From Anti- Zionist to Zionist: Kasim Hafeez in Israel / Sharyn Mittelman

May 2 2012
Kasim Hafeez in Israel 2007
The Australian media often seems fascinated with Jews who are very critical of Israel (for example, Antony Loewenstein or see this ABC radio report 'Voices of Dissent'). But the opposite cases - people who once hated Israel and Zionism, but have come to see Israel in a different light - are often at least as interesting. However, outside of Israel, media interest in them is usually nil.

It is often fascinating to hear true stories from these people about how their once fierce hatred for the State of Israel came to be questioned for one reason or another - such as a trip to Israel, a book/research or a meeting with an Israeli - leading them re-evaluate their preconceived ideas.

A common theme among these personal accounts is that prior to their individual journey that led them to learn more about Israel, they had not been exposed to positive information about Israel or Jews, and felt a sense of betrayal when they learnt the ‘truth' about Israel. Often their newly formed pro-Israel perspectives were not welcome in their home communities, and yet they are dedicated to speaking out in support of Israel.

One remarkable story comes from Kasim Hafeez, a British Muslim and former Islamist who describes himself as once being an "anti-Semitic, anti-Israel activist" on British university campuses.

Hafeez reflected that his early views of Israel were shaped by having grown up in a Muslim community in the UK where he was exposed to materials and opinions "at best condemning Israel, painting Jews as usurpers and murderers, and at worse calling for the wholesale destruction of the ‘Zionist Entity' and all Jews."

However, all that changed for Hafeez after he picked up Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz's well-known book ‘The Case for Israel'. He wrote in Ynet:

"I searched despairingly for counter arguments, but found more hollow rhetoric that I'd believed for many years. I felt a real crisis of conscience, and thus began a period of unbiased research. Up until that point I had not been exposed to anything remotely positive about Israel."

This led Hafeez to travel to Israel to see for himself the truth about Israel. The visit would transform his perspective:

"I did not encounter an apartheid racist state, but rather, quite the opposite. I was confronted by synagogues, mosques and churches, by Jews and Arabs living together, by minorities playing huge parts in all areas of Israeli life, from the military to the judiciary. It was shocking and eye-opening. This wasn't the evil Zionist Israel that I had been told about.

After much soul searching, I knew what I had once believed was wrong. I had been confronted with the truth and had to accept it. But I had a bigger question to confront, what now? I'd for years campaigned against Israel, but now I knew the truth. The choice was obvious: I had to stand with Israel, with this tiny nation, free, democratic, making huge strides in medicine, research and development, yet the victim of the same lies and hatred that nearly consumed me..."

Hafeez is now dedicated to supporting Israel. He runs the website and has a blog on the site, and is also on the advisory board of StandWithUS - a pro-Israel advocacy group.

Another amazing story comes from Romeu Monteiro, a 22-year-old Portuguese gay activist and PhD student. Monteiro reveals that his change of heart happened when he was eighteen. When criticising Israel's blockade of the Gaza Strip in a YouTube video, he was challenged by an Israeli commenter who wrote that there was no blockade, as several trucks were crossing into the Strip daily. Monteiro wrote in Ynet:

"This greatly confused me and I asked him to present me with his arguments in defense of Israel. I said I would change my mind if they were convincing. He wrote me a long message, telling me about the massacres of Jews in Palestine before Israel existed, the wars of extermination, and the indoctrination for hate of Jews and Israel in the Middle East, among other things, which he compared to several examples of the humanist character of Israel and its society. I read it all and, after verifying the information, I was convinced.

My world shook. I became aware that I was making unfair judgments and spreading hate and false propaganda about Israel... I was sad with myself and I felt angry and betrayed that I had trusted so much in organizations I thought were fighting for peace, equality and against prejudice, like I saw them doing for gay rights."

Monteiro wrote that his research led him to fall "in love with Israel" and now publicly argues in Israel's defence on his Facebook account and on campus.

"I thought I would be risking much socially, but I knew it was a matter of justice, as someone had to tell the truth and not allow Israel to be demonized with no right to defense once again. After the flotilla I kept posting pro-Israel stuff, and had serious and even ugly discussions about this issue with several people. Each discussion revealed more ignorance and double-standards and made me a stronger Zionist and supporter of Israel and its people. I thought I was the only one defending Israel but I gradually discovered other people doing it."

Irish artist and filmmaker Nick Larkin also has an interesting journey. In an article in the Independent he tells of how he "used to hate Israel" but now has changed his mind, despite the pressure to be ‘anti-Israel' as an artist in Ireland.

His change of perspective came about when he set out to make a film in Israel and the Palestinian territories, with the intention of challenging Israeli soldiers and "the Israeli citizens that supported them".

Larkin divided his time equally between Israel and the Palestinian Territories but it was his time in the West Bank that first opened his eyes and led him to question the Palestinian commitment to ‘non violent resistance'. Larkin wrote:

"But the more I felt the martyrs watching me, the more confused I became. After all, the Palestinian mantra was one of ‘non-violent resistance'. It was their motto, repeated over and over like responses at a Catholic mass. Yet when I interviewed Hind Khoury, a former Palestinian government member, she sat forward angrily in her chair as she refused to condemn the actions of the suicide bombers. She was all aggression. This aggression continued in Hebron, where I witnessed swastikas on a wall."

Larkin's understanding also grew when he "began to listen more closely to the Israeli side." He wrote:

"I began to experience the sense of isolation Israelis feel. An isolation that began in the ghettos of Europe and ended in Auschwitz. Israel is a refuge -- but a refuge under siege, a refuge where rockets rain death from the skies. And as I made the effort to empathise, to look at the world through their eyes. I began a new intellectual journey. One that would not be welcome back home."

Larkin describes the unfortunate challenge of creating a balanced film about Israel and the Palestinians in Ireland:

"The problem began when I resolved to come back with a film that showed both sides of the coin. Actually there are many more than two. Which is why my film is called Forty Shades of Grey. But only one side was wanted back in Dublin. My peers expected me to come back with an attack on Israel. No grey areas were acceptable.

An Irish artist is supposed to sign boycotts, wear a PLO scarf, and remonstrate loudly about The Occupation. But it's not just artists who are supposed to hate Israel. Being anti-Israel is supposed to be part of our Irish identity, the same way we are supposed to resent the English...

Free speech must work both ways. But back in Dublin, whenever I speak up for Israel, the Fiachras and Fionas look at me aghast, as if I'd pissed on their paninis. This one-way freedom of speech spurs false information. The Boycott Israel brigade is a prime example... Any artist worth his or her salt should be ready to change their mind on receipt of fresh information. So I would urge every one of those 216 Irish artists who pledged to boycott the Israeli state to spend some time in Israel and Palestine. Maybe when you come home you will bin your scarf. I did."

Another interesting piece comes from Kim Milrell. Fed up with the media trend of ‘bashing Israel' in Sweden, he is now a pro-Israel blogger. He writes in Ynet:

"In Sweden, Israel can never win. Whatever the story may be, the media always find a way to turn things around and in the end, in one way or another, they manage to blame Israel...Slamming and bashing Israel may be the new national sport in Sweden, at least in the media, but I still don't believe that Swedes in general hate Israelis, Jews or the Jewish state - I believe that they simply do not know better. And how can they know if no one tells them?"

‘How can they know if no one tells them?' is a really important point. Often people are brought up in communities where the trend is to hate Israel, and it only though an individual's willingness to question and seek out other information that the reality about Israel is exposed. As Larkin and Milrell point out, it's also a sad truth that in these communities speaking up in support of Israel requires standing against the grain.

Critics of Israel, especially Jewish ones, often insist that expressing their views is a "brave act." As Israel journalist Shmuel Rosenbaum has noted in responding to a comment on Peter Beinart's supposed 'bravery' from New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, this is often a bit silly (see Daniel Meyerowitz-Katz's previous blog post on Beinart). Beinart has indeed been publicly criticised by some, but on the other hand:

"Beinart is ‎now far better known than he was, gets invitations to numerous forums, made a lot of ‎money, got a new and hyped journalistic gig, and is called 'brave' by the likes of ‎Krugman. Sounds like a pretty good deal to me.‎"

Moreover, to his credit, Beinart himself denies there is anything especially "brave" in what he is doing.

But as Larkin, Mirell and Gafeez suggest, 'brave' would probably be a fairer description of expressing pro-Israel views among the Irish arts community, the Portuguese gay community, the Swedish intelligentsia, or especially amongst British Muslims. Doing so has no upside, in the form of public notoriety and attention that someone like Beinart has received. They come from social venues in which they are making themselves a tiny minority by supporting Israel. They are likely to be confronted, despised and ostracised, than feted or given a major berth in the mainstream media. Yet surely they too deserve to have their voices heard.

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