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Ismail Khaldi 

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Ismail Khaldi

Ismail Khaldi, Bedouin shepherd; appointed Israeli consul in San Francisco

Asafa Peled, Yediot Achronot

In a few weeks Ismail Khaldi, a 35-year old Bedouin shepherd from the village of Khawalid in the Zevulun Valley, will leave his family and  move to the United States to serve as Israeli consul in San Francisco, as the first Bedouin diplomat.

There is nothing trivial in the life of Khaldi. The settlers see him as a fifth column, Israeli Arabs curse him as a Zionist, and people around the world who oppose Israel’s policies call him the Josef Goebbels of the Jewish state. Khaldi himself has no problem explaining how a  member of a minority group represents the State of Israel.

"The Western democratic world has a lot to learn from Israel about democracy,” says Khaldi. “Yes, we make mistakes, but who doesn’t make mistakes? As a shepherd I learned to give in. A shepherd is ultimately responsible for bringing the goats in from the pasture, and he must give his all and give in. That’s the way it is in diplomacy, too: If we’ve failed once and haven’t managed to explain that Israel is a normal country, we have to try again and again and again until this changes. And it will change.”

He doesn’t understand why he needs to explain the origin of his love for Israel and Israelis.

“I grew up among Israeli Jews, mostly members of Kibbutz Kfar Hamaccabi. And they never made me feel different. I always felt equal. This is the Jewish state, but I am part of the country, and my identity is Israeli, not Palestinian.”

Israeli, not Palestinian

Born 35 years ago in Khawalid, Khaldi is the third child in a family of 11 children. His father worked for years in Kfar Hamaccabi, and as a child Ismail used to accompany his father during school vacations. Like the other children in the village, he walked several miles to school every day. Till the age of eight he lived with his parents in a tent because the village was not recognized by the government, and did not have running water or electricity.

When he completed elementary school he wanted to study in a private Christian school in Haifa where the children of Israel’s Arab elite go.  He got to school by hitchhiking, buses, and of course walking. At night he studied hard to catch up to the level of his new schoolmates and to show that his parents’ investment in his education was justified, but this was not his main problem. Though he’d grown up in a pro-Israeli household and spent time with kibbutzniks, at this school he had his first encounter with Palestinian nationalism.

One of the moments he finds hard to forget took place on Memorial Day when he and several Druze students stood up during the siren that  is sounded every year in order to honor fallen soldiers.

“Some of the teachers and students attacked us and said that we’re part of the Zionists. Two of my brothers served in the army, and just at that time there had been an incident in the north in which a Bedouin lieutenant colonel and a Bedouin army tracker were killed, and I didn’t understand them. How could they attack the state they lived in and from which they received things? I didn’t understand how they could attack me on Memorial Day.”

In service

When he finished high school he postponed his IDF service and went to the University of Haifa to study political science. In order not to be a burden on his parents he went to work in a kibbutz factory. A short time after he started working there a group of young Jews from the United States and Canada came to learn about life in Israel, and Khaldi became close friends with them. After meeting the Americans he had a strong desire to visit the United States.

After three months in New York, where he worked for a moving company and in food delivery to supermarkets, he returned to his parents’ home in his village. Two years later he took the entrance exams for the Israeli Foreign Service course, and failed. After finishing his BA he volunteered for the Border Police. Following his discharge he was accepted for an MA in international relations at Tel Aviv University.

At the same time he returned to his village and developed a program for bringing overseas Jews to his village to show them the many faces of Israel. The project, which began in 1993 and is still going on, brought tens of thousands of Jews to the village.

Khaldi’s first significant diplomatic connection was made when he finished his MA, and a friend whose husband was a military attaché at the American Embassy in Israel helped him find a job in the media department. He moved into rented apartments with roommates from Tel Aviv, tried again to be accepted into the Israeli Foreign Service course, and once again failed.

After working at the American Embassy Khaldi got a job at the Defense Ministry, and two years later he finally got into the Israeli Foreign Service course. While waiting for the course to begin, he popped over to the U.S. for a visit and met with a former professor who asked him to give a lecture on the intifada and minorities in Israel. The talk was very successful, and Khaldi began receiving requests from other campuses. He spoke at synagogues, colleges, universities, and churches.

When he finished the Foreign Service course he was appointed liaison with the Arab media during the disengagement from Gaza. All the Arab television stations interviewed him, and he spoke about Jenin as a center of terrorism, and explained that if the Palestinians succeeded in taking control, full responsibility would be transferred to them. The disengagement itself, he says, was not easy for him.

“I come from a culture that believes that uprooting someone from his home is not easy. Your house is not just protection; it’s your connection, your life", he explains. "In any event I didn’t feel that it was my obligation to say that Israel is the Angel Gabriel and the Palestinians are the devil. The checkpoints and the fence are not here for the purpose of abusing the Palestinians, but there is a situation that dictates things, and at this point that’s the safest way to block suicide bombers, and unfortunately even that doesn’t work. It’s too bad that the world doesn’t see how Palestinians are helped by our medical services.”

A Proud Israeli

By Ismail Khaldi
Israel21c.org, 3.10.2004

 How can Israel's voice be heard if the Jewish students don't have the facts or the knowledge to speak up? I don't take the mass of Jewish students to task for not agreeing with all of Israel's policies, but I do take them to task for not caring about Israel or what happens there. It is the apathy which allows the anti-Israel propaganda to strengthen itself more and more over time.

Two years ago, a few proud Bedouin Israeli citizens like asked: what is our position and status in the State of Israel in the midst of its  current situation? After all, Bedouin are part of Israel's success story. During current times, when Israel is being attacked and accused of being a racist state, an 'aggressor and an oppressor', we decided that the smallest and probably most effective thing we could do is to spread our story as part of Israeli society.

I, Ishmael Khaldi, am Israeli. I served with the IDF, with the Israeli police, and with the Israeli Defense Ministry. In the last year, I have lost two Bedouin friends on army duty (God bless their memory) defending the State of Israel. My friends and family feel that we have a common destiny with the Jewish people in Israel: our grandparents created this land with Jewish immigrants who arrived during the 1920s, '30s and '40s to build a democracy.

Because of this connection to the State of Israel, I cannot stand on the sidelines during Israel's time of need. I feel that I must speak up and  be heard.

I recently returned from a two-month campus speaking tour North America, mostly organized by Hasbara Fellowships. This was the fourth tour I had done over the past year. I've traveled the United States coast to coast (of course, being a Bedouin nomad, I mainly took Greyhound!) and flew for a ten day tour across Canada.

The tour was certainly miraculous - a Bedouin shepherd who had never been to any major city before, all of a sudden found himself in downtown Manhattan! It proved to be one of the most adventurous, challenging and enriching experiences of my life.

I came to the U.S. and Canada to speak on college campuses about Israel, as one who certainly holds a perspective that is rarely heard - a proud Israeli who is not Jewish. I came to share one man's tale of Israel's culture, society and politics from the perspective of a Bedouin minority in the Jewish State.

Arriving in North America, committed to defending Israel from the poisonous venom of hatred and attacks that I had heard so much about, I expected to see the same commitment on campuses among the Jewish students. Unfortunately, this wasn't the case.

I had heard much about the struggle of pro-Israel student activists, attempting to counter the unbalanced, biased and false accusations made against Israel. I had not come to North America to preach that Israel was perfect. As all Israelis know, Israel has problems like all nations of the world. Still, many students tried to stop me from speaking. There were even students who had the audacity to compare me to Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi propaganda minister, making false claims that I was doing the same for Israel.

The United States has always been described as being the home 'of the free' and a home for free speech. How can New Hampshire's slogan read, "live free or die" if the student union is allowed to ban me from telling a cultural story? I can't believe that the hatred for Israel is so strong that student governments are able to defy their own dignity as free American citizens, in order that the truth about Israel should remain a secret

The deep-seated hatred manifested itself clearly throughout the country with the many loaded questions asked by anti-Israel students. For example, a Muslim student at Rutgers University completely ignored the fact that Israel is a free state and asked, "how could you support a Hebrew state if you're not Jewish?" Another questioner asked, "don't you think that if Israel didn't exist, then the Palestinians wouldn't have any problems?"

In Milwaukee, I was asked "how many Palestinian old men and women have you humiliated while serving in the Israeli police?" How can such a question be asked? If only the truth were known, that Israeli soldiers have on many occasions helped Palestinians!

The situation I encountered on many of the campuses in North America and Canada was horrifying. I was not as shocked by the Arab questioners as I was with the personal threats from, and the severe apathy of the majority of Jewish students.

In my years of speaking to people, I've never received threats or personal attacks like I did speaking on campuses. There were threatening incidents at both the University of Florida and at California State University. Both were chilling. The crowd in Florida was one full of anger and hatred, yet I had to stand before them unsure of the enemy who had sent threats earlier that day. In California I spoke facing a young student who wore a T-shirt with a swastika on it, chewing on a piece of paper as some sort of protest against my talk.

Even more upsetting, I expected to see many more Jewish students who were aware of the situation in Israel, but that wasn't the case. I expected the Jewish students to realize that the situation was not only affecting Israel and Israelis, but Jews all over the world.

On the other hand, the Arab students and their supporters almost all had the last minute news clips from the Middle East. How can Israel's voice be heard if the Jewish students don't have the facts or the knowledge to speak up? I don't take the mass of Jewish students to task for not agreeing with all of Israel's policies, but I do take them to task for not caring about Israel or what happens there. It is the apathy which allows the anti-Israel propaganda to strengthen itself more and more over time.

As a personal aside, sixty years after the horrors of the Holocaust, Israel is going through one of the most critical times in its history. More  than 60 years after my grandparents joined their destiny to that of the Jews coming to the Land of Israel, I feel that history is somehow moving backwards. Antisemitism and hatred towards Israel is soaring. Comparing me, a Muslim Bedouin who supports Israel, to the  Nazis is just another clear piece of evidence.

And yet, 60 years after the horrors of the Holocaust, I felt that on campus, the Jewish voice is silent. Where are the Jewish students fighting back? My commitment in these crucial days, while Israel is struggling for its right to exist, is to continue the heritage of my grandparents and to stand together to fight for the State of Israel.

History will not tolerate us if we keep our voice silent. We must roll up our sleeves once again to build a better future for Israel and all of its loyal citizens. Israel's right to exist is my right and my people's right, just as Israel's destiny is our destiny.

But just as history demands for me to fight for Israel, history also will not tolerate a generation of Jews who don't care.

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