(JNS) A 14-member delegation of mainly Muslim-Americans of Pakistani background were in Israel from May 8-14 to show support for the 2018 Abraham Accords between Israel and several Muslim states. The 10-day trip to both Israel and the United Arab Emirates generated both positive and negative publicity. Graciously received by top Israeli officials, including President Isaac Herzog, the delegation was attacked by Pakistani government ministers and senators on social media.
The trip was hosted by Sharaka, a group seeking to strengthen the Abraham Accords by bringing together young Israeli and Gulf leaders. It was organized in partnership with the American Muslim & Multifaith Women’s Empowerment Council (AMMWEC), a US group that describes itself as “empowering Muslim women” and confronting “bigotry in all its forms.”
“The main message of this delegation is to combat the misconceptions that exist about Israel,” Anila Ali, founder of AMMWEC and a board member of Sharaka, told JNS during a tour of Israel’s north, including the Druze village of Daliyat al-Carmel, Haifa and Nazareth.
“Since the beginning of the Abraham Accords, my organization has always supported the idea of Arabs and Israelis coming together, people to people, for economic collaboration and for the benefit of future generations,” she said.
The trip’s profile was raised when the group was welcomed to the President’s Residence in Jerusalem by Herzog and sharply criticized in Pakistan. Ali herself was attacked on Twitter by Shireen Mazari, a Pakistani politician and former federal minister for human rights, who bizarrely accused Ali of being part of a US plot to change Pakistan’s regime.
Former Pakistani senator Mushtaq Ahmad Khan, a member of an Islamist political party, focused his criticism on Islamabad-based journalist Ahmed Quraishi, who was accompanying the delegation. In a May 11 tweet, Khan posted a picture of the Sharaka delegation in Jerusalem with Quraishi circled in red, accusing him of being a Pakistani state employee, an attempt to smear the current government.
Quraishi denied any connection to Pakistan’s government and told JNS that populist, conspiracy-laden attacks were unfortunately all too typical of Pakistani politics.
An eye-opening experience
Battles with high-profile politicians aside, for most of the group, in Israel for the first time, the visit was an eye-opening experience.
“They had a lot of biases, not about the Jewish people, but about Israel, because it’s demonized as devouring the Palestinians,” said Ali. “And that’s changed. Now you talk to them and they say, ‘Why didn’t the Palestinians accept these offers?’ They have come to understand that the Jewish people in Israel want peace.”
“I wanted them to feel what I experienced during my first trip,” she said. During her first visit three years ago, Ali toured Israel and the Palestinian Authority, meeting Palestinian leaders like Hanan Ashrawi. Ali said she was struck at how similar the attitudes of the Palestinians were to those of some of the women she helps through AMMWEC, noting that the women who complained about the past behavior of their husbands and remained stuck in the past couldn’t move forward. The Palestinians, too, are stuck looking backwards, nursing their grievances against Israel, she said.
Ali called the trip “groundbreaking,” noting that Muslim-majority groups aren’t touring Israel, something she wants to change. “I think this is going to be a trailblazing tour because all these people will go back and they will share what they’ve seen. We’re going to do a lot of social media and we’re going to invite people to come again with Sharaka and see for themselves and learn,” she said.
Security, Saudi Arabia and Israeli friendliness
One member of the delegation, Mahmood Mushtaq, who grew up in Pakistan and lives in Houston, told JNS that what he has found in Israel was “totally unexpected.” He said he had learned about Israel from the media and heard only about “the repression of the Palestinians, the lack of stability, but all these things I had heard, it was totally wrong,” he said. “The people I’ve met are friendly. They don’t have any prejudice against anybody. Nobody’s saying, ‘Oh, you’re not Jewish.’ Nobody’s taking potshots at you.”
“And as a matter of fact, if you come to think of it, from the personal accounts I’ve heard, and also, after visiting Yad Vashem [Israel’s Holocaust Memorial], I can well understand that security has got to be the main concern for the Jewish people,” he said.
Mushtaq, who worked in the oil industry, and as a result became familiar with several Muslim countries, said that the key to the success of the Abraham Accords will be Saudi Arabia. “Not only because Saudi Arabia is a financial power in the Muslim world, and funds the economies of many Muslim countries, including Pakistan, but also because it is the custodian of the two holiest places of Islam,” he said.
Fishel Benkhald, one of the only publicly recognized Jews in Pakistan, who lives in Karachi, was also on the trip. A civil engineer by training, who works for the Star-K, a kosher-certification agency, he sported a black yarmulke held by Star of David pins.
He told JNS that to say he “supports” the Abraham Accords doesn’t do it justice. “It’s much deeper. It’s going to affect our children, not only the children of Arabs inside of the Middle East, but those of Muslims who are born and raised in Western countries,” he said.
“It has got to be successful,” he said, noting that what should be considered a localized Israeli-Palestinian dispute has grown to obsess the entire Muslim region. “Sitting in Pakistan, hundreds of miles away from the Middle East, from Israel, and from the Palestinians, it affects me. This industry of creating outrage is spilling out into my home, back there in Pakistan.”
“Pakistani culture did not have antisemitism in its DNA. It was brought in later when the State of Israel was created,” said Benkhald, adding that he believes the speeches given in Arabic against Israel were simply translated and repeated word for word in Pakistan, through all too-successful media and religious appeals to Muslim solidarity.
“Whenever a person is dehumanizing a certain group of people based on race, religion or creed, after a couple of years, no matter how rational you are, no matter how logical you’re trying to be, you will start having the thought in the back of your mind that there’s something to it. That is human nature,” he said.
Benkhald sees the Abraham Accords as a chance to break the stranglehold the Israel-Palestine conflict has had up until now on regional politics. He said the UAE and Pakistan have long-held wide-ranging relations and the UAE has influence in his country.
He argues that it’s in Pakistan’s interest to have relations with Israel, given the latter’s technological prowess, noting that his country is threatened with drought and could learn from Israel’s advances. “Eighty percent of our water, due to lack of infrastructure, we are just throwing it away into the sea. That’s eight-zero. That’s a lot for a population of 220 million people,” he said.
Head held high
Although Pakistan and Israel don’t have official diplomatic relations, Benkhald managed to obtain permission to visit the Jewish state. He argued that freedom of religion is in Pakistan’s constitution, and as such he has the right to visit Jerusalem, the holiest site in his religion.
“I have an obligation to uphold my constitution and, and for that, I’m willing to fight. I’m not only serving the higher purpose of the Abraham Accords, but I’m also serving the higher purpose of supporting my country by supporting the supremacy of my constitution. I’m getting two birds with one stone, or maybe better to say, two friends by offering one cup of coffee,” he said.
“And so, here I am in Israel, on a Pakistani passport,” he added. “And it is known in Pakistan, and I’m going back there with my head held high and nothing to hide.”
A day before heading to the airport on May 14 to begin the UAE leg of their trip, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, President of the United Arab Emirates, passed away. Once in Dubai, the Sharaka delegation attended a memorial organized by the city’s Jewish community to express their condolences and demonstrate solidarity with the UAE.