The Sheikh’s Message of Love

As an American-born Jew living in Israel, I pictured Muslim clerics as violently anti-Israel. But Sheikh Samir changed my mind.

Samir Assi is an Islamic sheikh. Willowy and slender, he appears to be in constant motion except when he is engaged in conversation, and then a calm resolve washes over him. He is in his mid-40s with a dark, close-cropped beard and equally dark, earnest eyes. The heady aroma of cologne wafts around him, almost in contradiction to his traditional outfit: a white-turbaned hat with a burgundy center and a knee-length black robe over his shirt and pants. When he walks through the city of Acco, Israel, people sitting in outdoor cafes call out to him, “

Ya

, Sheikh Samir!”



The sheikh smiles, waves, and then moves on.



In the 16 years I’ve lived in Israel’s Western Galilee, about 10 minutes away from Acco, I had never before met a sheikh. I have dozens of Muslim friends, but I’ve always steered clear of Islamic clerics. For one thing, they frightened me—I pictured men with long, unruly beards shouting anti-Israel slogans in packed mosques. For another, I assumed that none would even talk to me: a Jewish woman who moved from the U.S. to Israel. I might have come to further the cause of peace between Arabs and Jews—but nonetheless, my presence still meant I was staking out the Zionist dream.



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I made an appointment to meet with Sheikh Samir, however, because I had heard he was an anomaly in the Middle East: a moderate in what appears to be a swell of Islamic extremists. I wanted to speak to him about ways to repair the rift between Israel’s Muslims and Jews.



Before our talk, we stopped at the Al-Jazzar Mosque, where the sheikh serves as spiritual leader.



Approximately 15,000 Muslims live in the ancient port city of Acco, and the 18th-century Ottoman-style mosque is their central sanctuary. What the Al-Aqsa Mosque is for Jerusalem, the Al-Jazzar Mosque is for Acco, a bright green dome and minaret that rises above the city’s yellowish pink stones.



I hesitated before entering the mosque, steeling myself for that uncomfortable sensation I’ve had the few times I’ve stepped inside a church. Yet the calm I felt in the cool shadows of the mosque surprised me. The lofty, cavernous space was painted all white, bare except for green and gold banners inscribed with verses from the Qur'an. Since I can’t read Arabic, the swirls, dots, and dashes looked like coded messages from the Divine.



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