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Being A Muslim Among Jewish Settlers


Wajahat Ali, the attorney and writer who's a Pakistani-American Muslim from California, writes in the June issue of The Atlantic about a trip he may not have expected to take - to meet and speak with Jewish settlers who live in Israel's West Bank, or the occupied territories. Even the names to designate the place stir up controversy. His article is, "A Muslim Among The Settlers." And Wajahat Ali joins us in our studios. Thanks so much for being back with us.

WAJAHAT ALI: Scott, thank you so much.

SIMON: Now we should explain, this wasn't just tourism on your part.

ALI: Not at all, this was a reported piece. But I said upfront that I want to go talk to these 600 to 700,000 settlers who live in the West Bank and East Jerusalem occupied territory - people who, according to the international community and many allies of Israel, including Jews, seem to be one of the biggest obstacles to any sort of peace in the region.

SIMON: You - I'll be careful with my words, but you say at one point that you kind of have a soft spot for religious zealots.

ALI: I said it tongue-in-cheek. Can you imagine living your life uncluttered by any doubt - being so resolute in your beliefs that you are convinced that your truth is the only truth? And not only am I right, I have a celestial stamp of approval.

SIMON: You did have comfortable conversations with people.

ALI: Yeah. You kind of knock on doors, and you talk to one person. And they kind of view you, like I said in the piece, like - as a person of color who's viewed at an upscale New York party with equal doses of horror and fascination and curiosity. They're like, oh, you look like a nice pet. Can I touch you? And you're like, please don't touch me, but I'll have a coffee with you. And then they said, oh, OK. This guy had a conversation with us. Then they tell someone else. I go talk to them.

And then we start in Efrat, a community that is literally called occupied Scarsdale. It's a tongue-in-cheek joke because it looks like a bougie suburban utopia in the West Bank. Each unit sells for $1 million. And then you go deeper and deeper, and you end up in Hebron, which many people have said is literally textbook apartheid. And you get the diversity, if you will, of ideologies and opinions and motivations of these 600,000 or so settlers living in the West Bank in East Jerusalem.

SIMON: Help us understand some of that diversity of opinion. I mean, there are some settlers who said to you they don't like the term, occupation. Some who said, actually, they're comfortable with the term, conquered, because that's, you know, that's how we do business in this area.

ALI: You mention conquered. That's Daniel Luria. Who represents...

SIMON: The Australian guy, yeah.

ALI: The Australian guy, who was born and raised in Australia, took an underwear, an atlas and a Bible and left at the age of 11 to go to Jerusalem. Years later, he represents a very controversial community in Jerusalem that seeks to populate the Muslim quarters of old Jerusalem. And many international human rights activists say, well, they're doing it at the expense of the Palestinians in those communities.

And he said, you know what? I don't mind being called a conqueror, and he thumped his chest like this, (thumps chest) Joshua was a conqueror. That's right, it's our land, and there's nothing anyone can do about it. And in his eyes, I saw that absolutism that terrified me.

SIMON: For some reason, I'm fascinated by a particular person you encountered, who I'm going to guess is almost the least representative, but a great story - Noam Cohen in Neve Erez.

ALI: Yeah. He looks like the Israeli Iggy Pop - you know, long ponytails, an artist, a hippie who's kind of made his - called the Zionist Coachella on top of a hill. Who literally, with one breath, says, everyone should be together, and I hope for a day there's no tribes. It sounds like a John Lennon song. And then literally in the next breath, same face, goes, yes, Palestinians might have to be expelled.

SIMON: You have a phrase I can't get out of my mind, that even as you say a prayer at one point, you wondered if God has sold Abraham's children a lemon.

ALI: Yeah. You know, you go to the most contested real estate on Earth, the most holy real estate for three Abrahamic religions, and you expect to find God in Jerusalem. Of course, God is there, but the reason why I said that is I don't feel the presence of God.

I see people like at a Halloween party, wearing the costume and the masks. But instead of seeing the spirituality and the lessons of Abraham, I see people who have completely missed the mark. And I feel that land and bricks and mortars are not worth the blood of a single person, whether they be Jewish, Christian or Muslim. And so I feel like God has a dark joke that he played upon his believers. He goes, you guys are going to be invested in this region, but this is really a lemon. There are more important things at play.

And I, of course, have the outsider view of saying this. And people say, oh, you naive American. But I'm also a believer. I'm also a Muslim. And I have seen what this region, what these buildings, what this land has done to my religious communities. Instead of inspiring our best angels, it has inspired the worst demons to rise and engage in a Pyrrhic battle where I think all of us lose.

SIMON: And you wind up being very skeptical about the two-state solution, which officially, the United States, Israel, the Palestinian Authority, the European Union, the United Nations are all in favor of - the two-state solution.

ALI: I would love, in a perfect world, to have the two-state solution, but I joke that it's the inshallah of peace plans - the God willing of peace plans, where people in the region realize it's a talking point used by diplomats and people on talk shows. The reality is there's no political will anymore.

Then, OK, Israel, it's up to you. Absorb everything. Bring in these millions of Palestinians who are living in occupied territories under military law. Give each person their own vote. And the irony is that is the option that is promoted by hardliners in the settlement movement and some hardliners in the Palestinian side. And isn't that the irony that that's what they decide upon - the one-state solution.

SIMON: Wajahat Ali - his article "A Muslim Among The Settlers" in the June issue of the Atlantic. Thanks so much for being back with us.

ALI: Scott, thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.