North American Muslim learns about tolerance in Israel

Javeed Sukhera loves what he calls “the vibrancy of Israel.” When Javeed Sukhera told friends in Toronto that he’d be spending the next three years of his life in Israel, some of them were aghast. “Israel? Of all the countries …

Javeed Sukhera loves what he calls “the vibrancy of Israel.” When Javeed Sukhera told friends in Toronto that he’d be spending the next three years of his life in Israel, some of them were aghast.

“Israel? Of all the countries in the world, you had to choose Israel!” cried several members of the moderate Muslim organization he helped found.

Sukhera admits that he, too, had a few apprehensions.

“I wasn’t sure I’d be all that welcome: here I was, a North American Muslim of Pakistani background coming to live in Israel,” recalls Sukhera, a self-described maverick with jet black hair and dark piercing eyes.

But Sukhera was in for a surprise.

“Israel accepted and welcomed me with open arms. Israelis really appreciated the fact that I came here, and the overwhelming response has been one of tremendous curiosity,” says the 24-year-old, sitting in a café in the Negev desert, casually ordering a drink in Hebrew – a language he has picked up with ease.

Sukhera, a recent university graduate, decided to come to Israel because it was the only place in the world that offered the kind of medical training he was looking for: a hands-on, multicultural, community-oriented program.

He found it in the desert city of Beersheba at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, which offers an English-language M.D. program in international health and medicine in collaboration with Columbia University. The four-year program draws students from all over the world and sends them out to do internships in Africa, India, South America and other developing countries.

Sukhera, who just completed his second year of studies, raves about the program. But for him, the mere experience of being a practicing Muslim living in the Jewish state has been equally eye-opening.

With his dark skin, the son of Pakistani immigrants expected to literally stand out in Israel.

“My first surprise was discovering that unlike the Jews I know from Toronto, not everyone in Israel is Askenazi,” he told ISRAEL21c. “I had no idea that the majority of students, especially here in Beersheba, are Sephardi Jews from Morocco, Iraq, Yemen and even India. In fact, I blend in more easily than many of my fair-skinned, blond classmates from the American Midwest.”

Another irony for Sukhera was experiencing one of his most memorable Ramadan holidays in the Jewish state.

“In Canada, I used to feel very isolated during Ramadan [a Muslim holiday]. All my fellow students would be eating in the cafeteria, while I lingered outside, alone, fasting. Here there is a large Beduin population, so everyone is familiar with the customs of the holiday. At lunchtime you have tons of people sitting on the lawn, with their prayer beads, fasting. I’d never been in an atmosphere with such a large Muslim population during Ramadan, and I felt very much at home.”

On a deeper level, Sukhera found that it was precisely his own experience as a Muslim in North America that has enabled him to identify with the psyche of the Jewish people – and need for a Jewish state.

“Most of the non-Jewish world doesn’t understand why Jews are such strong supporters of Israel, but to me it’s perfectly understandable.

“Jews feel so disliked by the rest of the world, and having lived in a country in which I am part of a minority, I can completely relate to that.”

It was 9/11 that sharpened Sukhera’s sense of himself as a member of a minority. “That was a watershed moment for me,” he recalls. “Until then, growing up in Canada, a pillar of multiculturalism, I felt I could do anything and be anything – including prime minister if I wanted to be.

“But after 9/11, I felt as though Canadians didn’t want me. I found that I had to constantly distance myself from this act, which I myself viewed as a complete perversion of the Muslim faith.”

As a North American Muslim who has become sympathetic to Israel, Sukhera finds himself in a unique situation. “When I’m with Muslims I give them every pro-Israel argument there is to get them to understand the need for a Jewish state, but when I’m with Israelis I am more critical and try to show them the way the world understands Israeli policy.

“In the end, I know I am building some bridges, but may be burning others, alienating myself from some Muslims and Jews.”

When Sukhera arrived in Israel two years ago, the intifada was raging. But living in the periphery of the country – the Negev desert – the bombings in the central cities of Israel seemed far away. Until one hot August day when Sukhera was hanging up his laundry, and heard a startling boom – followed by a second one. From the window of his apartment, he looked down to see a scene of carnage at the busy intersection below. Two suicide bombers had blown themselves up, killing 16 people, including a three-year-old boy, and wounding over 100.

“It was one of the most unforgettable days of my life. Until then, I had always argued that in resolving conflicts you have to be unemotional. But after witnessing a terror attack, I understood how difficult it is not to react emotionally. When you see people murdered in front of your eyes, you can’t not be emotional about it. It is part of being human.”

The attack, which initially shattered Sukhera’s sense of personal security, also taught him another lesson. “I can’t forget the looks on people’s faces the next day as they waited for the bus at that spot: the combination of fear, shock and determination. But they went on – nothing changed, nothing stopped. That example of determination in the face of terror shows me why there is reason for optimism.”

The incident also underscored the bizarre situation in which Sukhera finds himself: “Here I am in a place where not only do I fear being attacked by terrorists, but I fear that other people are looking at me as though I might be a terrorist.

“It’s really difficult and something I feel very alone in.”

Although when Sukhera described this feeling to one of his Israeli lecturers, the professor responded that he experiences something similar whenever he attends conferences in Europe.

“Other lecturers look at him as though he personally is a mass violator of human rights by virtue of the fact that he is Israeli – much like I am automatically cast as a potential terrorist because I am Muslim.”

Sukhera came to Israel primarily to study – and he says the program at BGU has exceeded his expectations.

“For me to get an education in a place where only one tenth of my patients speak English makes a profound contribution to my medical education because I’m learning cross-cultural medicine in the truest sense. I’m living it,” says the med student, who has gained much of his experience at BGU’s adjacent teaching hospital, Soroka Medical Center.

“At the end of the day, I have no doubt this program will make me a much better physician,” says Sukhera who would like to do his internship in Africa, and hopes to some day work with NGOs to help improve health in the developing world – in addition to having a clinical practice in Canada or the US.

In parallel with his studies, Sukhera is also doing volunteer work with an organization which promotes peace-building through collaboration in health. This year, they worked on community health projects with Israeli Beduin high school students, who drew up plans to prevent suicide and violence.

Next year, he and another student plan to expand the program to include Palestinian and Jewish Israeli schools. Eventually, he hopes to create a network of university students in the Middle East focused on health promotion, especially among youth.

“My experience has helped me see that science, specifically medicine, transcends borders and disciplines. Even in the midst of the most dire conflict, medicine has the unique ability to bring people together and make a positive difference,” he says.

In his spare time, Sukhera has crisscrossed the country from Eilat to the Galilee and learned to love what he calls “the vibrancy of Israel.”

“It’s amazing how a place can soak itself into you, becoming the air you breathe and the blood that flows through the rivers and canyons of your body. And even though Canada will always be Number One, every day in Israel makes it more and more a part of me,” writes Sukhera in the most recent entry of his on-line journal, which he hopes will help break down stereotypes among readers of all backgrounds.

“I want to help people learn from my example – and show both sides how much we have in common.”