Israeli foreign ministry’s token Arab

Ishmael Khaldi

Ishmael Khaldi has been all the rage amongst Israel advocacy groups in the United States, especially in the liberal San Francisco Bay Area. An Arab Bedouin who embraces his Israeli citizenship and has worked for the Israeli police as well as Israel’s occupying army, he was a dream come true for the Israeli consulate, which decided to hire him as Deputy Consul to San Francisco in December 2006. The timing and destination could hardly have been more opportune given growing efforts by activists in the Bay Area to bring awareness to the apartheid realities of Israeli state policies within and beyond the 1967 borders. What better way for the Israeli government to prove that it’s not racist than by having an Arab with an Israeli passport denounce the claim, in an official capacity?

Indeed, for some (Israel’s advocates in the US not excluded) this type of tokenism is sufficient and meaningful. We need look no further than the discourse surrounding the Democratic Party primaries to see this phenomenon in effect today, and to understand why it is that the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs thought it prudent and effective to send Khaldi to San Francisco. Where we should be looking for the first devoted anti-racist in office this fall, we look instead for the first black man. Where we should be looking for the first devoted anti-sexist, we look instead for the first woman. We do these things as if the two were synonymous: and Israel’s advocates note Khaldi’s position as if “anti-racist” and “anti-apartheid” were synonymous with there being an Arab employee of the state.

The obvious tokenism aside, however, it would be a mistake to assume that Khaldi rose to his position by following the same path as the Jewish Israelis who occupied the position before him. Prior to his work with the consulate, Khaldi was shuttled around the United States by the Hasbara Fellowships program, a project started with the support of Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs after the second intifada in 2001 and the rise of numerous grassroots solidarity campaigns in support of Palestinian rights. Khaldi’s long record of giving talks proclaiming his love for Israel as an Arab is precisely what paved his way to becoming Israel’s Arab in San Francisco.

Khaldi recently gave a private talk to a number of University of California, Berkeley students organizing “Israeli Apartheid Week.” Khaldi began by praising the “beauty” of democracy, which he said allowed for “tolerance” of different viewpoints. He stated that his main opposition to the word “apartheid” was that it was “incitement” which “spread the seeds of hate,” and that his personal mission in the US was to “build bridges and reach out to communities with real stories” that would more accurately represent his state. He said he did not want students to “hate,” but to “speak with each other” and “move forward.” He also questioned the motives of student activists concerned with Israel and Palestine, asking, “Why Israel?”

Khaldi did not foresee that the question would be turned around on him, and perhaps he did not think that his responses would confirm every point he had hoped to refute. When it was pointed out that none of the activists in the room received paychecks from any government or organization to focus on Israel, Khaldi responded that he wasn’t here for the money, but rather for his love of Israel. The money, he said, was not enough to justify the pain of being away from his family and fiancée in Israel, and wasn’t responsible for his opinions.

Ironically, though, Khaldi did share a few of those “real stories” he said he came to the US to spread. Khaldi admitted that “my parents have no electricity [in Israel],” further stating that “American Jews [would] have more rights than me as an Israeli citizen and representative of Israel” if they were to go to Israel for the first time “tomorrow.” He further stated that “there is discrimination [in Israel],” but that he aimed to “turn these points into ways of understanding.” Borrowing from an Arabic expression, he said we need to “break our head and teeth to sit down together.” Nevertheless, when students continued to challenge him for expressing more opposition to the word “apartheid” than to actual discriminatory policies that he had himself mentioned, Khaldi said that he “[did not] agree with everything [Israel did], maybe I don’t agree with 70 percent.” Furthermore, after the meeting had concluded and after he was rebuffed by students for his petty concerns about diction rather than the siege and embargo of Gaza, Khaldi claimed that he “[did not] support that,” referring to the recent Israel-imposed blackouts in the Strip.

Khaldi’s plea that student groups in the US ditch the apartheid analysis and their opposition to Israeli state policies in the West Bank, Gaza, and within Israel’s own borders were defeated by his own anecdotes of institutional racism in Israel. While Khaldi admits that discrimination exists in Israel, he opposes the apartheid analysis because he says that Jewish-only water fountains do not exist in the area of Israel and Palestine (though Jewish-only roads, suburbs, and settlements do). While it might be true that petty apartheid does not exist in that way, it is not true that petty discrimination of the sort that can be overcome by dialogue groups, as suggested by Khaldi, is all there is to the story. That simplistic analysis belies the systematic discrimination that results in different opportunities and attainments for Arabs and Jews in Israel and the occupied Palestinian lands.

What Khaldi and other Israel advocates fail to recognize is that “apartheid” is not simply a word thrown out to charge the atmosphere, or a slur used to demonize the Israeli state. Israel’s own actions achieve those effects in their own right. “Apartheid” is, instead, an entire framework of analysis through which Israeli state policies within Israel and in occupied Palestinian lands can be understood. It might be possible to argue that the analysis is not entirely sound; however, no amount of arguing against the “apartheid” analysis will result in an end to the Israeli policies which produced it.

Why Khaldi says what he says is a mystery. It’s absolutely possible that he believes everything he says and that what he presents are indeed his firm convictions. What is clear, however, is that he is paid to share only a few of those views. If it were the case that Khaldi listed the 70 percent of Israel’s actions that he supposedly disagrees with, or spent a bit more time explaining what he meant by the fact that he has less rights as an Israeli citizen because he is an Arab than would a non-Israeli Jewish-American, it’s doubtful that he would have become the first Arab Bedouin that the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs paid to work in the US.

If he begins to talk like this more often, he might instead be the first Arab Bedouin that the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs fires in the US. Let us see if Israel’s advocates can tokenize that into progress.

Yaman Salahi is an undergraduate student at the University of California, Berkeley, and a member of Students for Justice in Palestine.