TEL AVIV – An Israeli Jew’s photos and videos from visits to Muslim holy sites in the Arab world have gone viral, sparking both admiration and anger.
On Monday, Ben Tzion posted a video and images from the Mosque of the Prophet in Medina — Islam’s second-holiest site — on his social media accounts that were viewed tens of thousands of times in less than 24 hours. However, the images generated an outcry among some Muslims, prompting Instagram to suspend his account on Tuesday.
One photo in particular, in which Tzion is seen wearing traditional Arab garb including a kaffiyeh while pointing to his name embroidered in Hebrew on his tefillin (phylacteries) bag, provoked thousands of angry comments.
It’s not about normalization of ties between Israel & Saudi, it is more about NOT allowing Muslim Qataris to enter Macca since #Qatarblockade , while Israelis can!!?
Unacceptable control of rekeigous Madina & Macca#صهيوني_بالحرم_النبوي https://t.co/UljR0mlXTi
— د. هند المفتاح #تميم (@halmuftah) November 21, 2017
— د. باسم نعيم نعيم (@naim_basem) November 22, 2017
The picture then made the rounds on Twitter, with an Arabic hashtag “A_Zionist_In_the_Prophet’s_Mosque” used close to 100,000 times.
“Wow, just wow. Honestly, what are you playing at Saudi? Is this some sort of a sick joke that I’m just not understanding?” Ismail Munir posted.
However, according to Tzion, who is Russian-born and raised, his strange hobby was born out of respect for other cultures and religions and he has been treated well by everyone he meets. Among other places, he has visited Tehran, Qom, Beirut and Riyadh and insists that people are always friendly to him even when they discover that he is an Israeli Jew.
“No one in the Arab world ever approached me with hostility,” Tzion told the Times of Israel, where he occasionally writes blogs. “People know that I am different, they see that I wear a kippah or a different Arab garment. They come to me and ask me where I’m from. I tell them that I’m from Jerusalem, Israel. And their first reaction usually is: ‘Wow. Welcome.’”
“They shake my hand and ask me how I’m doing,” Tzion said.
“They tell me they love Israel and the Jewish people,” he said. “Among regular people, there is no hatred. I was in Beirut two weeks ago — there’s no hatred, people are friendly.”
“When I am going to a holy site, I go there with respect, with dignity and love toward people. Not with hatred or mockery or trying to be, in any way, shape, or form disrespectful. This would be the last of my intentions. I go there as a friend.”
A Turkish newspaper published Tzion’s photos on its front page, with a headline about a Jew posing in a mosque.
Tzion refused to tell the Times of Israel where he was currently located but said he had left Saudi Arabia a few days ago. He travels on foreign passports and receives visas as applicable.
He said he never hid Jewish items such as his tefillin bag.
“No one would ever harm me inside a mosque. I didn’t have any intention to be disrespectful. I carried these tefillin in my hands. I didn’t remove it from the box; it was in my hand when I entered the mosque. Wherever I go, I take this bag with me. I don’t have a wallet, so I carry some of my stuff in this bag,” he said. “I wasn’t hiding anything. People knew I was Jewish.”
“Arabs know that in Abraham they have a patriarch in common with the Jews,” he added. “We don’t talk about Zionism, we don’t talk about politics, about a one-state solution, two-state solution, three-state solution. We don’t discuss these issues. When I meet people for the first time, they don’t jump into politics.”
“They talk in normal, human terms: they ask, how are you? How can we help you? How is your stay so far? No one is asking me about my views about international affairs,” he added.
Last year, Tzion visited Qom and Tehran to meet Iranian friends – both Jewish and Muslim – he had met while studying at university in Boston.
“I was always fascinated by Iran. I mean, Mesopotamia was the birthplace of science and medicine, and it’s where the Babylonian Talmud originated. Jewish people have been there for thousands of years,” he said.
He insists he has no political aspirations.
“I am not a political figure, and I don’t work for any Israeli organization, neither for its security agencies or political establishments,” he declared. “I am an independent Jew, a private citizen of Israel… Everywhere I go, I am an ambassador for Israel — in my private capacity.”