The Arab Christian with Israeli bonds

The Arab Christian with Israeli bonds

Meet Yosef Haddad, hasbara superstar

Yoseph Haddad stands with his country’s flag; the backdrop is his hometown, Nazareth.
Yoseph Haddad stands with his country’s flag; the backdrop is his hometown, Nazareth.

It seems like a generic Israeli biography.

After high school, joined the Israeli Army. Served in the elite Golani infantry brigade. Rose to sergeant, commanding a squad of 15 men. Wounded in the Second Lebanon War in 2006. After a year recuperating, moved to Canada and started a business. Returned to Israel, studied political science in university. Went to work in marketing in Tel Aviv, became successful, only to leave the world of business to found a non-profit dedicated to improving Israeli society. Along the way, became a brand ambassador for Israel, traveling around the world on Israel’s behalf and fighting BDS.

But there’s the twist: Yoseph Haddad isn’t Jewish. He’s a Haifa-born, Nazareth-raised Greek Orthodox Christian Arab.

Mr. Haddad will be speaking in a Zoom session for Rockland’s Israel Bonds chapter on November 1. [See box.]

Cathy Distelberger, the general campaign chair for Rockland County Israel Bonds, said that Mr. Haddad was tapped as speaker for the Israel Bonds kickoff by Sharon Sasson, the women’s division chair. Ms. Sasson first thought of getting actress Gal Gadot. Googling led her to a list of the 10 best speakers coming from Israel. Coming at number two on the list — and somewhat more accessible than the Hollywood star — was Mr. Haddad.

He was not at all offended to hear he came in second. Instead, “I’m humbled,” he said.

Mr. Haddad said that he lectures to Israeli students headed overseas on exchange programs, giving them tips on how to be active and proud Israelis on foreign campuses. “One of my slides talks about what Israel gave to the world,” he said. “There are inventions: the cherry tomato, the USB drive, and Waze. In the middle I put Gal Gadot. I say, ‘Probably the best thing here is Gal Gadot,’ and everybody laughs.”

Mr. Haddad is 35. He was born in Haifa — where his family is from — but he grew up in Nazareth, where his father served as priest to a congregation in a neighboring village. He graduated from high school in 2003 and enlisted in the IDF.

“I always say, it isn’t the Jewish Defense Force, it’s the Israeli Defense Force,” Mr. Haddad said. “I saw myself as an Israeli. I knew that when there is a war and the army fights, it defends everyone, not just the Jews. Terrorism doesn’t really care if you’re Arab or Jewish — as long as you’re Israeli, you’re a target,” he said.

When he volunteered — Arabs are not drafted into the Israeli army — he told the recruiting officer that his enlistment was conditional on joining the Golani brigade. The recruiter said okay — if he passed the health and training exams. Mr. Haddad’s an athlete, devoted to soccer and working out. He passed the exams.

And once he joined the Golani, “From the second I stepped in the unit, I was treated like family,” Mr. Haddad said. “There’s no difference between any Golani soldier, it doesn’t matter if he’s Jewish or Arab, Ashkenazi or Ethiopian. That’s what so special about Golani: We are family. From the beginning, that felt great.”

If anything, he added status because he joined as a volunteer rather than a draftee.

When he became a commander, an Arab commanding Jewish soldiers, “Not even one time did I have a problem or someone disobey my command,” Mr. Haddad said. “On the contrary.”

Two months before the end of his service, the Second Lebanon War began. “I lost three commanders, seven friends, and eventually was wounded myself. An anti-tank missile was launched directly to me. Luckily it didn’t hit me. It bypassed me and hit a wall very close to me. My foot was cut off. They reattached it. I needed a lot of surgeries.” After physical therapy and hard work, he was back to playing soccer, and then off to Canada, where he started a business. Then back to Israel to study at Bar Ilan University. Then he made his way into a marketing research company, rising to CEO.

Then, three years ago, he walked away from it — even giving up his coveted Tel Aviv parking space — to start an Israeli Arab organization, “Together,” that aims to bridge the gap between Jews and Arabs in Israeli society. The board includes “women and men, Christians and Muslims, Bedouin and Druze,” Mr. Haddad said.

“I looked at Israeli society and saw us going backward. The gaps are getting wider and wider. The hatred, the racism, the anti-Semitism are growing more and more. I had to do something.”

The central equation, he decided, was that anti-Semitism or racism — in Israel parlance, racism generally refers to anti-Arab prejudice — basically stems from ignorance. So Together get people to meet each other.

“People that before they met each other had this racist thought, that every Arab is a terrorist or every Jew is a racist — when they meet and talk they see it’s far the truth. One of the most amazing activities we do is bring Jews and Arabs to speak to each other and learn about each other’s traditions and society,” he said.

Even his social media posts change people’s mind.

“I get messages. ‘Up until a few weeks ago I was racist and hated Arabs. Since I’ve been following you I realized how ignorant I was.’ Same thing for the Israeli Arabs. ‘When we see how the Jewish community is commenting on your post, we finally understand that not all the Jews want us out of this country.’”

Two years ago, Mr. Haddad brought the organization Memory in the Living Room — which brings Holocaust survivors to talk about the Holocaust on Yom Hashoah — to Israeli Arabs.

“It was a huge success,” he said. “People were very emotional to see that an eyewitness came to speak with Israeli Arabs about what happened in Europe during World War II.

“This year, in April, during corona, we managed to do the meetings by Zoom. We planned to do three sessions. We had to open another six. More than 50 people participated in each one. We had a lecture from Holocaust survivor who spoke about this experience. The lecture was in Hebrew. We translated it to Arabic. The whole discussion was in Arabic.”

And the group engages in hasbara. “We go and speak about Israel. We say the truth, we show the facts. The whole truth. Israel is not perfect, but the way Israel is represented in the Arab world, in the media, is completely far away from reality. We’re here to talk about it and show it.”

One such effort was the basis for a popular YouTube clip showing him debating a BDS activist on South African television.

“The government’s strategic affairs office called and said there’s an Israeli apartheid week in South Africa,” Mr. Haddad said. “We need you to go and the pro-Israel and Jewish community help in order to stand against the anti-Israelis. It went very well.

“There are three rules to stand against BDS activists. One, when someone lies you attack back and don’t wait for him to finish his lie. Once the BDS leader started lying on TV, I didn’t wait for him to complete the sentence. On the spot I called him out and said he was a liar. Two, we must not be afraid of criticism. No society is perfect. We understand that. Rather than being afraid of criticism, try to find a solution, because there is a solution. Three, always back your talking with facts.

“After the interview on TV, one of the leaders of the Jewish community got a call from the EFF political party, which is anti-Israel, asking me to come and speak to their leaders. The next day I traveled 45 minutes out of Johannesburg meeting the leaders of the political party. It was quite an experience. At the end, I managed to see we affected some minds about the way they thought about Israel.

“In Europe, I have met with the Muslim community in Paris. I was one of the few Arabs who suffered from anti-Semitism — some of the Muslim radicals drew a swastika on my flyer. They didn’t like that I was speaking. Eventually we did the event. It was really amazing. People asked tough questions, and got a knowledge of what we are actually doing. It was an eye opener for them. Afterward, our organization was supposed to host a delegation from the Paris Muslim community, but it was stopped by corona for now.”

What does Mr. Haddad think American Jews should know about Israeli Arab society?

He answered by pointing to a couple of surveys of the Israeli Arab community.

In one, Israelis Arabs were given four options on how they define themselves: Israeli, Israeli Arab, Arab, or Palestinian.

“More than 75 percent answered Israeli Arab or Israeli; only 7 percent answered Palestinian,” Mr. Haddad said. “That says it all.

“Another survey asked Israeli Arabs if they are willing to give up their Israeli identity to become citizens of Palestine. More than 20,000 people participated in the survey. Over 74 percent answered no, we will not give up our Israeli identity.”

“One more survey. What is the most important issue that you expect politicians to deal with? The Israeli-Palestinian conflict came in last place. Security, education, infrastructure, and equality came in as the top issues. That says a lot. We are seeking a better future where we are part of the Israeli society, not separate from Israeli society.”

Save the date

What: Talk by Yosef Haddad: Israel Through the Eyes of an Israeli-Arab

When: Sunday, November 1, 10:30 a.m.

Where: Online. For info on the event or registration call (845) 405-4028

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