In uphill effort, Muslims seek Israeli converts
JERUSALEM (AP) — In an unprecedented endeavor, a few Muslim believers are crossing the Holy Land’s volatile boundaries of culture, faith and politics to bring Islam to Israel’s Jews — hoping, improbably, that some will be willing to renounce their religion for a new one.
The bearded men approach Jews in and around the Old City of Jerusalem and try, in polite and fluent Hebrew, to convert them.
“I must tell you about the true faith,” said one missionary in a cobblestone plaza outside Jerusalem’s Old City. He carried a knapsack full of pamphlets about Islam in several languages, including Hebrew. “You can do with it what you want. But telling you is our duty.”
Most people, he said, brush him off and keep walking.
A computer programmer educated at an Israeli college, he sported a scraggly beard, loose pants and a long shirt typical of the purist Muslims known as Salafis. He gave his name only as Abu Hassan.
There are no signs the endeavor has met with any success. Only about a dozen Muslims are involved. Most of the handful of Jews who convert do so to marry Muslim men, rather than from proselytizing. Still, the act of spreading Islam in Hebrew is profound, reflecting a striking confidence on the part of some Muslims, members of Israel’s Arab minority.
It also reflects the influence of conservative Islamic trends that emphasize spreading the religion, transmitted through web forums and satellite channels from Europe, Asia and the Middle East.
Abu Hassan said that in years of conflict with Israel, Muslims, embattled and angry, neglected their responsibility to preach their faith to nonbelievers, including Jews.
“Muslims did not want to talk, and Jews did not want to listen. But Jews also need to hear the truth,” he said.
Yitzhak Reiter, a professor at the Jerusalem Center for Israel Studies, said he had not seen anything similar in 30 years of studying local Islam. “This is the first time that someone has tried to convert Jews to Islam in the state of Israel,” he said.
The efforts seem to have attracted no public notice so far. But the missionaries are treading on a potentially explosive taboo. Centuries of persecution and aggressive conversion attempts by Christian and Muslim majorities have made Jews, numbering 13 million people worldwide, deeply hostile to proselytizing. Israeli law places some restrictions on missionary activity, forbidding targeting minors or offering financial incentives, but does not outlaw it altogether.
The Holy Land’s Muslim, Jewish and Christian communities all hold strong religious, tribal and ethnic bonds and deeply resist conversion. The result is a sort of loose understanding not to push the boundaries.