Sunday, October 06, 2019



I met Michael Bassin this past week. He is a super-nice, friendly, outgoing guy, and he told me about a book he wrote about his adventures in the Arab world and later in the IDF.

If I hadn't met him in person, I wouldn't have believed the stories in the book. And his book, "I Am Not A Spy," published in 2017, is a must-read.

As an idealistic American high school student, Bassin asked Dennis Ross what he could personally do to help bring peace between Israel and the Arab world. Ross answered that he must get to know the other side on a personal level, reminding him that one doesn't make peace with friends.

Bassin took this advice as literally as one can.

After studying classical Arabic at George Washington University, Michael spent a semester at the American University at Sharjah, in the United Arab Emirates - over the objections of his Conservative Jewish parents.

Michael first stopped off in Egypt, and later visited Amman, Jordan. Being a naturally open guy, and not wanting to deceive anyone, he let people who asked know that he was Jewish. He was quickly informed by Christians in Egypt - screamed at, actually - that revealing that he was Jewish was an incredibly stupid and dangerous thing to do in the most antisemitic country in the world.

Even so, when he went to Sharjah, he decided to tell anyone who asked that he was Jewish and let his winning personality allow people to see that Jews weren't evil.

Sharjah takes up the major part of Bassin's story, and it is fascinating. Bassin is not the idealistic, "Jewish Voice for Peace" type that you would imagine would want to spend time in the Arab world telling people how evil Israel is. Michael is a Zionist and a very well informed one. On the other hand, he truly wants to forge relationships with the Arabs he meets.

The cast of characters at the university is diverse. There is Mo, who loves the excitement of being friends with a Jew but whose brother is trying to defame Michael among the students at every turn. There is Jake, a Christian American who is mistaken as a Jew. A professor admits to Michael that he used to work in Israel and loves it there. Other professors don't even try to hide their antisemitism.  Two Arabs from Jerusalem become unlikely Zionist allies, delighting in making other Arabs uncomfortable with their stories of how good Israel is. An apparent UAE spy is sent to seduce him and ply him with drugs to give an excuse to expel him from the country. Osama, a dead ringer for Bin Laden, tries to convert Michael to Islam.

Michael is accused of being an Israeli spy at school, but he laughs it all off - after all, a spy wouldn't admit he was Jewish. Yet when he feels discomfort at how people are treating him, especially the Palestinians on campus, he is not intimidated - instead, he attends a Palestinian Cultural Club event.  While everyone is shocked, over the next few weeks a number of Palestinians approach him individually and ask him to explain the Israeli point of view. His guts, and the PCC leaders who didn't dare confront him at the meeting making them look like cowards, increased everyone's respect for him.

One of the curious Palestinians was a beautiful, hijabi girl, Samira, who had been frightened of him before the event. They flirted with each other but they  knew that he cannot go further, because her life would be in danger should the news get out. Innocent things can mean life and death. Michael found this out later when a friend whose computer he used to email an Israeli friend (his own Internet was shut down by a vindictive dormitory manager) ended up getting abducted and beaten by UAE security forces, accusing the friends of being an Israeli spy.

To me, the most foolhardy thing Michael did was go to Beirut on vacation - right after the 2006 Lebanon war. Originally invited by Lebanese students, they all ended up canceling their plans as Hezbollah was set to possibly violently take over the country. Michael and Jake went ahead, and saw that even all of the Beirut Sunnis and Christians abandoned the city in fear. But once they were there, they toured the ruins of the Shiite sections of Beirut.

One detail from this episode stood out for me. As they approached the bombed out section they say posters with photos of young boys who were "martyred" by Israeli bombs. Michael felt bad for the loss of innocent lives. Then they meet 17-year old Mohammed, excited to see Americans, who tells them, "Everyone left Beit Jibail when the war started. But Hezbollah picked certain people to stay and become shahid. They said it was important to have people stand in front of fighters  when they fight the Israelis."

Mohammed's own younger brother was one of those chosen to be a human shield for Hezbollah. And Mohammed was happy that his brother was chosen to be a martyr just so Hezbollah could accuse Israel of killing kids.

Amazingly, Michael and Jake even manage to get to Damascus for a couple of days, followed by a member of the not-so-secret police - they end up asking him for directions to a good restaurant since it was so obvious he was following them.

The book takes a turn when, after college, Bassin volunteers for the IDF, where his fluency in Arabic is taken advantage of. He is assigned patrol duty in Judea and Samaria and tries to bring humanity to the Palestinians he meets, and he narrates the tension between wanting to be friendly and knowing that he must act as an authority figure or else security at large would suffer. This section of the book resembles parts of Marc Goldberg's "Beyond the Green Line."

"I Am Not A Spy" is sprinkled with funny and touching anecdotes - his search with his Emirati friends for a jinn is worth the price of the book by itself.

Most importantly, Bassin describes the Arab mentality better than anyone else has. So many so-called "experts" pretend to know how the Arabs think, but Arabs know how they must act around NGOs and journalists to avoid bringing shame to their people. By living with them and being pro-active instead of timid, Bassin gained the respect and trust of many Arabs who candidly told him of the antisemitism they were taught from birth.

It was an unexpected treat to meet Michael and another treat to read his book. I strongly recommend it to everyone - especially the "progressives" who pretend to want peace but whose idea of peace is to meekly do whatever the Arabs demand from them.

Bassin respects and wants peace with Arabs but, unlike the progressive crowd, he also respects himself.





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