On Bedouin and Beiteinu; Israel’s Public Relations at Amherst College



(Jacob Greenwald)– Israel analysts have spent years predicting the imminent demise of the relationship between Jews in the US and Jews in Israel. While that’s a bell that’s been wrung a lot, and it’s been wrong for the most part, after a hearing policy advisor Ismail Khaldi speak Thursday night, I’m willing to put a lot more credence to the idea. Hearing the views of the Israeli right regurgitated for an hour by Likud-Beitenu’s dream spokesperson (a non-Jewish Israeli minority), was not only mildly disturbing, but it was telling that almost everyone in the audience, both Jewish and not, was simply put off by the story he tried to spin.

Khaldi is an interesting character. Khaldi served on behalf of the Israeli diplomatic ministry in San Francisco from 2006 to 2009, and since then has been working as a policy advisor to the Ministry of Foreign affairs. In 2010, Khaldi wrote an autobiography titled A Shepherd’s Journey. He is a Bedouin from the north of Israel, and he has the distinction of being the first Bedouin vice consul of Israel, as well as its first Muslim high-ranking diplomat.

However, Khaldi isn’t what he seems at first. His Bedouin community is located in the Galilee, and has always been close to Israeli Zionists. Furthermore, he is has done extensive work with Israeli foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman, leader of the party Yisrael Beiteinu, which is on the far right of the political spectrum, and which is currently allied with Bibi Netanyahu’s Likud bloc. I think a description of the guy wouldn’t be complete without mentioning that when he slipped up, and switched out of English while speaking, it was always to Hebrew. In short, guy is in no way representative of the vast majority of Israeli non-Jewish minorities, and while his story is interesting, his talking points are not.

Khaldi was brought to speak by the Amherst Israel Alliance, and I would say that around 20 to 25 people were in the audience. The talk had been billed as the perspective of a non-Jewish Israeli–but one still kosher with the Israeli establishment. Instead, we got the standard information session given at a Hadassah conference in Broward County, with the usual half-truths. Israel has always wanted peace. In fact, they want peace more than everybody else. It’s the Arabs (and there are no national, cultural, or linguistic differences between them, they’re all Arabs) who drag their feet, and that’s why the peace process is wrecked. Much commentary was made about the split between Hamas and the Palestinian National Authority.

The high point of the lecture for me was when the story of the Altalena was brought up. The context was an example of reconciliation between the Palmach and the Irgun, forerunners of the Israeli left and right. But Khaldi clearly didn’t know the story. The Altalena was a ship that brought weapons to the Irgun during the ‘48 war after it had been declared that there would be one military force within Israel: the IDF. David Ben Gurion didn’t talk nicely and compromise with those aboard the ship. Instead, he ordered them to desist, and when that failed, ordered the shelling of the ship. That day, seventeen Irgun members died, their deaths brought at the hands of fellow Jews–the only difference between the killers and their victims being some major ideological disagreements. The fact that this was brought up as the example of Israeli cooperation in spite of disagreements, and was compared with inter-Palestinian conflict (all said with a straight face) made for an uncomfortably humorous experience.

Most of the audience was not in tune with Khaldi’s opinion. While the Arab-Israeli conflict is clearly a very complicated thing to argue about, with a lot of grey areas and not many clean hands, Khaldi’s line of argument essentially prevaricated on both the topic that people had come to hear (his life), as well as any criticisms that have been laid against the State of Israel. While he insisted that he understood why Arabs surrounding Israel would criticize it (as opposed to college students involved with movements like BDS), when an audience member originally from Gaza challenged him on his narrative of the “security fence” that covers a perimeter of the West Bank, he shouted them down, claiming that he was being “disrespected.” As far as anybody could see, he was not. Even the members of the club that had invited him to speak felt queasy afterwards, and apologized to the slandered questioner afterwards.

Overall, the lecture was a reminder of the divide between Jews in Israel and those in America, or rather, the former’s PR effort and its audience. The content of Khaldi’s lecture hadn’t changed in 30 years, with Farouk Kaddoumi–who hasn’t been a player in things since the PLO became the PNA and Arafat moved to Gaza–was brought up as an example of the Palestinian leadership’s opinion. While everybody has an ideology to push, and I obviously expected to hear an opinion rather than an objective breakdown of anything, it was disturbing to realize how divorced the official Israeli view of things is from reality. This wasn’t a question of “two sides to every story”; much of the lecture departed from reality.

It didn’t even line up with the views of the Amherst Israel Alliance. As a member, I can tell you that I’m a Zionist, but I can also tell you that I get my Israeli news from Haaretz
, the leading left-of-center daily. Many people in the club do the same. This guy wasn’t speaking for us, he was speaking for our grandparents. While his story is inspiring, and not many Arab countries would publicly honor a Jewish citizen in the same way, the fact that the Israelis used this guy as their spokesperson to young people came off as crass. Leaving the lecture hall, I could only marvel at the fact that after 65 years, with Israel now a first-world country with a thriving economy and civil society, that the country seems less relatable to American Jews than ever.