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Return of a Wandering Star – Natalie Wood
Read the opening chapters of A Shepherd’s Journey*, the brief, entertaining memoir of Israel’s first Bedouin diplomat and you’ll learn swiftly how his grandmother Nof, also spoke Yiddish.
“It was her generation that made the first connections with the Jewish pioneers … who arrived primarily from Eastern Europe during the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s to build the country.
“In fact,” adds Ishmael Khaldi, “those were the years that defined and designed our status as a Bedouin ethnic minority in the newly-born Jewish state, Israel”.
He then goes on to describe the close ties that Bedouin like Nof formed with their new Jewish neighbours. This was due, not only to their traditional hospitality, but also because the community had been mistreated by both Ottoman and British rulers and bore the scars of centuries of disputes with their landed Arab counterparts, the fellahin.
“Taking all this together, the creation of a bond between Bedouin and Jews was natural and mutually beneficial,” says Khaldi, who is about to step down as Counsellor for Civil Society Affairs at the Israel Embassy in London where he’s been fighting anti-Israel activity like Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions for some years.
Here surely is a well-formed symbiosis, where both parties have aided each other, not merely for the reasons that Khaldi outlines, but because Bedouin are desert ‘wanderers’ just as Jews have wandered the globe since their dispersion after the Roman invasion of ancient Israel in 70 CE.
Indeed, good inter-community relations have so benefited Bedouin that they borrowed the idea of moving out of tents and into barrakiya – metal-roofed wooden huts – from residents in the local kibbutzim – who simply recreated the housing in which they had lived in Europe.
Khaldi’s book is an engaging, sometimes hilarious, often moving account of a young man who has somehow straddled two universes: that of the slow, unchanging landscape of his Galilean forefathers and the frenzied, frightening world of 21st century North America and northern Europe.
As I read the closing pages of Khaldi’s book, I saw a startling news story claiming how Shin Bet, Israel’s security service, had arrested a six-strong Negev-based ISIS Bedouin cell that allegedly included four school teachers.
What, one may ask, causes such a huge difference in attitude between the Bedouin of Israel’s north and south? First, the Galilean Bedouin population is less than half of that in the Negev. Second, while northern Bedouin have now enjoyed many years of interacting with their Jewish neighbours, those in the south did not meet Jewish settlers until after the State of Israel was established.
“Because of that”, writes Khaldi, “there is a less intimate connection between Jews and Bedouin in the south” and we must infer this gives a greater cause for animosity. Certainly as someone who lives barely five minutes’ walk from a Bedouin settlement, I can confirm that I have received only pleasant smiles and no personal animus from that community.
Khaldi recently gave a wildly successful address based on his book to members of Karmiel’s Anglo community. On the night, he invited us to visit his home village of Khawalid. He has since revealed that he intends returning there to live after his tour of duty in London concludes.
We all wish him well in both his marriage plans and his aim to develop his home village with a modern access road.
© Natalie Wood