Wajahat Ali, a self-identified “brown dude living in America as a Muslim,” is a rising star of politically correct journalism. His recent article in The Atlantic, entitled “A Muslim Among Israeli Settlers,” explores “what happens when a Pakistani American writer goes deep into the West Bank?” The succinct answer: not much. The more interesting question may be: what ideological baggage does Ali carry with him on his exploratory tour and how does it frame his perceptions and conclusions?
Growing up in a family where “the specter of Israel, the suffering of Palestinians, and the occupation of Jerusalem in particular loomed large,” Ali was further indoctrinated at UC Berkeley where he belonged to the Muslim Student Association. He learned early and often about “the injustices in Palestine” – committed, of course, by Jews – while proudly wearing his “Zionism is Racism” T-shirt. Preening that he has “been to Israel more times than half the Jews I know,” his narrated journey began in Jerusalem, where “Palestinians are suffocated and immiserated by the Israeli occupation.” Any awareness of the centrality of Jerusalem in Jewish history, millennia before the rise of Islam and eventual appearance of “Palestinians,” is conspicuously absent.
Impelled by “the urgency of working out how Palestinians could emerge from under the often-brutal Israeli occupation,” he set out to explore settlements guided by a member of the Muslim Leadership Initiative of the Shalom Hartman Institute. Firmly convinced, even before his journey began, that Jewish settlements comprise “the biggest impediment to peace,” he imagines that their residents, whom he defines at the outset as “fanatics,” inhabit “the heart of what is, legally, Palestine” – also known, to be sure, as biblical Judea and Samaria and recognized by nearly a century of international law as the Jewish homeland.
Ali’s first stop was Gush Etzion, which he identifies as the affluent “Scarsdale” of settlements. Wondering whether the “shepherd” Abraham could have afforded a mortgage in Efrat, he ignores its birth in 1927 on land purchased from local Arabs and the Arab massacre in 1948 that destroyed the community until its rebirth after the Six-Day War. Back in Jerusalem he is reminded by Daniel Luria of Ateret Cohanim that “you can’t be an illegal occupier of your land.” At the Kotel he notices gender discrimination. Had he visited the nearby Al-Aqsa Mosque he would have noticed it there, too.
But it is in Hebron that the tilt of Ali’s bias emerges at the core of his narrative. His visit was largely confined to the enclave where 800 Jews, protected by the IDF (for reasons he ignores), live among 30,000 Palestinian Arabs. There he encountered Noam Arnon, the genial community spokesman whose colonialist “condescension” offended him. He clearly preferred Jihad Rashid, who guided him through the Palestinian souk to a two-story Palestinian building surrounded on three sides by the Jewish Quarter. There he listened attentively to the laments of family members claiming that the nearby settlers “are all devils.”
With much of Ali’s narrative devoted to their complaints about mistreatment by their Jewish neighbors and Israeli soldiers, he seems to have had no time to visit the booming Palestinian sector of Hebron. As the commercial center of the West Bank, with high-rise apartment buildings, fashionable malls and shops – where no Jews are permitted to live or visit – it might moderate his warped vision of the cruelties of Israeli occupation in the ancient Jewish city of Hebron. But probably not.
Back in Jerusalem, Ali visits the Al-Aqsa mosque for Friday prayers. He ignores the historical reality that its location is the venerated site of the ancient Jewish Temples, destroyed millennia before the birth of Islam. It seems inconsequential to Ali that in Jerusalem, as in Hebron, Moslems usurped Jewish holy sites and claimed them as their own.
In the end, Ali remains convinced that settler “zeal to redeem the land has transformed it into a golden calf – an idol placed on a pedestal where even God, Jewish morality, and democracy can barely reach it.” Each new settlement (there have been none for two decades), he is convinced, “is paving another road to insecurity and fear,” continuing “the cycle of violence” for which settlers are responsible. He seems oblivious to the reality – historical and moral – that settlement of the ancient homeland of the Jewish people defines Zionism.
Jerold S. Auerbach is author of Hebron Jews: Memory and Conflict in the Land of Israel (2009)