HALIFAX — Kasim Hafeez was prepared for the reaction he received at a Halifax university last week.
At the start of a two-week, cross-Canada speaking tour, the 28-year-old admissions adviser at a university in Britain spoke to about 150 people at an open event at Saint Mary’s University, hosted by the Atlantic Jewish Council and the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA). He also spoke in Toronto on Oct. 21.
A British Muslim of Pakistani origin, Hafeez grew up surrounded by anti-semitic and anti-Israel views, but his thinking has taken a total U-turn, and he now has respect and admiration for what Israel represents and considers himself a Zionist.
Late in the Halifax session, and through a tumultuous question period, some audience members catcalled and disrupted Hafeez’s talk. In an interview earlier that day, Hafeez told The CJN, “I see anger and hatred [when I speak publicly] because I’m talking pro-Israel. These radicals see it as not good for them or their community. Sadly, I expect this, and all I can do is have my argument ready to be backed up and hope they see common sense.”
Mark David, Atlantic Canada representative of CIJA, was particularly upset at the reaction of the few radicals.
“I was extremely disappointed that Kasim’s moving message of peace and tolerance was marred by an unruly anti-Israel segment of the audience. A public lecture held on a Canadian university campus should facilitate the free and open expression of ideas, rather than censorship by mob rule.”
However, as he told his story, Hafeez did get his message through to the majority. His father, from whom he is now estranged, often praised Hitler’s extermination of the Jews and influenced young Hafeez to drift toward radical Islamist groups. He was further radicalized at university, harbouring an intense hatred for Israel and Jews. He attended many anti-Israel rallies calling for the destruction of the Jewish state.
The starting point of his re-thinking occurred when he read Alan Dershowitz’s book, The Case for Israel.
“It was my first exposure to anything remotely supportive of Israel. I bought the book thinking Israel had no case. But there were certain facts I’d never encountered such as that there was a Jewish presence in the Holy Land forever. I had never heard that. The book debunked many myths I had believed to be truths.”
He studied more material, did more research, and, by 2007, wanted to see Israel for himself. He arrived at Ben-Gurion Airport, and “being in the wrong demographic, a Muslim male from Europe, I was detained for eight hours. I realized the security person was doing his job and I appreciated that. He was keeping everyone safe.”
He also saw an Israel he did not expect, he said. “I saw a modern state. I went to the Western Wall, unsure what to do, whether to pray or what, and I put my forehead on the Wall. I had a eureka moment. Here I was, in the capital of the Jewish state, with synagogues, mosques and churches, people of all religions, and I realized there were six million who will never get to this point. But it was a free state, with Arabs free to move about, with no hatred, even none toward me as I identified myself as a Muslim.”
Since then, he knew he had to speak out. He became active in organizations that support Israel, even though people then, and now, wonder if he has ulterior motives, which he stresses he doesn’t.
“I want to tell people they will gain nothing from hatred. Hatred for Israel won’t bring peace closer. You need to find a middle ground, create dialogue that’s better than boycotts and hostility.”
Hafeez currently runs www.theisraelcampaign.org, where he maintains a blog.