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The Meeting at the Synagogue

His name and title was Reverend Malcolm Weisman, OBE, MA and OCF. I personally have not a clue what the last title represents, but I do know that the OBE is quite a distinguished reward given by the Queen; he was presented with it recently for 'services to the Jewish community'. My father's adopted father was presented with one some years ago.

Malcolm Weisman is the also the head Jewish Orthodox leader in the British Armed forces. He is also apparently quite well acquainted with Doctor Zaki Badawi, the former imam of the Regent Park Mosque in London, and widely recognised as Britain's best educated Muslim 'cleric' (the term does not really apply since Islam does not recognise a clergy, but the practical standpoint is the same.) They, along with a Christian priest, are co-chairman's of a religious inter faith group in London. Dr. Badawi is now presently the Director of the Muslim College in London, and still has great respect amongst the Muslim community in the UK.

But it was not in the UK that I met Mr. Weisman. I was in the Channel Islands at the time, and I was interested in learning more about Judaism from a Jewish point of view. Since I am a very hard-line critic of Israel and Zionism, I would have preferred to speak to a non-Zionist Jew about their faith, but I postulated that even amongst hard-core Zionists, there would be much religious knowledge to glean from that would not necessarily be unuseful to me.

I contacted the Jersey Jewish congregation hoping to speak to a Rabbi. I already knew that there were very rigid adherents of Judaism that did not recognise the State of Israel, and in fact denounced it as blasphemic, but I doubted that I would find such a congregation in the Channel Islands, which is more or less cut off from the rest of the world, except through the television screens. Internet access is not very common, and generally, it is quite a
quiet place. I often felt that it was a sort of cold, damp equivalent of the island of Abu Dhabi, except that the entire culture of the place was completely different. I was not greeted by the Muslim call to prayer everyday, which I missed.

The Jewish secretary of the congregation informed me that a very important, 'high-up' Jewish leader was visiting the island at the time for Passover, and would be far well equipped to answer my questions than himself. He told me that the gentleman was of the Orthodox sect, and that he would be quite happy to speak with me.

I therefore called Mr. Weizman up immediately. He was very cordial and informed me that on the following Saturday, there would be a service at the synagogue, after which he would be free to be interviewed by me. I was quite pleased with this, especially since he had already identified me as a non-Jewish man. I do not go to synagogue very often, and I therefore asked him if there was any sort of protocol to be followed when in the synagogue. He told me that it was customary to have some sort of head covering, and asked if I had any. My impulse was to say, 'Yes, I have a black and white one; perhaps you recognise it from Yasir Arafat's head!'

But that would have been essentially been defeating my purpose; I wanted information on Judaism from a Jewish perspective, not provoke a response regarding Palestine or the Israeli regime. He then suggested I wear a Muslim prayer cap, if I had one. Mine, which is from the United Arab Emirates, looks quite similar to some Jewish skull caps, being white and more or less laced. I responded, 'Certainly.'

On the Saturday, I went to the synagogue. I have never been inside a synagogue before, and although I do know something of the Jewish faith, I did not feel very comfortable at first. I am accustomed to removing my shoes when entering a house of worship (later on, the reverend did tell me that in certain Jewish communities, they did) and it seemed odd to be holding an old Jewish prayer book whilst having my head covered in a Muslim prayer cap.
I tried to get a seat at the back, not realising that it was usually only women that sat there. An old gentleman at the front, who turned out to be Scottish and thought I was Jewish, signalled for me to come to the front. He looked very friendly, and smiled at me when he shook my hand, bidding me to sit in the second row. His attitude did not dim when he spoke to me in Hebrew and was informed that I was not Jewish and could not understand him.

The reverend continued the service, and much to my surprise, I found that I was in the midst of a Jewish service, not an interview with a rather well-to-do barrister and leader of the Jewish community. I noticed a few people feeling uncomfortable in front of me, and judging by what later occurred, I would guess that there were a considerable amount of people who felt the same way behind me.

I looked around, and I saw that many of the stereotypes that circles around Jews in the press and movies were probably motivated by isolated incidents. Yes, they all did look quite rich, and the women especially looked very wealthy (I saw a mink on one of them) but generally, the men were dressed smartly. In a mosque, no woman would be clad in a lavish manner at all, and men would simply dress cleanly.

Someone in the congregation went around the members in the front (I was quite surprised to note that people were chattering and gossiping while a religious man was uttering a service!), and asked a few people if they would sit with me to let me know what was going on. I do not believe that he knew that I could hear him, because I heard him talking to one person who said, 'Why don't you ask him? ('him' being a young Jew to the left)', and replied, 'He doesn't want to.' The racism that was around struck me as being quite strange, since I had been invited to this congregation by what their foremost religious leader, and I was observing all of their traditions whilst in the synagogue. But, prejudices do die hard.

Apparently, a few minutes later, a little mini discussion was taking place between three members of the congregation who were debating my presence. One member (I believe it was the Scot) said, 'Leave him alone; he is doing no harm.' About half an hour after I had entered the synagogue, one of the other two with broad glasses came to sit next to me. He led me through some of the services for a few moments, and asked where I was from. I told him, 'My father is English, but my mother is Sudani, Egyptian and Turkish, and I grew up in Abu Dhabi, London and Cairo.'

Unlike most people who were told about my rather diverse lood-heritage (usually, signs of immense surprise and bewilderment strikes!), this man proceeded to tell me how he had travelled over some parts of the Middle East. He then asked me if I could step outside for a moment. I was a little curious, but I said, 'Certainly'. I believe that at this point, a few members of the congregation sighed in relief as I walked out.

Once outside, the man told me in a rather apologetic tone that he and several members (read, nearly all) of the synagogue were quite concerned about my presence there; they had recognised me as being a Muslim (my prayer cap) and being Arab (my features). I told him that I had been accorded an official invitation by the Rev. He acknowledged that, but asked if I would not mind being searched.

I had come into a synagogue on the island of Jersey, armed only with a notebook and pencil, as well as a mobile telephone, observing every single item of protocol in this place of worship, and I was being asked if I could be searched.

Still, I realised that it might be a little odd for them. After all, there are no Arabs in Jersey and not very many if any Muslims. Probably most of them knew me only from newspaper stereotypes, and I tried to understand their feelings. I therefore consented to the search.

He took me outside, and I saw two officers, standing beside a police vehicle. I was amazed; I thought one of them would search me, and that would be the end of it. But I thought that submitting to the search, although ridiculous, would probably put them at ease, and make the rest of my visit that more pleasant. Upon seeing my willingness to be searched, the officers decided that there was no need, but I insisted that they do so. In fact, I demanded it; I wanted to show these gentlemen that their fears were particularly unfounded.

We went back inside, and I was searched. Not very well, mind you; had I any violent intention in mind, I would have been able to hide a device in any number of places. Even a gun could have been strapped along my ankle. One of the officers searched through my wallet, finding endless amounts of identification, becoming satisfied that I was not a vagrant bomber.

The man who originally came to sit next to me and asked me about being searched (his name was Brian if I recall), then apologised for his attitude, but reiterated that he was trying to protect his community. I decided to leave it alone, and told him, 'It's all right. I would not say that I would have done the same were our positions reversed, but I can understand your position.'

For the next hour, he sat with me as I listened to the service and observed the entire ritual. The Hebrew words sounded similar to Arabic and the pages were read right to left, just as Arabic. Brian told me, 'You know, it was not because you were Muslim, but because of the present situation, we have to be careful.' I told him, 'Just for the record, most Arabs and Muslims are not anti-Jewish.'

Later on he said, 'I would like to say that Jews regard Muslims as our brothers, and that we just want peace.' I knew for a fact that many Jews, did not feel quite the same way about the first part, but I did know that it was part of the Islamic faith to recognise the spiritual and ethnic connection that Muslims and Jews had. I therefore said, 'It might surprise you to know this, but most Muslims feel the same way.'

He said, 'It doesn't really, but it's nice to hear.' A few people still seemed to be looking at me oddly, but generally people were a little more at ease. The service was interesting in that the prayers were for the British monarchy and for the British government, as well as the State of Israel. I was dumbfounded that a religious community would voluntarily offer such prayers; in most other religious orders, people do not offer such praise, basing that on the fact that your religion comes first and your citizenship comes second. The attitude of the congregation seemed the reverse (which Malcolm later reinforced for me.)

After the service (which took hours longer than I had originally expected!), Malcolm Weizman led me to the side room where the congregation partook in wine and cake. A lovely lady offered me a glass of wine, which I politely refused, and someone nearby told her, 'He doesn't drink.' Apparently, my presence in the synagogue had aroused quite a bit of interest. The Scottish gent came to speak with me, and was very friendly. I asked him where he was from, and he said, 'Ah, I am from Glasgow.' I told him, 'Really? I have several relatives in Glasgow; a Palestinian cousin and some very close Iraqi-Scottish friends.' He slowly muttered, 'Palestinian?' and I responded,' Yes,' and quickly moved on to a less confrontational subject; the gentleman had been so friendly and supportive of my presence in the synagogue that I hated to have argument with him. He continued to speak with me until he left, telling me about his grandson who was there with him, and really talking quite casually with me. In fact, I am glad to say that about five members of the congregation did come up to shake my hand and act quite amicably.

The rest of the congregation left, and I was left with only Malcolm and the president of the Jewish synagogue. I had spoken with him briefly before; he had expressed his reluctance at having me searched. He said, 'What were we to do?' I told him, 'You could have just asked me.' He said,' No, I couldn't have.' I did not pursue the subject with him. I was here for Weizman. Finally, Weizman and I were sitting together, albeit with the synagogue president.

One important reason why I wished to speak with Malcolm Weizman was that I wished to have more in-depth knowledge into anti-Zionist movements within Judaism. He commented on Satmar and Neturei Karte, which are two very ultra-orthodox movements that are very anti-Zionist.

"They are very rigid and literal fundamental followers of the Jewish faith." I asked him what that meant; he said that there was no room for metaphorical analysis of the scripture, and that they regarded the State of Israel to be a blasphemy, since it was not founded by a miracle; that in fact, they preferred to have Jordanian citizenship rather than Israeli.

The other man said that although they were regarded as ultra-Orthodox, the founder of one of the movements in Poland had been previously regarded as almost a heretic by the rest of orthodoxy in the area.

I was interested to note that all of these Jews placed their nationality above all else; even their religion. They regarded themselves as Britons who HAPPENED to be Jews, and not the other way around, like most adherents to various faiths.

We discussed briefly Muslim Spain, which was Andalusia, and how Jews and Muslims had co-existed very well, up until they were evicted by the Christians who conquered Spain. He did say that in the last few years of Muslim rule, the Jews had been regarded as a little less than first class, but insisted that previously, the Jews had been treated as equals, and had high positions in the government and state. I offered that it was probably due to the fact that Muslims had strayed from their religious teachings that had lessened their religious tolerance, and that it was because of their taste of materialism that had brought them down, which he fully agreed on.

And of course, I could not let the discussion go without asking these two what they thought of Israel. The rev was much more reasonable in his approach. He recognised that the State of Israel was probably treating the Palestinians badly (he used the word Palestinian, even though I had purposely used the term Israeli Arab to see his reaction) and that was wrong. Earlier in his service, he had offered a prayer to those around the world that suffered persecution, regardless of colour, creed or religion. I wish more Jewish leaders said the same thing and meant it.

He also said, in relation to my surprise that Jews attached so much to their nationality rather than their faith, that quite a few Israeli Arabs were loyal to the State of Israel.
The president, however, had a more 'simplistic' view (as he described it). He said that Jersey Jews really had no place to offer any comment on the State of Israel, simply because they didn't know enough about it, and that none of them had the right to criticise or praise it either way.

I then mentioned AIPAC, the American Israeli lobby. The reverend said that there was also a British Israeli lobby and said that BIPAC was marginalised because the government simply did not listen to them. They both implied that AIPAC's role in the government was very insignificant at best. But both did claim that most Jews simply wanted peace and that it was pointless to concentrate on the extremists that wanted violence, such as was the situation in Northern Ireland. I made it a point to drop a name or two like Shamir, the ex-Israeli prime minister who was very right wing, which brought nothing but distaste
for the reverend; he obviously did not like Shamir. I did not have the time to mention other names, but he did declare, beyond a doubt, that any Jewish extremists that wanted to bring down Masjid Al Aqsa in Jerusalem were 'lunatics' and that he was pleased that since the declaration of independence, the Israeli regime had never tried to take control of Al- Aqsa. He expressed his conviction that it was Jewish doctrine not to tear down any religious monument UNLESS the religious community that used that monument voluntarily gave it up and practically offered it to the Jews.

The president did emphasise that Jews out of Israel had no place to comment on these affairs, because people did not simply know the truth. However, he expressed extreme disgust and disappointment at the recent series on the BBC, entitled 'Israel and the Arabs: the 50 years war'. He declared that it was not good enough, and that the series had revolved itself around the interviews, and that it had left out important events, and marginalised others.

I have followed the series, and I personally agree with the man; but probably in much different ways. All in all, I am happy with the series in that it is better than what usually comes on Western television.

I asked him about the Palestinians. What was to become their role? The president didn't really offer much to the answer, but the reverend was very explicit. 'I think they should be given equal status.' He commented briefly on the state's policies, and the giving away of territory as possibly being viable, but said that the Palestinians should be given equal status in the country.

We then discussed the law of return. I offered that the Palestinians who were not well off in their country, could very well be dismayed at the fact that people from Russia or elsewhere could simply come in and be given more rights than themselves, who were actually natives.

The president said that they could understand that, and told me that many Israelis were in fact quite 'cheesed off' that while they had been struggling to make ends meet for years were seeing people from outside come in, get cash and even land with little effort. I commented on this, saying that most Israelis were in fact foreigners, in that they had not been in the land 50 years ago. They did not argue with that, and did not comment on it either.

Time was running out and the two men were in a rush to other engagements, so I let them go. The president said if I ever wanted to come back to feel welcome, and promised that I would not be searched. Malcolm Weizman also said should I require further information, I should call him on Monday morning. I thanked them both, and left, picking up a few leaflets on my way out.

I had arrived at the synagogue at about 10:45 and left almost at 2:00pm. Hardly what I had in mind, but time well spent. Indeed, a couple of this congregation seemed pleasant, even if they had such deeply held suspicions. But their theories did not seem to be in dispute; I suppose they simply did not realise the troubles that Zionism had wrought. I thought to myself, 'Perhaps the idea of Zionism could be very well made if the Zionists thought as this gent had about kindness to your neighbour before all else (this was a point that he had made very implicitly in his address).'

Unfortunately, one of the items that I had picked up was an issue of 'Menorah'; a magazine for Jewish members of the British forces.

There was an article in there written by the former Chief Rabbi, Lord Jakobovits. It was entitled, 'Peace should be the no.1 goal for Rabbis.'

In it, although the title was one of peace, he wrote: "Arabs cannot be trusted. I have often advocated that territory should not be ceded until after at least five years of normal diplomatic, trade and tourist relations." As though the refugees should not play a part.

"I am not naive enough to believe that the Arabs have suddenly turned murderous hostility into genuine friendship," was another phrase. And he declared that the united Jerusalem was for ever to remain as the capital of Israel, if Jews so merited. That for me was a real disappointment. These two had offered to me a possible non-racist side to Zionism, and further, equality of race, religion and creed a basic foundation of Zionism. But this ex-chief
rabbi still seemed to ignore that. And indeed, there were quite a few members of the congregation that could not see past the colour of my skin or the prayer hat on my head, even though there were some who could.

I am still against Zionism. I still regard the actual result of it, if not it's original intention by some of it's founders, a racist apartheid state. But if I had to choose a decent man from among the Jews that was the least racist and still professed to be a Zionist, I would choose Malcolm Weizman.

Equal status for Palestinians, eh? One day....... soon. Insha'allah. Incidentally, Hebrew for God willing also sounds like insha'allah. So do Shalom and Salaam; the Hebrew and Arabic words for peace.

''What comes from the lips reaches the ear.
What comes from the heart reaches the heart.....''
(Old Arab proverb)

Hisham al-Zoubeir

28 October 1998.

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[Currently, he is at the University of Sheffield undertaking a multi-disciplinary degree in law. He has lived in Abu Dhabi, Cairo and London. His main interests delves into peace, equality, righteousness and spirituality.]

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