In 2006, Michael Bassin, a young undergraduate at George Washington University and a proud pro-Israel American Jew, decides to spend a semester as an exchange student in the United Arab Emirates.
Why might a boy who grew up in a Conservative Jewish family in Cincinnati think this is a good idea? Because he is “passionate about the pursuit of peace in the Middle East between Israel and its neighbors,” he writes.
“I wanted to interact with people who held different views than me, who could help me perceive how Arabs perceived the Arab-Israeli conflict, and how, in their eyes, a lasting peace could be achieved.”
While he considers keeping his Jewish identity hidden during his time at the American University of Sharjah, his guilelessness, openness and honesty are irrepressible and he identifies himself as Jewish from the start.
Struggling to account for and cope with this Jew’s inexplicable and undesired presence at the Arab university, his classmates accuse this disarmingly charming anomaly of a range of nefarious things, including, disturbingly frequently, of being a spy.
Luckily for us, Bassin takes careful notes throughout the semester, documenting his interactions with his classmates, teachers, and a range of devout Muslims. What he shares with us in I Am Not a Spy
makes for compelling, eye-opening and curiously entertaining reading.
Before the semester’s classes even begin, Bassin’s hope to make friends is shattered by the question “What religion are you?” His “I am a Jew” response is met with shocked and horrified silence – which becomes more isolating as word of his presence races throughout the campus. He becomes an instant social pariah.
The appalling verbal interchanges that ensue quickly reveal what we suspect but dread to confirm: that anti-Jewish and anti-Israeli ignorance and hatred run deep in Arab society, even among its most privileged and educated members.
Conversations run like this: “How did you get into this country? Jews are banned from coming here!” “That’s not true. It doesn’t even say I’m a Jew in my passport.”
“We know your books teach you to enslave Muslims and deceive them.... They teach us this in the mosque. It says in the Koran never to trust the Jews! They are manipulative and deceiving, and dress as imposters.... You’re dangerous. They’re telling people [here on the campus] not to talk to you.... Jews are capable of anything. They lie about everything.... Jews can’t be trusted.... The Jews are the enemies of Arabs everywhere.... Arabs can’t be friends with a Jew.”
Most of Bassin’s good-natured and well-meaning efforts to respond patiently to the outrageously false claims about Jews and Israel are futile and are summarily dismissed by his accusers.
His inconvenient truths and facts do not fare well as his unwilling listeners close their minds and protect their prejudices by simply rejecting anything that challenges their preconceived notions. If Bassin believes what he is saying, they tell him, he must be deceiving himself.
“You are lying... what you are saying is impossible.... Man, you are brainwashed. You have to stop listening to your government.”
In fairness, it must be stated that on rare occasions, Bassin also encounters individuals with enough intellectual honesty and curiosity to at least listen to some of what he has to say and give him a chance to present a Jewish/Israeli perspective.
He may not win over any hearts and souls, but when presented with the opportunity, he eloquently defends the Jewish religion and state.
BASSIN’S PRESENCE on campus is more than just controversial.
While the claims frequently leveled against him that he is a spy are patently ridiculous, he himself is the target of espionage.
His position at the university is far more precarious than he realizes at first. Email messages connected with him are intercepted; Internet service to his dorm room is cut off and not restored; he is lured to a party by a beautiful woman and tempted with everything imaginable – all of which he wisely resists.
Only afterward does a classmate help him to understand the disaster he narrowly avoided.
“The CID wants you gone, man. You said this girl wanted you to drink, do drugs, and sleep with her? They could have used any one of those things to lock you up or deport you.... They can’t just deport you. You’re not just some Pakistani or Filipino they can treat like shit. You’re an American. If you got deported for nothing or put in jail, do you know how bad that would make the UAE look? No university in the West would send another student here ever.”
Bassin’s constant efforts to reach out to and interact with nearly everyone he encounters and his increasing proficiency in Arabic lead to fascinating interactions beyond those he has with his fellow students. He is exposed to hateful antisemitic remarks in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt and other places he visits.
In Cairo, he converses with teens (without revealing that he is Jewish) who are kicking a soccer ball around and want to practice their English with him: “Jews are bad. They want to kill everyone. If you see a Jew, you must kill him.”
“Have you ever met a Jew before?” “If I meet Jew I kill him now.” His friends clapped and cheered their approval.
“Where did you learn so much about the Jews?” “We learn in mosque. They teach Jews must die.”
Curious to discover for himself if this kind of hatred is taught in mosques, he visits one. From the outside, before he even enters, he hears the imam preaching, “Trust no Jew. They only know evil.”
Posing as a convert to Islam, Bassin enters Egypt’s famous Al-Azhar Mosque, where a respected English-speaking imam “educates” him about Jews: “They are attracted to evil and lies. They care only for making money at your expense. Never trust a Jew. They are masters of deception.... Until the Jews come to Islam, they will be condemned as enemies of Allah and of Muslims everywhere.”
Regarding Israel, the imam says, “The Jews have gone too far.
They commit massacres and unspeakable evil every day. When a Muslim blows himself up in the presence of Jews who occupy Palestine, he is a martyr.... If we do not kill their children, they will kill ours.”
Bassin reports so many additional experiences and horrifying verbal exchanges that the reader begins to feel a kind of mortal fascination somewhat akin to watching a horror movie or gawking at a gruesome multi-vehicle traffic accident.
Even if the book contained nothing beyond that, it would be more than enough for recommending it as worthwhile reading.
However, the book takes an interesting twist toward the end.
Bassin follows his ventures into the heart of the Arab world by enlisting in the IDF, and he shares some of the situations and moral dilemmas he experiences there.
A seminal moment during training occurs when a recruit who says “A good Arab is a dead Arab!” is rebuked by the platoon commander.
“Don’t speak about Arabs the way the Nazis spoke about Jews,” the commander says. “My job is to make sure you act according to the army’s rules. And that means one thing: Treat Palestinians like your grandparents.... The second you abuse your authority, you become no better than the terrorists trying to hurt our people and destroy what we’ve built.”
The efforts of Bassin and his fellow soldiers to act with courtesy and honor at all times are tested at a few extreme moments, such as the time they enter the PA-controlled town of Beit Awwa to follow and recover a stolen tractor and find themselves surrounded by a murderous crowd smashing their jeep with clubs and sledgehammers and hurling rocks, cinder blocks and firebombs. How can Bassin (or anyone) treat Palestinians like his grandparents in a situation like that?
Unlike studying in the UAE, this is a type of situation and moral dilemma that too many Israelis serving in the army have had to struggle with personally. We read with fascination how he and his comrades cope and extricate themselves from frightening life-and-death situations and wonder what we would do in their place.
In his Jewish elementary school in Cincinnati, Bassin was taught, “Arabs and Jews didn’t have to be enemies... we could live in peace.” This is a lesson that he takes to heart and tries to put into practice, but, borrowing an image from a famous Japanese koan, the product of his efforts seems little more than the sound of one hand clapping.
Is there hope for peace in the Middle East? Yes, when people on both sides drop the slogans, respect the truth and really listen to one another.
In an interview broadcast by the Kuwaiti Alrai TV channel last month, Kuwaiti writer Abdullah al-Hadlaq shocked many people when he said, “Koranic verse 5:21 proves that the Israelites have the right to the Holy Land. There is no occupation. There is a people returning to its promised land.... The Israelites have a right to that land... they have not plundered it.... When the State of Israel was established in 1948, there was no state called ‘Palestine.’”
If this indicates that a change is under way in Arabic openness, thinking and rhetoric, then the day when Jews can study in universities in the UAE without being treated as spies, and when UAE students choose to study here, may yet come to pass.
Bassin’s entertaining and eye-opening book is strongly recommended for anyone who enjoys a good read and wants to know our region better. Many Jews will read it. Will Arabs?