WASHINGTON — While two dozen protesters shouted anti-Israel slogans outside the White House as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with US President Barack Obama on Monday, support for Israel came from an unexpected quarter.
Mohammed and Fatima Alskka fled the embattled Syrian city of Homs seven months ago and today live in Pasadena, Maryland. They were taking a stroll in the Monday afternoon sun, pushing a stroller along 17th Street, stopping to take the occasional picture with their newborn, Khaled.
When they passed by the mini-demonstration — a mixture of pro-Palestinian activists and fervently anti-Zionist ultra-Orthodox Jews — they had no idea what the protesters were yelling about.
They were informed that the Israeli prime minister was visiting the White House, and a surprised smile appeared on their faces. “Tell him we say ‘Hi,’” Mohammed, 30, said.
“We want Netanyahu to take Bashar Assad and kill him,” chimed in his wife, Fatima, as she held her son, “because he killed a lot of my people.”
Sunni Muslims, the Alskkas made no effort to conceal the depth of their hatred for the Syrian president. The bloody civil war has hit their hometown of Homs especially hard, they said. Long before they managed to escape, via Saudi Arabia, there was little left of their neighborhood.
“We lost everything. All the buildings, all the streets, all the stores are gone,” Mohammed said. “On our street, there are no more houses; they were all destroyed. Because we are Sunni Muslims. And Bashar, our president — he’s not a president. He’s a f*cking crazy.”
Assad has been systematically targeting children, Mohammed claimed, and alleged that this policy started long before the August 21 chemical weapons attack, which, according to the US, killed hundreds of children. Two of Mohammed’s nephews died in the fighting over a year ago, he added.
“You know what Bashar and his friends say?” Mohammed asked, in halting English. “[If] you don’t like Bashar, you like Israel.” He and his wife loathe Assad, he took pains to stress, but that does not mean they are spies for Israel.
For all the understandable revulsion at Assad, why the greetings for Israel’s prime minister?
“Israelis don’t kill anyone in Syria,” Fatima said, placing Khaled back in his stroller, as he had started getting antsy. She’d heard reports about the Jewish state treating wounded Syrian civilians in its hospitals, and wasn’t entirely sure of their veracity, she said, “but we know Israel doesn’t kill any Syrians. Bashar killed my family.”
The couple was pretty much unfazed about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, saying it had caused “just” 2,000 deaths, while the Syrian civil war had killed “more than 200,000” people in less than three years.
“They always said, ‘Israel not a friend, Israel not a friend.’ But Israel never made any problem with anybody,” Mohammed asserted. The same is true for the US, Fatima added. Growing up in Syria, they were constantly taught that Americans are evil. But now, after she and her husband entered the country on a tourist visa — and have started a process to be recognized as refugees — she had changed her mind. She had only one word for American hospitality, she said: “Wow.”
Saudi Arabia only accepted very few Syrian refugees, but the Americans are entirely different, she said gratefully.
Mohammed said he wants a Middle East in which no people are killed, regardless of whether they are Israeli, Palestinian or Syrian. “We are human. But what happens now in Syria — Basher al-Assad says you are not human.”
The Alskkas weren’t the only people on 17th Street who were on Israel’s side. Right between the Neturei Karta representatives, whose posters said that “Judaism dictates Jewish subservience to ALL nations from US to Iran,” and the pro-Palestinian left-wingers, who chanted “Free Palestine” and accused Netanyahu of being a war criminal, stood David Barkley.
A 73-year-old Maryland resident, who said he is “not Jewish by birth but Jewish by faith,” Barkley had brought a large shofar (ram’s horn) with him to the White House, and occasionally hoisted it high and blew.
“The shofar,” he explained, “was the voice of God speaking” at Mount Sinai, when Moses received the Ten Commandments. On this sunny Monday, he had decided to come to Washington and blow the shofar to “encourage Netanyahu in a place where there is a lot of spiritual opposition to him and to Israel,” he said. “We want to stand with him and with Israel, for the Lord’s protection and strength.”