Consul General is an Arab Who Represents Israel Well

December 29, 2008 at 9:58 pm | Posted in Integration, Peace Process, Security | Leave a comment

From the Atlanta Journal-Constitution
By John Christensen

Wherever Reda Mansour goes, the rumor spreads quickly. It happened in San Francisco, in Quito, Ecuador, in Lisbon, and in Atlanta when he arrived two years ago as the Israeli consul general.

Within days, virtually everyone in the Jewish community knew that Mansour was not a Jew. Indeed, not only was he not a Jew, he was an Arab and a Muslim. And as anomalies go, that was just for openers.

Consider:

> He is also a Druse, a sect which broke away from mainstream Islam 1,000 years ago and has often been persecuted by other Muslims since.

> Although he champions the interests of a nation notable for its aggressive self-defense, he is also an award-winning poet who mourns violence, hatred and death.

> Although Arabic is his first language — he speaks five in all — he writes poetry in Hebrew.

> Although the proud descendant of a clan of farmer/warriors — and a combat veteran himself — he is first and foremost a peacemaker.

On a recent morning, Mansour relaxed in an easy chair in his bright corner office in Midtown. On his desk, two neatly stacked piles of paper awaited his attention. Balanced atop one stack was an indispensable tool of the career diplomat: a TV remote. The silenced television, nestled into a bookcase in the corner, flicked monotonously through the day’s affairs.

Mansour is of medium height with salt-and-pepper hair, dark soulful eyes and, at least in initial encounters, a detached watchfulness. He wore black slacks, a blue-and-white stripe shirt with a blue-and-yellow rep tie, and spoke in soft, accented English.

A consul general — Israel has nine in the United States and an ambassador in Washington — promotes cooperation between his country and local business, academic and cultural interests.

There are about 40 Israeli companies doing business in the Southeast, according to Jorge Fernandez, vice president for global commerce at the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce, and Mansour is “very much involved in making sure that Atlanta is in the forefront of Israeli investments in the U.S. He is very approachable and very knowledgeable.”

Of particular concern to many, however, is how Mansour is regarded by the Jewish community.

‘We think he’s just terrific’

“Outstanding,” says Steven A. Rakitt, president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta, “just outstanding. Ambassador Mansour is one of the most thoughtful, passionate and eloquent representatives of the state of Israel that I’ve ever met. He’s respected, appreciated and admired. We’re thrilled to have him in Atlanta.” Mansour, who is referred to as ambassador due to his position in Ecuador, was appointed in 1990 as the first non-Jewish career diplomat. “But a lot of people still don’t know,” he says. “It’s a very exceptional thing.”

He shrugs. “The Jewish community needs to deal with this idea, and the vast majority accept it very well. They have learned very quickly how important it is for them, and how there is added value in having a representative who is not Jewish or maybe Jewish but from other groups in the country.

“I don’t think there’s any other country in the world other than America with as diversified a population as Israel. We have people from maybe 70 different countries.”

Tom Glaser, president of the American-Israel Chamber of Commerce, says Mansour “has been totally accepted by the Jewish community. He is one of the brightest, most thoughtful and intelligent consul generals we’ve had. He’s authentic, he’s loyal, he makes a very good impression, he’s a quick study and he’s very cooperative. He’s a great representative of the state of Israel, and we think he’s just terrific.”

In Israel, Mansour says, acceptance is immediate when people realize he is Druse.

“My name is Arab, so it’s not hard to know this is not a Jewish person,” Mansour says. “But the Druse have recognition within the state of Israel because of their military service. We are the only non-Jewish minority that is drafted into the military, and we have an even higher percentage in the combat units and as officers than the Jewish members themselves. So we are considered a very nationalistic, patriotic community.”

Druse identity is a matter of enormous pride and not, Mansour says proudly, something one converts to: “You must be born a Druse.”

Mansour grew up in Isfiya, a Druse town of 12,000 in the Carmel Mountains near the industrial coastal city of Haifa. Isfiya is dominated by a few clans, including the Mansours.

“There are about 1,500 of us, and we’re all related.” He adds with a wry smile, “Weddings are very big events in our town.”

His father was a banker in Haifa and sent his three children to private schools. As a teenager, Mansour went to summer camps in the United States and Canada and involved himself in groups promoting dialogue between Arabs and Jews.

“It’s important to keep your traditions, but at the same time, it’s very dangerous to live in a world where you don’t have daily interaction within groups,” he says. “Because then each one develops its own images and conceptions, especially in rough times. And these misunderstandings can easily drift into violence.

“So I felt always the need, wherever I was, from primary school to now, to always be involved in ongoing dialogues with various groups.”

He credits his grandfather for this perspective. Akram Mansour’s graphic stories about Arab attacks on Isfiya and other Druse communities in the 1930s “were terrifying, horrible,” says Mansour. “I think that affected me, the need to prevent this from happening again.”

A diplomat’s poetic side

It was also as a teenager — he was 16 — that one of Reda Mansour’s poems was published in a national newspaper. Five years later, he published his first book of poetry, called “The Dreamer.”

The inspiration to write, he says, comes from “the mountains of the Carmel where I grew up. It’s probably one of the most beautiful places in the world. The scenery can’t help but leave you with some feeling that you need to produce some form of art.”

But he never knows when the muse will strike, and over the years has composed on envelopes, scraps of paper, even ammunition boxes.

He has also integrated poetry into his diplomatic life. He read two of his poems at a memorial service for the Holocaust in Atlanta last year, gave a reading this spring at the Spoleto Festival in Charleston, S.C., and is to give another this fall in Chattanooga.

His most recent book, “Tender Leaves of Conscience,” synthesizes observations about New England weather (he has a master’s degree from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University) with his experience in Lisbon and the discovery of mass graves in Bosnia.

The point, he says, was to affirm “how people can continue after these vicious discoveries.”

Mansour will return to Israel when his assignment here ends in 2010. Although unclear about his next posting, he has no doubt as to his mission: “Bringing Arabs and Jews together, and telling people that in my own story maybe I embody the solution for the future. That political solutions can be found when people want to live together.”

THE DRUSE AND THEIR ROLE IN ISRAEL

There are an estimated 1 million Druse around the world, most of them in Syria, Lebanon and Israel (which has an estimated 120,000).

The Druse began as a reformist movement within Islam and called themselves al-Muwahhidun, which means “the Unitarians.” But when their ideas were rejected, the Druse were regarded as heretics — a crime punishable by death — and they retreated to the mountains.

They built villages that could be easily defended and developed a system of smoke signals that enabled any village to summon help when attacked.

“They could pass fire signals all the way from the Carmel [Mountains] in Israel to the Syrian mountains in a matter of hours,” says Israeli Consul General Reda Mansour.

Their reputation as fierce fighters was enhanced by a bond called brit damim (covenant of blood), which developed between Druse and Israeli soldiers during the Arab-Israeli War of 1948.

There is now a Druse general in the Israeli army, Druse in the intelligence service and ten Druse in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs — including the deputy foreign minister.

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