A Russian-born Israeli Jew walks into a mosque in Medina carrying his tefillin. It could be the start of a joke, but for some Muslims, this real-life incident is anything but funny.
Ben Tzion, who has recently been traveling to visit holy sites across the Muslim world — from Tehran to Qom; Beirut to Riyadh — on Tuesday told The Times of Israel that he has never been “approached with hostility.” He said he does not hide the fact that he is Jewish, comes as “a friend,” shows respect for Islam and the Arab world, and has found the Muslim world of flesh-and-blood to be a welcoming place. He also stressed that he travels as a private individual, not representing any government or organization.
But on the internet, pictures he posted Monday of his visit to the Mosque of the Prophet in Medina — the second holiest Islamic site — prompted many Muslims to lash out in anger. And the focus of much of the criticism exposed divisions within the Muslim world, with many of those protesting seeing in Tzion’s travels ostensible evidence of warming ties between Israel and parts of the Arab world, notably Saudi Arabia.
The Arabic hashtag “A_Zionist_In_the_Prophet’s_Mosque,” which refers to Ben Tzion’s trip, was used over 90,000 times in the two days after he posted his pictures. Many of the tweets that criticized Tzion’s visit were by people who identified on the social media platform as Qataris or Palestinians.
One writer found it “shocking to learn” about the “Zionist” Ben Tzion’s visit to the Medina mosque, and asserted that it pointed to a deepening alliance between Israel and Saudi Arabia.
Shocking to learn that Ben Tzion, a Zionist, not only entered the blessed city of Madinah disguised as a Muslim but also entered Masjid Nabawi. May Allah protect all Masjids & liberate the region from tyranny.
This appears to be a result of the growing Saudi-Israeli alliance.
— Yusuf Shabbir (@ibn_shabbir) November 20, 2017
The “this appears to be a result of the growing Saudi-Israeli alliance” allegation expressed by that critic was the engine of much of the anger over Tzion’s trip. Though Saudi Arabia does not have official diplomatic ties with Israel, the two countries seem to be growing closer due to their shared opposition to Iran.
Last week, the chief of staff of the Israeli army told a Saudi-owned news outlet that the Jewish state was ready to share intelligence with the Gulf kingdom.
“Wow, just wow. Honestly, what are you playing at Saudi? Is this some sort of a sick joke that I’m just not understanding? #صهيوني_بالحرم_النبوي,” wrote Ismail Munir, addressing the government of Saudi Arabia and using the hashtag described above.
Dr. Saad al-Faqih, a Saudi dissident living in London, claimed on Twitter that the reason for Tzion’s visit was his “personal friendship” with the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman.
The official Twitter account of the US Mission to Saudi Arabia in Riyadh retweeted Faqih’s assertion, then deleted it and posted an apology online saying the retweet had been posted “erroneously.”
An authorized operator of the official twitter account of U.S. Mission to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia erroneously retweeted content that is not endorsed by the U.S. Mission in Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The operator caught this error and immediately deleted it.
— U.S. Mission to KSA (@USAinKSA) November 21, 2017
Tzion told The Times of Israel Tuesday that he made his visit to Saudi Arabia by following official procedures to receive a visa. He said he enters all his destinations legally, using valid foreign passports and acquiring visas whenever required. He also noted that he travels “as a private individual… I am not a political figure, and I don’t work for any Israeli organization, neither for its security agencies or political establishments,” he declared. “I am an independent Jew, a private citizen of Israel… Everywhere I go, I am an ambassador for Israel — in my private capacity.”
Tzion’s visits proved so unthinkable for some on Arabic social media that they tried to show his pictures may have been fakes.
— معاذ المخلفي (@moathart) November 22, 2017
One small Turkish conservative newspaper published Tzion’s photos on its front page, with a headline about a Jew posing in the mosque.
— Kemal Şükrü SEVİNDİK (@kssevindik) November 22, 2017
Dr. Hind Al-Muftah, vice president of the Doha Institute for Graduate Studies, argued that for many, the issue wasn’t necessarily Saudi-Israeli normalization, but the fact that Qatari nationals have been unable to visit the Saudi holy sites since Saudi Arabia began blockading its smaller Gulf neighbor in June, while an Israeli Jew was somehow able to visit the site.
It’s not about normalization of ties between Israel & Saudi, it is more about NOT allowing Muslim Qataris to enter Macca since #Qatarblockade , while Israelis can!!?
Unacceptable control of rekeigous Madina & Macca#صهيوني_بالحرم_النبوي https://t.co/UljR0mlXTi
— د. هند المفتاح #تميم (@halmuftah) November 21, 2017
Tzion, who blogs occasionally at The Times of Israel, appeared on BBC Arabic television on Tuesday evening to talk about his trips. Asked about whether he considered the sensitivity of entering the mosque, he responded, “I went there to pray” in Hebrew for peace among the people of the Middle East.
Did his Saudi friends who brought him to the mosque know he was an Israeli? “They did know I’m an Israeli and that I also have other passports and that Jews are accepted in Saudi Arabia,” he said.
A former Palestinian minister of health in Hamas-controlled Gaza, Dr. Bassem Naim, shared Tzion’s BBC interview on Twitter, along with the hashtags, “Normalization_is_a_crime,” “A_Zionist_In_the_Prophet’s_Mosque,” and “The boycott [of Israel] is a duty.”
— د. باسم نعيم نعيم (@naim_basem) November 22, 2017
Not everyone reacted negatively to Tzion’s trip to the Gulf kingdom.
Abdelali Ragad, a UK-based journalist with BBC Arabic, described Tzion’s story as “inspiring,” highlighting Tzion’s confidence that he would come to no harm.
An inspiring story of an Israeli in the Mosque of the #Prophet in #Saudi_Arabia: ''No one would ever harm me inside, no one in the Arab world ever approached me with hostility, they come to me and ask me where I’m from. I tell them I’m from Jerusalem, Israel'' said #Ben_Tzion pic.twitter.com/bjXTtQAWLo
— A. RAGAD (@abdelali_ragad) November 21, 2017
Tzion told The Times of Israel he was aware of the hostile comments on social media, but said the ordinary people he meets in person are overwhelmingly friendly to him.
Raphael Ahren contributed to this report.