The British Muslim who went from bullying for Palestine to crying at the Western Wall (TIMES OF ISRAEL) By ELHANAN MILLER 06/04/12)
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‘On my first visit I circled a bus stop twice,’ says Kasim
Hafeez, ‘looking for a sign saying “Arabs only.” I couldn’t find one’
Standing in Jerusalem’s Mamilla shopping mall in a blue Chelsea
soccer jersey and sunglasses on Monday, Kasim Hafeez could be your
average Israeli, or Palestinian. But far from native, Hafeez is
visiting Israel as part of a personal quest which is as emotional as
it is unusual.
“I was just at the Wailing Wall and I broke down crying,” he says. “I
realized the meaning of Jewish independence, and was saddened by the
fact that no matter what, six million people will never get to
experience it. Israel is an expression of the fact that the Jewish
people simply do not want to be oppressed any more.”
Hafeez, 28, has indeed traveled a long way from his home in
Nottingham, England, where he grew up in a tight-knit Pakistani
Muslim community. Anti-Semitism was always in the background, he
says, but Britain’s Muslims became politically mobilized following
two seminal events: the publication of Salman Rushdie’s book “The
Satanic Verses” in the UK in 1988, and the war in Bosnia.
“As a young boy of maybe six, I participated in a huge rally in
London where Rushdie’s books were bought and burned, as well as his
effigies,” he says.
But the radicalization of Britain’s Pakistani community reached its
zenith at the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Hafeez says that hatred of
the West got mixed in with conspiracy theories blaming Jews for the
attacks, published in the main newspapers of the UK’s Pakistani
As a student at Nottingham University, Hafeez joined the Islamic
Society, where, he says, images of death and destruction perpetrated
by Israel against the Palestinians were regularly screened at
meetings. The images were never contextualized or interpreted,
serving merely to fuel preexisting hatred, he says.
Hafeez and his fellow students would harass students wearing overt
Jewish symbols on campus, raising the issue of Palestine at every
occasion, “even when the discussion was about oil in Antarctica.” He
says the professors often went along with it.
“We realized we were bullying them, but we justified it by the fact
that Israel was oppressing the Palestinians,” he says. “I told myself
that they were ignoring us because they recognized our truth, when in
fact they simply avoided us because there were 50 of us and only
three of them.”
The turning point for Hafeez occurred when he came across Alan
Dershowitz’s “The Case for Israel” in a bookshop.
“I told myself that I would read his arguments, easily refute them,
and that would be that,” he says. But refutation of Dershowitz’s
arguments proved to be rather difficult for Hafeez. Following months
of intensive research on the history of Israel and the conflict, he
was so emotionally distraught that he had to leave his work and his
“When I pulled myself together, I realized that the only way to
resolve my questions would be to travel to Israel,” he says. And so
he did, in 2007.
Upon arrival, Hafeez was detained for eight hours at Ben Gurion
Airport. But rather than anger him, he says the conduct of the
security interrogator left him with a deeply positive impression.
“The man kept apologizing for holding me up, saying that I must
understand the security threats Israel faces. He kept offering me
more and more cups of coffee and pastries.”
Hafeez says the Israeli treatment stood in stark contrast to the
racial abuse he had suffered as a tourist in Saudi Arabia a few years
earlier, where people would pass him in line saying, “You’re
Pakistani. You can wait.”
Walking the streets of Israel, Hafeez says he realized that many of
the stories he was told about Israel were simply lies.
“Once, I circled a bus stop twice, looking for indications of racial
segregation, a sign saying ‘Arabs only.’ I couldn’t find any.”
Upon returning to the UK, Hafeez said he felt he had to convey his
experiences to the broader public. He joined a Jewish organization,
but left it after sensing he was preaching to the converted.
In 2011, he met representatives of Stand With Us, a pro-Israel
advocacy group that works in campuses in the United States, Europe
and Israel to educate students about Israel.
Today, he is serves on the advisory board of the organization, which
has invited him to tell his story to Israeli students in Tel Aviv,
Jerusalem and Beersheba. On Sunday, he met with Deputy Foreign
Minister Danny Ayalon for a tête-à-tête.
“I don’t feel my story is that unusual. It’s just my life,” he says
as he caresses a pendant with the Star of David that he bought at the
end of his 2007 trip. “I hold this every time I miss Israel, which is
every day. I know it sounds strange, but when I’m here I feel as
though I have come home.” (© 2012 THE TIMES OF ISRAEL 06/04/12)
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