NEW YORK—In 2000, as a young teenager on a trip to Pakistan to visit family, Muslim ex-radical Kasim Hafeez saw violence praised and “learned” that America, the Jews, and Israel were behind all wars and world difficulties.
Back home in Nottingham in the United Kingdom, he found hate was rampant. Material was openly displayed in bookstores and the promotion of violent jihad was a routine part of Muslim student activities. He “rather proudly” considered himself a radical.
At university, he campaigned against Israel, promoting—and believing—that “all evils” trace back to Israel and the United States. He planned to return to Pakistan and join Al Qaeda.
Alan Dershowitz changed that plan. His book, The Case for Israel, changed the young radical’s plans and altered his life. Although he used all means to discredit the book’s ideas, he found that facts overwhelmed the fiction he had learned.
“A distance started to emerge,” Hafeez, now 28, tells JNS.org in an interview from the New York City office of pro-Israel education group StandWithUs, which sponsored his recent U.S. trip.
Dershowitz’s text was the first non-jihadist material Hafeez had read about Israel, and it prompted Hafeez to travel to the Jewish state.
“I wanted to see the apartheid state,” he said. Instead, Hafeez says he saw “a population as living completely normally—Muslims, Christians and Jews.” All he had been taught suddenly “made no sense.”
“For the first time, I had some clarity about Israel,” Hafeez says. He returned to the UK and says he knew he had to speak up.
Hafeez says “there is an awful situation, particularly bad on UK campuses.”
“Nothing stops the anti-Semitism and the anti-Zionists,” he says. “Now, I am proud to support Israel. It’s the right thing, the moral thing to do… I’m in it for the long haul.”
Hafeez now regularly speaks with Muslims on campuses and challenges students from similar backgrounds to his to at least “think about it” when it comes to hating Israel.
“Israel is a great mobilizing point in the Arab world,” he says.
Hafeez says the media in England “is inherently anti-Semitic.”
“Among Pakistanis much of the anti-Zionist sentiment is based on Israel’s relationship with India,” Hafeez says. “Kids grow up hating.” The young activist then pauses.
“I feel lucky,” he says. “I could have been dead. I don’t want people to go down the path of hatred.”
Hafeez and his family typify the immigrant experience. He notes that his grandparents were “simple working people.” His parents, now divorced, are a Pakistani-born factory worker and a Pakistani-English-born school administrator. He has one sister, a teacher, who is married to an accountant. He studied political science and is now working at Nottingham University. Most of his family is not politically involved—except his father, an admirer of Hitler. Father and son have not spoken for almost a decade.
Revisiting the initial trip to the Jewish state that changed his outlook, Hafeez says, “When I traveled to Israel, I wanted to see for myself. I really went on a negative research effort: it is difficult to give up what you had been willing to die for, and see that people you had believed to be the oppressors are really not.”
However, conversations with “shopkeepers, Arabs, people in general” revealed a “normal Israel” to Hafeez, he says.
“In the UK, hatred and misinformation creates barriers to peace and understanding,” he says. “While I am not saying to everybody ‘Wave the [Israeli] flag,’ I am saying ‘Let’s look at the situation with more balance and understand both sides.'”
JNS.org asked Hafeez if he feared for his safety, both in England and while traveling. “People who use threats and intimidation are bullies,” he says. “I refuse to deal with a coward like that. There have been some who attempt to threaten, saying ‘Are you that dirty Jew supporter? I simply say, ‘I am a Zionist—with a great upper cut.'”
What does Hafeez see as the best way to educate?
“Conversation, connections on a one-to-one basis—It’s essential to get the facts into the arena,” he says. His message is simple: “Don’t hate. It poisons the individual.”
“No child is born to hate,” Hafeez says. “No child is born an anti-Semite or xenophobic. Israel is not just about the conflict. People are interested in what is relevant to them.”
Hafeez has brought his message of tolerance and understanding to eight groups in recent months. “People are very surprised,” he says. “It gives people hope. When I speak at campuses with audiences politically, I recognize the hatred and anger that [they have for] me. The moment the hate goes, anything is possible. Hate is destructive to who you are as a person.”
Hafeez will soon return to Israel to run the Jerusalem Half Marathon. He says his work has begun to influence friends to stop automatically hating Israel.
“When you are not obsessed with hate, you live a much fuller life,” he says.