(photo credit: Courtesy)
On the first page of my passport is a line that troubles me, as it troubles many
young Bangladeshis I know. It says: “This passport is valid for all countries in
the world, except for Israel.”
Young people here have learned about the
world from the Internet as much as from state-controlled media. Our perceptions
of Israel are changing. Many of us do not see the benefit of Bangladesh barring
its citizens from traveling there. We know that many Muslim countries do not
have diplomatic ties with Israel, yet they do not have any such prohibition in
their passports. Other Muslim countries, such as Egypt, Jordan and Turkey, do
have diplomatic relations with Israel. The youth of Bangladesh are tired of
boycotts and isolation; we consider them a basic infringement on our
For many years, the mainstream media has demonized Israel, so
that the public saw only negative images of the country, its people and its
policies. Thanks to the Internet and international institutions, the information
gap that left us in the dark is slowly, but surely diminishing.
times, Bangladesh has gone through a transition from quasi-military rule to
civil administration with a secular form of politics. Under the civil
government, people have begun to embrace freedom of expression. Many changes
have taken place in agriculture, trade and education. There have also been
changes in foreign policy, especially concerning our giant neighbors China and
But when it comes to Israel, it seems as if the government is
still following policies set during the time when Pakistan ruled Bangladesh – it
was once East Pakistan – and continued during the years when it had great
influence over our government. That is no longer the case. Why then the strict
ban on Israel?
Part of the reason lies in the fact that a huge number of
Bangladeshis work as unskilled laborers in the Middle East, in Saudi Arabia in
particular. These laborers – mostly the rural poor – are one of the main
sources of foreign remittance for Bangladesh.
The government may fear
that any change in our relationship with Israel might bring Saudi reprisal. The
unemployment rate, as in many parts of the world, is already high due to the
global economic meltdown. If a Saudi reaction took the form of
deportations of laborers, there would be violent protests.
also remains a stable source of energy. It is widely believed that these are the
factors preventing change when it comes to establishing a formal relationship
UNDER THESE circumstances, the development of contacts,
friendships and cooperation between citizens and civil organizations seems to be
the most effective way to begin building a ties.
On the Israeli side,
there is no impediment: Israel was one of the first governments to recognize
Bangladesh as an independent country in 1971, in the aftermath of its bloody war
of independence. The foreign minister at the time, Khandker Mushtaque Ahmed, was
a conservative who issued a letter on behalf of the government saying this
recognition was not acceptable.
Israel, by all indications, is open to
establishing relations with Bangladesh, its people and its
government. Even Islamic pilgrims are welcome in Israel.
government spokesperson recently said: “We have no conflict with Bangladesh. We
want dialogue. We want people-to-people relations. We welcome the
religious-minded people of Bangladesh to visit the holy land of
Ruth Kahanoff, deputy director-general, Asia Pacific, of the
Foreign Ministry, said in a recent interview: “We have great admiration for the
development and achievements of modern Bangladesh – its economic development,
democracy and the impressive status of its women. We are impressed at the
development made by Bangladesh under the leadership of two very capable women –
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and leader of the opposition Begum Khaleda
There is no reason for Bangladesh and Israel to remain strangers.
If the government is not willing or ready, change will come from below –
especially from the younger generation.The writer lives in Bangladesh.