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.”
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.”