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Israel’s Druze Envoy in Oslo: “They Didn’t Quite Know What to Make of Me”

Norway has been dubbed the West’s most anti-Semitic and anti-Israel country, but Naim Araidi – the Druze-Israeli poet who is Jerusalem’s ambassador in Oslo – says not to believe the hype. Bilateral relations are not without challenges, he admits, but neither are they destined for eternal hostility.

“When I got this appointment, many Israelis warned me I was basically headed to a hostile country,” Araidi said in an exclusive interview at Israel’s elegant embassy building in central Oslo.

“I haven’t seen hostility. Most of the people here are neutral and not very involved in Mideast issues,” he told The Tower in a Hebrew language interview. “Whatever criticism there is generally comes from the media or academia or certain people in the government. But you can find people like that in Israel, too.”

And still, Norway is one of the most sensitive posts in the world for an Israeli diplomat. Last year the best-selling Norwegian writer Hanne Nabintu Herland lamented ingrained anti-Israel “bias” in Norway’s public discourse that rendered open discussion impossible.

“The degree of anti-Israelism in Norway today on the state level, in the media, in the trade unions, and at the universities, colleges and schools is unprecedented in modern Norwegian history,” she told an audience in Jerusalem, noting a “politically-correct hatred” toward the Jewish state.

The Druze – adherents of a faith that branched off from Islam a millennium ago – number 125,000 in Israel and are scattered in some dozen villages in the country’s north. Araidi hails from Maghar, a Galilee village of 20,000 that is mixed Druze, Muslim, and Christian. His wife and daughter, an architect, still live in the village, while his son is a career IDF officer (almost all Druze men serve in the military or police in combat, command, and logistical roles).

While Israel has appointed Druze and Muslim ambassadors before – and Araidi’s deputy is George Deek, a Christian Arab from Jaffa – the current envoy to Norway is the first Druze who is not a career diplomat to represent Jerusalem abroad.

And yet it’s not just Araidi’s religious affiliation that makes him unique. He is also a celebrated poet in both Hebrew and his native Arabic. In 1972 he published his first Hebrew poem, “Is Love Possible” to wide acclaim, and in 1986 was awarded the Prime Minister’s Award for Hebrew Literature. He is one of just a handful of Israeli writers to have been published in Egypt (the others are the famed novelists Amos Oz and David Grossman, and Iraqi-born Eli Amir).

The 53-year-old holds two BA’s and an MA from Haifa University and a PhD from Bar-Ilan University – all in Hebrew literature and language. He has lectured at both universities, and retains the title of dean of the Academic Arab College Of Education, a teacher’s college in Haifa.

Last year Israel’s Foreign Ministry approached Araidi and asked if he’d like to be an ambassador. He readily agreed, he recalls, and was informed he would soon be sent to New Zealand.

“After years of representing the State of Israel unofficially, it would be a great privilege for me to do so in an official capacity and show Israel’s beautiful side, as well as the coexistence that despite all the hardships can only be maintained in a true democracy,” Araidi said at the time.

But speaking to The Tower, he recalled: “I accepted the offer to be an ambassador happily. But when I was told New Zealand, I thought, ‘Oh, no. It’s so far away and not much happens there!’ But then they told me Norway and I was thrilled. This is one of the most beautiful countries – I’m enjoying every minute.”

And yet the new ambassador’s seven months in the job have hardly been stress-free.

Earlier this year, the watchdog group Palestinian Media Watch accused the Palestinian Authority of using Norwegian aid money to pay salaries to convicted terrorists serving sentences in Israeli jails for murdering civilians.

In March, Norway’s foreign minister scolded the PA for misleading the country’s parliament over the intended use of the funds. “It is unfortunate that the incorrect information obtained from the Palestinian Authority was communicated to the Parliament,” Espen Barth Eide said. Norway’s parliament has set up a committee to investigate the issue.

Another potential source of tension appeared in the past month when Norway’s monarchy named physicians Mads Gilbert and Erik Fosse commanders of the Order of St. Olav. Gilbert is an avowed Marxist radical who has expressed support for the Sept. 11 attacks and Hamas. Fosse, after being stabbed during a 2009 Hamas rally in Gaza, said he “understood” the attacker’s motive.

As he told Norway’s leading paper at the time: “I take it as a sign of how desperate people are. They have cause to be dissatisfied with the West…  I was the only blond Western present. I understand that people are frustrated with the West. It is an expression of desperation.” (English translation here)

The following year, the two physicians co-authored the book “Eyes in Gaza.” The Facebook profile pictures of both Gilbert and Fosse feature the words “In Solidarity with Gaza” in bloodstained text.

Pressed on the matter, Araidi and other embassy officials conceded that the choice of honorees “raised a few eyebrows,” but declined to comment further. The freshly minted diplomat knows better than to be seen as intervening in his host country’s decisions.

And yet Gilbert and Fosse are not the first controversial choices for awards from Norway’s monarchy. In November, the Royal Palace was forced to retract the Royal Medal of Merit from yet another anti-Israel – and in this case, clearly anti-Semitic – physician.

Trond Ali Linstad, a Norwegian convert to Islam, had penned an article warning readers to “beware the Jews,” due to their supposedly outsize influence in media and government, where they promote “Jewish interests” under the “façade” of human rights. The Simon Wiesenthal Center has numbered Linstad as one of its “top ten anti-Semites worldwide.”

On condition of anonymity, some Norwegians told The Tower that while they don’t believe their countrymen are generally anti-Semitic, they may at times be “naïve.”

“They see a people that they believe to be underdogs, so they naturally side with them even if they don’t know the whole story,” they said. “Also, Norway is a rich country blessed with natural resources. Norwegians want to help improve the world, and become resentful if they feel they’re being kept from doing that.”

Norway – the host and namesake of the ill-fated Oslo Accords between Israel and the Palestinians – is one of the world’s biggest donors to the Palestinian Authority. Araidi said many Norwegians place the blame the accords’ failure solely on Israel. “I think they’re wrong,” he said, declining to elaborate further lest he appear “undiplomatic.”

Norwegians, he added, aren’t aware Israel is home to a large non-Jewish population with a high quality of life – many of whom, though still not all, are integrated in the country’s economy and government.

“When they think of Israel’s relations with non-Jews, they think of the Palestinians,” he says. “So to bring an Israeli non-Jew and appoint him ambassador? They didn’t quite know what to make of me. Still, they welcomed me warmly.”

[Photo: Kristenfolket / YouTube]