A Guest Post By Israellycool Reader Juvanya
Yesterday, Ishmael Khaldi came to speak at Rutgers University Hillel about his experiences as an Israeli Bedouin. A good 40 to 50 people came out to see Khaldi, filling up the entire room. As I walked into the room, I noticed several attendees had taken front row seats and were wearing hijabs. Having seen the videos here at Israellycool when Michael Oren spoke at UC Irvine and the two IDF soldiers who spoke at University of Michigan, I immediately suspected that this was a setup.
I took a seat in the third row and realized the first three rows were taken by Muslims. One girl wore an interesting pink burqa. I spotted a few keffiyehs, and one guy had a shirt from the so-called Palestine Childrens Relief Fund. Soon, we were asked to settle down as Khaldi was about to be introduced. A representative from the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA), who is also a Rutgers student, made the introduction. He seemed a bit nervous and tried to emphasize that CAMERA was non-partisan. Then, Khaldi began his talk.
“I come here not to say that Israel is an angel, but to tell a story.” began the Bedouin. “Being an Israeli diplomat is not easy,” he continued, especially as a Bedouin and Arab. He said that he had to represent the government regardless of whether he agreed with it and he had to represent everyone: secular and religious, Jew and Arab.
Khaldi is a proud Bedouin, Arab, Muslim, and Israeli. He compared the place of Arabs in Israeli society to that of Iraqi and Pakistani immigrants in the United States. He said that he would fly all the way from Israel if invited by the Arab or Muslim student associations, implying that they never wanted to hear what he had to say.
“Recognition of Israel as a Jewish state is not a precondition; it is just a basic condition to begin talks.” Khaldi spoke about his boss [Avigdor Lieberman], who is a “good friend” and is notable for demanding loyalty from all citizens of Israel.
Born in the Bedouin village of Khawalid, as a young boy, Khaldi had to walk 4 miles to another village to go to school. Later, he went to Haifa to attend the most prestigious Arab school. After that, he told his parents that he did not want to be a burden and went to work on a Kibbutz for 6 months.
He explained that Bedouins, historically, had three main things that we should take note of: They had no concept of property or land. They had no education system. And religion is very important. Altogether, the Bedouins simply didn’t build any institutions. He said that when the Jewish pioneers came to Israel, the Bedouins made friendship ties with them.
America, to a boy growing up in a small village in Israel, was like going to the moon. He jokingly remarked that it was like the “land of milk and honey”. In the 1990s, he was given an open invitation to visit the US by a Jewish-American he met at the kibbutz he worked at. When he arrived at JFK airport, he found no one there to greet him and felt lonely. He found a phone and called the number he had. The woman on the other hand told him in Hebrew that his friend was not there anymore.
The young man became confused and began to cry when suddenly he saw a “Chasid” going up the escalator, which made him feel better. He thought the Chasid to be the “Mashiakh” and talked to him about the problems he had encountered. The Chasid told him to go to Brooklyn where he would find Israelis and paid for the taxi to the subway station. When the taxi dropped him off, he couldn’t find the subway and asked a policeman where it was. The officer showed him to a staircase leading underground.
Khaldi was shocked that people could go under the surface of the Earth, thinking that only mice went underground. He noticed that no one would help him, unlike in his native Israel where people are very helpful. When he got down to the subway, he realized he was on the wrong side of the track. Thinking nothing of it, he jumped down from the platform and walked to the other side. He later found out this was not the correct way to switch sides and that nobody had tried to stop him.
After three months in America, he returned to Israel for awhile until the Second Intifada. Later, he joined the Israeli Foreign Service and his first assignment was when he was sent to Gaza in 2005 to speak to the Arab world about the “disengagement”. After that, he served as Consul General in San Francisco for 2 and a half years.
As he wound down his talk, Khaldi said that peace talks must be continued and that without talks there is nothing. He did not know why the Arabs would not accept Israel as a Jewish state and said that Israelis wanted to see assurances from the Arabs.
He went on to say Iran was the biggest threat to Israel, but that Israel has no problem with the Iranian people. He eyed the Muslims in the room and said flat out that Hamas and Hezbollah were “evil” terrorist organizations. He condemned the “poisonous venom of hatred” they give off. Khaldi continued that Ahmadinejad is wrong and Israel does have a future in the Middle East. “The brightest minds on Earth are in Israel to help everybody.” He also said that Israel is ready to talk to Syria and the PA.
To conclude, Khaldi discussed the controversial loyalty oath that recently passed Knesset committee. He said it was neither illegal nor antidemocratic and compared it to the oaths one takes when one becomes a citizen of the United States. Then, he compared the Israeli flag and status as a Jewish State to the flags of Greece, Switzerland, and Sweden. He noted that no one had a problem with Christianity in those countries. And to finish off, he emphasized that “there must be a dialogue” between Israel and the Arabs.
After finishing his talk, he opened up for questions. The first question was asked by a girl who identified herself as Israeli-born. She asked “How important is Hamas-Fatah reconciliation? Is it even possible to have peace talks without Hamas?” Khaldi answered that the Arabs must be united for peace talks to work and that Israel will talk to Hamas. However, Hamas must recognize Israels right to exist, stop incitement, and accept the agreements between Israel and the Arabs.
The next questioner identified himself as a native of “Nablus”. He noted that Khaldi talked about Israels right to exist and how it was democratic and then asked about “UN resolutions”. At this point, Khaldi recognized the ploy and said “Respect me, don’t start an argument.” The young man asked further “What rights do you have as an Israeli citizen in the IDF and police that your brethren in (list of Arab cities) do not have?” Before allowing an answer, the young man continued “You are participating in a structure of occupation”. Khaldi said that he receives the salary and benefits of a government official. He then criticized the questioners use of the term “brethren”, saying his brothers were in the kibbutz. This elicited something akin to booing from the Muslims. He responded that brotherhood is not based on “common color and religion” and said that the Arabs deserve dignity and a state and that the majority of Israelis feel the same. There were more interruptions, to which he said “Friends, please please let me finish.”
Next, another young man from Bethlehem questioned Khaldi about a Bedouin village supposedly bulldozed in July 2010. He asked “How can you represent [Avigdor] Lieberman and go back to these villages?” The reply was that there must be more discussion and that there is no coordination between the ministries (something probably familiar to most Israeli readers). He said that Israel cannot simply certify every group of 2-3 Bedouin tents and went off into a whole discussion of the process and problems. He also criticized the government somewhat for trying to mix different tribes together.
The fourth questioner said she believed the conflict was not religious, to which Khaldi agreed. She said it was about “basic humanity” and thought that after experiencing the Holocaust, which she said that no one could reasonably deny, the Jews would never repeat it. She claimed that the Jews had treated Arabs in similar ways to the Nazi treatment of Jews (completely ignoring that only about 45,000 Arabs have died during the past 90 years, mostly in wars). I wanted to call out and ask her where the gas chambers were, the mass graves, etc., but refrained. Khaldi replied that we must look forward and that “tears wont help”.
After her, a Jewish student asked if Khaldi thought the disengagement was a step forward or a mistake. He replied that it was not a mistake, but a “great step forward”. People need to wait, he said, and peace will take time. He said that it is hard for anyone to be uprooted: Jews, Arabs, settlers.
Next, another Arab girl spoke and said she was here in diaspora because of Israels creation (I guess she did not like being in a top class public university in America and would rather be in a decrepit village). She noted that Khaldi said there was “plenty of space” and asked if he meant in the main land or in the Middle East. “What about the settlements?” He asked her to please change her attitude, not wanting to talk to inciting, disrespectful activists. He said that the recent construction in Judea and Samaria were not expansions onto Arab land or new locations. Instead, they were primarily concentrated in the three main blocks: Ariel, Gush Etzion, and Ma’ale Adumim.
Somewhere in among these questions, several times, the Muslim activists called out various things about occupation, UN resolutions, and that the settlements were supposedly “illegal under international law”. Khaldi asked the activists to be quiet and respectful. During the talk, the activists were passing around papers and whispering to each other in a disrespectful manner. I also heard the word “Palestine” whispered just before the questions.
The next questioner identified herself as a Muslim and an Iranian-Egyptian (an interesting combo if you ask me). She asked “What makes you representative of Arabs?” There was a back and forth and several others called out angrily “You dont represent us.” He asked them what they represent. “If not Hamas and Fatah, who? Tell me.” They only said that they represented the Arab people being treated with injustice or something like that and gave no suggestions for reforming Arab politics. He remarked that there will never be a solution with actions like this.
Next, a young man who may have been Jewish and I am pretty sure was not Muslim asked what Khaldi saw as the future of the so-called blockade of Gaza. He replied that the trade restrictions were imposed to “prevent Hamas from getting ammunition”. He said to Hamas “Don’t hate your neighbor, speak to him.”
After that, a Lebanese-Iranian girl (sign of the future?) mentioned an alleged quote of Ben Gurion, saying that if he were an Arab, he would not negotiate with the Jews. After a short back and forth, I interjected “When did he say that?” Everyone looked at me, which had now settled all questions about my loyalties. The girl did not respond and continued to attack him and several others talked about how the US supposedly bribes Egypt and Abu Mazen. He asked again who they support, to which they had no answer. One girl, wearing a keffiyeh, said she wanted a one-state solution. The Muslim activists applauded loudly and she said that all Jews and Arabs will live together side by side. I burst out laughing.
At this point, things were getting ridiculous and Khaldi was visibly frustrated by the incessant attacks, abuse, and disrespect. He took one more question asked about if he felt there was apartheid in Israel. For some reason, I did not write down his response, but I think it was that life is not perfect anywhere. He said there were poor neighborhoods outside University of Berkeley in California and said no one would call that apartheid.
I had planned to ask him a few questions, however, he was very annoyed and frustrated and apparently had to catch a train (or wanted to get the hell out of there). I will however probably be able to email him the questions for a future post.
I am honestly a bit surprised there was not more theatre, but as I have warned for months, Rutgers is slowly turning into what we have seen elsewhere. I will be graduating in 2012 and probably will not get the chance to see my alma mater fall into irrational hatred.
Aussie Dave adds: Here is Khaldi in action at a Seattle synagogue.
And here’s another video of him with much clearer audio.