By NAOMI REGAN —
The American consulate seems to be exclusively aimed at benefiting West Bank and east Jerusalem Palestinians.
Remember that scene in “Not Without My Daughter” when Sally Field sees the American flag waving over the American Embassy in Istanbul as she flees Iran? “We’re home baby, we’re home,” she tells her daughter.
Every American abroad knows that feeling. Unfortunately for us Jewish Americans forced to use the American Consulate in Jerusalem, it hasn’t felt like home for some time.
It started during the intifada, when, despite daily terrorist threats in the streets of Jerusalem aimed at Jews, the Consulate forced us to go to east Jerusalem to renew our passports and even to bring our newborns there for birth certificates. It literally felt as if a person was taking her life into her hands. Once there, she took her place outside behind a long line of mostly Arab visa-seekers, increasing her sitting-duck feeling almost to the breaking point.
Thankfully, in 2010 the Consulate moved to its new home in Arnona in the western part of the city. Inside, however, things are pretty much the same. Almost all local employees are Arabic-speaking Palestinians. I never hear a word of Hebrew. This isn’t coincidental.
A quick look at the cultural activities on the Consulate’s website and its Arabic language Facebook page (the Consulate does not have a Hebrew language Facebook page) shows activities exclusively aimed at benefiting West Bank and east Jerusalem Palestinians, whether the focus is women’s rights or small businesses. Even Environment Day had the consul going to Wadi Kelt “to observe local flora and fauna in one of the West Bank’s most vibrant natural habitats.” As for local hires, almost all job descriptions require Arabic.
After speaking with one of the very few Jewish-American Consulate employees, I now realize why.
Eliana M. Aaron is by all accounts a remarkable woman. The first practicing nurse practitioner in Israel, she holds degrees from Yeshiva University, New York University and Rutgers University and was recently accepted to a select doctoral program in nursing at Yale. The great-niece of the late senator Arlen Spector of Pennsylvania, she made aliya in 2002 with her husband, Avrum, a lawyer, to participate in the Zionist dream. Instead, she has found herself, with tragic irony, the victim of what she describes as an anti-Jewish campaign orchestrated by none other than the American Consulate in Jerusalem set up to serve the interests of Americans living abroad.
It all started in 2004 when she accepted the position of advanced practice nurse and medical officer for the US Consulate General in Jerusalem, founding its health unit and being put in charge of the healthcare of US diplomats and their family members, VIP US government visitors and local staff. Her reputation was such that when US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Israel, Clinton’s staff personally requested Aaron as their medical officer. Responsible for only work-related health issues for local staff, she went way beyond, once managing to coordinate between the IDF and the Palestinian Authority to rush a Palestinian staff member’s hemorrhaging newborn to an advanced Israeli operating room, saving his life.
Nevertheless, from the beginning, Aaron says she found the working environment at the Consulate overtly hostile toward her as an Orthodox Jew and an Israeli. “In 2004 my supervisor, Sylvia Martinez, told me that others didn’t want to work with me because I was Jewish,” she says. In 2005, the head of USAID at the Consulate bent her ear describing a movie about suicide bombers and how “she now understood and sympathized with them.”
But the real problems started in 2010. “A diplomat who was about to give birth insisted that I make arrangements for her at a hospital in Nazareth. Well, there is no hospital in Nazareth. Next, she insisted on a Palestinian hospital in east Jerusalem. But that hospital didn’t have a maternity ward.” When Aaron explained this, the woman responded angrily, accusing her of “just saying that because you are Jewish.”
From that moment onward, Aaron found herself reprimanded again and again for not providing enough options for Palestinian doctors and hospitals for the Consulate staff. “I was hired because I had connections to the best local medical care. It was my job to find doctors with Western degrees, who spoke English and had an excellent reputation. Now I was being asked to lower my criteria. I was being told to choose by race and religion as a priority instead of quality of care. This was unacceptable to me.”
She describes how human resources officer Katherine Bischoff (who would later wear a “Free Palestine” T-shirt to Ben Gurion Airport when she was on leave to the US) pointed an accusing finger at her, saying: “People don’t want to wait in waiting rooms full of Orthodox Jews. Find us Palestinian doctors.”
According to Aaron, when she complained to her supervisor about the prejudiced remark, she was simply blown off. Eventually, she selected a Palestinian clinic in east Jerusalem. “But when the head was arrested for affiliation with Hamas, I refused to contact him even though my supervisor and American security officers wanted me to continue.”
Realizing her superiors would not help, she filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEO) in 2011. She says she did this not only for herself, but for every Israeli Jew working for the Consulate, most of whom are low-level employees afraid of losing their jobs. “What I suffered was tip of the iceberg to what goes on there,” she says. Her work conditions consistently worsened. In a grievance filed against her acting supervisor, Edward “Dwayne” Jefferson, she details how he told her: “When you speak, it’s a bitch session.” According to Aaron, Jefferson made it clear to her colleagues that he had made firing her a priority.
Despite her pending EEO complaint, she was, in her words, “systematically targeted.” They took away her company car, accusing her of “unauthorized use” in the “settlements” after she took it to a car wash in Modi’in: “They took away my flextime, stripped my position description, almost every request was challenged, leave requests denied, my medical confidentiality violated and, worse, I was asked to violate my patients’ confidentiality.”
Weekly, anonymous callers accused her of taking kickbacks, selling government equipment, tax fraud and, most wounding of all to this caring, meticulous professional, medical misconduct.
According to Aaron, despite every allegation being thoroughly investigated and found baseless, she was nevertheless fired in a well-orchestrated termination that had been planned months in advance. The grounds? “They told me I had “misused a government vehicle” and “stolen” the vaccinations I received after being asked to get them by the Office of Medical Services in the State Department.”
Furious and heartbroken over what she considered illegal retaliatory actions for her EEO complaint, Aaron appealed her dismissal to US Consul General Michael Ratney. He refused to reconsider.
In January 2013, she filed a lawsuit against the Consulate in the Jerusalem Labor Court demanding to be reinstated and compensated. Facing mounting legal bills, she says the Consulate delayed paying her termination compensation – which has only just now been paid – and has not returned her medical license or her personal computer files that contain her pay stubs. Instead, Consulate officials have accused her of “stealing consulate property” – i.e., her work laptop, employee ID and mobile phones, all of which she informed them were at her lawyer’s office for them to pick up, as she has been barred from entering the Consulate.
Like David facing Goliath, she has no illusions: “I am going up against a big and powerful machine. But I want justice to be done. And if that means fighting, I will fight.”
When I asked about Aaron, I received the following response from Leslie Ordeman, the US Consulate press attaché and spokesperson: “We do not provide details on specific administrative actions internal to the mission due to privacy and legal concerns. We can say generally that whenever disciplinary action is taken against a local employee of any of our diplomatic missions overseas we follow all relevant local labor laws and State Department regulations. United States diplomatic missions overseas, to include the Consulate General in Jerusalem, maintain work environments that promote tolerance and reflect the American values we endorse worldwide. We have no tolerance for racial or religious discrimination.”
As she waits for the slow wheels of justice to turn and to be fully reinstated in her position in the Consulate, the highly qualified Aaron has received a number of job offers. She is currently a Yale doctoral candidate as well as being involved in two non-profit organizations: the Association of Mid-level Medical Providers in Israel — an advocacy group to advance nursing practice and recognition for foreign-trained nurse practitioners in Israel, of which she is co-founder — and Level Lev, the African Refugee Clinic in Tel Aviv, where she is volunteer director of research.