A Russian-born Israeli Jew has been visiting holy sites across the Muslim world, including mosques in Iran, Lebanon, Jordan and Saudi Arabia.
Photos and videos Ben Tzion posted Monday on his social media accounts from the Mosque of the Prophet in Medina — Islam’s second-holiest site — prompted angry comments from some Muslim users, leading Instagram to suspend his account on Tuesday. By Tuesday morning, his video from within the mosque had been viewed more than 30,000 times and garnered some 3,500 comments.
In a telephone interview Tuesday with The Times of Israel, Tzion, 31, described his voyages as a hobby, stressing that he is coming as a friend and has respect for Islam and the Arab world. His main message, he repeated in the interview, is his respect for other cultures and faiths. The people he met in Tehran, Qom, Beirut or Riyadh were overwhelmingly friendly to him, he said, even after finding out that he is an Israeli Jew.
“No one in the Arab world ever approached me with hostility,” Tzion said. “People know that I am different, they see that I wear a kippah or a different Arab garment. They come to me and ask me where I’m from. I tell them that I’m from Jerusalem, Israel. And their first reaction usually is: ‘Wow. Welcome.’”
One of the photos he posted shows him wearing traditional Arab garb inside the Mosque of the Prophet in Medina, pointing to his name, written in Hebrew letters, embroidered on a bag containing his tefillin (phylacteries).
Muslims from across the world protested on social media, arguing that non-Muslims are not allowed in the holy sites. Others remarked that Saudi Arabia is banning Qataris from entering the country but apparently has no quarrel with Israeli Jews.
‘We don’t talk about Zionism, we don’t talk about politics, about a one-state solution, two-state solution, three-state solution’
Tzion, who occasionally blogs at The Times of Israel, said he was aware of some unfriendly comments on social media, but insisted that an overwhelming majority of ordinary people he meets in person warmly embrace him.
“They shake my hand and ask me how I’m doing,” Tzion said.
“They tell me they love Israel and the Jewish people,” he said. “Among regular people, there is no hatred. I was in Beirut two weeks ago — there’s no hatred, people are friendly.”
He bought the traditional Arab garb he sported in Saudi Arabia in Jerusalem, he said. “I did it out of respect, because I knew I wanted to go to the Mosque of the Prophet in Medina. Obviously I would not go there in jeans, that would be disrespectful.”
Tzion didn’t hide his Jewish identity and made great efforts not to offend anyone, he said. “When I am going to a holy site, I go there with respect, with dignity and love toward people. Not with hatred or mockery or trying to be, in any way, shape, or form, disrespectful. This would be the last of my intentions. I go there as a friend.”
He declined to specify his current location, but said he left Saudi Arabia a few days ago and is now in a country that has diplomatic relations with Israel.
Tzion, who was born and raised in Rostov-on-Don, in southern Russia (he comes from the Chudnovskiy family, but his Israeli ID card, seen by this reporter, gives his first name as Ben and his family name as Tzion), said he was not afraid to flash Hebrew letters in Medina.
“No one would ever harm me inside a mosque. I didn’t have any intention to be disrespectful. I carried these tefillin in my hands. I didn’t remove it from the box; it was in my hand when I entered the mosque. Wherever I go, I take this bag with me. I don’t have a wallet, so I carry some of my stuff in this bag,” he said. “I wasn’t hiding anything. People knew I was Jewish.”
His Facebook page also features many photos and videos of him in Jewish contexts, including in synagogues and with rabbis.
Arabs know that in Abraham they have a patriarch in common with the Jews, he added. “We don’t talk about Zionism, we don’t talk about politics, about a one-state solution, two-state solution, three-state solution. We don’t discuss these issues. When I meet people for the first time, they don’t jump into politics.
“They talk in normal, human terms: they ask, how are you? How can we help you? How is your stay so far? No one is asking me about my views about international affairs,” he added.
Tzion lived in Rostov-on Don until he was 19, when his parents sent him to study business and entrepreneurship at Babson College, outside Boston, he said. It was there that he made friends from Saudi Arabia, who hosted him during his most recent visit.
In 2014, he decided to move to Israel, he said. “I am Jewish, I am a proud Jew. And it was always my intention to come to Israel,” he said.
I like to travel around the time of Hanukkah, because the message of Hannukah is to share the light, the light of friendship
Last year, Tzion traveled to Tehran and the Shiite holy city of Qom in Iran, to visit the Persian friends — Jewish and Muslim — he had made in college, he said.
“I was always fascinated by Iran. I mean, Mesopotamia was the birthplace of science and medicine, and it’s where the Babylonian Talmud originated. Jewish people have been there for thousands of years,” he said.
Tzion’s Middle Eastern adventures usually take place in the fall or winter because he likes to avoid the heat, he said. “I like to travel around the time of Hanukkah, because the message of Hannukah is to share the light, the light of friendship.”
How does an Israeli even get into Iran or Saudi Arabia?
Tzion said he entered all his destinations legally, using valid foreign passports and acquiring visas whenever required. He did not want to say which of his nationalities he used to enter these countries, which Israel officially considers enemy states.
“I never try to create any issues in any country. I am going there as a private individual, as a Jewish person. People are aware I am Jewish, I wear a kippah, I look Jewish. If you look at my photos from Amman, you’ll see I wear a kippah.”
In Medina, too, Tzion tried to play by the rules, he added, saying that Saudi Arabia only demands that pilgrims to Mecca get a special hajj visa, while all other religious sites are open to the public. He has no plans to go to Mecca, Islam’s holiest site, he added.
On his now-defunct Instagram profile, where he wrote messages of peace, tolerance and brotherhood next to his selfies, he also posted photos of himself with a number of senior Israeli officials, including Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked and ambassadors Danny Danon and Mark Regev.
These selfies were taken spontaneously at various Israel-themed events, he said, stressing that he has absolutely no political affiliation nor ambitions to run for office.
“I am not a political figure, and I don’t work for any Israeli organization, neither for its security agencies or political establishments,” he declared. “I am an independent Jew, a private citizen of Israel… Everywhere I go, I am an ambassador for Israel — in my private capacity.”