Colonel Yehu Ofer left for a mission to serve as a military attaché to Italy and discovered that were many things he had to learn, from the language and the attire, to building his schedule. With the completion of his mission, he spoke with IAF Magazine about the purchase of the IAF’s new training plane and about the mission, which was much more just an ordinary job
Elegantly dressed in a German military uniform and sporting a yarmulke, a colonel walks into the Great Synagogue of Rome. He finds a vacant seat and sits down among dozens of foreign attaches, military officials, and diplomats from around the world. The eyes of the congregants are fixated on the stage of the synagogue where the Chief Rabbi of Rome is standing talking about Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, which will begin in the coming days.
This is not the beginning of a joke or fairy tale, but an accurate description of one of many events initiated and organized by Colonel Jehu Ofer, an IDF military attaché in Italy who held this post over the last three years.
“When you see the German attaché, a colonel and a pilot in the German army sitting in a synagogue, wearing a yarmulke, and listening to the Rabbi’s sermon-something completely unimaginable-it is an experience that cannot be forgotten”, says Colonel Ofer. “We received permission from the Jewish community to take the Great Synagogue of Rome and the museum below it to celebrate the Jewish New Year in the presence of the Italian Deputy Minister of Defense, the General Manager of the Italian Ministry of Defense, military officers and ambassadors from around the world. They listened to a museum guide talk about Roman Judaism, ancient Judaism in the world, and Judaism in general. We took the event and we brought Judaism and strangers closer. You can choose to do an event like this or you can choose not to. You don’t get any money or a budget, and no one shows you how to do it. It is your decision”.
Doughnuts and Relationships
A sympathetic country, but not a strategic ally: this was the state of the relationship between Italy and Israel when he arrived for the first time as an IDF military attaché, after a year in which the position had not been held by anyone. He started to make contacts and build relationships within the system. In order to make himself known, he had to approach important people. This was no simple task, especially for someone not fluent in the local language and not accustomed to the foreign culture. For Colonel Ofer, this was a big challenge.
In order to get the locals to relate to him as one of their, unlike most foreign diplomats, he learned to write and speak Italian at a high level of proficiency while moving towards the goals he set for himself, using the values and abilities that he acquired and that were conveyed onto him during his many years as a senior commander and as a civilian in general.
One of the goals close to his heart was bringing together diplomats and senior Italian military officials one the one hand and Judaism and the Jewish community on the other. To this end, he initiated and organized many events. Every year on Chanukah, he invited the Chief Rabbi, foreign attaches and diplomats to his house. They lit the candles of the Menorah, ate doughnuts, toasted, and listened to the Chief Rabbi’s explanation of the significance of the holiday. “Even the children were present, talked, and represented the country. My young son, Eyal, lit candles, and when a child lights candles on an occasion like this, in front of honorable guests, and does so willingly and with joy, it touches people”, he adds.
Colonel Ofer even managed to transform the Memorial Day ceremony for fallen soldiers of the IDF from a symbolic and respected event in the embassy, as is common in Israeli embassies around the world, into a big, significant event for all its participants. Together with other Israelis, he wrote and produced an impressive, unique ceremony in which boys and girls from Jewish youth groups in Italy took part (Even the Chief Rabbi and Chief Cantor of Rome took part in the ceremony and read the Yizkor prayers). In so doing, Colonel Ofer created cooperation between both communities that hitherto had not been created in any other area.
A Diplomat and a Pilot
The job of the military attaché and head of the Defense Ministry mission is to advance and develop relations between the State of Israel and the army of the hosting country, but the range of responsibility goes beyond this brief description. He represents Israel on issues related to security interests and serves as an advisor to the Israeli ambassador in the country in which he serves.
Yehu Ofer did not think that he would ever deal with diplomacy, mainly because his previous positions had not prepared him for it. He was born and raised in Kibbutz Kfar Masaryk, graduated the pilot course 110 as a transport pilot, commanded squadrons during “Operation Defensive Shield” and the Second Lebanon War, but stresses that his home squadron is the “Yellow Bird” squadron, which he eventually commanded. Between 2007 and 2010, he served as the Commander of the Sde Dov base and actually all of his activities over the last fifteen years have been at the center of IAF operational activities, in the Middle East and beyond. Nonetheless, he had to learn the job of a diplomat from the basics.
“This life is completely different from my life in Israel. It is a complete change. You get up in the morning and you are not in a system, rather you have to produce and initiate on your own. It starts with simplest things, from the wardrobe and the language to the residence and the food. I settled in the office in Rome after a year in which there wasn’t an attaché in Italy and I asked myself what I would do the next morning”.
The whole Ofer family moved to the boot-shaped country. He is married to Orna, who works in PR, and is the father of Yuval and Eyal. It did not take long for the difficulties in adjustment to appear.
“You change worlds. In the course of transitioning, there is a huge change of cultures. You go to a place where you don’t know the people, the context, and the culture. You are new at almost everything and, on the one hand, there are many challenges, but on the other hand, it is exciting and I experienced a lot. The children took it stride. It is not easy for a kid in 10th grade to move and be disconnected from his friends, from his studies, from everything he knows during his most significant and formative years, and to be absorbed in a place with completely different codes. The kids studied at an American school, and socially got along fine, but of course it took time and there are things that we had to get used to. You come from Israel, and dress according to our codes, but when you go there, you realize that design and fashion are things you have to pay attention to. Everyone drinks coffee, but you yourself have never drunk coffee before, you get used to coffee and to the fact that football is like a religion in Italy. There are many more characteristics of the American and Italian cultures that you have to learn.”
The challenges notwithstanding, Orna, Yuval and Eyal also took his job seriously. They embraced the idea that they were also little ambassadors for the State of Israel and didn’t leave the head of the family alone in this job.
“One of most significant things is the understanding that you represent something and advance something and the two children don’t ignore that. It connects with everything: Every Jewish holiday, they brought special food to school and explained to their classes the significance and when they were events at home, they participated and chatted with the rest of the guests. The atmosphere at home was that the family came to represent the State of Israel elsewhere. They embraced this very much and it will remain that way always.” Orna even volunteered on the project “Unexpected Israel” in Milan, in which Israel was shown from different angles, such as science, agriculture, religion, and culture to diplomats, attaches from other countries, and government officials.
The New Plane
Around a year ago, one of the biggest arms deals in Israeli history was signed. As part of the deal, the IAF purchased Italian-made training planes of the M-346 model, which will replace the old Skyhawk planes and change the face of the force. Many people were involved in the development of the deal, but a significant portion of the deal in the process can be attributed to Colonel Ofer. He was involved in every step in building the deal and the connection between senior officers of both security establishments during their visit to Italy.
In his opinion, warm relations and sincere appreciation between both sides will lead to more fruitful cooperation, but these things would not have happened, had the senior officers, whom he tried to bring together, not appreciated him and his work. He says that he became convinced that there was a real opportunity after he visited the factory that manufactures the plane in the city of Varese in Italy.
Before that point, the factor was just another name on a list of potential contenders, but afterwards, he started to do what he could to promote this possibility. During a visit by the then-Head of Planning Branch and the Commander of the Air Force, Major General Amir Eshel to the factory in Varese, Colonel Ofer managed to organize a flight on the instructional plane through the Italian air Force and during the visit, the then-Head of Planning Branch, Major General (res.) Ido Nachostan also flew on the plane thanks to the initiative of the attaché.
It is likely that these experiences contributed in the advancement of the deal. “You can ask yourself why the Commander of the IAF needed to visit IAF squadrons. I believe the answer is that there is no substitute for the direct experience of a meeting with people, technicians, and the combat soldiers where he is, without fences and barriers that would separate. Things are better managed through direct experience. This contributes to the embrace between people and this is something that characterizes the IAF”.
Perhaps therein lies the difference between Colonel Ofer and others: the additional, incessant pursuit, the “extra” factor. It is possible that such an official visit will continue to be business as usual, and it is possible that the visitor will get a little more than the protocol. It is up to the attaché’s willingness to produce this added value, and in his level of connection with the locals.
At the farewell event the Israeli ambassador Naor Gilon held for emissaries before their return to Israel, the Chief of Staff of the Italian Air Force and the Commander of the Italian Army arrived to bid them farewell. Neither one of them was obligated to say goodbye, but this may be an additional indication of Colonel Ofer’s work. Beyond this, contacts were made with emissaries from countries with which Israel has no diplomatic relations. The Pakistani attaché and his wife were close friends of the Colonel and his wife Orna, and he swears that the Afghan, Moroccan, Egyptian, and Indian attaches were definitely on a personal basis with him.
“I have always striven to do things differently in order to get the most that I can out of the organization and the people, without the second-guessing myself. A lot of times, we tend to limit ourselves within the limits of the system within which we are defined and in the IAF there is unlimited place for initiative, creativity, and innovation. You have to convince in order to innovate and to operation. You have to fight for it everywhere.”