The Bedouin shepherd who became an Israeli ambassador
search

The latest Jewish News

Read this week’s digital edition

Click Here

The Bedouin shepherd who became an Israeli ambassador

Ishmael Khaldi completes a remarkable journey from shepherd’s tent to ambassador’s residence after being confirmed as Israel’s top diplomat in Eritrea

Stephen is the Jewish News' Foreign Editor

Ishmael Khaldi
Ishmael Khaldi

A diplomat who worked at the Israeli Embassy in London has spoken of his pride at becoming the Jewish state’s first ever Bedouin ambassador, saying the UK “taught me patience”.

Ishmael Khaldi, 49, completed his remarkable journey from shepherd’s tent to ambassador’s residence last week after he was confirmed him as Israel’s man in Eritrea, where he spent three weeks in February.

His time in the UK from 2012 to 2015 was an educational one, he told Jewish News this week, adding that this will help him in Eritrea, where there has been no Israeli ambassador for two years.

“The challenge will be building trust and close relation with the people and leadership of the country,” he says.

He hit the headlines during his time as an envoy when a talk he gave at a Scottish university was interrupted by a pro-Palestinian protest, but asked about his memories this week, he said he had particularly fond memories north of the border.

“The UK, especially Scotland, was a great experience for me professionally and personally,” he says. “On a personal level I met and found supporters who were committed and dedicated to Israel and its people who advocate, arrange events, and do everything that is needed.

“In Scotland I had the chance to visit rural places which gave me a feeling of home, especially with the hospitality and warm welcomes. I still have friends there.”

“In Scotland I had the chance to visit rural places which gave me a feeling of home, especially with the hospitality and warm welcomes. I still have friends there.”

His time here got off to an auspicious start, he recalls. “I was speaking in north London at the start of my position, when a woman in her 50s came up to me excited and said: ‘Are you Bedouin? Wow, look at yourself – you’re like everyone else!’”

Despite his progression through the diplomatic ranks being heralded as an Israeli success story, in June this year he was thrown to the floor by security guards at Jerusalem’s central bus station and pinned there by a guard’s knee on the back of his neck, leaving Khaldi unable to breathe until passengers intervened.

Ishmael Khaldi

He publicly accused the guards of a racist attack based on ethnic profiling, pressing charges, but said he was grateful for the vocal support of the Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi, as well as the director-general of Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

“This was a sad and extreme experience,” he said. “It’s an unfortunate part of my portion – being a minority. But I trust that the police will do their work and bring those responsible to justice. To me, the most important thing wasn’t the attack itself but the support I received, not only from the Ministry but from across the political spectrum, right and left, as well as from Jewish Agency chair Isaac Herzog.”

It’s an unfortunate part of my portion – being a minority. But I trust that the police will do their work and bring those responsible to justice.

His comments in the aftermath were both clear and measured, and Khaldi – one of 11 children who grew up shepherding – knows that how he behaves in public is now increasingly important, because he is looked up to.

“I accept that I am now a role model for the Bedouin community, especially to all those who grow up underprivileged, without running water, electricity and other basic facilities,” he says. “The lesson is clear: it’s possible to be both a Bedouin who grows up in tough conditions and still succeed, like the rest of Israeli citizens.”

It is not without its challenges, however. “Being a diplomat is not an easy thing, and being an Israeli diplomat is challenging, so being an Israeli diplomat who is also a Bedouin and a Muslim can sometimes feel almost impossible,” he says. “You can feel like you are always in the eye of the storm.”

I accept that I am now a role model for the Bedouin community, especially to all those who grow up underprivileged, without running water, electricity and other basic facilities

First posted to Israel’s consulate in San Francisco, his responsibilities in London included defending Israel from advocates of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, and said his stint in Eritrea would focus on building relations.

Ishmael Khaldi in front of an Israeli and Eritrean flag

“The Eritrean people are warm, welcoming, quiet, but there has been no Israeli ambassador there for two years so that left a gap which needs to be rebuilt. The country could use assistance in technology, agriculture and more.

“My role will be to help them in any field they need. Israel has a lot to offer and this could help build closer relations between the two countries and helping Eritreans in any area that we can.”

Asked whether making a good cup of tea was a skill he left the UK with, he laughs.

“Actually, I don’t drink tea, I drink strong Bedouin coffee!”

Actually the one thing I learned was patience. As you say, ‘hold your horses,’ don’t rush. Do things slowly but carefully.”

Spoken like a true diplomat.

read more:
comments