Of course I was anxious about being a Muslim visiting Israel. My passport stated my birthplace as Bangladesh and there was a stamp from a past visit to Pakistan. Both countries were sworn enemies of the Jewish state. My childhood was laced with a steady sprinkle of anti-semitism from sermons at mosques and dinner party conspiracy theories.
An olive-skinned Hasidic beauty screens me in Hong Kong before a connecting flight. “I was expecting you Dr Ahmed,” she says ominously. After a 30-minute security interview and confirmation calls to Israel, she waves me through passport control. I am thereafter treated to a further half hour of explosives testing at an alternative section of the airport.
I eventually arrive late at night in Tel Aviv, renowned as a hip, party town. At the hotel, I meet the team at Rebel Media, the online Canadian broadcaster who was sponsoring my journey. I was an occasional contributor, having done videos on topics varying from Muslim resentments to why Trump is the Id of Western Civilisation.
Their star recruit, British firebrand Katie Hopkins, looks bleary-eyed after regaling a local group of the Proud Boys the night before. The Proud Boys are an all-male collective founded by Rebel alumni Gavin McGinnes whose motto is “West is best.” Katie laments that the night was spoilt by a tiny venue. She jokes the audience was packed like kosher sardines sweating profusely in thirty-degree heat with no air conditioning.
We take a bus to the town of Sderot bordering Gaza. The tour group includes about sixty participants from around the world, primarily North America and Britain. I find myself seated to a stocky, retired man from Luton who joined the English Defence League after seeing Muslims protesting against returning army servicemen. Once he is informed of my status as a Muslim dissident similar to Brit Maajid Nawaz, he relaxes into fuming about Tommy Robinson.
We are taken to underground shelters designed for children. The local residents have fifteen seconds to find shelter once the air raid sirens blare. The shelter was equipped with play equipment and food that would last several weeks if necessary.
The Mayor of Sderot, an Iranian Jew, tells us that Gaza was promised to Jews in the Bible. He shows us the steel, Hamas made Qassam rockets that terrorise the locals, a town filled with new arrivals such as Jews from Ethiopia. Real estate tends to cheaper when you are under the threat of a missile turning your home into a renovator’s delight.
My English bus companion proclaims Gaza should be turned into a car park as we are taken south to a town called Ber-E-Sheba. A major air base is situated there where we watch a fighter pilot show at the graduation of Air Force cadets. The Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks about the threat of Iran and Israel’s growing alliances with countries of the Middle East such as the United Arab Emirates. There is no region where shifting alliances and the old adage “The enemy of my enemy is my friend” holds more weight.
The top fighter pilot graduate is unveiled as a man from Melbourne completing the “aliyah”, the term used to describe Jews reclaiming their religious identity by living in Israel. Proud families cheer and sing in the boisterous crowd, highlighting the central and unifying place of the military.
The next day we wake early for a long ride to the Lebanese border. I change seats to be with a Canadian businessman who expresses his distaste for the North American Free Trade Agreement and his admiration of Trump. He informs me that NAFTA incorporated regulations surrounding gender and environmental standards that were unacceptable for America. I recognise the tour as something of a support group for Trump supporters, a place where they can openly express their views without fear of being ostracised.
We arrive at a kibbutz. A tall, bearded former Texan is introduced to us as a resident. He speaks of having to shoot unlawful entrants from across the border but is relieved that the Syrian conflict has distracted Hezbollah bringing relative tranquillity. “I support both sides equally” the man jokes in reference to the adjacent conflict.
He points outside through glass windows to the lush green fields possible through state of the art irrigation systems, a symbol of Israel’s status as a technological superpower. There were adjacent areas on the dusty hills that were desolate. That was all Lebanon. Although they looked poor, we were assured they received considerable funding from Iran. He also expressed his disdain for the local UN peacekeepers patrolling the border, mostly from Indonesia, who he referred to as United Nothings.
After seeing a film about the Six Day War in the Golan Heights, it was off to the Holy City of Jerusalem. Our journey was broken up via a stinging, salty swim in the Dead Sea and a visit to the ancient fortress of Masada. The two thousand-year-old Roman ruins in the Judean desert were yet another site where Jews were slaughtered but also where important stories of Jewish exile, survival and continuity were forged. I was struck by the tiny area of land that Israel inhabited, half the size of Tasmania, facing threats from all sides.
Our final two days were spent in Jerusalem, rushing between talks from the Knesset, our hotel and the Old City. I meet many sensible people in the tour group with important jobs and reasonable opinions but anxious about the place of Islam within Western communities. I also encounter several others who see no place for Muslims. A handful tell me that they are heartened by their interactions with me.
At one point, an evangelical Christian man from Alabama takes me aside and points to a section of the Old City. He explains without batting an eyelid that it is the gate where Jesus was due to re-appear once Jews populate all of Israel. I nod politely.
I viewed myself as a cultural Muslim, connected to the traditions and rituals of Islam without the belief in God. But I am found out trying to enter sacred sites at the Temple On the Mount. I’m asked by the guards to recite simple religious verses from the Koran but do so clumsily. I’m waved away, told I’m not a Muslim. I grow enraged, defensive but also aware that my hybrid identity is not as viable here in the capital of the Abrahamic faiths.
I cause enough of a fuss that I am allowed in to view hair from Muhammad’s beard and admire the calligraphy in the Al Aqsa mosque. But I feel a mix of shame and relief as I venture back to my tour group seeking solace in what now felt like the Islamophobic bosom of the international alt-Right.
As the only Muslim of the group, I felt like the Jew.
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