The Atlantic

A Muslim Among Israeli Settlers

What happens when a Pakistani American writer goes deep into the West Bank?
Source: Tanya Habjouqa

Image above: A Palestinian worker in Shiloh tends to the grounds of what some Jews believe was the first capital of the Israelite kingdom.

I was here to report on Jewish settlers, the 600,000 citizens of Israel living beyond its pre-1967 borders. My main concern was whether the normally guarded and cautious settler community would open up and talk to me: a brown-skinned, practicing Muslim from the United States.

I. The Old City

Should I lie to an Israeli soldier in order to be allowed to pray? This was a theological dilemma I never studied in Sunday school, one I never thought I would have to confront.

Anxious and on edge, the soldier was standing in front of me, rifle in hand, blocking my way, and all I had to do was tell him I was 50 years old, and then I could pray at one of Islam’s holiest sites. One minor problem: I’m 37. Typically, when violence happens in the Old City of Jerusalem, Israeli authorities ban men younger than 50 from entering Haram al-Sharif, the compound known to Jews and Christians as the Temple Mount. And there had just been a small—by Middle Eastern standards anyway—spasm of violence. Three Palestinians had shot and killed two Israeli police officers near al-Aqsa Mosque inside Haram al-Sharif, which led to Israeli retaliations, which led to mass Palestinian protests, which led to yet another predictable round of stories datelined Jerusalem about the legendary Middle Eastern “cycle of violence.”

When I had arrived at Ben Gurion Airport, outside Tel Aviv, a few days earlier, I had not anticipated this conundrum. This was not my first time in Israel. I’m a Pakistani-American Muslim, and I’ve been to Israel more times than half the Jews I know.

At the airport, I had been greeted by the giant, flawless face of the model Bar Refaeli, stretched across a billboard to sell me designer sunglasses. Tel Aviv is modern, its politics are progressive (at least by the dysfunctional standards of the Middle East), and much of the food there isn’t kosher. An hour later I was in Jerusalem, which might as well be on a different planet.

About Jerusalem: It is maybe the most contested real estate on Earth, sacred to each of the Abrahamic religions. For Muslims, Jerusalem is al-Quds, “the holy one,” and, many hope, the site of a future Palestinian capital; it’s currently occupied territory. For Jews, it’s their biblical home, finally liberated and reunified in 1967, a dream fulfilled after 2,000 years. For Christians, it’s the home of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which is believed to be the site of Jesus’s crucifixion and entombment.

Ever since the creation of the modern state of Israel—a miracle for the Jews, the Nakba (“catastrophe”) for the Palestinians—Jerusalem’s daily weather forecast could be described as sunny with a slight chance of apocalypse. The city frequently erupts; lives are lost on both sides. Israelis fear their Palestinian neighbors, and Palestinians are suffocated and immiserated by the Israeli occupation. It’s a real-estate dispute, yes, but seeded with a profound religious complexity that casts a shadow across the Middle East, and all the way to America, where many Jewish and Muslim communities circle each other with apprehension and mistrust.

“You. Fifty?” the young Israeli soldier asked me. He inspected my U.S. passport, hunting for my birth date. Muslim men who are 49 pose an existential threat to Israel; at 50, evidently, we turn into neutered kittens. Which means that all that stood between me and my chance to perform Friday prayers at al-Aqsa Mosque was a simple lie—as well as a squad of nervous soldiers carrying automatic rifles. I figured Allah would give me a celestial get-out-of-jail-free card for a white lie, but I haven’t aged horribly and can’t pass for 50.

“Fifty? Fifty?” the soldier asked again, as I was pushed in the back by the bottleneck of Muslims trying to squeeze into a narrow gap.

Next to me, Abdullah Antepli, my guide and traveling companion, pleaded with another soldier. He proffered his passport, mixing his Turkish-accented English with bits of Arabic and Hebrew. Abdullah, who is usually jovial, reddened as his frustration grew.

The irony was thick. Abdullah, an imam and the director of Muslim affairs at Duke University, as well as a teacher in the divinity school there, was in Jerusalem to head a delegation from the Muslim Leadership Initiative, which he created with the Shalom Hartman Institute. The initiative brings American Muslims to the proudly Zionist Hartman Institute, headquartered in Jerusalem, for an intensive course about Judaism—and about how Jews understand the meaning of Zionism.

“He’s 50. Him. Not me,” I lied to the officer while pointing to Abdullah, who on a good day looks every one of his 44 years; that day, fortuitously, was not a good day.

“Okay, you come,” the young officer said to Abdullah, allowing the exasperated imam inside the compound. “You stay,” he said to me officiously.

With my small lie, Abdullah, ostensibly a security threat, walked in at the nearest entry point—a darkly comic episode in a surreal landscape, where everyone is perpetually nervous and obsessed with security.

Hebrew National kosher hot dogs in my Fremont, California, home. Back then, halal meat was alien to the local supermarket, so Jewish dietary restrictions came to the rescue of an overweight Pakistani American kid. Straightforward anti-Semitism was not taught in my Muslim household or in weekend Koran classes. My father never from the living-room bookshelf. Instead, I carpooled to an all-male Jesuit high school with my Jewish neighbor Brian, with whom I never debated the implications of the wars of 1948 or 1967, but with whom I did regularly have heated exchanges about the merits of versus .

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