Stu Bykofsky: In Philly, Israel's No. 2 is not what you think

Israeli Deputy Consul Raslan Abu Rukun, recently arrived in Philadelphia, in his Center City home with his wife, Dalle, and twins Enbal (left) and Sharif (right).
Israeli Deputy Consul Raslan Abu Rukun, recently arrived in Philadelphia, in his Center City home with his wife, Dalle, and twins Enbal (left) and Sharif (right).
Posted: August 10, 2009

WHEN WE SPOKE, Raslan Abu Rukun's life was in a container on a ship.

The container held almost all his earthly possessions, being shipped from one end of the world, Kathmandu, Nepal, where he was the Israeli embassy's deputy chief of mission, to his new home in Philadelphia. He will work here for up to four years as deputy general in the consulate that handles affairs for Israel in six states.

It's a heavy job for the slim 33-year-old, made more interesting by the fact that Abu Rukun is an Arab, as are 20 percent of Israeli citizens.

As a Druze Arab, Abu Rukun is among two Christians, three Muslims, and eight other Druze Arabs who are Israeli diplomats.

The Druze religion, says the secular Abu Rukun, started 1,000 years ago in Egypt, but remained small, and today numbers a little more than one million, with 150,000 in Israel.

His family emigrated 300 years ago from Lebanon to what is Israel today. It was part of the Ottoman Empire then.

The Druze-Jewish relationship is harmonious, and Druze loyalty is unquestioned. They are the only non-Jews drafted by Israel into its military, says Abu Rukun.

After his army hitch, he flirted with a soccer career, but says "my parents invested a lot in our education," meaning himself, his sister and two brothers.

Instead of kicking a black-and-white ball around, Abu Rukun joined his country's diplomatic corps in 2006 and spent two years in the Himalayan nation of Nepal, sandwiched between India and China.

Seated in his bare office in the consulate, I ask if his dual identities create a conflict within him.

"Not at all," replies Abu Rukun, who has a goatee and a serious air. Culturally, "I'm an Arab, but if you talk about the national or the political identity, I'm Israeli."

I think he doesn't like being thought of as an oddity, but understands that Druze are a religious minority surrounded by another religious minority, Jews.

As deputy, Rukun's time is divided between the art of diplomacy and the drudgery of administering time, staff and budgets in the tightly secured consulate on JFK Boulevard. He speaks Arabic, Hebrew and accented English.

Abu Rukun's boss, Consul General Daniel Kutner, says: "He's like any other diplomat that could have been sent here," adding that the "Jewish community has welcomed him very warmly."

Abu Rukun's office was even without photos of his family - wife, Dalle, and 21-month-old twins, Sharif and Enbal. Along with the rest of his life, the photos were in the container on the ship.

To get a taste of his job, I traveled with Abu Rukun and the consulate's director of academic affairs, Lou Balcher, as they greeted an interfaith (Muslim, Christian, Jewish) group of Israeli academic women at a meeting with the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations.

After the pleasantries, Abu Rukun steered his Dodge Caravan minivan through light rain for a meeting with Drexel University administrators to revive a study-abroad program that was stopped by the one-two punch of 9/11 and the intifada, the Palestinian uprising. The program is planned for a fall relaunch and requires cooperation between Israel's foreign and interior ministries.

Because of some reports of discrimination against Arab citizens in Israel, I ask Abu Rukun if he feels like a second-class citizen.

Predictably, he says no.

OK, I ask, can you, as an Arab citizen of Israel, be elected prime minister?

He had never been asked that question before.

He said he actually didn't know, but brushed it aside as being totally off his agenda. (He called back later to say he had learned that Arabs can become prime minister. He's still not interested.)

He'd rather be an ambassador.

Some glamorous post like Rome? Paris? New York?

He prefers Damascus, Syria. Or Beirut, Lebanon.

Once peace comes, he says, those cities would be very attractive to him.

In addition to Israeli Arabs in the foreign service, an Arab has a seat on Israel's supreme court; an Arab is the minister of sports, culture and science, and more than a dozen Arabs are members of the Israeli parliament, the Knesset. This is why it angers most Jews to hear Israel-haters call it "apartheid." It is a deliberate lie.

"The situation is, in every demography, every group can say there are rights they don't have," say Abu Rukun. He knows that Israeli Arabs, even with their complaints, have greater freedom than fellow Arabs in surrounding Arab states.

Too diplomatic to trash-talk his last assignment, Abu Rukun says that entertainment possibilities in Kathmandu "were very limited," so "weekends we used to go to the American club [of the American embassy] or we just hung out with friends."

During his last five months in Kathmandu, he says, "there were electricity cutoffs of 16 hours a day." One of his less glamorous jobs was to make sure generators were ready to provide power 24 hours a day.

No such worries in Philadelphia, which also has endless entertainment possibilities for Abu Rukun and his young family.

All will be fine, once his ship comes in and he can retrieve his life from the container.

E-mail stubyko@phillynews.com or call 215-854-5977. For recent columns:

http://go.philly.com/byko.

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