For George Deek, who served as an Israeli diplomat to Norway from 2012 to 2015, compassion and tolerance for cultural and religious differences will form the basis of the dialogue that moves Israel and its Arab neighbors toward peace.
Over Friday night dinner at Chabad at Yale, Deek, a Christian Arab raised in Jaffa, Israel, spoke with over 50 attendees about his hopes for the resolution of the Israeli conflict, drawing upon his experience as a minority in the Jewish state. Deek recounted his family’s history in the region, beginning with his grandparents’ flight from Jaffa in 1948 when Palestinians were told to leave the newly independent Israel. While much of Deek’s extended family has since spread around the world, his grandparents chose to return to Israel. The audience was moved to tears as Deek discussed his grandparents’ journey back to Jaffa from a Lebanese refugee camp. It was his grandfather’s decision to remain part of Israel despite the difference of culture, Deek said, that led him to diplomacy.
“Why do I care, if I am not Jewish?” Deek said. “I care because we are all different, and, in fact, being different is what makes us human. Therefore, a Middle East that has no room for Jews is a Middle East that has no room for anyone who is different, and hence it is a Middle East that has no room for humanity.”
Deek began the talk by posing the question of why Jews have been subjected to pervasive anti-Semitism throughout history, proposing that such discrimination is a result of their commitment to “never give up what made them Jewish.” This reluctance to assimilate forced Middle Easterners and Europeans to confront an important moral question about the willingness to accept those who are different, he added.
Addressing his time spent as an Israeli diplomat in Norway, Deek discussed Israel’s part in European historical narratives. Though Israel sees itself as a national movement of those seeking to return to their homeland, Deek said those in Scandinavia often portray the creation of Israel as an act of European compassion to atone for atrocities committed during the Holocaust. While Deek acknowledged that the Holocaust “absolutely accelerated” the creation of a Jewish state, he argued that the land belongs as much to Jews as it does to him, an Arab. To imply that Israel exists due to the “grace of others,” he said, delegitimizes the state and the right of its people to return to their roots in the Middle East. In order to shift the discourse, one must first change this narrative, he said.
Regarding the potential for progress given present conflicts in Israel, Deek said he sees the latest wave of violence as a reason for hope. Historic attempts by fanatics and those opposing the Jewish state to throw Israel into military, political or economic crises have all failed, he said. In the face of failure to now put Israel in a “moral crisis,” such as the Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, those who oppose Israel are asking what’s next, Deek said.
“There is one minority in the region, the Jewish minority, that has both the will and the capability to say, ‘Yes, we are different; no, we are not going to change; yes, we are very proud of being different, and our hand will always be out there for peace,’” Deek said. “But if you do not accept our existence here as a nation that is different … then we will use whatever we need to use, including force, to protect our right to be here. Israel is the last hope, in many ways, of the Middle East.”
Leah Salovey ’17, who attended the talk, said Deek’s message was very inspiring. But she added that Deek did not address Israel’s own struggle to accept diversity and create a home for those who are not a part of traditional Israeli culture, including those practicing Islam and Christianity. In an interview with the News, Salovey told the story of an Arab man living in Israel who expressed to her his desire to be called a “Palestinian Citizen of Israel” rather than a Palestinian Israeli, due to the fact that he feels there is no Israeli culture outside Judaism. Israel must also come to terms with those who are different, Salovey said, in order to overcome the fears that currently hamper the region.
Matthew Blumberg SOM ’17, another attendee, praised Deek’s unique perspective in addressing the issues in the Middle East from a variety of angles. Because of Deek’s combination of cultural backgrounds, Blumberg said, he is among the only diplomats capable of negotiating the region towards peace.
“Ambassador Deek’s story and his brilliant articulation of his ability to represent Israel in a country like Norway I think lends hope to the idea that humanity is one people,” said Rabbi Shua Rosenstein, Chabad at Yale’s head rabbi. “If we break down the barriers that divide us and focus on the unity that brings us together and the humanity that brings us together, I think that the world will be a much better place, and [Deek] is a living representation of that.”
Deek is currently a Fulbright scholar at Georgetown University.