Selina Nevills
Polish-American Zionist

Ismail Khaldi and Israeli Bedouins

Bedouin man holding his Jewish neighbor on his shoulder during a Lag B'Omer celebration, Mount Meron, 1939.
Bedouin soldier in the War of Independence, 1948 (Israel Defense Force/

The Bedouin tribes of Israel were the first to make an alliance with Jews when they came from the north and the south to join hands with and fight for the Jewish state.

Bedouins are a nomadic Arab subgroup dispersed across North Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, the Levant and Iraq. There are 300,000 of them living in various communities throughout Israel that stretch from the Galilee to the Negev Desert.

In the north live the modernized Bedouins and to the south are the semi-nomads. Israel aided those in the northern district by advancing their education systems, helping them graduate from high school and enter universities, allowing them to create villages and build homes, and finding them higher paying jobs while others, like those in the Negev Desert, were still able to preserve their culture and heritage.

Before 2015 Israel had a Sword Battalion, a purely Arabic-speaking division of the IDF created in 1948 for those who fought along side Jews in the First Arab-Israeli War. There are around 1,700 Bedouin soldiers currently enlisted in the Israeli army, though there is no legal obligation for them to do so, and nearly 200 of them have died protecting Israel. In return, the unit was abolished when studies shown that Arabs and other Arabic speakers would rather join Jews in brigades like Golani and Nahal.

Ismail Khaldi

Ismail Khaldi was the first Bedouin diplomat in the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He comes from a Bedouin village in northern Israel called Khawaled, where he spent the first eight years of his life living in a tent, tending flocks of sheep, and walking miles each day to attend school in the Haifa district. Like most of Israel’s northern Bedouins, his village established ties with neighboring kibbutzim and the Jewish population as far back as the 1930’s. After finishing his national IDF service he headed for the United States. Upon his return to Israel, Ismail earned his bachelor’s degree in Political Science at the University of Haifa, then an M.A. in Political Science and International Relations at Tel Aviv University. He began working for the American embassy and later in Israel’s Foreign Service which landed him back in the United States with a job at the Israeli Consulate in San Francisco, California.

Israeli mayor Gadi Katz and politician Gideon Pat during tourism season in Eilat, 1980 (Government Press Office/Flickr)

Years ago Ismail initiated a project called “Hike and Learn with Bedouins in the Galilee,” a program that has brought thousands of Jews to the village of Khawaled to learn about Bedouin culture and history. There also happens to be a Bedouin Camp in the southern district of Kfar Hanokdim where Israeli and other tourists can experience Bedouin life and hospitality with traditional foods and teas, camel rides, and relaxation in Bedouin tents and sukkahs.

Ismail says the situation between Israel and the Bedouin minority is not perfect but is improving as Israel is helping more Bedouins integrate into Israeli society. The majority of Israeli Bedouins, including Ismail, struggle between a desire to embrace modernity and the preservation of Bedouin heritage and customs. Ismail says he feels he is stuck in between worlds but finds comfort within the company of religious Jews who are also as conservative as Bedouin tribes. Nonetheless, Ismail is proud to be Israeli and Bedouin.

About the Author
Anglo-Polish Zionist from Michigan, blogging about Jews and the Middle East.
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