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Muslim women leaders from US in Israel on solidarity mission

“We are here to denounce what Hamas has done to you.”

The American Muslim leaders meet in Sderot with Meirav Barkai of Kibbutz Be'eri, whose 81-year-old mother and 20-year-old nephew were murdered in the Hamas attack on Oct. 7. Photo by Yoav Lin.
The American Muslim leaders meet in Sderot with Meirav Barkai of Kibbutz Be'eri, whose 81-year-old mother and 20-year-old nephew were murdered in the Hamas attack on Oct. 7. Photo by Yoav Lin.

OFAKIM, Israel—A reverential silence fell on the room as the four American-Muslim women bowed their heads in prayer on Friday for the victims of the Hamas attack on Israel.

Moments earlier, the interfaith crowd in the apartment in this western Negev city, which included Muslims, Jews, a white-turbaned Sikh, a mixed Israeli family and Mayor Yitzhak Danino, stood mesmerized as the Arabic words of supplication for the Israelis murdered in the massacre were intoned.

“The Muslim world was [mostly] silent about what happened on Oct. 7,” Bangladeshi-born Farhana Kohrshed, 51, who moved to Boston as a teenager, told the group. “We are here to denounce what Hamas has done to you.”

The American visitors at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, Dec. 3, 2023. Courtesy.

Not your usual tour group

The extraordinary delegation of Muslim women leaders traveled, in extraordinary times, through war-torn southern Israel this weekend, braving renewed Hamas rocket attacks as the cease-fire collapsed and taking cover outside as the projectiles struck nearby.

The group, which was organized by the Combat Antisemitism Movement, first made its way to the abandoned city of Sderot, which at its nearest is less than a mile from the Gaza Strip.

They hunkered down under a playground as rockets struck while they viewed damaged homes and heard the story of 81-year-old Geula Baher. When the Hamas terrorists broke into her home in Kibbutz Be’eri, she told her husband and nephew to hide. The terrorists then fatally stabbed her in her living room.

About 10% of the Gaza border kibbutz’s 1,100 residents were murdered on Oct. 7.

Be’eri had been on their itinerary, but with the end of the ceasefire and the renewal of the war, it was closed to all non-military personnel on Friday.

Next, they traveled to Ofakim, which lost 52 residents in the attack. They visited the bullet-ridden home of Rachel Edri, the grandmother who outsmarted the Hamas terrorists who had taken her and her husband hostage.

They then met the Elfasi family. The mother, Tali, a 40-year-old Moroccan Muslim woman, and her husband, David, a 56-year-old Moroccan Jew, have six children and have lived in the city for the last two decades. They do not have a safe room, and so sheltered with an ultra-Orthodox Jewish upstairs neighbor during the Hamas attack.

The visitors then headed to a meeting with leaders in the Bedouin city of Rahat, who spoke about some of the 19 members of their community who were among the 1,200 persons murdered on Oct. 7.

At each stop, the women repeatedly embraced the victims’ families, offering them strength.

Anila Ali at the bullet-ridden home of Rachel Edri in Ofakim. Photo by Yoav Lin.

The real Israel

“This is the real Israel that you never hear about on the news,” said Anila Ali, 56, president and CEO of the American Muslim and Multifaith Women’s Empowerment Council. “This is the Israel nobody knows about,” she told JNS during the tour.

Ali was born in Pakistan where, she said, she was taught to “hate and fear,” and moved to the United States as a young mother after several years in Saudi Arabia showed her a different version of Islam. She recently made headlines—and received death threats from California, where she used to live—for her speech at last month’s massive March for Israel in Washington, D.C., which ended with the Hebrew words “Am Yisrael Chai,” “The Nation of Israel Lives.”

“As Muslim Americans we are in a unique position to show others a mirror,” she said. “The evil is [among] us who do not allow our children to live in peace and want perpetual war.”

The war that began nearly two months ago is not about Israelis and Palestinians but about good and evil, Ali said.

‘Israel is fighting for the world’

“Universally we are taught that Israel is the oppressor and that the Palestinians have lost their homeland,” said Soraya M. Deen, 60, from Los Angeles, who was born in Sri Lanka and came to the United States as a young adult. “It’s like an oath to support the Palestinians, and people don’t even differentiate between Hamas and Palestinians. Many lines are blurred.”

She said that the muted reaction of the Muslims in the world and their failure to acknowledge Hamas’s brutality on Oct. 7 as well as concern about the growing antisemitism in the United States prompted her to come on the five-day trip.

“Evil prevails when good people do nothing,” Deen said. “I feel Israel is fighting for the whole world.”

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