A shepherd's journey

Against many odds, Ishmael Khaldi has gone from shepherd to diplomat, and is now an adviser to the foreign minister.

Ishmael Khaldi speaking at an AIPAC event. (photo credit: Courtesy)
Ishmael Khaldi speaking at an AIPAC event.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
“I am Beduin, I am Muslim and I am Israeli. I am a shepherd; I am a scholar, and now a diplomat.”
Ishmael Khaldi is one of 11 children and lived in a tent until he was eight. Growing up in the village of Khawalid, in western Galilee, he always had the desire to know more.
In school, he was at the top of his class. He studied political science at the University of Haifa and served in the IDF for two years. After receiving his master’s in international relations from Tel Aviv University, he found a position at the American Embassy in Tel Aviv.
“Because of our unsettled nomadic lifestyle, education was not traditionally a part of our lives,” he says. “But in coming to understand our Jewish neighbors, we, too, began to see how important education is. Of all my brothers and sisters, my father decided that I was best suited for school. He would always say, ‘Ish, I want you to attend university and visit the White House.’”
Khaldi isn’t sure if his father even knew what exactly the White House was, but his wish seems to be coming true. In 2004, Khaldi joined the foreign service and became Israel’s first Beduin diplomat; in 2006, he was appointed deputy consul-general to the US Pacific Northeast, based in San Francisco.
That wasn’t his first time in America. In the summer of 1990, during his gap year before university, Khaldi boarded a plane to New York City with no plans, little English and $300 in his pocket.
He returned to the US in 2002 during the second intifada. “I had put my life on the line for my country, and now I wanted to serve it in a political way, as a citizen diplomat. My idea was to explain Israeli society, culture and politics from the perspective of the Beduin minority in the Jewish state. So I arranged to speak on a few college campuses as a start.”
He spent two years speaking on behalf of Israel in the US, Canada, the UK and Australia. “Those two years convinced me of my ability to represent my country.”
So when he was appointed to San Francisco as a diplomat, he continued to speak out and started writing his memoir, A Shepherd’s Journey, which was published last year.
“I realized people don’t know enough about this country so I decided to write about it. It is mainly geared toward the American public, but also for the British and anyone who is an English reader and interested in what’s happening here in the country,” he says.
“It brought a voice from Israel that isn’t known,” he continues. “The other thing is the personal story itself as someone who grew up as a shepherd, but was given the equal opportunity, of course combined with maybe curiosity and ambition, to achieve what anyone else can achieve. I went to school, university, served in the military, and of course joined the foreign service... So there was lots of interest.”
When Binyamin Netanyahu returned as prime minister two years ago, Khaldi moved back to Israel at the request of Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman to serve as his adviser on Arab affairs.
“We are watching what’s happening in the Arab world, in the Middle East, and my job is to give him the material he needs so we can make our policy accordingly,” he explains. “We are not dealing with intelligence; we are not dealing with military operations. We are dealing with foreign policy, with... public diplomacy. We look at what’s happening a lot on a daily basis, so I take the information from the media. Early every morning, I go through the Arab newspapers.”
So what are the biggest problems Israel faces?
“First of all, Iran is an existing threat for the State of Israel, and of course for stability of that entire region,” states Khaldi. “Preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear capability is our top priority. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is trying to implement his dream of a new Middle East without Israel. It’s our responsibility to prevent this from happening. He is threatening the entire region, and nobody, including other Arab countries, wants to see this happening.”
The other major problem, he says, is the issue of the Palestinians. “Because at the end of the day, they want a two-state solution. But we have problems; first of all there is no leadership on the other side. There is a split between Hamas and Fatah. They refuse to conduct direct negotiations with Israel and they are threatening to go to the UN in September to seek approval for their unilateral declaration of statehood. Discussions on the settlements will only be achieved through direct conversation between the Palestinians and Israel.”
Although he is now based in Israel, Khaldi still goes on speaking tours around the world.
“Speaking to a lot of people is important, because I think the media have an unfair position on the way they portray Israel; it’s very different than reality. The media are more critical when it comes to Israel, and I don’t know why. This is why people are looking for more news sources, like on Facebook, Twitter... which are more successful than traditional media.”
He has Twitter, he says, “but I don’t update it, because I don’t have the time. It is good, people want to know in real time what is happening, and it is very successful. Look, it is changing the entire Middle East. People in Egypt, Tunisia, Syria and Yemen – what gives them the strength is their ability to receive information from websites like Twitter about what is really going on. It can really make a difference.”
To further expose people to the reality of Israel, Khaldi created a program called “Hike and Learn with Bedouins in the Galilee” and is involved with many different organizations, particularly Aish HaTorah’s Hasbara Fellowships.
“I started it years ago, the first time I went to the States... I came back and wanted more people to learn about us as being part of Israel. So I started this as a student in the University of Haifa, to bring people from all over the world to Galilee for a half a day that includes a hike, a walk through the village and hearing about the history and our position in Israel.”
So far, it seems that Khaldi is the only Beduin in public diplomacy. “The path I chose is almost extreme. It’s difficult, because tradition says that if you’re 18, you go to college but then come back, get married and live in the village. Now I didn’t do that, but in a way, I am keeping my tradition as a nomad by traveling the world as a diplomat.
“You can’t isolate yourself from the world outside,” he adds. “Even the Amish have phones in the back of their houses. There is no culture in the world that can stop modernity. And the challenge is to combine the best of both.”
As for the future, Khaldi is once again looking abroad.
“Last month I completed two years in this position. Now I want to go for another foreign assignment,” he says.
“I see myself speaking more to people, delivering Israeli messages and improving the relations that we have with other countries in the world. It’s something that I am familiar with, in particular North American and English public opinion. Both are key, and I understand them more than any other countries. But there is a big lack of understanding about what’s happening here. And it’s our responsibility to correct that.”