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A Conversation with George Deek, Israel’s Best Diplomat

A discussion about the latest wave of violence in Israel, the ongoing conflict in Syria, and more

Lee Smith
October 30, 2015
Photo: Conrad Myrland for MIFF
George Deek. Photo: Conrad Myrland for MIFF
Photo: Conrad Myrland for MIFF
George Deek. Photo: Conrad Myrland for MIFF

Yesterday in Washington, D.C., I conducted an interview with George Deek, the Israeli diplomat who was profiled in Tablet in July by Israeli journalist Adi Schwartz. In the article, Schwartz discusses the talk Deek gave last year in Oslo shortly after the conclusion of Operation Protective Edge, Israeli’s summer campaign against Hamas. The video quickly became an Internet sensation. But I believe Deek’s performance yesterday at the Hudson Institute, a Washington, D.C. think tank where I’m a senior fellow, was perhaps even more impressive.

I strongly encourage readers to watch the recording of the event, which is nearly one hour and thirty minutes of unadulterated Deek. It’s a real tour de force from a top diplomat and lawyer, who is also a great storyteller and one of the most original thinkers I’ve ever had the pleasure to speak with.

The nominal subject of the event was the latest wave of Arab violence in Israel, a topic that Deek, an Arab Christian raised in Jaffa, is uniquely positioned to discuss. The talk covered a wide range of topics—from the state of the Arab-Israeli conflict to the state of the larger region, including the ongoing war in Syria. Deek also spoke about his family, especially his grandfather who after fleeing to Lebanon with the outbreak of the 1948 war decided to come back to Israel—a decision that, as Deek described it, is a foundational moment for his family. Perhaps more importantly, it might be taken as inspiration not just for Arab Israelis and Palestinians, but for everyone throughout the Middle East who need to be able to imagine a different way of being in the world, especially now with much of the region in turmoil.

Deek explained that one key issue to understand is that the Israelis and Palestinians have two different narratives, which are entirely incommensurate. Israel sees the conflict as one between two separate national identities—a Jewish nationalism and a Palestinian nationalism—which makes it possible for the two to accommodate each other’s claims. However, says Deek, the Arabs don’t see it like this at all. Rather, they see Israel as a foreign interloper that doesn’t belong in the region, and one that will eventually be rooted out. Deek expressed guarded optimism that the current wave of violence may simply be a form of despair issuing from the recognition that resistance and war—military and political and moral confrontation—haven’t succeeded in driving Israel out of the Middle East. Maybe what comes after, Deek suggests, is that the Arabs have no choice but to acknowledge that Israel is here to stay.

Deek also discussed what the region might have looked like had the 1967 Khartoum summit changed the three no’s—no peace with Israel, no recognition, no negotiations—to yeses. Sure, Jews belong in this region, Deek imagined the response might have been. Welcome home—and we live here, too.

The most compelling part of Deek’s talk, I thought, was his description of tolerance, and how his definition was shaped by his understanding of a Jewish state in the Middle East. Tolerance, Deek argued, is not like the John Lennon song imagining no countries, no religion. Tolerance doesn’t issue from the conviction that we are all the same. To a certain degree we are, of course, but it is our differences from others—our uniqueness—that makes us fully human. And it is the respect, even admiration, for these differences that are the touchstone of real tolerance. This, Deek asserts, is an ethos clearly lacking in a region now engaged in huge sectarian and ethnic wars. It has to be the Jewish state leading the way, Deek said, because no other group in the region—whether that’s Christians or women or whoever—has the military or political power to make the case that Israel can: you don’t have to accept us, but we’re not going anywhere, and we’re not changing.

It occurred to me during the interview that the way Deek sees it, Israel is the pattern of a revolutionary idea, which he’s among the first to recognize and now proudly advocates.