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The Jewish Press of Tampa and the Jewish Press of Pinellas County are Independently- owned biweekly Jewish community newspapers published in cooperation with and supported by the Tampa JCC & Federation and the Jewish Federation of Pinellas & Pasco Counties, respectively. Copyright © 2009-2019 The Jewish Press Group of Tampa Bay, Inc., All Rights Reserved.


May 8, 2015  RSS feed
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Text: T T T

One goal – Unity for Israel – brings together many

By BOB FRYER Jewish Press

Kasim Hafeez tells how he went from hating to loving Israel at first-ever Unity for Israel event in Tampa Kasim Hafeez tells how he went from hating to loving Israel at first-ever Unity for Israel event in Tampa When a man who once aspired to kill as many Jews as he could told a roomful of Tampa Bay area Jews – some gasping as he spoke – how he completely changed his views and came to love Jews and Israel, he received a standing ovation.

The man, Kasim Hafeez, related his amazing journey from hate to love during “An Evening of Unity for Israel,” a first of its kind event put on May 4 at the Grand Hyatt in Tampa by the Ameet Chapter of Hadassah.

The idea for the event came from Debra Gladstone, who felt during Israel’s conflict last year in Gaza that Israel needed all the support it could muster. Her idea won immediate support from fellow Hadassah member Anita Greenberg, who joined her as co-chair and worked for months with her to pull off the event.

The evening included a welcoming address from Marcie Natan, America’s national president of Hadassah, a brief speech from Chaim Shacham, Consul General for Israel to Florida and Puerto Rico, a panel discussion from representatives of six Jewish organizations, and the speech by Hafeez, all with the goal of promoting unity for Israel and exploring better ways to do so.

Panel members from a variety of Jewish organizations spoke on ways to unify support for Israel. 
Photos by Calvin Roe Photography Panel members from a variety of Jewish organizations spoke on ways to unify support for Israel. Photos by Calvin Roe Photography Hafeez told the audience that he grew up in a tight-knit Muslim community in Nottingham, England, and that all his life he was taught to hate Jews. As he matured, he said he became radicalized and wanted to kill Jews.

Then Hafeez described his transformation, fueled largely by reading A Case for Israel by famed attorney Alan Dershowitz. After reading the book, he spent several years of research, he said, trying to debunk Dershowitz’s positions and to find support for the hateful beliefs he acquired growing up. Finally, he took a trip to Israel seeking to resolve his questions and said he learned what he had been told as a child, in college and from Muslim friends, were lies.

Consul General Chaim Shacham Consul General Chaim Shacham He spoke to Arab Israelis and learned that they are not living miserable lives of oppression, as he had been told. One man told him his life had its difficulties, but was a good one and that living in Israel afforded his children the best education they could obtain in the Middle East, and that his wife could go to work and return and not face harassment, as she likely would as a woman in Arab states. He said he witnessed no discrimination against Arabs and saw how Muslims, Christians, Jews, tourists “and even a weird guy with green hair” all seemed to come and go and live in relative harmony in Jerusalem.

“I visited the Western Wall and felt no hatred, no antagonism, and these were the same people I once wanted to murder. And then it struck me. I realized there were 6 million Jews in Europe who never got to experience ‘next year in Jerusalem,’” he said.

“The world powers did not sit idly by,” Hafeez said of Hitler’s rise to power and of the Holocaust. “They discussed what was happening in Germany, then decided to do nothing,” he said, recalling the ships of fleeing Jews that no nation would accept, that were sent back to Germany where the passengers faced certain death.

Hafeez said that is when he realized “there is only one guarantee of ‘Never Again’ and that is the state of Israel.” His remark had the audience on its feet.

Hadassah National President Marcie Natan welcomed the crowd of about 220 and spoke of the work Hadassah Hospital does in Israel. She recited a well known quote – If you save one life, it is as if you save the world – then referenced a video shown earlier in the program. In it, the hospital highlighted a Florida man with cancer who was given three months to live before becoming part of an experimental treatment at the hospital. That was many months ago and he is now cancer free and enjoying play with his grandchildren.

Natan said the medical care offered at the Hadassah facility is “a tribute to Israel’s ability to respond to trauma, unfortunately because of its history of the need to do so.” She noted that operating rooms and intensive care units are in underground bunkers to protect them from shelling and rocket attacks and urged folks to make donations to support the facility.

Consul General Shacham noted the variety of Jewish agencies that participated in the unity event, citing each one for the way it supports Israel. He described various levels of threat to Israel: Hamas digging new tunnels and re-arming, the instability in Arab nations, and the prospect of Iran obtaining a nuclear weapon. The latter is the greatest threat and the proposed deal with Iran is insufficient, he said.

During a panel discussion, moderated by Robin Sussingham, a reporter for WUSF Public Media, touched on many topics, including what makes one a strong supporter of Israel.

Rabbi Mendy Dubrowski of Chabad of South Tampa replied, “It is the way you view it [Israel], as your land, your people. If you feel that way, you invest in your homeland.”

Natan suggested that if possible, visits to Israel would help folks strengthen their ties to the nation.

Sussingham asked the panel why they felt Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to Congress on the Iran nuclear deal negotiations was so polarizing.

Uri Smajovits of Jewish National Fund said it saddened him that the speech became a polarizing factor; while Natan illustrated that point within her own organization. She said that when Hadassah asked its members to urge members of congress to attend the speech, people were surprised that Hadassah would take a political stand. But, Natan said, she felt it important for Americans to support Israel.

Reva Pearlstein of Israel Bonds added some people did not want to buy Israel Bonds due to the controversy between Israel and the U.S. over the Iran nuclear negotiations. However, she said, “As Americans, we tend to judge them [Israel] with our yardstick, but we never have to worry when we put our kids on a bus for school if it will be bombed.”

The yardstick metaphor was taken up by Emilie Socash of the Tampa-Orlando-Pinellas Jewish Foundation when talk turned to the need to get more young people involved in the Jewish community. She suggested that the yardstick used by older generations for measuring involvement might not accurately measure their involvement.

Rabbi Dubrowski, though, lamented, “Jewish people do not identify themselves as they did generations ago. They say ‘I am a cultural Jew or a gastronomical Jew’ and that devolves their relationship to the land of Israel, to the state of Israel.”

Smajovits said he sees the lack of involvement by the younger generation as the “biggest challenge” he faces in leading an organization whose primary function is supporting Israel.

Pearlstein said those not heavily involved in one particular organization may be committed to another, and as long as they were, it was for the good and built unity for Israel.

Gladstone thanked those who attended the Evening of Unity, saying she hoped the event will lead to more interaction among Jewish organizations. One lesson she learned from planning it, she said, is that many are willing to pitch in, if only they are asked. “I hope this is just the beginning of what we can do together as a team.”

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