offer the service by guaranteeing a certain number of seat bookings for a year. 

Mr. Shorer, however, was not optimistic. He also painted a solemn portrait of the future of Israel-Georgia ties, noting the various collaborations that are ongoing — from a Southern Co. research grant to a partnership between medical research centers — could sputter without a new champion. 

The American Israel Business Connector, or Conexx, recently weathered the departure of President Guy Tessler, who had been with the organization in various roles since 2006. 

Without someone focusing daily on fostering these connections, Atlanta runs the risk of fading even further into the background of Israeli investors, Mr. Shorer said. That’s especially if Atlanta boosters are not willing to get out of their regular circles once in awhile. 

He added that Atlanta competes with places like Austin and Boston for Israelis’ attention, while they mostly gravitate toward New York and Silicon Valley. The momentum built on the fintech and cybersecurity front could fizzle without tending. 

“What we tried to do the last five years is to raise the profile of Atlanta, not only within the Israeli community but also with the European and international communities,” he said, noting the Israeli presence at conferences like Atlanta Cyber Week and Fintech South alongside companies from the United Kingdom and other nations. 

Fintech is one area where Mr. Shorer sees strong continuity, and in fact he himself will remain engaged through an Israeli-focused incubator concept he hopes to help launch in Atlanta. 

Global Atlanta plans to publish an interview with the new Israeli consul general, Ms. Sultan-Dadon, in the coming weeks. 

As managing editor of Global Atlanta, Trevor has spent 15+ years reporting on Atlanta’s ties with the world. An avid traveler, he has undertaken trips to 30+ countries to uncover stories on the perils...