A Muslim in a Jewish Land

By Tashbih Sayyed, Ph. D.

(MWT) As I boarded EL AL flight LY 0008 for Tel Aviv on November 14, 2005 with my wife, Kiran, my mind was busy arranging and re-arranging the list of things I intended to accomplish. I wanted to use my first visit to Israel to feel the strength of the Jewish spirit that refuses to give in to evil forces despite thousand of years of anti-Semitism. It was not Israel’s suicidal sacrifices that I wanted to investigate but the foundations of Israeli determination to live in peace.

There are many things that I wanted to talk about with Israelis, the foremost among them being their reluctance to do something about the bad press that continues to paint them as villains. Although I understand why the media, which reasonably covers most events accurately, chooses to ignore all rules of ethical journalism when it comes to Israel, I could not fathom Israel’s reluctance to challenge the negative press effectively. Media bias against Israel reminded me of the Nazi era German press that was recruited by Hitler’s Minister of Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels who picked up every hate-laden word against the Jews. Just like the German press who refused to print the truth about the gruesome atrocities in Europe’s death camps – or claimed that it was all an exaggeration, the media today also ignores the Arab terrorism. I wanted to see if there was any truth in the media allegations that Israel was an apartheid state, undemocratic and discriminatory.

I knew that a true Jewish State could not be undemocratic since democratic concepts were always a part of Jewish thinking and derived directly from the Torah. For instance when in the Preamble to the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson wrote that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness, he was basically referring to Torah that said that all men are created in the image of God. I was confident that Israel cannot be racist or discriminatory since it is based on the idea of the covenant between God and the Israelites, in which both parties accepted upon themselves duties and obligations underlining the fact that power is established through the consent of both sides rather than through tyranny by the more powerful party.

My understanding of the Jewish State was confirmed when the entry form that I needed to fill before landing in Tel Aviv did not ask for my religion as is the law in Pakistan. Also, unlike Saudi Arabia, no one in Israeli immigration demanded from me any certificate of religion.

As the El Al approached the Promised Land, I continued to shuffle the list of charges made routinely against Israel by its enemies.

  • Israelis live in a perpetual state of fear.
  • Israel is undemocratic.
  • Muslim Arab citizens of Israel do not have equal rights

Israelis live in a perpetual state of fear

From Tel Aviv to Tiberias, Jerusalem to Jezreel, and from Golan heights to the Gaza border, I could not find any evidence of fear. In fact the people felt so secure that none of the stores, gas stations, market places, or residences we went to, and where it was known that we were Muslims, deemed it necessary to either search or interrogate us. Especially when Kiran and I went to the Ben Yahuda Street in Jerusalem on a Friday evening, we found it bursting at its seams with people of all ages. The ground was shaking with music and young boys and girls were so busy having fun that they did not bother to even look around. Tourists were busy making deals and the whole crowd seemed to throb with the beat of the music.

I could not help but compare Israel’s sense of security with the environment of insecurity that exists in Muslim countries. From Indonesia to Iran and from Afghanistan to Saudi Arabia, people are not sure of anything. In Pakistan’s capital Islamabad, and the port city of Karachi, I was constantly advised not to make big purchases publicly for it encourages robbers to come after you. I did not hear news of any rape, honor killing or hold-up in Israel.

Israel is undemocratic

As a Muslim I am much more sensitive to the absence of democratic freedoms in any society. And I do not believe that anyone but a committed anti-Semite will deny that Israel is not a democracy. Democracy in Israel is proportional and representative, but democratic coalitions, necessary in order to effect any decision making also have its problems.

The very first day in Caesarea introduced us to the Israeli democracy. The air was full of political debate and discussion. Ariel Sharon’s decision to leave the Likud and form a new political party dominated the hotel halls and underlined the problems caused by the necessity of having democratic coalitions. "The object of a free and democratic Israeli society is to reach satisfactory compromise but often the conclusions are less than satisfactory – especially for the majority. It involves coalitions and unity which are also checks and balances on any potential abuse of minority rights. It is a better system than the American representative Republican system – which is really a representation of power and special interests. In the U.S. you get a democracy for the few. In Israel you have a democracy for everyone."

I tried very hard to find any Muslim state that has true democracy and where religious minorities are accorded equal democratic rights, but failed. The map of the Muslim world is too crowded with kings, despots, dictators, sham democrats and theocratic autocrats and the persecution of minorities is an essential part of Islamist social behavior. But here, protected by Israel’s democratic principles, the Muslim Arab citizens of Israel are afforded all the rights and privileges of Israeli citizenship. When the first elections to the Knesset were held in February 1949, Israeli Arabs were given the right to vote and to be elected along with Israeli Jews. Today, Israel’s Arab citizens are accorded full civil and political rights entitled to complete participation in Israeli society. They are active in Israeli social, political and civic life and enjoy representation in Israel’s Parliament, Foreign Service and judicial system.

The Israeli faith in democracy also explains their refusal to respond to Islamist terrorism in violent ways. Despite my being aware of the human weaknesses which allow anger to subjugate the best of intentions, I could not find Israelis acting in vengeance against their Arab compatriots. My experience as a Muslim was also instrumental in expecting the worst in human behavior; Muslims under the influence of radical Islam have been unleashing their terror against non-Muslims even when the charges of anti-Muslim offenses were determined to be false.

I thought that it requires a superhuman effort to ignore the atrocities meted out to you and remain free of vengeful emotions. In my experience of Muslim societies, minorities have never been allowed the benefit of the doubt. Hatred of non-Muslims and outbursts of violence against minority faiths among radical Islamists have remained a norm rather than an exception. As a non-Wahhabi Muslim I have personally faced their barbarism and have watched Christians, Hindus and other minorities being persecuted on false pretenses. I thought that if Wahhabis in Saudi Arabia can sentence a teacher to 40 months in jail and 750 lashes just for praising Jews, it will not be unreasonable on the part of Israelis to punish Palestinians for throwing stones at worshippers at the Western Wall and burning down the tomb of Joseph.

But even in this section, Israelis have proved the world wrong. Despite daily provocations, they have managed successfully not to descend to the same level of depravity as their Arab enemies. The world is used to daily violence that is unleashed against religious minorities in the Muslim world. Only a couple of days ago the Muslim faithful in Pakistan had broken through the walls of a Church, torching and tearing open its doors. They were reacting to a rumor that a Christian had desecrated their holy book, the Quran. They smashed the marble altar of the Holy Spirit Church and shattered its stained glass windows. They torched a Christian residence and the neighboring St. Anthony’s Girls School. Within moments flames were licking the walls and black smoke filled the sky. For days the Wahhabi clerics kept on calling their Muslim followers to come out from their houses and defend their faith by unleashing a reign of terror against Christians.

I wondered if an Israeli may someday find it justified to copy what Wahhabis have been doing in Iraq and other places – abducting, murdering and beheading "infidels". Most recently, the body of a Hindu driver, Maniappan Raman Kutty, was found with his throat slashed in southern Afghanistan for no evident reason but his faith.

But there was nothing in history that could have substantiated my fears; Jews, despite being subjected to the most barbaric acts of terrorism have yet to react in vengeance against their perpetrators. And I concluded that my first visit to Israel will help me in untangling the knot of Israel’s insistence on continuing to remain a target of Islamist terror.

Muslim Arab citizen of Israel do not have equal rights

As our air-conditioned bus negotiated the mountainous curves of the road to the heart of Galilee, I could not miss the rising minarets identifying a number of Palestinian Arab towns dotting the hillsides. The imposing domes of mosques underlined the freedoms that are enjoyed by the Muslims in the Jewish State. Large Arab residences, wide spread construction activity and big cars underlined the prosperity and affluence of Palestinians living under the Star of David.

On my way from the city of David to the Royal Prima hotel in Jerusalem, I asked my Palestinian taxi driver how he feels about moving to the territories under Palestinian Authority. He said that he could never think of living outside Israel. His answer blasted the myth spread by anti-Semites that Israel’s Arab citizens are not happy there.

Another Israeli Arab informed me that Arabs in Israel have equal voting rights. In fact, Israel is one of the few countries in the Middle East where Arab women can vote. In contrast to the non-Israeli Arab world, Arab women in Israel enjoy the same status as men. Muslim women have the right to vote and to be elected to public office. Muslim women, in fact are more liberated in Israel than in any Muslim country. Israeli law prohibits polygamy, child marriage, and the barbarity of female sexual mutilation.

Moreover, I found out that there are no incidences of honor killings in Israel. The status of Muslim women in Israel is far above that of any country in the region. Israeli health standards are by far the highest in the Middle East and Israeli health institutions are freely open to all Arabs, on the same basis as they are to Jews.

Arabic, like Hebrew, is an official language in Israel and underlines the tolerant nature of the Jewish State. All the street signs call out their names in Arabic alongside Hebrew. It is official policy of the Israeli government to foster the language, culture, and traditions of the Arab minority, in the educational system and in daily life. Israel’s Arabic press is the most vibrant and independent of any country in the region. There are more than 20 Arabic periodicals. They publish what they please, subject only to the same military censorship as Jewish publications. There are daily TV and radio programs in Arabic.

Arabic is taught in Jewish secondary schools. More than 350,000 Arab children attend Israeli schools. At the time of Israel’s founding, there was one Arab high school in the country. Today, there are hundreds of Arab schools. Israeli universities are renowned centers of learning in the history and literature of the Arab Middle East.

Aware of the constraints that a non-Wahhabi is faced with while performing religious rituals in Saudi Arabia, Kiran (my wife) could not hide her surprise at the freedoms and ease with which peoples of all religions and faiths were carrying out their religious obligations at the Church of the holy Sepulcher, Garden Tomb, Sea of Galilee, newly discovered Western Wall Tunnels, Western Wall, tomb of King David and all the other holy places we visited.

All religious communities in Israel enjoy the full protection of the State. Israeli Arabs—Muslims, as well as many Christian denominations—are free to exercise their faiths, to observe their own weekly day of rest and holidays and to administer their own internal affairs. Some 80,000 Druze live in 22 villages in northern Israel. Their religion is not accessible to outsiders and Druze constitute a separate cultural, social and religious Arabic-speaking community. The Druze concept of taqiyya calls for complete loyalty by its adherents to the government of the country in which they reside. As such, among other things, the Druze serve in the Israel Defense Forces. Each religious community in Israel has its own religious councils and courts, and has full jurisdiction over religious affairs, including matters of personal status, such as marriage and divorce. The holy sites of all religions are administered by their own authorities and protected by the government.

A Hindu journalist who came to visit me talked about the openness that Jewish society represents. He told me that more than 20% of the Israeli population is non-Jewish of which approximately 1.2 million are Muslims, 140,000 are Christians and 100, 000 are Druze. Another non-Jewish Israeli told me that Christians and Druze are free to join even the defense forces of the Jewish State. Bedouins have served in paratroops units and other Arabs have volunteered for military duty.

The big houses owned by Arab Israelis and the amount of construction that was going on in the Arab towns exposed the falsity of propaganda that Israel discriminates against Israeli Arabs from buying lands. I found out that in the early part of the century, the Jewish National Fund was established by the World Zionist Congress to purchase land in Palestine for Jewish settlement. Of the total area of Israel, 92 percent belongs to the State and is managed by the Land Management Authority. It is not for sale to anyone, Jew or Arab.

The Arab Waqf owns land that is for the express use and benefit of Muslim Arabs. Government land can be leased by anyone, regardless of race, religion or sex. All Arab citizens of Israel are eligible to lease government land.

I asked three Israeli Arabs if they face discrimination in employment. They all said the same thing; normally there is no discrimination but whenever homicide bombers explode and murder Israelis, some Israelis feel uncomfortable dealing with them. But that uncomfortable feeling is also very temporary and does not stay for long.

My first visit to Israel has not only consolidated my belief that Israel is vital for the stability of the region but has also convinced me that the existence of Israel will one day convince the Muslims of the necessity of reformation in their theology as well as sociology.

A journey through the Israeli desert brought another important aspect of life to light; Prophets are not the only ones who can perform miracles – people who believe in themselves can also perform unbelievable acts. Acres and acres of sand dunes have been transformed into the best possible fertile land; Wheat, Cotton, Sunflowers, Chickpeas, Groundnuts (Peanuts), Mangoes, Avocados, Citrus, Papayas, bananas and any other fruit and vegetable that Israelis want to consume is grown within Israel. In fact, Israelis have proved beyond any doubt why God promised them this land – only they could keep it green.

The land is described repeatedly in the Torah as a good land and "a land flowing with milk and honey". This description may not seem to fit well with the desert images we see on the nightly news, but let’s keep in mind that the land was repeatedly abused by conquerors that were determined to make the land uninhabitable for the Jews. In the few decades since the Jewish people regained control of the land, tremendous improvement in its agriculture has been witnessed. Israeli agriculture today has a very high yield. Agriculture in Israel is very effective, and is able to cover about 75% of domestic needs, despite the limited land available.

Looking at the development and transformation that the land has gone through because of the Jewish innovative spirit, hard labor and commitment to freedoms for all times to come, I am convinced that it is true that God created this earth but it is also a fact that only an Israel can keep this earth from dying.

(The writer is editor-in-chief of Pakistan Today and Muslim World Today, California-based weekly newspapers, president of Council for Democracy and Tolerance and adjunct fellow of Hudson Institute.)