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Meet George Deek, Israel's First Christian Arab Ambassador

February 24, 2020 | by Rabbi Levi Welton

At age 35, he’s also Israel's youngest ambassador in the world today.

On December 25, 2019, the Office of the President of Azerbaijan officially recognized George Deek as Israel’s new ambassador to their predominantly Muslim country. They bestowed him with the title “Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary.” At age 35, he’s Israel's youngest ambassador in the world today; he's also the first Christian.

Ambassador Deek's family has lived in the port city of Jaffa for 400 years. This stylish Arab millennial has been defending the Jewish state ever since he joined the Foreign Ministry in 2008.

For many, his rise to prominence began on September 27 2014 when he shared his personal story for the first time in a talk at the House of Literature in Oslo. It went viral as the “the best speech an Israeli diplomat ever delivered”.

The Ambassador with the President of Azerbajan

In the video, Deek recounts how his grandparents fled to Lebanon in advance of the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, after being told the Jews would slaughter them if they remained in their homes. After the war was over, his grandfather realized it had all been a lie. The Arab armies did not win as promised and the Jews did not kill all the Arabs. In a highly unusual move, he abandoned his status as a refugee and fought to return home and be readmitted to Israel, with full citizenship rights.

In his speech, Deek laid out his belief that Arabs in Israel don’t have to give up their identity or be “ slaves to the past, held captive by the chains of resentment.” Rather, they could follow in the path his grandfather modeled and live as contributing members of the only democracy in the Middle East.

Deek believes that the Palestinians are prisoners of a calculated strategy of their leadership who wish to turn a humanitarian disaster into a political weapon.

“How come the displacement of the [850,000] Jews from the Arab world was completely forgotten, while the tragedy of the Palestinians, the Nakba, is still alive in today’s politics? It seems to me to be so, 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: The Nakba day is not April 9th – the day of the Deir Yassin massacre, or July 13th – the day of the expulsion from Lod. The Nakba day was set on May 15th – the day after Israel proclaimed its independence. Palestinian leadership declared that the disaster of the Nakba 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 that befell Palestinians, and more by the revival of the Jewish state. “

I believe that a Middle East that has no room for a Jewish state had no room for humanity.

Deek views his role as a representative of Israel as a great opportunity to highlight the diversity and inclusivity of the Jewish state. “This mission is personal for me, spiritual, in a way that transcends politics.” He knows that people are often shocked when finding out he’s a Christian-Arab ambassador for the Jewish state. “I care for Israel as a democratic and Jewish state not any less than any Jewish person. For I believe that a Middle East that has no room for a Jewish state had no room for humanity.”

Ambassador Deek is taking his message to one of Israel’s most strategic partners in the Middle East. Azerbaijan sits on the border with Iran, supplies approximately 40% of Israel’s oil and is one of Israel’s largest arms markets.

Ambassador George Deek

Although he just got married three months ago, he and his wife moved right away to their diplomatic post. “It’s basically a four-year honeymoon,” he jokes. Since coming here, they’ve enjoyed a flurry of official events, visited the statue of Azerbaijan war hero Albert Agarunov in Baku (He was Jewish!), and even went skiing in the Shahdag Mountain Resort.

The highlight for him was the week of Dec 25th. “In the span of one week, I got to be a part of Jewish, Christian, and Azerbaijan secular holidays. This country doesn’t just protect the freedom of religion but the freedom from religious oppression. Also, I don’t think many people realize that there’s been a Jewish community living here for centuries. It’s actually one of the few places in the world where Jews have never experienced persecution or hostility. This past year, more than sixty thousand Israeli tourists came here on holiday. People aren’t aware that this place is so friendly to Israel and the United States.”

I had the opportunity to spend time with Ambassador Deek on a virtual video call.

LW: How does it feel to be the first Christian ambassador for the Jewish state?

GD: It’s a great honor in that sense and I feel like it’s a responsibility as well. I wasn’t chosen because I’m a Christian but because they feel I can do a good job. I think we need more people of different faiths and backgrounds to serve as the face of Israel. We need to showcase the full colorfulness of our country to the global community.

I grew up in Jaffa, a culturally and religiously mixed city, and our apartment was on top of a synagogue. I remember waking up every Saturday as a boy to the soft sounds of prayer entering my bedroom window from the synagogue below. A few hours later, I would hear the mu'azzin’s call to prayer. Of course, on Sunday’s it was the cheerful bells of my Church. As a Christian, when I see the persecution of Yazidis, Christians, Baha’i, Sunni against Shia and vice versa, I feel the responsibility to fight for more tolerance of those who are different.

Israel is the only place in the Middle East where Christian communities are growing, with a 450% growth since 1948. Yet, there is rampant ethnic cleansing of Christians and Yazidis going on in neighboring countries, which I consider one of the greatest modern crimes against humanity. If we care about the fate of Christians, and about saving the soul of this region, we [as Arabs] must care for all minorities and make our different identities become a symbol of hope and not a source of hate.

Israel to me is where every Jewish person, regardless of his geography, and every Israeli, regardless of religion, should be able to call a home. It’s in Israel that this revolution of tolerance has begun. If there’s no place in the Middle East for a Jewish State, then there’s no place for anyone whose different.”

LW: What did you learn from your time working in Nigeria?

GD: They say that your first posting is like your first love. I have a special love for Nigeria. This is a country of 170 million people, with hundreds of tribes and languages. One out of every six black people in the world is Nigerian. What I find amazing about them is their model of coexistence. They have a long history of bloodshed over there. But today, you could be a Northerner, Southerner, or be from any of the faiths in that country and they have developed an authentic unity as countrymen.

I also learned about the unjust realities of this world. I was stationed there between the years 2009-2012, when the Boko Haram launched its military terrorism against the government of Nigeria. That was when the girls were kidnapped. These terrorists were doing everything they could to spread hate and violence amongst the people of Nigeria and yet the media barely covered it. It was really sad to see how difficult it was to bring international attention to the crisis. Christians were being slaughtered en masse and yet no one gave it more than a blip on their news coverage, if at all.

So I made it my goal to do as much as I could to help. One year, we diverted our budget for our annual Israeli Independence Day reception towards an infrastructure project for a local farm. We used all the money that would have gone towards the cocktail party and flying in distinguished dignitaries to buy an irrigation system for the farm. Plus, we got an Israeli expert on farming to commit to train the local farmers in how to leverage these systems to maximize crop growth, increase the variety of plants they could grow and provide economic reliability to their community. Plus, food for their families.

Another time, I was approached by a local who knew who wasn’t getting any help with their village water. It was severely polluted and disease was rampant. I arranged for an Israeli company to agree to take on this humanitarian project. They flew out an entire crew, we dug holes in the ground and developed a complete water filtration system for the thousands of people in this village. Now they had fresh water for drinking, bathing and daily use. Disease went down, health went up. What surprised me was how the leaders of the village decided to show their appreciation. As a sign of brotherhood, they told me they were going to make me a Chief of the village. There was an entire ceremony and everything. It was beautiful!

Ambassador Deek (center) during his chieftain ceremonial.

LW: From what I can tell, the fight for justice is one of your great passions. It reminds me of the Torah's moral mandate, the universal Noahide Code, wherein all humanity is enjoined to establish justice. As a lawyer, diplomat, and expert on international law, what’s your biggest advice for how to achieve justice?

GD: Listen to the other side. Often, the first step to treating others unfairly is an inability to listen to their side of the story. Especially today, my generation and those younger are living in increasingly isolated social media echo chambers. We only read and talk to people who think like us or project an ideal of what we want to be. We need more interactions with people who disagree with us.

A couple of years ago, I was speaking to students at UC Davis. Then an anti-Israel group, Students for Justice in Palestine, interrupted my talk. Now, their name sounds nice. After all, who doesn’t want justice? But how can someone demand justice when they break the very tenants of justice itself - to treat others as you want to be treated? How can they demand freedom of speech if they stifle the speech of those who disagree with them? Or, look at the recent blacklist of companies tied to Israel settlements by the United Nations. How can they claim to be uniting the nations when they keep singling out Israel unfairly? Look, if they believe Israel should be treated differently, then don’t support Israel. But don’t pretend what you’re doing is “justice”. Bigotry can never be just.

I’m reminded of the biblical story of Moses and tablets. The first time he received the tablets, he broke them when he came down and saw his people worshipping an idol. So he went up and, together with God, created a second set of tablets. But what happened to the broken pieces of the first set? According to what I’ve learned, the Talmud teaches that the broken pieces were placed in the ark alongside the second set.

I think this is a remarkable lesson for the era of identity politics. There are cultures that forget the past, and there are cultures that are stuck in the past. But peace lives in those who turn those fragments of memory into the stones upon which a better future can be built.

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