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“Jews were the enemy. We were never to speak to them, under threat of punishment:” Lebanese ex-patriot takes a stand against Islamic terrorism

Startled by the sudden realization of where I was, I spun around to see four bearded men in black suits, with tall hats and long sideburns. Overwhelmed, I dropped my groceries, ran out of the store, darted across the street to my room, and locked myself in, struggling to breathe.

  • 3 weeks ago
  • May 27, 2024
11 min read
Rawan Osman is an activist currently writing a book about her perception of the Jewish people and Israel before and after leaving the Middle East. | Photo courtesy of Rawan Osman Rawan Osman is an activist currently writing a book about her perception of the Jewish people and Israel before and after leaving the Middle East. | Photo courtesy of Rawan Osman
journalist’s notes
interview subject
Rawan Osman is a Syrian-Lebanese peace activist and author, currently penning a book detailing her evolving perceptions of Jewish people and Israel, shaped by her experiences before and after leaving the Middle East. Osman, who previously collaborated with the Peace Comms Institute, is now furthering her education in Jewish and Islamic Studies at the University of Heidelberg, Germany. Fluent in Arabic, French, English, and German, she is the founder of Arabs Ask, a platform aimed at fostering dialogue and understanding. Since the Hamas invasion of Israel on October 7, 2024, Osman has been actively engaging with a global audience through various social media channels to promote peace and counteract extremism.
background information
Since the start of the war on October 7, 2023, there has been a noticeable surge in anti-Semitic acts worldwide. This alarming trend was prominently featured in Time magazine’s latest cover story, “The New Antisemitism.” Harvard Law Professor Noah Feldman attributes this rise to the Hamas attack on Israel, noting that “anti-Semitic incidents in the United States tripled compared to the previous year.” This disturbing escalation reflects a global patter. In his article, Feldman argues that the increase in anti-Semitic acts is not just an isolated issue but is deeply entwined with historical biases. He points out that today’s anti-Semitism has evolved beyond religious origins, suggesting that it is increasingly influenced by political and cultural factors rather than theological disagreements from Christianity or Islam. This shift indicates a more complex and rooted form of prejudice that continues to grow across the globe. For further details on global anti-Semitic incidents in 2023, you can refer to the Israeli government’s annual report on anti-Semitism.

HEIDELBERG, Germany — Growing up in Lebanon, I learned to have a negative perspective of Jews and Israelis. All my school teachings and media portrayals labeled them as the enemy. These influences shaped the views of many of my Lebanese and Syrian friends and family. However, everything shifted when I moved to Europe. With access to uncensored information, I actively explored these ideas freely. The truths I uncovered challenged the prejudices ingrained in me from my youth.

Now, as an activist, I dedicate myself to spreading a message of peace and human rights worldwide. My efforts extend beyond discussing Judaism, Jews, and Israel. I actively oppose Islamist extremism and terrorism, striving to forge connections across different communities.

Read more stories about Israel at Orato World Media.

A country divided by religious lines: “Speaking to a Zionist, Jew, or an Israeli could lead to imprisonment”

In Lebanon, a country divided by religious lines, half my family is Sunni, and the other half is Shia, the two largest Muslim sects. While I grew up in a middle-class, progressive, liberal family that was not particularly religious, a deep-seated hatred for Jews existed. The belief was so extreme, they even met the death of Jewish children with approval. It remained common to hear even the most educated among us say things like, “They are just Jews; they should die young, or else they’ll grow up to become our enemies.”

Additionally, laws exist, referred to as “anti-normalization” laws. These laws prohibit any interaction with a Zionist, a term ambiguously defined to possibly mean a Jew, an Israeli, an Israeli Jew, or even an Israeli Muslim. Under these laws, speaking to a Zionist or an Israeli could lead to imprisonment or even the death penalty. 

As a child, I vividly recall a moment that left a deep impression on me. Not even five years old, I sat in the back of the car with my sister when a radio announcement caused my parents to fall silent. My dad turned up the volume and muted the music. Suddenly, my mom’s jaw dropped, and they both remained quiet for what seemed like an eternity.

Our neighbor, a woman whose daughter was about our age, was convicted of spying for the Israelis and sentenced to death alongside her sister. After a while, breaking the silence, my mother exclaimed, “How could she do this, after everything the Israelis have done to Lebanon!” My father behaved more skeptically; he questioned the validity of the accusations but noted that once labeled a traitor, her fate seemed sealed.

Moving from Damascus to Strasbourg, woman begins to challenge antisemite beliefs

As I grew older, Hezbollah’s influence in Lebanon grew stronger, and the term “Jew” became synonymous with “enemy” in my environment. Repeatedly, I heard declarations of their eventual expulsion from our region, presented as a necessary measure to protect us. This rhetoric and these experiences shaped a worldview I would later question and reassess after moving to Europe.

Every year, just before Easter, all the students at my school gathered in the theater to watch The Passion of the Christ. The film depicted the torture and crucifixion of Jesus and concluded with a message implying Jews murdered Jesus. Our education extended into how we viewed the world map. In the official curriculum, the political maps of the Arab world did not recognize Israel; instead, only showed Palestine.

In a history class at the age of 12, teachers taught me that Jews originated from Eastern Europe and came to Palestine to steal the land from its indigenous people. Additionally, a notably widespread phenomenon in the Arab world is the presence of translated versions of Hitler’s Mein Kampf. These editions are heavily simplified and abridged, omitting the sections on racial theory that discuss Arabs, who Hitler depicts unfavorably in the original text. They sell the book a very low cost, about one dollar, making it widely accessible and used as a tool to propagate certain viewpoints.

In 2011, I relocated from Damascus to Strasbourg, France. I moved into a fifth-floor apartment but having a severe allergic reaction to the owner’s pets forced me to move. Released from my lease, I found a new place and moved there immediately. Little did I know that my new accommodation sat in the middle of the Jewish quarter. 

Unexpected encounter: a last-minute housing change led me to the heart of the Jewish quarter

I soon noticed a small grocery store across from my new home. Feeling pleased, I went shopping there and became excited to find all the ingredients and spices I needed for cooking just like back home. While I filled my cart, several men entered the store, greeted the shopkeeper in French, then switched to another language I did not recognize. 

As my attention grew sharper, I overheard more of their conversation, and realized they were speaking Hebrew. In childhood, we occasionally picked up broadcasts in Hebrew while adjusting the TV antenna, so I had some familiarity with the sound of the language. Startled by the sudden realization of where I was, I spun around to see four bearded men in black suits, with tall hats and long sideburns. Overwhelmed, I dropped my groceries, ran out of the store, darted across the street to my room, and locked myself in, struggling to breathe.

A few minutes later, I managed to calm myself down. I drank some water, washed my face, and realized I needed to return and rectify the situation since I would visit this store regularly. My groceries remained where I had left them, and the men were gone. At the checkout, I told the shopkeeper I had forgotten my wallet. He asked me where I was from, and I smiled when I told him. I thought he might have guessed the real reason for my abrupt departure, but he did not. He was just genuinely kind.

I questioned my long-held beliefs: Are these the Jewish monsters?

Reflecting on my reaction, I struggled to understand why I panicked. The men in the store never even noticed me, let alone threatened or bothered me. I realized my fear derived not from a sense of unsafety, but for the discomfort of simply sharing space with Jews.

Up until that moment, I never actually met a Jew. Yet, they remained a central theme in my life, depicted as villains in our school history books, portrayed in films about Jesus, shown as spies in Egyptian movies, mentioned in news about Palestinians, and described as aggressors during wars. I absorbed these ideas: the Jews were the enemy. We were never to speak to them, under threat of severe punishment.

As I began to observe the neighborhood, I saw a different reality. I watched Jewish families going to the synagogue, smiling and talking with their children, and showing deep respect as they cared for their elderly. They even seemed more similar to me than the French did. I questioned my long-held beliefs. “Are these the Jewish monsters, or are they different from the Jews in Israel,” I wondered.

With uncensored internet access in Europe, I started researching earnestly, eager to uncover the truth. What I learned opened my eyes. Over months, I continued to observe and learn about the Jewish community. As my understanding deepened, it challenged and ultimately changed the misconceptions I grew up with.

Driven by a desire to understand the so-called enemy, I enrolled in Jewish Studies at the University of Heidelberg, Germany. There, I immersed myself in Jewish history, philosophy, religion, culture, and diversity, often collaborating with Israelis and Jews. 

I felt compelled to address the misunderstandings and tensions between Jews and Muslims

As I continued my studies, I attended classes led by rabbis, learning about the Mechina, the Talmud, and other aspects of Jewish history. I even learned Hebrew to read the Torah myself, discovering a narrative far removed from what I had been taught. “This is crazy,” I often found myself thinking as I turned the pages. The facts I learned clashed dramatically with the narratives of my past, revealing a very different truth.

Motivated by this revelation, I pursued Islamic Studies to gain a broader academic perspective. This educational journey led me to question the beliefs instilled by my grandparents, my mother, and my teachers about Islam. The personal consequences of my journey became significant. I lost friends and felt alienated by family members who viewed me as a traitor for embracing a perspective different from theirs. Despite these challenges, my commitment to uncovering and embracing the truth only strengthened, guiding me through a transformative journey of discovery and self-realization.

Initially, my pursuit of Jewish and Islamic studies seemed purely academic and driven by political curiosity, as I was an atheist. However, my journey led me to a profound connection with Judaism. The truths and teachings resonated deeply within me, compelling me to convert. This newfound faith not only enriched my personal life but also brought me closer to Jewish communities globally, where I felt a warm welcome.

Realizing I couldn’t remain passive in Europe, I felt compelled to address the misunderstandings and tensions between Jews and Muslims. With my unique understanding of both cultures, I aimed to bridge gaps—informing Israelis about the Muslim perspective and sharing the positive aspects of Jewish culture with Muslims to correct misconceptions.

October 7: a decision to publicly support Israel and travel there

When conflict erupted on October 7, 2024, with Hamas escalating its campaign against Israel, I felt compelled to engage more actively on social media to counteract the spreading narratives. This decision to publicly support Israel and travel there was the turning point in my relationships back home. It resulted in a complete severance from all my family and friends, irrespective of their location or even if they weren’t Muslim.

In the aftermath of October 7, amidst the personal losses, I connected with Israelis who also suffered profound grief. This solidarity highlighted the complexities of the conflict and brought attention to the human aspects often overshadowed by broader geopolitical narratives.

I had the sobering opportunity to meet with Ayelet Levy Shachar, the mother of Naama Levy, who is currently held captive in Gaza. Ayelet is painfully aware of the dangers her daughter faces daily, including the horrific possibility of assault and the fear that Naama could be pregnant as a result. Each passing day compounds the anguish and desperation she feels.

During our meeting, standing before Ayelet, I felt struck by the intensity of her emotions. As she spoke about the swiftly dwindling time to secure her daughter’s safety, I could feel my own body trembling. Her singular wish is simple yet heartbreakingly elusive: to open the door of her home and see Naama return safely. Remarkably, despite her immense suffering and the situation her daughter endures, Ayelet harbors no hatred towards Arabs or Muslims. Her desire is solely peace.

Activism in social media felt challenging, I found myself frequently confronting a group of aggressive individuals

As an activist, I engage with a global audience, striving to maintain a positive yet unequivocal message. We stand firmly against Islamist extremism and terrorism. Our focus extends beyond merely discussing Judaism, Jews, and Israel; it’s about advocating for broader human rights and peace across communities.

The initial activism in social media felt challenging. I found myself frequently confronting a group of aggressive individuals. The interactions felt intense and overwhelmingly negative. Often, these individuals refused to engage intellectually; they lacked substantive arguments. After revealing my identity in one of my posts, the security risks escalated, leading to numerous death threats.

To shield me from the worst of this toxicity, part of my team began to screen my messages. Understanding the risks involved, I braced myself for such consequences when I decided to use social media as a platform for my activism. I remain acutely aware of the need for caution, particularly regarding my personal life. My son’s identity must remain protected.

Despite the negative comments, we receive many positive private messages. People from places like Iran, Egypt, or Gaza actively share their stories. Many of them oppose terrorism and Islamist extremism but are too frightened to speak out publicly. My journey profoundly transformed me from harboring deep-seated anti-Semitism and anti-Israel sentiments to embracing Judaism and seeking truth. The true adversaries are those who instigate conflicts, sacrificing innocent lives, be they Israeli, Palestinian, Syrian, Lebanese, Iraqi, Yemeni, or any others.

They do this to propagate their ideologies. They glorify war and romanticize violence. When accused today of betraying “my people,” I counter by questioning, “Who are my people?” This question reflects my broadened perspective, recognizing that my allegiance is to humanity and the pursuit of peace rather than to divisive ideologies.

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