Shepherd on a Mission

If ever there were an Israeli who could lead Israel to peace with its Arab neighbors, it might be the Israeli diplomat I met the other day in the lobby of the Century Plaza Hotel. This is your classic Zionist. He stands tall and proud of his country, doesn't ignore its faults, has a deep understanding of the issues from all sides and craves peace.

Of course, it helps that he's a Muslim. Not just a Muslim, but a Bedouin Muslim.

Ishmael Khaldi's official position is policy advisor to the Israeli foreign minister, but he's a lot more than that. He has become a one-man hasbara machine for the Jewish state, traveling around the world to make the case for the country he loves. When he encounters anti-Israel hecklers who spout slanderous words like "apartheid state," he has an easy answer:

"If Israel was a racist state, a Muslim like me would never have made it this far."

This notion of going far came early for Khaldi. Until he was 8, he walked four miles to school from his tiny Bedouin village of Khawalid in the western Galilee, then the same distance to get home again. He has fond memories of the family tent, where he lived with his parents and 10 siblings. He calls the tent an "extraordinary thing," because it was made of goat hair, which he says keeps you "warm and dry in the winters, and cool in the hot summers."

It wasn't just the memories of the goat-hair tents that marked him. It was also the ancient Bedouin lifestyle and the stories he heard from his grandmother, Jidda, who passed away in 2005 at the age of 96.

Khaldi recalls an early life that revolved around caring for animals, usually goats, sheep and cows. Because the condition of the land changed with the seasons, Bedouins were always on the move, looking for somewhere to nourish their flock. Their nomadic lifestyle lasted for thousands of years. Today, Khaldi says, many Bedouins have settled in more permanent dwellings in villages.

The turning point in Khaldi's life came when he decided, at 17, to visit America. He spent three months in New York City getting by on "one miracle after another," including one episode when he jumped onto subway tracks to get to the other side. "Bedouins always look for the shortest route," he says.

He met religious Jews in Brooklyn and Queens who gave him room and board. He learned what it was to be a "Shabbos goy," but he also remembers the joys of Shabbat and listening to the Torah portion of the week.

When he returned to Israel, higher education beckoned. Bedouins today do everything in their power to send their children to university, "even if I need to sell my clothes," his father once told him. So he enrolled at the University of Haifa, where he got a degree in political science and arranged cultural tours for overseas students, mostly Americans, to his Bedouin village.

After completing his college degree, he followed his brothers' footsteps in the national service and rose to second sergeant in the Israeli police force. He recalls his emotion when, after completing basic training, he was handed a Quran on which to swear his oath to his country, Israel.

He says that throughout history, Bedouins lived a life of tension with governing regimes, whether Ottoman, British or Arab. His own tribe developed a good relationship with the early Jewish pioneers in the 1920s, '30s and '40s. Bedouins and kibbutzniks always had a deep affinity for one another. His grandmother even learned a little Yiddish. So it was natural, he says, to want to enlist in the Israel Defense Forces and develop a loyalty to the Jewish state.

What I found fascinating about Khaldi is that at 38, with a graduate degree from Tel Aviv University and an important position in the Foreign Ministry, he's still a nomad at heart. He's always on the move, going from one country and city to another, telling Israel's side of the story. He's even found time to write a book about his story (A Shepherd's Journey).

Israel's story is his own, he says. No one stopped him from moving up. It was his choice to wake up at 3:30 in the morning to work to make enough money to buy a plane ticket to America. It was his choice to get an education and apply to work in public service. Israel is far from perfect, he says, but it gave him the freedom and opportunity to get where he is today.

Maybe his nomadic background has been a blessing. Nomads get attached to values, not to land or ideologies. They don't build permanent structures; they don't get bogged down if the land doesn't produce. They're used to being fluid, to moving on and looking for more fertile areas. And they never abandon their flock, or each other.

What better values for a diplomat? Loyal, practical, resourceful and travels light. Oh, and one more -- respectful of his elders. This one, though, has landed him in hot water.

"My father keeps asking me when I will settle down, get married and start a family," he says.

The only good excuse I can think of is that he'll first need to take care of another matter -- making peace between Muslims and Jews.