On a recent trip to the US, I — an Israeli “settler” representing the proud Jewish community of biblical Hebron — encountered three Muslims in three different places. Our interactions were surprising and perhaps inspiring.
The first was a young man by the name of Minn who sat next to me on the plane from Tel Aviv to Miami. He was in his early 20s and tall with close-cut hair on the sides. At first, I could not tell that he was Arab. His look and accent were totally Jewish-Israeli.
In fact, as I found out through our conversations, he was an Israeli Arab with a Christian mother and a Muslim father (according to Muslim law, this means he was born a Muslim). We didn’t talk much at first, but at some point, he took out a personal tablet and began watching a program that can only be described as soft porn. As a religious person, I had to avert my eyes until he turned it off, but when he finally did, I smiled and made a joke: “Well, that certainly wasn’t the weekly Torah portion you were watching.” He laughed and we started talking.
I asked him where he lived and, surprisingly, it turned out he was from the very place I grew up — a mixed Arab/Jewish neighborhood in Haifa — so we had a lot in common. We both agreed that this neighborhood on the slopes of Mount Carmel overlooking the Mediterranean is one of the most beautiful and magical places in Israel.
However, it also turned out that Minn was secular, gay and had voted for Meretz. So, we had a little less in common.
I told him that I worked for the Jewish community of Hebron, and this made no impression on him, as he was not a political or religious type. Then I asked him if he knew anything about the Tomb of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs — the central pilgrimage and prayer site in Hebron. He said he did not.
In my carry-on, I had Hebron’s new self-guided-tour electronic tablet filled with 20 animated films about the history of Hebron, the Tomb of the Ancestors and the life of the biblical Forefathers and Mothers, which I co-produced. I handed it to him. He took the tablet and began watching the films with great interest.
He kept nodding his head and saying, “I did not know that.” He seemed to be genuinely engrossed. I thought that the “religious” content would bore him or even turn him off, but I was wrong. Only a few minutes beforehand he was indulging in a licentious video and now he was delving into the tales of the Bible with gusto. I was surprised and gratified that our work on the tablet speaks to people from all walks of life.
My time with Minn strengthened my general belief that Bible education in Israel for people from all backgrounds is the key to raising generations that identify with the foundational story of the Jewish state.
But there was another important lesson in our conversation: Not once did Minn mention Palestine, Palestinians or the so-called “occupation.” Why not? It’s probably because the PLO’s “Palestine” would take away his freedom to be gay and look down on his secular lifestyle.
In Haifa, he is safe, can study freely and has the right to live as he chooses. Not so in nearby Jenin, where he would be attacked and murdered by a jihad that hates him and Israel equally. So, no Palestine for Minn.
The next Muslim I connected with was a woman named Basrat. We had already met on my last trip to Florida a couple of months before. Basrat is in her mid-60s, short with big brown eyes behind glasses dangling from a necklace.
She has worked as a sales lady at the same department store for many years. The last time I visited her store, she helped me pick out a tuxedo I needed for a fancy event. This time, I wanted to buy a new suit and headed to the same store. As during my previous visit, we talked about her homeland — Iran.
Basrat is active in the social media battle to free the Iranian people from the oppressive regime they have suffered under for the last 45 years. She told me about the hundreds of courageous protesters who have been murdered by the regime’s forces during ongoing demonstrations. It’s hard to comprehend the danger faced by the courageous Iranian people.
Basrat was in tears as she described the “beautiful boys who have their whole life in front of them” whose eyes have been cut out in torture chambers. We also lamented the indifference of the world to the plight of the Iranian people. And, of course, we talked about the historic friendship between Iran and Israel that the mullahs destroyed.
Basrat helped me pick out my suit. She could tell my size by just looking at me. I told her that I needed the suit for work in Israel’s parliament. That seemed to add to her motivation to find me the right suit in terms of fit and cost. She told me she knew I was going to do important work for a strong Israel and that maybe one day this would help free her people as well. “Inshallah,” I told her.
Basrat, unlike Minn, was openly critical of the Palestinian movement. To her, Hamas and Islamic Jihad are the same as the ayatollahs and mullahs who have destroyed her country. She knows their destructive path and sees Israel as a counterforce of liberty for her beloved and oppressed Iran.
The third Muslim I met on my trip was working at the airport in Houston. I flew in for a tight 15 hours to attend a commemorative hilula gathering in honor of the saintly “Baba Sali” — Rabbi Yisrael Abuhatzeira.
Upon landing, I hit a snag: My bag was not coming out of the chute and I really, really did not have time for that. So, I went over to the baggage claim counter and approached a representative named Huma. I asked her about my bag, produced a tag and she started clicking on her keyboard. She announced that it was coming out soon. In the meantime, we got to talking.
A middle-aged woman, Huma’s accent and look gave away her origins in the Indian subcontinent. I asked her if she was Hindu or Muslim, to which she replied that she was a Muslim from Pakistan. She asked me where I was coming from.
I wear a kippa and have a beard and my luggage tags show I fly internationally, so she was not surprised that I was from Israel. But what she said was surprising to me: “I love Israel — I have visited twice!” Warmth entered her eyes as she described the amazing congeniality of the people, how safe she felt and how clean it was.
Sadly, Huma told me about her son’s Jewish business partner, who before her first trip urged her not to visit Israel. He bizarrely warned her that she would be kicked and spat at in the Jewish state. Both she and I were dismayed at his warped sense of reality. Thankfully, she went to Israel anyway and had a great time.
I asked her what places she had visited. She mentioned Tel Aviv and Jerusalem and that she had seen Al-Aqsa and the Tomb of Abraham. “You went to Hebron?” I asked. She said, “Yes, absolutely!” I produced my business card with a picture of the Tomb of the Ancestors and gave it to her. A visible shudder went through her. Her eyes widened: “Do you pray at the Tomb of Abraham every day?” Yes, I said, most days. “Would you pray for my sons to get married?” she asked earnestly, clutching my card. I answered, “Yes, I will” and asked for their names. She thanked me profusely.
At no point did she seem to mind that I was a Jew, an Israeli and a “settler” who works in Hebron. All that mattered was that I was connected to Abraham and that Israel was a welcoming place. Here again, there was no mention of Palestine. As a woman who had left Pakistan for Texas, she had chosen liberty over a restrictive form of Islam.
To her, Israel is a place where you can connect with religion and identity, and do so in freedom. In fact, she specifically mentioned her amazement and pleasure at being able to walk freely in Jerusalem at night. Although she did not say it, I guessed that Palestine is more like the oppressive Pakistan of her past.
I often meet people during my travels who have respect and love for the Jewish state. Israel’s authentic culture, military strength and economic growth are respected in the region and many see Israel as an example of liberalism and humanity — a leader in the battle against tyranny and jihad. Millions see Jerusalem as a spiritual capital they aspire to visit.
Palestine, on the other hand, is not attractive to many Muslims. They know all too well that the PA, PLO and Hamas are the same corrupt jihadists who have destroyed so many Arab and Muslim states. These Muslims see the Abraham Accords and Israel’s normalization in the region as a source of hope and they are watching and praying for the success of the Jewish state — inshallah!
Yishai Fleisher is international spokesman for the Jewish community of Hebron and an adviser to Israel’s National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir. He is the host of the Yishai Fleisher Israel Podcast.