By MELANIE GOLDBERG
Ishmael Khaldi, the brown-skinned man who represents the face of Israel on college campuses is not Jewish and is not telling a story of oppression, but is a Muslim Bedouin with as much allegiance to his culture as his Israeli citizenship.
“Israel is an immigrant country, an assemblage of cultural groups from all over the world.,”he observed. “It is a multiethnic state combining Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews, Bedouins, Druze, Arabs and more, who coalesce to make the country great. We are compelled to find a common language and common ground, despite our differences.”
Born forty years agothe third of eleven children in a village near Haifa, Khaldi lived in a Bedouin tent until the age of eight, walking four miles roundtrip to attend school. When he wasn’t learning, he tended to his family’s flocks of sheep. zx 630 He was the only member of his family to earn a bachelors degree in political science from the University of Haifa and continue his studies further to earn a masters in international relations at Tel Aviv University. Throughout this time, Khaldi also had the opportunity to work for the Israeli Ministry of Defense, the Israeli Police and Israel Defense Forces as a political analyst.
“It was through their alliance with the emerging Jewish state that the Bedouins began to transcend the isolation that was part of their nomadic history,” he said, explaining his family’s connection to Israel. “My family, too, has reaped the benefits of this alliance, receiving health care, education, job training and pensions. … Israel’s right to exist is my right and my people’s right.”
However, Khaldi explains that since Bedouins are not just a minority in Israel, but are also a minority in the Arab community in Israel, their feelings toward Israel differ from much of their Arab brethren.
“My family, besides being full of pride at my appointment in the Israeli government, was also tremendously supportive,” he said.
Asked if there was opposition within his community, he laughed and said, “Opposition for what? For being an Israeli diplomat? Remember, and many don’t understand this, 20percent of the Israeli population are not Jewish but Arab citizens. We, the Bedouin community, are a minority within the Arab minority. We have a different history as being part of the state of Israel and in fact were a part since the days the Jewish pioneers arrived in the pre-state of Israel establishment. Bedouins serve in the military, though non-mandatory, and can do everything Israeli citizen can do. So there was no notion of opposition.”
In 2006, Air Jordan Femme Khaldi initiated a project called “Hike and Learn with Bedouins in the Galilee” that has brought thousands of young Jews to Khawaled, his hometown, to learn more about Bedouin culture and history. He said these encounters inspired him to become a diplomat, a position in which he still serves. He said there is still a long way to go before the Bedouin minority achieves full equality in Israel but the situation is improving, and more Bedouins are graduating from high school, entering universities and getting better jobs than ever before.
“As I grew up, I increasingly felt the need to explain from my village in the Galilee what Israel stands for and that it wants a democratic, independent Palestinian state existing alongside it in peace and security,” Khaldi explained. “I became more aware of how to serve my country locally and abroad.”
“There are differences in tradition and religion between us [Jews and Muslims], but at the end of the day we are all Israeli citizens,” Khaldi said. He also said he would always consider himself a proud Bedouin.
Khaldi began working for the Israeli Foreign Ministry in 2004. In June 2006, he was appointed to serve in San Francisco, California as Israel’s Deputy Consul General in the Pacific Northwest region. By August 2009, Khaldi was appointed policy advisor to the Minister of Foreign Affairs Avigdor Lieberman, of the right-wing party Yisrael Beitenu.
When he goes to speak at college campuses, he intends to show how a non-Jew can be a loyal Israeli in a Jewish state often perceived as prejudiced against its minorities. He wants to show how easy it can actually be for a minority to work their way up in Israeli society.
“Israel is an immigrant country, an assemblage of cultural groups from all over the world. It is a multiethnic state combining Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews, Bedouins, Druze, Arabs and more, who coalesce to make the country great,” he said. “We are compelled to find a common language and common ground, despite our differences. The IDF is a perfect example of this as it is really the melting pot of Israeli society. The colors, religions and ethnicity all disappear when a person starts his IDF service. There, you’re just judged based on your talents and skills.”
He is quick to add that he wasn’t setting out to paint Israel as a perfect place.
“Like every other nation in the world, Israel has its problems,” he said.
However, he was initially aghast by the ferocity of Israeli hatred he encountered in the US that has often earned him a less-than-warm reception. So, he began a new approach of reminding Americans that the United States is not perfect either, despite a much longer nationhood than Israel’s. He explained that he believes in a positive approach, searching for solutions as a free member of a democracy, rather than less constructive avenues of criticism.
“These years of confrontation convinced me of my ability to represent my country,” he concluded. “And I intend to dispel the antagonism and confrontation against the country of my citizenship. The country I call home. I want to open more bridges of understanding between Israel and the world, wherever I can.”
Photo: Ismael Khalidi