A chance encounter with an extraordinary man.

It was supposed to be just a quiet getaway. For our anniversary, my wife and I decided to spend Shabbat at the Ein Gedi guesthouse, a place we have visited many times before.  Waiting for Kabbalat Shabbat services to begin, I struck up a conversation with a retired French industrialist who had moved to Australia three years ago.

I asked him about his sense of the position of France’s Jews, and he was decidedly pessimistic, especially for young people contemplating their futures.  He was particularly worried about the growing Muslim antagonism to Jews and the unwillingness of the French government to confront an ever growing minority.

We met up again in the dining hall for Shabbat, and sat together, since he and his wife were also celebrating their anniversary.  Soon after we all had entered, we noticed a large group of guests with hijabs sitting together and listening to a tall man speaking with great assurance and confidence.

My new friend asked me if I knew who the speaker was, and when I confessed ignorance, he said,

“I will introduce you to him. I meet him on occasion in France. He is an amazing man.”

Imam Hassed Chalghoumi . (photo credit: REUTERS)

A few minutes later, while we were all surveying the buffet, my friend introduced me to Imam Hassen Chalghoumi from Paris. While the imam and I shared no common language, my new friend explained that the imam had brought with him a large group of young Muslims to see the reality of Israel.  A Birthright trip for Muslims, so to speak.

The imam explained that he believes in dialogue, and that he thinks that there is much good in Israel, and that the Muslims he had met here want to live here. This reinforced his belief that Israel is a good place, not one to demonize, and certainly not one to destroy.

The young people with him were equally passionate and excited about the prospects for dialogue, and what could be achieved through it.

The imam mentioned that after Shabbat, the group would meet with both the prime minister and the president, and that they would be visiting Yad Vashem.  While I usually think such visits are obligatory protocol, in this case I thought that such a visit would be a powerful and important encounter.

President Reuven Rivlin meets French Imam Hassen Chalgoumi in Jerusalem, June 16, 2019. credit: Times of Israel

Ours was not an in-depth discussion.  I would have liked to learn more about what is motivating him, what shapes his perspective.  When he mentioned that there is a fatwa on him and that his family is living in Bahrain for their protection, it became obvious that regardless of the specific underlying beliefs, the imam is not doing this lightly, and he is not naive about the implications of his mission.

I mentioned to the Imam that I had the privilege to serve as the board chairman of Israel’s largest Zionist student organization, Im Tirtzu, and that we are very proud to honor non-Jewish minorities who embrace and participate in the life of the state and our society.  He was very pleased to hear this and saw in it a mirror-image validation of his own efforts.

Frankly, there was something surreal about this encounter, something dreamlike about it – from a fantasy make-believe world.  It was diametrically opposite from the assessment my interlocutor gave me earlier in the evening.

SOME TWO years ago, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi publicly – and controversially – called for a reformation movement for Islam.  He said that such a movement – previously experienced by the other great monotheistic religions – is necessary to bring Islam into the modern world, to unshackle it from a literal approach to the Koran.

His clarion call was both powerful and seemingly ignored.  However, while speaking with Chalghoumi, Sisi’s words came very much to mind.  At least one imam is willing to put himself on the line in order to exemplify an Islam that does not require conquest and displacement in order to fulfill itself.

Here was a man willing to cultivate students with a message of light, of friendship, of harmony.  He believes enough in his mission and message to suffer danger for himself and his family. Yet there was no apprehension around him or his students. There was only excitement and a sense that they are engaged in a vital undertaking.

Part of the thrill of living in Israel is the opportunity to have such eye-opening, seemingly serendipitous encounters. This is the land where the vision of an Imam Chalghoumi can take root, can be made manifest, can come alive.

We here in Israel cannot assure Chalghoumi’s success with his fellow Muslims. But we can and must affirm the importance and holiness of his mission – and give him our love and support.

B’hatzlaha (best of luck), Imam Chalghoumi.  May we see the fulfillment of your vision of harmony between Muslims and Jews speedily, in our days.


Douglas Altabef  is the chairman of the board of Im Tirtzu and a director of the Israel Independence Fund. dougaltabef@gmail.com

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