I'm a 'Jewish Palestinian' and I don't believe in different races

Yad Vashem’s first Palestinian Holocaust educational fellow Sa’ad Khaldi explains why education is the only buffer against radicalisation


“I’m a science teacher and when we talk about race, or describe someone as mixed race, I object on scientific grounds,” says Sa’ad Khaldi. “You can’t be mixed race, and there is no such thing as the Jewish race. There is only one race, the human race. But ethnicities — they do exist, of course. There are around 5,000 ethnic groups in this world.”

Mr Khaldi is a rare blend of two of them: Ashkenazi Jewish and Muslim Arab. Or, as he puts it: “I’m Palestinian and Jewish.” And he is also Yad Vashem’s first Palestinian Holocaust educational fellow, on which more later.

Conceived in East Jerusalem in the year the State of Israel was founded, he was born in Damascus in the summer of 1949. When his Jewish mother and Muslim father’s marriage broke down a few years later, she left Syria for her native Manchester and took little Sa’ad with her.

There, the halachically Jewish boy with a Muslim name was raised by his Christian stepfather who sent him to a Methodist Sunday school.

As he writes in the unpublished family memoir he has handwritten for his three children, which he will be discussing with Holocaust historian Trudy Gold at Jewish Book Week this Sunday: “Family histories are like dustbins — they pretend to be orderly, but actually they are a random jumble and somehow we try to make sense of them.”

To make sense of Mr Khaldi’s biography, you need to step back a generation and consider the extraordinary life of his father, Hazim Khaldi.

He was at the London School of Economics when the Second World War broke out. He volunteered to join the British Army, was attached to the East Kent Regiment and posted to Syria. At some point his battalion was turned into the Palestine Regiment, an extraordinary unit in which Jew and Arab fought side by side under the British flag against Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy.

Sa’ad’s father became close with a young Jewish Palestinian called Uzi Narkiss, and after the Palestine Regiment disbanded the two men would go on to fight each other as enemy combatants in Israel’s 1948 War of Independence and again in 1967 in the Six-Day War.

After that conflict finished they rekindled their friendship.
His father died in 1979 after becoming the first unofficial Palestinian leader in the West Bank, during which time he held face-to-face talks with the Israelis, one of the first Palestinians to do so.

“My father hadn’t wanted to fight in 1948 and when Palestinians objected to his friendship with Narkiss he told them that they had fought together, had been comrades in arms. My father met with Israeli politicians, conversed with Israeli academics and even made a television programme with Amos Oz. He spoke fluent Hebrew.”

Then, in April 1969, his father took him to Yad Vashem with Adin Talbar, another Jewish friend he’d met in the Palestine Regiment and with whom he’d fought in 1942.

The visit made a lifelong impression on Mr Khaldi, who became Yad Vashem’s first Palestinian Holocaust educational fellow in 2007 and remains the only Palestinian to have ever given a lecture at the museum. In the spirit of exchange, you could say, one of the first things he did following his appointment was to create the Holocaust museum’s first Arabic website.

“I’m all about education,” says Mr Khaldi, who might describe himself as a science teacher, but who went on to become headteacher at Tulse Hill (boys’) School, in Lambeth, London, and later Ofsted’s longest-serving school inspector.

“Education is our only buffer against fake news and radicalisation. To dispel the myth of race, the tropes of antisemitism, people need access to facts. We need to raise young people who can think for themselves.

“They need to know that there was a Palestinian Regiment where Jews and Arabs fought side by side, they need to know that there were moderate Palestinians with Jewish neighbours in pre-war Jerusalem who didn’t want to align themselves with Haj Amin al-Husseini, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem who the Netanyahu has accused of ‘inspiring the Holocaust’.”

Meanwhile, getting facts about Jewish history is almost impossible if you are living in the Palestinian territories, he says. “There was a Palestinian who taught about the Holocaust in Gaza before Hamas took over, but there has been nothing since 2007. And it’s also very difficult to put forward in the West Bank.

"The EU goes in and checks school textbooks for antisemitism, but it’s done so superficially it’s effectively meaningless. In 2010, Professor Gilbert Achcar, an expert on Arabs and the Holocaust, estimated that 80 to 85 per cent of the Middle East Arab population was disposed to Holocaust denial.”

But the Abraham Accords are cause for tremendous hope. “Holocaust education in the Gulf has been transformed since the agreement. They now train Holocaust fellows like me.”

And if, one day, “we can get the Palestinians” to join the Accords — an agreement designed by Donald Trump precisely, claim some of his critics, to bypass the Palestinian-Israeli conflict by forging direct ties between the Arab states and the Jewish one — “we’re there,” he says.

“Iran is trying to stir the pot so that doesn’t happen, and behind Iran there is Russia, of course, but we must remain hopeful.”

Until that historic day, Mr Khaldi will continue to use his rarest of biographies to break down barriers between people.

“I’m Palestinian, I’m Jewish, I’m from Jerusalem and I marry it all up by not being afraid of who I am. And by remembering that race is a sociological construct.”

Sa’ad Khaldi is in conversation with historian Trudy Gold at Jewish Book Week on 26 February:

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