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My Friend Ishmael

“Last year, at UC Berkeley, I had the opportunity to ‘dialogue’ with some of the organizers of these [Israel Apartheid Week] events. My perspective is unique, both as the vice consul for Israel in San Francisco, and as a Bedouin and the highest-ranking Muslim representing Israel in the United States. I was born into a Bedouin tribe in northern Israel, one of eleven children, and began life as shepherd living in our family tent. I went on to serve in the Israeli border police, and later earned a Masters degree in Political Science from Tel Aviv University before joining the Israel Foreign Ministry.

“I am a proud Israeli – along with many other non-Jewish Israelis such as Druze, Bahai, Bedouin, Christians and Muslims, who live in one of the most culturally diversified societies and the only true democracy in the Middle East. Like America, Israeli society is far from perfect, but … by any yardstick you choose – educational opportunity, economic development, women and homosexual rights, freedom of speech and assembly, legislative representation — Israel’s minorities are far far better off than in any other country in the Middle East.

“So, I would like to share the following with organizers of Israel Apartheid week, for those of them who are open to dialogue and not blinded by a hateful ideology:

You are part of the problem, not part of the solution …”

So wrote my friend Ishmael Khaldi, the first Bedouin diplomat in the Israeli Foreign Ministry, in 2009. As a diplomat, Khaldi has been the face of the Foreign Ministry’s fight against BDS, and has been sent to the absolute worst postings, hotbeds of Israel-hatred. He encountered the ugliest faces of Israel’s enemies: serving in San Francisco he argued with the radical Berkeley crowd, was shouted down in places like the University of Edinburgh, and on campus hotbeds of anti-Semitism like Tufts and Kent State where police had to be called in, people spit in his face and called him a traitor and Uncle Tom. In Canada, they even called him Joseph Goebbels! With incredible courage, he faced them all down, matching the passion of these Israel-haters with the passion of his love for the State of Israel.

But now Ishmael suddenly finds himself in hot water of another kind, all his attempts to gain reassignment to a new Foreign Ministry posting (he actually asked to be sent to Eritrea!) stymied, his letters to his superiors ignored or dismissed. And all because he lost his temper and posted something on Facebook he almost immediately erased, and later apologized for.

My friend Ishmael is a proud and passionate man, a true Israeli and a Bedouin loyal to his village and his culture. It is not empty rhetoric when he defends Israel as a paragon of true democracy and diversity based on his own rise as an Israeli citizen. Last year Ishmael’s passion ran away with him and he angrily put a post on his private Facebook page in which he accused the Zevulun Regional Council and the Israel Lands Authority of “Bedouin heritage cleansing” because the council plans to sell plots in his native village near Haifa to people from outside the village, “including Arab real-estate machers/traders.”

The result of this policy, he said, is that local residents won’t be able to afford the land, “leading to the elimination/ cleansing of Bedouin heritage, tradition and norms.”

Khaldi continued, “What to do? Keep fighting. Even if we need to go to the ICJ (International Court of Justice!) We won’t allow the council to turn Khawalid [ his village] into an isolated ghetto!!” 

As someone who has (often?) written passionate posts in the heat of true idealism – and out of love – and later lived to regret it when all hell broke loose, I understand where he was coming from. But he did the right thing to erase it and apologize. All would have been well if not for the fact that someone had copied his private post and broadcast it on a right-wing website -– after he’d already erased it – where the entire Israeli Foreign Ministry got to read it and be suitably horrified. Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely (who is also a friend of mine, and a talented, religious Jewish Knesset Member of great competence said, when interviewed by the same right-wing publication) that the Ministry “will not tolerate a situation where an Israel diplomat gives backing to the industry of lies against Israel.” 

Such irony makes me want to laugh — or cry.

And so, here we are. A sincere warrior for Israel’s image, who established the first and only diplomatic position dedicated to fighting BDS, is now being turned into an “enemy of the State” because of some stupid, regrettable Facebook post he tells me was too hyperbolic and ludicrous for anyone to believe was sincere in the first place.

I am writing this column for a number of reasons. First of all, personal. I have known Ishmael for many years and admired him and loved his book: A Shepherd’s Journey: The Story of Israel’s First Bedouin Diplomat, in which he writes how the first time he came to Manhattan he didn’t know how to cross to the downtown side of the subway, so he climbed down to the tracks and walked over. That it was a true story, and that he, who had walked six kilometers from a Bedouin tent with no running water or electricity to go to school, and now had graduate degrees and was working as an Israeli diplomat, made me love Israel even more. 

But the main reason I am writing this is that during a war you don’t sideline your best general. The war we are in with BDS and anti-Semitism in the guise of anti-Israel propaganda is exploding with force everywhere. There is simply no one of Ishmael’s stature, unique background and sincere abilities to take his place. He’s been in limbo now for thirteen months. Enough! Point made! The time has come to send Ishmael on the road, where he can stand up for us as only he knows how.

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8 comments on “My Friend Ishmael”

  1. shimshon bitnun

    the decision to discharge and condemn ISHMAEL is inappropriate and unjustified.this is a fine human being who has overcome incredible obstacles to enter the diplomatic corp,who has proved his worth to his community and country and who desperately needs our support in his time of need!to whom can we write to oppose and rectify this malice?PLEASE publish an address urgently,or better ,an email address
    sincerely yours-dr shimshon bitnun

  2. Naomi R

    What an amazing human being. Had sad that having accomplished so much seems not to matter where hatred is concerned. Thank you Naomi.

  3. Sherman M. Kaplan

    I have sent a copy of this letter to the Consul General of Israel, Chicago Consulate, asking that his office look into this case and provide Justice.

  4. Shirley Grey

    Makes me sad. Anything we (American Jew living in USA) can do to help? Shirley



  6. Minel Kupferberg

    I am confused.
    On the internet, I find Naomi Ragen as Jewish, born in the USA.
    In this article, she claims to be Beduin.
    What is the truth, are there two Naomi Ragen?

    • Jennifer Friedman

      She isn’t claiming to be Bedouin. She has a friend who is Bedouin and she posted something written by the Bedouin friend and then commented on it.

    • Jonathan Glaser

      Nowhere in this piece does Naomi claim to be a Bedouin. She quotes Ishmael’s comments, wherein he qualifies his background as being Bedouin.

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