Kasim Hafeez was taught from childhood that much of the evil in the world could be attributed to Jews and Israel.
The child of Muslim-Pakistani parents in Nottingham, England, Hafeez saved his money to fund a trip to a jihadist training camp. However, a book and a trip to Israel to view the society he had long despised forced him to rethink his views. What he learned and saw for himself turned a budding terrorist into an avid Zionist who speaks on behalf of his former enemies on college campuses and to multi-faith groups.
Hafeez will be keynote speaker — along with Malcolm I. Hoenlein, executive vice chair of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations — at the Step Up for Israel Advocacy Summit on Sunday, Nov. 2. at the Aidekman campus in Whippany.
During a talk last month at a synagogue in North Brunswick, Hafeez told the audience, “I used to be an anti-Semite who thought the way to peace was to kill Jews.”
He recalled his own father extolling Hitler as “a great man whose only mistake was not finishing the job.”
Four months ago, Hafeez, a resident of Winnipeg, was appointed education and community relations officer for the Midwest region of B’nai Brith Canada.
Some members of his family have shunned Hafeez for his views. “My father hasn’t spoken to me in years,” he said. However, he added, his change of viewpoint “was never a choice. I had to stand up for what’s right…. What Israel represents in the Middle East is an outpost of democracy and an outpost of human rights.”
Hafeez explained that even though he lived in Great Britain his whole life, members of his predominantly Muslim-Pakistani community believed that Jews were a threat and that the U.S. government and United Nations were controlled by Jews.
“If only!” joked Hafeez, who now sits on the advisory board of StandWithUs, the nonprofit pro-Israel education and advocacy organization based in Los Angeles.
Hafeez said he could trace some anti-Jewish attitudes to the response from some in the Muslim world to publication of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses. The 1988 book was labeled blasphemy against the prophet Muhammad, and the ensuing outrage resulted in a fatwa calling for Rushdie’s death issued by then Supreme Leader of Iran Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Many Pakistanis blamed its publication on Jewish interests.
Similarly, he said, the 9/11 terrorist attacks were widely touted by certain elements of the Muslim world as a Jewish conspiracy. While the majority in Hafeez’s community didn’t condone the attacks, said Hafeez, many did profess sympathy and understanding for the attackers.
Hafeez’ transformation was spurred in part by his reading of The Case for Israel by attorney and staunch Israel advocate Alan Dershowitz. Believing he could easily refute every assertion about Israel in the book, Hafeez said, he was instead stunned to learn Jews had been in the Holy Land for thousands of years and that there had never been a Palestinian state.
“All we knew was that Jews came only after the Holocaust,” he said.
In 2007, using his jihadist camp fund, Hafeez went to Israel to confirm his new attitude. Landing at Ben-Gurion Airport, he was quickly ushered into security, where he spent the next eight hours. The apologetic security officer, the first Jew Hafeez had ever met, kept offering him coffee.
On leaving the airport, he set out to find signs of “apartheid.” Instead, at a bus stop he found an IDF soldier, a Greek Orthodox priest, an Arab woman in a hijab, and “a guy with green hair.”
He visited Christian, Muslim, and Jewish holy sites and met all kinds of Israelis — including Druze and Arabs — who praised Israel.
At the Kotel, Hafeez said, he put his hand on the wall’s stones, experiencing something of an epiphany based on his newfound knowledge of Jewish history.
“In this country I hated for so long, with the Israeli flag flying behind me, I realized no matter what, there are six million [Holocaust victims] who will never see this,” said Hafeez. “There were Jewish people here before a Muslim even walked on Earth.”
When he left Israel two and a half weeks later, “I said, ‘Kasim, you are a Zionist,’ and I was pretty cool with that.”