By Fern Sidman
On Thursday evening, November 15th, an audience of several hundred people sat in rapt attention at Temple Israel on New York City’s Upper East Side, as they heard the compelling narrative of a most unusual man. Kasim Hafeez, 28, is a British born Muslim of Pakistani descent who was raised in an environment where he was taught that, “Jews control the world, and Israel is at fault for just about everything.” As many other young Muslims in the United Kingdom, he embraced the teachings of radical Islam and internalized the visceral hatred for Israel that is endemic to this philosophy.
Growing up in a home where his father praised Adolf Hitler as a, “brilliant man,” whose only shortcoming was that he, “didn’t kill enough Jews,” Mr. Hafeez was being groomed to be yet another virulent Israel basher, but this life trajectory was abruptly derailed when he decided to undertake some serious research on the political history of Israel. Today, the Nottingham-based university administrator addresses audiences around the globe about the epiphany of truth that changed his life. He is being sponsored by the premier North American pro-Israel student advocacy organization, StandWithUs.
Prior to the transformative process that made him into a, “proud Zionist,” Mr. Hafeez observes that before the 1988 publication of Salman Rushdie’s book entitled, “Satanic Verses,” most mosques in the UK had not as yet undergone the radicalization process — but that changed quite rapidly. “I recall that as a young book, we didn’t want that book ["Satanic Verses"] on the shelves. We bought copies of it and burned them,” says Mr. Hafeez.
As a teenager, Mr. Hafeez remembers that while most Muslims in the United Kingdom “faked” their condemnations of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States, the great majority of them were exceptionally pleased with the results. “We really believed that Israel and the Jews were the center of all evil and because of Israel’s close relationship with the United States and their Western value system, we harbored a real enmity toward America. I had a friend who was convinced that 9/11 was an inside job. A conspiratorial plot hatched the by the US and Israel.”
Speaking of his indoctrination by Muslim extremists, Mr. Hafeez ruefully observed that, “We were made to feel like the victims of the Western world, so therefore anything goes. We thought we had the moral right to fight back using any and all means.”
“I used to vigorously campaign against Israel,” declares Mr. Hafeez and, “while we were encouraged to be better Muslims by taking up the cause of the Palestinian statehood, I can tell you that we were constantly deluged with propaganda and false images of the purported plight of the Palestinians.” In the midst of his immersion in the Muslim campaign to demonize and delegitimize Israel, Mr, Hafeez says that he carried signs at demonstrations which equated Zionism with Nazism and heard speakers at an Al Quds rally calling for the complete destruction of the, “Zionist regime.”
Mr. Hafeez says that his experiences during those years led him to the many conclusions. “I will tell you this: I have never, ever met anyone who claimed to be anti-Zionist who was not also very anti-Semitic as well. There are no differences here. They are one in the same,” he says.
One fine day, it would appear, while Mr. Hafeez was hell-bent on disproving, “Zionist lies and propaganda,” he picked up a copy of a book entitled, “The Case For Israel,” written by Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz. “I bought the book with the intention of disproving it, of taking it apart point by point and just mentally relegating it to more pro-Israel lies and propaganda. When I finished reading it, I realized that there were many cogent points made and I thirsted to read more of the same, which I did.”
Getting into some serious research about Israel made Mr. Hafeez take a deep pause and reflect on his beliefs until that time. “I used to use UN resolution 242 to argue against Israel but that changed. My friends became concerned and told me to stop reading Zionist propaganda. That book and other materials I read really opened my mind to the falsehoods that were fed to me.”
At that juncture in time, while a university student, Mr. Hafeez was saving his money, hoping to return to Pakistan to attend a jihadi training camp. “Thankfully, it didn’t pan out that way,” he said.
Finding that he knew virtually nothing about the Middle East or Israel’s history, it came as a surprise to Mr. Hafeez to learn that Jews had deep historical and religious ties to Israel and had lived there for thousands of years. Dismayed and quite shocked, Mr. Hafeez also learned that the Palestinian connection to the land never actually existed. “In hindsight, I never actually gave a real damn about Palestine, I was just obsessed with hating Israel”, he says.
Feeling deeply betrayed by the spurious scholarship that was foisted upon him in the Muslim world, Mr. Hafeez decided to visit Israel for the first time in 2007 to see for himself what it was like there. Sharing a bit of humor with his audience, he recalls that upon his arrival at Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv, he was detained for eight hours because he told his screeners that he was a Muslim who once hated Israel and now wanted to see what he learned about. Being that these were the first Jews he had ever spoken to, Mr. Hafeez ultimately had a most positive experience as the Israeli guards treated him with courtesy and decency and apologized profusely to him for their intense interrogation and suspicion of him.
While in Israel, Mr. Hafeez expected to see the realities of a brutal apartheid regime but instead witnessed Muslims, Jews, and Christians all going about their lives in harmony. “Here’s a state that’s constantly called an enemy of Islam, yet Muslims have more rights in Israel than they have anywhere else in the Middle East,” he said.
Mr. Hafeez contrasted this to his less than pleasant experience while visiting Saudi Arabia in 2002 for a religious pilgrimage. At the Saudi airport, while waiting in line for passport control, he was sent to the back of the line five times to make way for Arab Muslims, who are considered superior to South Asian Muslims: “I’ve never experienced the level of racism like I did in Saudi Arabia.”
While visiting both Muslim and Christian holy sites in Israel, Mr. Hafeez made his way to Jerusalem’s Western Wall and it was there that he experienced a pivotal and deeply poignant moment in his life. Standing amongst a bevy of Orthodox Jewish men and others gathered for prayer, Mr. Hafeez felt a deep wave of emotion wash over him. He reached out and touched the wall and recalls that he, “burst out in tears.”
As tears poured down his face, a rabbi approached him to find out if Mr. Hafeez was okay. He responded that he was and the rabbi asked if he was Jewish. When Mr. Hafeez said he wasn’t, the rabbi replied, “That’s okay, this is Jerusalem, it’s everybody’s home.” It was then that the years of animus that he harbored for Jews and Israel dissipated.
But life from that point on was no easy ride for Mr. Hafeez. He received death threats from his erstwhile radical Islamist friends and his father, choosing to continue to hate Jews and Israel. His father refuses to see his son.
“My goal now is to proudly speak the truth and to make those in the Western world aware of the dangers of a radicalized Islam and how it is not only incompatible with Western values but an existential danger to them,” he said.
To that end, Mr. Hafeez has dedicated himself to promoting the truth about Israel and has created lasting ties with StandWithUs and other Zionist organizations. “Upon my return from Israel, I became convinced that I had to take a stand. I had to do what’s right, I had to speak out for Israel, and bring the Israel I know to those around me, and not let them be misled by the lies that filled my mind with hate for so many years,” he said.
Now, Mr. Hafeez has created his own organization called, “The Israel Campaign,” and according to the groups’ web site, this movement is, “a rallying call for all people of any color, culture or creed, to come together for Israel, a democracy under siege.”
“Israel isn’t a just a Jewish issue, it’s about freedom and democracy,” says Mr. Hafeez.
Related: Activism, Anti-Semitism, Education, Hatred, Human Rights, Israel, Judaism, Pakistan, Philosophy / Ideology, Reform