Willing to be a critic

Some have taken to calling Ishmael Khaldi something of a “token” Arab spokesman for the state of Israel. How this former Bedouin shepherd turned into a foreign consulate and could embrace his identity so fully as an Israeli is something of a mystery.

Some have taken to calling Ishmael Khaldi something of a “token” Arab spokesman for the state of Israel. How this former Bedouin shepherd turned into a foreign consulate and could embrace his identity so fully as an Israeli is something of a mystery.

But Khaldi’s talk at Portland State on April 21, followed by a Q-and-A, not only challenged specific critics of Israel who have called it a racist or apartheid regime, but also questioned the necessity and possibility for national pride, with the understanding of one nation’s own shortcomings.

Khaldi, as of this month, was appointed to the controversial position of Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s Middle East advisor. And since Lieberman is the same prime-minister candidate who was called anti-Arab and racist, that sense of “token-ness” might abound.

By this measure, enthusiastically Israeli minorities (Khaldi is Muslim) are mere puppets and could be likened to the way antebellum slave auctioneers would smother slaves’ lips in grease to show how fat and healthy they were, disguising malnourishment.

But while Khaldi made no apologies for Israel, he sure doesn’t seem like he’d make a very good token Arab spokesmen.

That is to say, he had no shortage of criticism for his country. Perhaps to the disappointment of some, he is openly critical of Israel’s right of return policy, which guarantees Jews worldwide a direct path to citizenship.

Furthermore, he has decried any discrimination that denies opportunity to Israeli minorities. In an op-ed in the San Francisco Chronicle last month he wrote, “Do Israel’s Arab citizens suffer from disadvantage? You better believe it. Do African-Americans 10 minutes from the Berkeley campus suffer from disadvantage—you better believe it, too. So should we launch a Berkeley Apartheid Week, or should we seek real ways to better our societies and make opportunity more available.”

And he renounced the idea last Tuesday that the right of return in any way constitutes racism, saying Israel is just a “modern bureaucracy” and implying that laws simply have unintended consequences.

And, in fact, calling a Jewish state a racist idea is as weird as calling France racist for promoting a French state. (If the French had been driven out France, a French right of return suddenly wouldn’t sound so racist!)

And yet, as Khaldi noted frequently, Israel is the most open place in the Middle East, with more than one national language and freedom of religion. He is known for stating, “By any yardstick you choose … Israel’s minorities fare far better than any other country in the Middle East.”

And while he hoped aloud that Israel would not need the 233 years since independence to elect a minority that we’ve had, he said that in Israel’s nearly 61 years of independence, it has accomplished the impossible in the region.

And thus he is a proud Israeli citizen, as his country has managed to maintain security for its citizens, as well as provide good health care and education, leading the word in a number of industries.

He never ascribed these achievements to “Jews” but rather “Israelis.” His grandmother, he noted, learned to speak Yiddish working alongside pioneers to the region in the ’20s and ’30s, as “Local Bedouins established very close relations with them.”

Khaldi grew up a Bedouin, yet attended Tel Aviv University, and served in the Israeli military. He told the Chronicle, “Israel’s enemies are not Arab culture, nor Arab heritage, nor the Muslim religion. It’s a political situation.”

This underscored a central theme for him Tuesday night that we ought to continue to apply to ourselves as well: national pride, even nationalism, as members of right or left.

The religious may rightly take issue with this, but Khaldi proudly said he is Israeli above all else.

He also remarked that it made him uncomfortable when speaking to American audiences who knew more about Israel and its founding (whether pro-Palestinian or pro-Israeli) than they did their own.

In a day where the West views “citizenry of the world” as a higher value, nationalism can be a bit unpopular.

Yet, Khaldi wisely strives to help his Israel fare well in the Middle East, despite his blunt criticism of his state. Why? Because he judges other nations in comparison to his own.

And this is right when your country’s democracy, economic and scientific leadership are something to be praised.

Likewise, as radio host Dennis Prager frequently pleads, Americans ought not compare our country or any other to a nonexistent utopia.

We have to compare America, including past sins, to the world that is, and encourage the good without demonizing the whole. And we must ally with those who share our values, even if some feel they are imperfect.

Such is what people like Khaldi have done with their own country. Instead of calling Zionists and the Israeli government racist and involved in apartheid, despite issues he finds troubling, as a foreign consulate and now an advisor he will promote the very health of his own country.