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.
We stared at the ruined house for a few more moments. “Let’s continue?” he suggested.
Among Deek’s siblings and cousins living in Israel there are accountants, hi-tech engineers, factory managers, university professors, doctors, lawyers, architects—and of course electricians. “The reason we have succeeded,” he said, “and that I am an Israeli diplomat, and not a Palestinian refugee in Lebanon, is that my grandfather had the courage to make a decision that was unthinkable to others.”
He spoke slowly and softly, as someone who had given much thought to the issue. He said that his grandfather’s choice should be a model for the Arab minority in Israel as a whole: “Unfortunately, Arabs in Israel today are forced to choose between two bad options. One is assimilation—young Arabs look at their Jewish peers and decide they want to speak like them, walk like them, and behave like them. This attempt is a bit comic but also sad, since it is doomed to fail. In the end they are not Jews and will never be.
“On the other hand, and this is a far more common choice, there is an option of separatism, which is promoted by the Arab political and religious leaders. They say that we are not really Israelis, only Palestinians with Israeli citizenship, but this nuance creates dissociation. They speak about Arab cultural autonomy and about separation, which I think lead to extremism and animosity with the Jews. According to this version, a loyal Arab-Israeli must define himself first and foremost through being anti-Israeli.
“With the first choice, you lose who you are; with the second, you lose who you can become. But I believe that there’s a third way. We can be proud of our identity and at the same time live as a contributing minority in a country who has a different nationality, a different religion, and a different culture than ours. There is no better example in my view than the Jews in Europe, who kept their religion and identity for centuries but still managed to influence deeply, perhaps even to create, European modern thinking. Jews suffered from the same dissonance between their own identity and the surrounding society. Their success was not despite their distinctiveness, but because of it. I am talking about Marx, Freud, Einstein, Spinoza, Wittgenstein.
“Are we less smart? I don’t think so. We must contribute to the common good and be part of the Israeli mainstream in politics, economy, culture, fashion, technology, music, everything. We have our role models. Supreme Court Justice Salim Joubran; Judge George Kara, who sent a Jewish president to jail; Weizmann Institute researcher Jacob Hanna; and authors such as Sayed Kashua and Anton Shammas, who are doing to Hebrew what Franz Kafka did to the German language.”
He lamented the fact that Arab leaders don’t follow this path and instead put the Arab identity and the Israeli identity on a constant collision path. The Arab minority in Israel, he said, could have a paramount role in creating a bridge with the entire Arab world through commerce, culture, and literature, thanks to its unique position. “There is a challenge here for the Jewish community as well,” he added, “who have to accept a minority that wants to maintain its distinct character and still be part of the decision-making process.”
Orthodox Christians in Jaffa celebrated their New Year in mid January, and so a few thousand of them lined the city’s main street on a chilly winter’s night for the annual festive parade. There was a mixed boys-girls group of break-dancers, and huge balloons, and many many fireworks, but the main attraction was the Orthodox Christian scouts band that played anything from “Jingle Bells” to Beethoven’s Ode to Joy. As a trumpet player and a former leader of the band, Deek does not miss an opportunity to play with the band; each year he returns to Israel for the winter holidays to be once again part of the community.
As a boy he studied in Jaffa, but his father sent him to one of the best high schools in northern Tel Aviv, where he was the only Arab. He stood out as an eloquent speaker, and when the second Intifada broke out in 2000 he enthusiastically defended the Palestinian side, though he says today that already at that time he felt that he was only playing a role written for him and not expressing himself. After graduating, he practiced law for a few years but got bored. One day he saw an ad in the newspaper for the upcoming cadet course for diplomats.
His Arab friends told him he did not stand a chance; he didn’t even serve in the military, they said. Convincing his father, an Arab nationalist and member of an anti-Zionist political party, was a tougher sell. The young Deek promised his father that he was doing it out of a real sense of purpose and not for the status or the perks. “I will never forget his answer,” he said. “He told me that he wanted to bring up a man, and therefore taught me how to think and not what to think.”
Representing Israel in Norway, where for a while he was the most senior diplomat in the embassy, wasn’t always an easy task. However, his mixed and conflicting identities helped him notice elements that other people would have probably missed; always a stranger, he picked up nuances that others were blind to. “Despite all differences,” he said, “Norwegians and Israelis have in common the feeling that they know better than anyone else how to do things. Norwegians have this sense of geographical superiority toward the rest of the world; sort of ‘we are far away and above all this.’ I remember that when I just arrived there from my previous post in Nigeria, I saw a billboard advertising a ‘Films from the South’ festival. I was sure that these were going to be African films, but I discovered they were actually German and French films. For Norway, that was south. That’s beyond geography. That’s about the mentality of looking at the world from a higher pedestal.”
‘How could it be that I was both Israeli, Arab, Christian, and a diplomat in Norway?’
Until recently, Norway was considered one of the most hostile countries in Europe toward Israel, and Deek had to confront these sentiments on a daily basis. “If you ask me how many Norwegians think that Jews belong to an inferior religion, or that Jews control the world, the answer would be very little,” he said. “But I think that the State of Israel itself has become a substitute for those same old anti-Semitic sentiments.
“Back when religion was the source of authority, the Jews suffered because of their religion. When science became the source of authority, Jews suffered because of their racial-biological features. Now the source of authority is the issue of human rights, and the Jewish State is accused of committing all the gravest abuses at once: apartheid, genocide, ethnic cleansing, war crimes, crimes against humanity. Just as Jews posed a challenge to the non-Jewish society throughout the ages, so does Israel pose a challenge to the world today. This is what I had to deal with: the Norwegians’ ability to accept a Jewish State with all its uniqueness.”
He had a revealing conversation with one of Norway’s YMCA leaders, who decided to boycott Israel. “I asked her, ‘Why Israel?’ There are surely much graver cases of human rights abuses around the world. Even if everything she said was true, Israel was still not the worst country in the world. And to my astonishment, she replied, ‘Well, we have to start somewhere.’ She reminded me of the famous story of the former president of Harvard University, who when asked why he singled Jews out for quotas, responded, ‘Jews cheat.’ When he was reminded that Christians also cheat, he said: ‘You’re changing the subject. We are talking about Jews now.’ ”
One of the tricks he uses when discussing Israel is to reveal his full identity only halfway through the conversation. “During the war between Israel and Hamas in 2012, I invited a very senior journalist who was reporting at the time on the conflict. At a certain point he started to accuse me, saying, ‘You Jews don’t want the Palestinians to have their own state.’ I answered that I was not Jewish. I represent the Jewish State but I am an Arab-Palestinian with relatives in Ramallah, and I can tell him that he is wrong.
“Every Israeli diplomat could have told him that he was wrong, but when I did so, it had a different meaning. He said, ‘Wait a moment, are you Israeli?’ I replied yes. He asked, ‘And you represent Israel?’ I said yes. ‘But you are Arab?’ I said yes. He was very confused and did not understand how it could be that I was both Israeli, Arab, Christian, and a diplomat in Norway. And this was someone supposedly knowledgeable in Israel and its society. But many times very prominent figures in politics, in the media or the academia, make up their thoughts based on fashion and not on facts or substance.”
Why, of all jobs and professions he could pick, did Deek chose to align himself with one part of his identity, which is set in such a conflict with other parts of his identity? A key to the answer lies perhaps in the fact that stories like his can happen only in free and open societies. His decision to fight for Israel and pursue the career of a diplomat is in a way a fight for himself—a multilayered persona, struggling to find his own voice in a double minority situation: Arab in a Jewish state and Christian in a predominantly Muslim Arab world. Israel’s survival guarantees his own survival.
“If there is no place in the Middle East for a Jewish State, than there is no place for anyone who is different,” he said. “And this is why we see today persecution of Yazidis, Christians, Baha’i, Sunni against Shia and vice versa, and even Sunni against other Sunni who do not follow Islam exactly the same way. The key to change is connected deeply to our ability as Arabs to accept the legitimacy of others. Therefore, the Jewish State is our biggest challenge, because it has a different nationality, religion, and culture. Jews pose a challenge because as a minority they insist on their right to be different. The day we accept the Jewish State as it is, all other persecution in the Middle East will cease.”
‘The key to change is connected deeply to our ability as Arabs to accept the legitimacy of others.’
It is clear to him that the problem with Israel, in the eyes of the Arab world, is not its policies but its identity. If Israel were a Muslim state, he says, nobody would care about its policies; after all, most Muslim states treat their citizens much worse, and no Arab cries foul at other abuses, wars or cases of occupation in the Middle East. “You don’t need to be anti-Israeli to acknowledge the humanitarian disaster of the Palestinians in 1948,” he said. “The fact that I have to Skype with relatives in Canada who don’t speak Arabic, or a cousin in an Arab country that still has no citizenship despite being a third generation there, is a living testimony to the tragic consequences of the war.”
But at the same time, he continued, some 800,000 Jews were intimidated into fleeing the Arab world, leaving it almost empty of Jews. And the list goes on: When India and Pakistan were established, about 15 million people were transferred; following World War II some 12 million Germans were displaced; and only recently, more than 2 million Christians were expelled from Iraq. The chances of any of those groups to return to their homes are non-existent.
Why is it then that the tragedy of the Palestinians is still alive in today’s politics? “It seems to me to be so,” he said, “because the Nakba has been transformed from a humanitarian disaster to a political offensive. The commemoration of the Nakba is no longer about remembering what happened, but about resenting the mere existence of the state of Israel.
“It is demonstrated most clearly in the date chosen to commemorate it, May 15, the day after Israel proclaimed its independence. By that the Palestinian leadership declared that the disaster is not the expulsion, the abandoned villages or the exile. The Nakba in their eyes is the creation of Israel. They are saddened less by the humanitarian catastrophe of the Palestinians, and more by the revival of the Jewish state. In other words: they do not mourn the fact that my cousins are Jordanians, they mourn the fact that I am an Israeli.”
“I,” said Deek clearly this time; he didn’t say “we.”
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Adi Schwartz is an independent Israeli journalist and researcher.
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