Muslim missionaries press Israeli Jews to convert to Islam

jerusalem  |  In an unprecedented endeavor, several 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 the 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 Muslim missionary approaches a passerby with a pamphlet about Islam outside Jerusalem’s Old City on Sept. 27. photo/ap/dusan vranic

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 in Israel are women who do so to marry Muslim men, rather than as a result of 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.

The man who identified himself as 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 missionaries are treading on a potentially explosive taboo. Centuries of persecution and aggressive conversion attempts by Christian and Muslim majorities have made Jews 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.

Azzam Khatib, a top Muslim official in Jerusalem, said the efforts to proselytize in Hebrew are not mainstream, but they are acceptable: “Whoever wants to join, they are welcome — but without any pressure.”

Four years ago, Abu Hassan said, an Israeli Jew approached him with questions about Islam. At the time, he was distributing Islamic material to foreign tourists around the Old City.

Abu Hassan realized there was almost no missionary Muslim literature in Hebrew, so he and a few associates put together a Hebrew booklet. Since then, he said, they have distributed several thousand copies.

Titled “The Path to Happiness,” the booklet invites the reader to “think, and take advantage of this invaluable opportunity in which we are trying to take your hand and lead you to the eternal light.”

The missionaries are wary of revealing personal details, fearing harassment. Most of those Abu Hassan engages ignore him, he said. Many are derisive, some verbally abusive. At one point Israeli intelligence agents questioned him about his funding, he said. He told them it came from donations in mosques.

“People curse me. But I do my job, and this is my job as a Muslim. I must explain gently, and in a nice way, about Allah,” he said.

He dodged questions about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, saying only that historically the “best times” for Jews came under Islamic rule and suggesting peace would come if Jews accepted Islam.

Abu Hassan and his companions are informally linked to a small, 3-year-old organization known as the Mercy Committee for New Muslims, founded by Emad Younis, a charismatic, blue-eyed preacher from the northern Israel town of Ara.

The number of converts remains tiny.

Israel’s Justice Ministry, which registers converts, could not say how many Jews become Muslims. It said up to 500 of Israel’s nearly 8 million people change their faith every year — many of them Christians joining different Christian sects.

Reiter said his research suggested there are about 20 converts a year to Islam, almost all women marrying Muslim men.

Younis said most new converts were indeed women married to Muslims, and the majority were new immigrants from the former Soviet Union.