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.
‘We realized we were bullying them, but we justified it by the fact that Israel was oppressing the Palestinians’
“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 community.
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.
‘Once, I circled a bus stop twice, looking for indications of racial segregation, a sign saying “Arabs only.” I couldn’t find any’
“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 studies.
“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.”