Pittsburgh, Christchurch, Sri Lanka, San Diego. Increasingly commonplace attacks upon worshippers in synagogues, mosques, churches and other holy sites around the globe. Innocent victims of hatred, ignorance, racism.
Living in a hotbed of religious fanaticism of varied ilk, it was recently refreshing to revisit my own preconceptions and stereotypes.
The shift in my consciousness has lingered, barely, even during the latest cycle of violence Israel’s south has yet again endured, with its horrific loss of life, injuries and destruction.
Because of a medical emergency back home, I shortened a stay in England, cancelling a scheduled return flight and took the first possible flight back home.
Passing through the airport, I made my way to the gate for my Tel Aviv-bound flight. Anyone travelling to Israel knows those gates are invariably at out-of-the-way sections of airports and often include further security inspections and armed policemen or soldiers.
Approaching the assigned gate, I was astonished and a bit bothered to see a group of 20 or so Muslim men seated in an area adjacent to that gate. Wearing traditional Islamic garb, almost all had long beards and were clearly not people usually seen near gates to Israel-bound flights. Being the security-minded Israeli I am, and trying to make sense of this unusual situation, I conjectured that advanced security considerations had airport authorities designate a gate to a flight to an Islamic country, next to that of my own flight to Israel.
Hoping to get some shuteye after a sleepless night, upon boarding the flight I was pleasantly surprised to find many seats empty in my section of the plane, but as take-off approached those unfilled seats, including the two next to mine, were occupied by the very same Muslim men I had earlier seen outside our flight’s gate. Feeling completely out of my comfort zone, I busied myself with something on my computer. Although I heard my neighbours speaking English, I reckoned I’d be keeping to myself on this flight.
About an hour into the journey, I noticed an ultra-Orthodox woman abruptly turn round in the aisle and beginning a conversation with some of the Muslims. She wanted to compare notes, asking how it was for them to be members of a visible minority often viewed unsympathetically by the western society in which they lived. Their answers piqued my interest. They were comfortable looking different and not concerned with curious looks and comments they were often afforded.
As the flight progressed, I struck up a conversation with my travelling companions. They were all from Sheffield, a three-hour drive north of London, and had all been born in Pakistan or were children of Pakistani immigrants to Great Britain. All were employed, some in more sophisticated occupations than others. They were coming to Israel for a week of study and prayer at the Dome of the Rock area in Jerusalem’s Old City.
They offered me one of their savoury smelling halal sandwiches and showed genuine concern upon learning why I had shortened my stay in England, offering their prayers and good wishes.
I asked about 9/11. They said the perpetrators of those acts could not have been true Muslims.
Eventually I worked up the courage to tell them that upon arrival in Israel they would probably be held up for a while by security. They told me they’d been briefed to expect two to 12 hours of questioning before being formally allowed into Israel, but added they understood the security considerations that required such precautions.
As we alighted, I wished them as short a stay as possible at Ben Gurion Airport and an enjoyable and meaningful week in Jerusalem.
Many of us are simultaneously pigeon-holed and insular. I came away from this flight hoping and trying to be less so.
During these sad, infuriating and tension-filled days of ongoing and seemingly interminable hostilities, I’m uncertain there’s anything to be learned from this for the collective. Perhaps though there is.
Yom ha-Atzmaut sameach and Ramadan Kareem.