Israel’s Best Diplomat Offers Hope to the Entire Middle East
George Deek is an Arab in a Jewish state and Christian in a predominantly Muslim Arab world—and he recognizes that his multilayered identity is an asset
By Adi Schwartz|July 28, 2015
Reprinted from Tablet Magazine
When George Deek uses the word “we” in a conversation, it is not entirely clear whether he means “we Palestinians,” or rather “we Israelis,” or perhaps “we Westerners,” or even “we Arabs.” At the age of 30, with a constant five-o’clock shadow compensating for his baby-face and thin silhouette, he is both an Israeli diplomat, representing the Jewish state, and a descendant of a Palestinian family who fled its home during the Arab-Israeli War of 1948. His cousins live today in Canada, Dubai, Damascus, and Ramallah, and some of them are considered by the United Nations to be refugees of that same war.
This personal tension came fully into being last summer, during the war between Israel and Hamas, when Deek was Israel’s chargé d’affaires in Oslo. He presented Israel’s positions and defended its actions, while Norwegian TV networks were screening endless footage of destruction coming out of the Gaza Strip. He explained how the Israeli army works, without ever serving in it. He spoke on behalf of Israel, when none of his viewers and listeners knew that he was actually (also) a Palestinian.
A few weeks later, at the end of September, he decided to unveil his personal story for the first time. In a lecture in the House of Literature in Oslo, during the launching of the Norwegian translation of Benny Morris’ history book dedicated to the 1948 war, Deek recounted how his grandfather fled Jaffa and reached Lebanon, how he insisted on getting back into Israel when the war ended, and how he raised his family in the nascent Jewish state. He talked about the personal suffering of his own family, now scattered all around the world, but also about the fact that “the Palestinians have become slaves to the past, held captive by the chains of resentment, prisoners in the world of frustration and hate.”
But he talked mainly about the way forward, and mainly about hope. He spoke about his neighbor Avraham, a Holocaust survivor, who taught him always to look to the future and not to the past. He gave his listeners a sense of why a young Arab-Palestinian has decided to dedicate his career to the Israeli Foreign Service. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the speech quickly went viral under the somewhat ironic title “the best speech an Israeli diplomat ever held.”
As a native son of Jaffa, the mixed Arab-Jewish suburb of Tel Aviv (population 60,000), Deek knows its decaying streets and alleys inside out. Our meeting occurred when he was in Israel for the winter holidays, just after he returned from Sunday prayer in the local Christian Orthodox church. He was dressed in a dark blue suit and a pair of shiny black shoes. His late father, Joseph, was head of the Orthodox community in town, so everybody knew him and greeted him with a nod. A group of elderly women sitting outside a simple one-story home, all in black dresses, called to him and urged him to find himself a woman already. He chuckled.
Deek took me to where his grandfather’s house stood in the Ajami neighborhood before 1948; it was now a complete ruin. His grandfather George worked as an electrician and had some Jewish friends who even taught him Yiddish, making him one of the first Arabs to ever speak the language. He got engaged to his wife Vera in 1947. A few months later, when the United Nations approved the Partition Plan, Arab leaders warned that the Jews would kill them if they stayed home. “They told everyone to leave their houses, and run away,” said Deek. “They said they will need just a few days, in which together with five armies they promised to destroy the newly born Israel.”
His family, horrified by what might happen, decided to flee to the north, toward Lebanon. They stayed there for many months, and when the war was over, they realized that they had been lied to—the Arabs did not win as they promised, and the Jews did not kill all the Arabs, as they were told would happen. “My grandfather looked around him and saw nothing but a dead-end life as refugees,” said Deek. “He knew that in a place stuck in the past with no ability to look forward, there is no future for his family. Because he worked with Jews and was a friend to them, he was not brainwashed with hatred.”
His grandfather did what few others would have dared—he got hold of one of his old friends at the electricity company, and asked for his help to get back into Israel. That friend not only was able and willing to help him come back, but even made sure that he got his job back.