Ishmael Khaldi grew up in a small, traditional Bedouin village a few miles from Haifa. As one of 11 siblings, his childhood was similar to many in his community—without running water or electricity and dependent on income generated from raising sheep and goats. Lacking a school in town, he walked two miles each way to a neighboring community.
As he grew older, his parents encouraged him to attend college, and he took a job at a local kibbutz to save money for his education. Along the way, he began to learn about Israel and decided to join the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). From there, his career continued to rise. In fact, Ishmael went from his tiny village to become the first Bedouin member of Israel’s diplomatic corps, a published author and a sought-after speaker around the world.
We caught up with Ishmael in Boston this spring and learned more about his fascinating story.
Let’s start back at the very beginning—some Bedouins were supportive of Israel even before it existed?
Yes. Earlier today, I was talking to some students at Tufts University about the background of Bedouins serving in the military. I was telling them that there were Bedouins who served in the Haganah, Bedouins who served in the Palmach, both before Israel was established. Those relations started in the 1920s, 1930s, until 1948. When the first waves of Jewish immigrants arrived, there’s a part of Bedouin values or norms that you welcome others, that you extend hospitality and show respect. No matter who you are, no matter what your background, respect is above everything. When the Jewish pioneers came, Bedouins naturally made connections with them.
And you are something of a pioneer yourself?
I became the first diplomat from the Bedouin community to join Israel’s foreign service. And I hope there will be more to come. Why has it taken so long? There is an obstacle there. The Bedouin community is in a transition from being a traditional society, conservative in many ways, to a more open one. Leaving your family and your village for the diplomatic service is not an easy thing. You’re not a teacher, you’re not a doctor who leaves the village in the morning and comes back in the afternoon to your family. You leave everybody. Someone like myself, living in San Francisco, living in Africa and other places, connection to the family and connection to my heritage, to my Bedouin heritage and my Bedouin values, disappears quickly.
You grew up with 11 siblings! Are they still in the village?
My brothers are still in the village. My sisters moved to their husbands’ villages, because this is a tradition in Bedouin heritage—the wife has to follow the husband. But they are still very close by to family and relatives. My brothers, unfortunately, didn’t do the path I did. It was very hard and tough to go to university, financially. You need the basic conditions. If you don’t have running water and if you don’t have electricity in a tent and are living in a wooden shack, it’s very hard.
Tell us about how you ended up becoming the first Bedouin Israeli to be in the diplomatic corps.
I had two friends who joined the IDF—both Muslim Bedouins—who were killed in their service. I decided that I wanted people to know who we are, as Israelis, as Bedouins who are part of the society, who have the full right to represent our country and to be proud of our country. So that’s what I decided to do. It’s a difficult selection process. The third time I tried, I was accepted. I hope there will be more to come after me.
In your book, “A Shepherd’s Journey,” you describe the bond that existed between Bedouins and Jews before the creation of Israel and immediately after. You said it was natural and beneficial. Can you talk a little about that?
Relations between Bedouins and early Jewish settlers began in the 1920s and 1930s. The first pioneers mostly came from Eastern Europe. Part of the Bedouin culture and values is that no matter who you are, no matter what your background is, respect is above everything. Bedouins naturally made connections with these pioneers. We had been punished by the Ottomans, by the British, and suddenly were finding ourselves in close relationships with people coming from a totally different background. As a result of that, Bedouins started to settle, step by step, near these newly built Jewish communities and even started to serve in the pre-state military organizations.
What misconceptions do you think people have about Israel and perhaps about interactions between Jews, Muslims, Arabs, etc.?
Israeli society is diverse. We have so many backgrounds, cultures, traditions. Even among the Jews, you have Sephardi Jews, Ashkenazi Jews, Ethiopian Jews. Add Bedouin communities, religious, secular communities and so forth. It’s not perfect. There isn’t communication often between these groups, but the younger generation is changing some of this. I remember a time in London when I was talking about culture shock in Arabic with a Kuwaiti diplomat at a reception at Finland’s embassy, and I started having this wonderful conversation. Then he asks for my card and sees it’s Israeli Embassy, and he’s looking at me and says, “You speak Arabic better than I do.” There was another incident where I shook hands with an Iranian diplomat, then I gave him my card. Of course, he then disappeared.
No selfie first? That guy would be in so much trouble.
No. But maybe we both would.
In your new role as a global ambassador, you’re often talking about BDS. You’re on college campuses a lot; you must see a lot of anti-Israel ugliness. You once said that you were asked of your army service, “How many Palestinian men and women would you say you humiliated during your time in the police?” How do you handle that, and what are some of the things you hear, given your unique role as a Bedouin diplomat?
That quote was soft compared to some of the things said to my face.
There was one time someone came up to me with a book, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” I knew what that meant. Look, I don’t drag myself down with extreme voices. They’ll always be there. Someone who really cares about the situation, about Palestinians, would be creative and suggest a solution. Those people behind the BDS movement, they have no intention of solving the problem. They don’t care about the Palestinians.
Something you talk about in your book was how Israel won’t achieve the success it seeks until society learns to accept, respect and tolerate differences among many different people in society. What steps do you think should be taken to accomplish this?
We need a ministry or government body that deals with communities. We don’t have that. We have a ministry that can focus on relations between communities, on building trust. If you ask me what Israel’s top priority should be today, I would say building unity in Israeli society. In the past few years, we’ve seen so much polarization. We are brothers and sisters, and no matter what we think or what our agendas are, we need to rebuild a stable, cohesive Israeli society.
What’s next for you?
I’m working on a book called “A Diplomat in the Lion’s Den.” It’s about how being a diplomat is not an easy thing. It’s challenging. Being an Israeli diplomat is even more challenging. Being an Israeli-Bedouin-Muslim diplomat, that’s almost impossible sometimes.
We look forward to reading it. There’s no way on earth it won’t be fascinating.
It’s going to be a good read!
Miriam Anzovin is an editorial content specialist for JewishBoston.com.
Dan Seligson is director of Israel and crisis communications for CJP.