From shepherd to diplomat

When Ismail Khaldi was growing up, he walked more than four miles to school and back, every day. Until he was 8, he slept in a tent with no electricity or running water.

The third of 11 children, he did his homework with the aid of an oil lamp, jostling with his siblings — “a battalion,” he jokes — to get enough light. In whatever spare time he had, he helped his family tend their flock of sheep and goats.

In other words, he was like most other Bedouins in Israel.

“You can’t think of a more extreme difference between where I come from and here,” said the new vice consul general of Israel in San Francisco.

The first Bedouin to graduate from Israel’s Foreign Service course, Khaldi has been given a plum assignment: In October, he will begin his position at the consulate — also labeled deputy consul general — serving communities throughout the Pacific Northwest.

So far, the reaction to his appointment is only positive.

David Akov, the consul general of Israel, said he knew that Khaldi was one of the candidates being considered, but when the decision came down from Jerusalem, he was “thrilled.”

“He is a talented diplomat, and he can really bring his skills and the face of Israel to the Bay Area as a multicultural, multi-religious society,” said Akov.

But admittedly, the news has not yet spread widely. No doubt there will be some Jews who believe an Arab Muslim has no business representing the Jewish state. And there will be others who see his appointment as tokenism or as a publicity stunt by the Israeli government to improve its image abroad.

Khaldi knows he will face both those perspectives, and says he is ready for the challenge. He believes it is only because of Israel’s democratic nature that a former shepherd like himself has been entrusted to represent the Jewish state to the public.

“The beauty of its democracy is that it opens doors to people who are not Jewish,” he said in an interview at the Israeli Consulate in San Francisco on Monday, June 26.

While Israel is not perfect, he says, during his travels to America, Canada, England and Australia he hasn’t seen minorities treated better in any of those countries.

“Minorities have their problems and frustrations in every leading country,” he said, adding, “We are less than 60 years old, while America is 230.”

Khaldi is not the first non-Jew to represent Israel in the Bay Area. Reda Mansour, a Druze, held the post in the mid-1990s, and went on to serve posts in Portugal and Ecuador, though he is now back in Israel.

But Khaldi is the first Bedouin to work in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Khaldi, who goes by “Ish” (pronounced “Eesh”), is thin, with close-cropped hair. Wearing a navy blue suit and striped tie, he speaks in rapid-fire English and often makes jokes at his own expense. (In addition to being fluent in his native Arabic and Hebrew, he also speaks Spanish, the result of spending time in America, where he is constantly mistaken for Latino.)

He is one of nearly 200,000 Bedouin in Israel, the majority of which reside in the Negev desert, according to Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs Web site.

They are a nomadic people who for centuries followed their flocks, putting up tents wherever they roamed. They are Arab and Muslim, yet unlike other Arab citizens of Israel, they can serve in the Israel Defense Forces if they choose to, and many do. Khaldi estimated that 70 percent of the Bedouin in the Galilee, where he is from, serve in the IDF.

Many Bedouin villages are considered “unrecognized” by the Israeli government, and therefore do not receive municipal services such as electricity and running water. But slowly, more Bedouins are being educated — receiving advanced degrees as well — and their villages are being converted into towns, as was Khaldi’s village of Khawalid, in northern Israel, in the late 1990s.

The conversion is a slow process, to be sure. Khaldi attributes that to two factors: The Israeli government does not always implement its policies, he says, and there is a desire by the older Bedouins to maintain the lifestyle that is part of their culture.

“It depends on who you ask,” he said. “If you asked my grandmother whether she wanted to move and sell her goats and sheep to live in a villa with a satellite dish, the answer would be, ‘No, I’m sorry, I don’t want it.'”

Khaldi comes from a long line of Bedouins who cooperated with the Jews well before the founding of the state. He notes with pride that his late grandmother (who died last year at age 96) was able to speak some Yiddish with her kibbutznik neighbors.

The new deputy consul general, 35, is single, but hopes to marry before returning here for his two- to three-year post. His fate, however, is in the hands of his potential in-laws. He comes from a culture where it is rare for a young woman to venture outside of her village, and arranged marriages are common. So the fact that their daughter’s suitor plans to take her outside the country is problematic for her parents, he explains. If the family does not consent, the marriage will not take place.

Khaldi described himself as a curious child, always interested in matters beyond his village.

His first visit to the United States, at age 19, began what he calls his “love affair” with America. Not only did he fall in love with the country, he says, he felt a strong desire to represent Israel here and teach Americans about his homeland.

However, it was not love at first sight. In fact, that first trip almost didn’t happen.

After graduating from high school, Khaldi went to work at a nearby kibbutz, hoping to earn some money to help pay for his education. While on the kibbutz, he met American and Canadian Jews. Though he could barely speak English, he made some good friends, and began to dream about visiting them. Considering that he had never even been to Tel Aviv or Jerusalem, however, going to the United States or Canada was about as unlikely as “reaching the moon.”

Nonetheless, he saved up enough money to buy a plane ticket, still fearing that his family would not let him go. He applied for a passport and visa. He was given the phone number of an Israeli named Doron, who worked in the moving business in Brooklyn.

Doron’s brother in Israel was supposed to notify him about Khaldi’s scheduled arrival.

Ten days before his departure, Khaldi quit his job so he could prepare for the trip. His boss at the kibbutz factory told Khaldi’s cousins, who also worked there, about his plans.

The news came as a shock, and quickly spread around the village. First his eldest brother and then his mother confronted him, asking whether the rumor was true.

“We are from a small, closed society,” he explained. “And this is not like I’m going to Eilat.”

The news did not go over well: “My mother thought she was losing me.” But when he said he was looking into whether he could go to school in the United States, his parents gave their consent.

So, with $300 in his pocket, he flew to New York. “What, are you going to fly there, eat breakfast and come back?” his kibbutznik co-workers asked, knowing that one needs a tad more than $300 to survive in New York for any length of time.

Khaldi hoped that Doron, the mover, would be waiting for him at the airport. But he was not.

On the plane coming over, a Chassid had taught Khaldi how to use a quarter to make a phone call. It was 6 a.m. and Khaldi dialed Doron’s number. A woman answered, who clearly was not happy at being disturbed from her sleep. When Khaldi asked for Doron, she said he wasn’t there. When Khaldi asked where he was, she said she had no idea, and hung up.

“It was like the whole sky collapsed,” Khaldi recalled. He had no idea what to do next. He barely spoke a word of English. He had lost touch with his American friends from the kibbutz. Doron’s phone number was all that he had.

While his background may not have prepared him for what was happening, it did provide him with a certain amount of determination. “Those conditions taught us to be strong and not to give up easily,” he said.

He sat and cried in the terminal until he saw a second Chassid. “I know these people from Israel, and I knew he would help me,” he said.

The Chassid only spoke Yiddish, not Hebrew, but somehow they managed to communicate. He instructed Khaldi to take the subway to 13th Avenue in Boro Park, Brooklyn, where many Israelis live. The Chassid led him to the shuttle that took him to the subway.

Khaldi was terrified when he first stepped outside.

He was overwhelmed and frightened by the heat, the noise, the rush-hour crowds and the graffiti, not to mention that it was June and it was raining — he had never seen rain in June.

He approached a policeman and repeated “13th Avenue, Boro Park, Brooklyn,” and the cop led him to the subway. The clerk could see he did not know how to proceed, and let him in for free.

Once on the platform, he repeated his mantra, “13th Avenue, Boro Park, Brooklyn,” until someone pointed where to go. But he kept repeating it, and someone else told him he was on the wrong platform. He needed to be on the opposite side. So he jumped down several feet onto the tracks and then hoisted himself up to the other side.

A few weeks later, Khaldi once again found himself lost in the subway system, but this time he was with a new Israeli friend. Once again, he found himself on the wrong platform. Khaldi was about to jump down to get to the other side, when his newfound friend warned, “No! You can’t do that!”

“Why?” Khaldi responded, “I did it before.”

When Khaldi ultimately got to Boro Park, where he saw Hebrew signs and people wearing kippahs, “I felt right at home,” he said. He soon found a room and employment, working with movers and delivering groceries. Three weeks into his stay, he finally met Doron.

When Khaldi returned to Israel after three months, he vowed he would return to America, the next time in a more official capacity.

He enrolled in Haifa University, where he earned his bachelor’s degree in political science. Then he opted to go into the Israel Defense Forces, serving two years as a border policeman.

Asked why he chose to serve when he didn’t have to, Khaldi replied that the clan of Bedouins he comes from helped the early pioneers build the state, serving in the Haganah and the Palmach, fighting against the British.

“The Muslims and the Jews came from two different worlds then,” he said, referring to the 1930s pre-state Israel. “But they were able to build strong relations.

“It’s a human story above everything — it’s not political. It’s an important story because it shows how people of different backgrounds can live together if they have the same goal: to live.”

When his service was completed, he earned a master’s in international relations at Tel Aviv University. He also founded a non-profit called Amitim to improve the relationship between Bedouins and Israel. Twice, he took the foreign service exam and failed.

He returned to the United States to give a lecture, and soon Hillel groups were inviting him to speak as well, mostly on college campuses. It was the height of the intifada, and Hillels were thrilled to show college students a different side of Israel. Visiting the Bay Area in February 2004, he spoke at U.C. Berkeley, San Francisco State, Stanford, U.C. Santa Cruz and U.C. Davis.

Khaldi weathered some difficult encounters, mostly from pro-Palestinian students who couldn’t understand how an Arab could be loyal to the Jewish state.

He explains that as a human being he sympathizes with the Palestinians, as do most Israelis.

“I think the Palestinians deserve a state to live in dignity with a democratic regime,” he said. “Even the right wing in Israel is saying this now. At the end of the road, I want to see two democracies living near each other.”

At Berkeley, he said, he was told to wear protective gear.

“They didn’t agree with me, but they were respectful there. I think they are fed from the media, and not often from a first source, so what I said was something new. They couldn’t argue with me.”

He was able to convince the pro-Israel crowd and the pro-Palestinian crowd to go out for pizza after his talk.

“I didn’t expect to make a shidduch [a match, as in a relationship] or love story,” he said, “but people should just talk and meet each other.”

His patriotism has made some call him a traitor to his people. But at home, he said, he has encountered nothing but pride from his family and friends.

“Everyone in my village wants to do this, to have an opportunity to be educated and have some influence. They know I’m making a big change and it proves it’s possible for them to do it, too.”

But he knows he will face a larger audience here, one that won’t always prop him up.

“I’m ready for that,” he said. “My responsibility is way bigger than what I did before. I’m not coming to convince people to change their way of thinking, but I can at least try to talk to them about coexistence and talking to each other.”

Going anywhere to represent Israel can be a challenge, he said, asking, “Would Africa be any easier?”

Khaldi had spent several years working at the American Embassy in Tel Aviv. He also worked in the Defense Ministry. And when he took the foreign service exam a third time, he passed. That enabled him to take the course so he could serve in the Foreign Ministry.

At first, he didn’t have much to do, due to budget cuts in the ministry. That quickly changed with the disengagement of Gaza.

Last summer, Khaldi represented the state of Israel to the Arab media during the withdrawal. He was the face of Israel, speaking on al-Jazeera and in the Arab press. While that particular duty will not be on his shoulders when he comes to San Francisco, he does hope to make some inroads with the local Arab community.

“I hope I can build a relationship with them,” he said. “For myself.”

To be an Arab inside Israel is a precarious place; when the “Arab-Israeli conflict” is framed as such, it suggests that he is in conflict with himself.

When questioned about Israel’s security barrier, he said he believed Israel had no choice but to build it to protect its people. But he added, “I don’t think it’s good, I think security can only be built through negotiations.”

Nevertheless, he said, until the Palestinians have leadership that can be trusted, the barrier will need to remain in place.

“One day, the Palestinians will have their state. What that will take, I have no idea, but the fence will have to be taken down.”

As a minority in Israel, Khaldi has spent a lot of time thinking about his identity. “I’m not a Jew, I’m not a Zionist, but I’m a proud Israeli,” he said.

When pressed further, he said that most Israelis no longer call themselves Zionists because it makes them out to be right-wing politicians.

He cares deeply about his country. “You can be patriotic and care about Israeli society and its future even without being a Zionist or Jewish,” he said.

Though Consul General David Akov doesn’t envision any special role for Khaldi, he noted that “just telling his own story will be something very special.

“Not many Israeli diplomats have a similar story, so I think that will be special, but other than that he has the skills to be a very good representative of Israel.”

Reactions from other Jewish leaders were similar.

Yitzhak Santis, director of the Middle East Department of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council, commented, “I think by and large he’ll go over very well and be warmly appreciated by the Jewish community as well as other communities.

“It really demonstrates the multicultural diversity of Israeli society and the confidence of Israel as a society that it feels perfectly comfortable having a member of the Arab minority representing the state.”

Ernest Weiner, director of the Northern California region of the American Jewish Committee, called Khaldi’s story a “classic rags-to-riches story,” adding that Khaldi brings a unique perspective on many levels.

“This is a man of remarkable intensity and determination to move from whence he came to be a spokesman for a nation in a very sophisticated diplomatic sphere,” he said. “It is a breakthrough of literally monumental proportions.”

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."