Israel Today

by | Jan 10, 2014 | Book Reviews

A Shepherd’s Journey
The story of Israel’s first Bedouin diplomat
Ishmael Khaldi
Prestige PrePress, 2010
131 pages, ISBN 978-965-555-473-1

…God used the descendants of Ishmael to save the Jewish nation

Could one person be a Muslim, a Bedouin, and an Israeli diplomat? Some would say it’s impossible; some would say it’s a miracle. For Ishmael Khaldi, it’s just his life. Readers of the great American novel, Moby Dick, will recall that the narrator and protagonist of that 1851 novel is named Ishmael and it is through his eyes that the reader experiences the story of the ship, Pequod. The Bible declares that Ishmael will be the savior of the Jewish Nation.

Ishmael Khaldi is the narrator and protagonist of this slim memoir. While not about Israeli politics, not about war and conflict, and not about economy and culture, this memoir manages to roll all of the above into the wonderful story of Ishmael’s journey from tending his family’s sheep in a small Bedouin village in northern Israel along the winding path that brought him to where he is today.

No longer is Ishmael Khaldi the eager “greenhorn” who narrowly escaped electrocution on his first visit to America —crossing from one subway platform to the other by climbing over the tracks. No longer is he the neophyte representative of the Israeli government—facing down activist students in Berkeley, Calif. However, even today, a polished diplomat in his early 40s, he must figuratively pinch himself to be certain that he is where he is—no longer a prank-loving kid, one of 11 children raised in a technologically primitive, but culturally advanced tent- and shack-housed Bedouin tribal family. Self-described as the “Reform” branch of Islam, the northern Bedouins of Israel number about 10,000 and have had a symbiotic relationship with neighboring kibbutzim, dating back to early settlements before the establishment of the State. “Reform,” because although believing Muslims, they tend to be somewhat casual in their observance.

Attending a university, a testimony to Khaldi’s own diligence and the vision of his uneducated parents, may have given him the opportunity to “break out” of the nomadic existence of his tribe, but the decision to enlist in the Israeli Army was strictly his own, and was a defining one. When Israel was created in 1948, Bedouins were exempt from military service; but many Bedouins volunteered to serve, and service burned Khaldi’s identity as an Israeli into his heart. Armed with a bachelor’s degree from the University of Haifa and a master’s degree from Tel Aviv University, he gained a position in the information department and then as translator in the American Embassy in Tel Aviv, a stepping stone to a career as an Israeli diplomat.

As a personal example of Israel’s achievement in promoting diversity, who better to address the subject than Ishmael Khaldi, Counselor for Civic Society Affairs, Israeli Consulate in London? He spoke as part of the Community Relations Council of the United Jewish Federation of Tidewater’s third annual “Israel Today” series on Thursday, Dec. 12. See article on page 16.

—Hal Sacks is a retired Jewish communal worker who has reviewed books for Jewish News for more than 30 years.