Standing up, and out, for Israel

Israel’s first Beduin diplomat talks about his path from a 'backwater' in Galilee to adviser to Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman.

khalidi 311 (photo credit: courtesy)
khalidi 311
(photo credit: courtesy)
When Ishmael Khalidi was a child he would walk several miles to school every day in the blazing sun or in the bitter cold. Since then he has traveled far, his journey taking him from a Galilee village that he describes as a “backwater with no electricity or running water” to become Israel’s first – and so far only – Beduin diplomat.
Khalidi, formerly Israel’s deputy consul general in San Francisco, and now Arab affairs adviser to Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, has a soft voice but a steely character. His chiseled features seem almost carved out of the rocky landscape of his youth, his penetrating gaze a mark of his indomitable will.
From a young age Khalidi stood out, and before long his parents realized that his future would lie outside of the village, outside of the confines of Beduin custom and tradition.
The third of 11 brothers and sisters, he attended the prestigious Arab Orthodox College in Haifa where for the first time he was confronted with the issue of identity. As the only Beduin student he found himself asking, “Am I Arab, Israeli, Muslim or Beduin?” He relates how while as a Beduin he felt pride in the State of Israel, his classmates, whom he labels “brutal creatures who either ignored me or called me names” affiliated themselves with the various Palestinian national movements, and how on Remembrance Day when he stood for a minute’s silence they called him a traitor.
But to typecast Khalidi as an outcast looking for a sense of belonging, as someone seeking to throw in his lot with the majority, would be to draw the wrong conclusion.
“I belong nowhere,” he says. “My roots are no roots and my real people are my tribe.”
When I ask Khalidi why, as a Beduin, as a Muslim, he decided to represent the State of Israel, he replies, half in jest, “perhaps from a personal point of view, as a Beduin, traveling is in my blood.”
The he adds: “Especially at this time, when Israel is under attack, when there are attempts to deny its legitimacy, it is my duty, my role, as a member of a minority, to stand up and speak.”
Khalidi, 39, and unusually for a Beduin still a bachelor, describes the path that took him from Khawalid near Kiryat Ata to the Foreign Ministry in a recently selfpublished book A Shepherd’s Journey. He says he wrote the book “because people don’t understand the country from the inside,” and that he tried to present things through his personal story rather than try to tackle the wider philosophical problems of identity and minorities in Israel, issues he says he does plan to take on in a later updated version that he is working on currently.
AFTER HIGH school, in the summer of 1990, he took a gap year and after working on a kibbutz to save money he traveled to America, hardly knowing a word of English.
When he arrived his only contact, from a kibbutz near his village, could not be reached. Lost and on the verge of tears, he approached a hassid who sent him to Brooklyn, where he ended up staying with a Chabad family.
“I stayed with them for five days until they realized I was a Beduin, Muslim and not Jewish,” he recalls. “I grew up believing that Israel was an inseparable part of Jewish identity and I expected that in Brooklyn people would know that almost 21 percent of the population of Israel are not Jewish. I expected them to know that I am part of that minority, but that I am an Israeli and my connection to Israel as a Jewish state began not in 1948 but before that when the first pioneers came.”
“That moment,” says Khalidi “was when the connection started. That was when my realization of my belonging to the state and my ability to represent the state began to develop.”
On his return from his year in the US he enrolled at the University of Haifa, where he studied political science.
There he made his first foray into diplomacy, hosting overseas students in his village and giving them a taste of Beduin hospitality. After completing his studies, Khalidi volunteered for military service with the Border Police, and after that he enrolled for a master’s in international relations at Tel Aviv University.
In 2002, at the height of the second intifada, he decided to return to the US as a citizen diplomat, and spoke on several college campuses. There he experienced anti-Israel activism and found himself in the “eye of the storm,” standing up for Israel.
“I had put my life on the line for my country and now I wanted to serve it in a political way as a diplomat,” he says. “I spoke simply of one man’s story within Israeli culture, society and politics. My goal was to advocate for Israel and dispel the myriad of erroneous facts that are unfortunately accepted as truth.”
After two years of citizen diplomacy he decided it was time for the real thing. It took him until the third attempt to pass the Foreign Ministry’s cadet entrance examination. “I did the six-month course and then I was thrown in at the deep end when I was sent to work as a spokesman for the [Gaza] disengagement in July 2005 in the Arab media department,” Khalidi recalls. “It was the first time that a non- Jewish person was appointed to speak in front of the Arab media as Israel’s representative.”
His stint with the Arab media department was followed by a year-long spell with the ministry’s North America department and then the historic appointment as Israel’s first Beduin diplomat, to the position of deputy consul general in San Francisco Khalidi describes the appointment as a “hardship post” because of the vocal anti-Israel contingent in the Bay Area. One of the experiences that he remembers most clearly is a dialogue with the organizers of Israel Apartheid Week on UC Berkeley. “If Israel were an apartheid state, I would not have been appointed here, nor would I have chosen to take upon myself this duty,” he told his interlocutors.
Shortly after returning from the Bay, Khalidi was offered the post as adviser to Lieberman, a position he had no problem accepting.
“I have no problems working with Lieberman,” he says of his often controversial boss. “Everyone has their own political opinions, I represent the foreign minister without any connection to politics.”
Khalidi concedes though that “there are people who know how to say things more subtly.” He adds, though, that Lieberman is surprisingly well respected in the Arab sector. “He says what he has to say in a very direct fashion. He puts his position on the table. I travel a lot in the Arab sector and people respect him more than any other politician, and the reason is that he is honest and direct.”
What he does have a problem with, however, is the perception that his appointment came as a cover for the foreign minister’s extreme positions. “The first reaction I received after returning from San Francisco was from a very senior media personality who is now a member of Knesset. He said to me, ‘I know you; you’re Lieberman’s fig leaf.’ That was very offensive and insulting to me and for me it points to how ‘dirty’ Israeli politics are. People are willing to do anything to smear.”