Our Friends at all costs
By Zvi Hershcovich
On May 5th, 2011, Souhail Ftouh woke up, ate a quick breakfast, grabbed his briefcase, and walked out his front door.
The Tunisian sun was beating down as he made his way toward the car. Two men were waiting there.
One held a screwdriver in his hand.
Souhail dropped his briefcase as the men attacked. He was beaten with fists and with the screwdriver but finally he managed to get away. He ran, bleeding, to the nearest police station where he reported what had happened.
The officer at the desk looked him squarely in the eye and said, “Why are you writing pro-Israel articles?”
This Space Reserved for the PLO
Today, Souhail lives in the safe ensconce of our Canadian democracy. He has successfully escaped his narrow minded country and immigrated to Montreal where he is free to speak his mind without fear of retribution.
On behalf of our CommUNITY magazine, I sat down with Souhail, who presently resides in NDG, to learn more of what led a Muslim from Tunis to speak publicly at UNESCO in support of Israel. Nobody convinced Souhail to become one of the most well-known pro-Israel writers in the Arabic world and he didn’t grow up with Jewish friends. So what, I want to know, prompted his passion and commitment to Israel’s cause?
“In 1985, I was a child living in Tunisia with my family,” Souhail recalls as we sit together in Exceptions Bistro enjoying a cup of coffee. “We went to the beach. The sun was very hot, so my father parked his car under some trees to take advantage of the shade.”
As the Ftouhs started walking towards the beach, two men with Kalashnikovs approached Souhail’s father.
“Move your car,” they instructed. “This area is reserved for members of the PLO.”
This was Souhail’s first interaction with the Israel-Palestine issue.
“I asked my father what we did wrong.” Souhail continues. “He explained that they weren’t police. They were Palestinians. ‘Who are the Palestinians?’ I asked. My father responded, ‘the Arab refugees who came to our country because they had problems in their country.’ I was shocked. You enter Tunisia as a refugee and then use guns to threaten the local population?!”
When Education Doesn’t Meet Reality
I probed Souhail for more information.
Souhail was in secondary school when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. Two of his cousins were married to Kuwaiti men and living there. Following the invasion, his cousins returned to Tunisia and stayed in the Ftouh home.
Saddam Hussein had told the Palestinians that the capture of Kuwait was the first step to “liberating” Jerusalem, and the PLO and Palestinians applauded the Iraqi dictator.
“To me it made no sense,” said Souhail. “If Palestinians are victims of Israeli colonization as we were taught, how can they support Saddam Hussein, who was literally colonizing Kuwait? It wasn’t logical.”
In school, Souhail’s teacher praised Saddam Hussein as a Muslim hero. But at home, Souhail’s cousins would call their husbands in tears, to hear firsthand accounts of the crimes committed by the Iraqis.
One day, Souhail had enough. “I asked my teacher why he was claiming that Saddam Hussein is a hero when I could clearly see the exact opposite in my own home? I told him that Saddam is a criminal and a dictator who is killing fellow Arabs.”
As punishment for calling Saddam Hussein a criminal, Souhail was locked into a closet at the front of the classroom. “I was 13 years old. My whole class was laughing at me. It hurt me psychologically. I tried getting out but couldn’t get the door open. It was dark and I was scared. I begged my teacher to let me out.”
When Souhail went to study law in France, he discovered that his education had been a lie. “In my schooling, like in all Arab states, I had learned that Jews had arrived in Israel only recently to colonize and throw out the original Arab inhabitants. We were all taught revisionist history. But in France, I found out the history of Jews in the land of Israel and that Jews have been living there for thousands of years.”
Fascinated, Souhail read up on Jews and Israel in all his spare time, conducting meticulous research to ensure the information was accurate. Then, he decided to write his doctorate on comparative law systems between Jewish law and Islamic law, and its application in Israel and in Muslim countries.
He studied Halacha and sharia law. He discovered that in Israel, the practice of Judaism is very respectful of human rights, but the application of Islamic sharia law in some states like Pakistan and Sudan is catastrophic.
“I observed that in the Jewish system, many concepts were developed over time such as the ban on polygamy, but in Islam nothing was developed. No one ever completed a work similar to what Maimonides accomplished.”
After writing his 400-page doctorate on comparative systems between the application of Jewish law and the application of Islamic law, Souhail returned to Tunisia and passed the bar.
True Muslims Must Believe in Israel
In addition to preparing for his doctorate, Souhail began writing articles in French and Arabic defending Israel. He opened his own website, identitejuive.com, and also wrote for europe-israel.org and and druzeinfo.com.
Souhail firmly believes that true Muslims are required to support Jews and the State of Israel. “Muslims are required to respect the Koran, the Torah, and the new testament,” he explains. “In the Torah, I found many mentions of the word Zion. I couldn’t believe it when I saw it. Our G-d talking about Zion, Jerusalem, the Holy Temple. I discovered that the Kotel was based on the Temple Mount and that two Holy Temples had been standing there. I realized that true Muslims must believe in Israel or risk not respecting the word of G-d.”
“The Koran never mentions the word Palestine. Not even once,” he stresses. “But Israel is written 46 times in the Koran. To me that’s proof that Israel existed and exists. The Koran also talks about the justice of David and Solomon. It describes where they lived, and it wasn’t North Africa or South America. They lived in the same place Jews live today. If you don’t believe in Israel, you don’t believe in the Koran.
“Also, when the Jews left Egypt, G-d chose to give them the land of Israel. In Islam, you must respect the choice of G-d, whether it’s good or bad. I believe that we must respect G-d’s decision to give the Jewish people a homeland in Israel. You cannot be a Muslim and disagree with G-d’s decision.”
In Trouble With the Law
After returning to Tunisia, Souhail found an internship at a law firm. In his spare time, he would write articles defending Israel, each one signed proudly with his name and a small blurb explaining who he was.
In 2009, Souhail was contacted by the Bar Association, who asked him to no longer mention that he’s a lawyer at the end of each article. “Our position is to support the Palestinian cause,” they said. Souhail acquiesced.
A few months later, Souhail’s boss told him that the firm no longer needed an intern. Souhail found another internship and it was there that the pressure intensified. He was spat on and had his phones tapped. Then, one day, his boss asked him to stop using his name on pro-Israel articles.
“I told my boss that the bar had only asked me to remove the information stating that I’m a lawyer and that I refused to write without using my name. He kept pressuring me, despite the fact that I was writing in my own home on my own time. Eventually I was forced to move to a third law firm. This law firm was one of the biggest in Tunisia.”
By then it was 2010. After about four months of work, one of the bosses told Souhail the firm would be closing for a week and that all employees can take a vacation. Souhail was surprised but happy to get some time to relax.
After a week, Souhail returned to work and suddenly received a letter from the bar informing him that he had broken his contract with the firm by being absent from a week of work without providing any explanation.
“According to Tunisian law, if you work for a law firm and are absent more than 24 hours without explanation, they can break your contract,” Souhail explains. “So they broke my contract and the Tunisian bar issued a ruling forbidding me from practicing law for six months.”
An Understanding with the Tunisian Regime
For half a year, Souhail survived off the funds his articles provided him with. However, a new twist emerged in his story. One day, the police showed up at Souhail’s door, and asked him why he was defending Israel. “They suspected I worked for the Mossad,” Souhail chuckles. “I told them that if I worked for the Mossad, I wouldn’t sign my name on each article I wrote.”
The police authorized Souhail to continue in his defense of Israel provided that he did not write about local Tunisian corruption or criticize the government. They also demanded that he inform them of any visits from people in Israel.
The Jewish websites wanted to find out if Souhail was a real person and so he started getting visitors from France and Israel. A month before Israeli reporters were to drop by, Souhail would inform the police. Nine people from Israel traveled to Tunisia to meet Souhail in person, but still the French Jewish media didn’t believe he existed.
Then in 2012, Souhail spoke in public to UNESCO – the video can be found on youtube.com – and that’s when people realized that he is real. But things had already gotten dangerous for Souhail.
Immigration to Canada
On December 18, 2010, Mohamed Bouazizi, a Tunisian street vendor, set himself on fire after his wares were confiscated in public. Thus began the Arab Spring that would bring about the downfall of the Tunisian regime of Ben Ali.
Several months later, Souhail was physically assaulted and beaten with a screwdriver as he exited his home.
With his life in danger, Souhail decided to move to Montreal. “I had made friends with people in Canada,” he says. “Jean-Charles Chebat, a professor of marketing research at the Universite de Montreal who has since moved to Israel, and David Bensoussan, who was the head of Montreal’s Sephardic community.”
Souhail immigrated to Canada in 2012. Six years later, he ran for office as the Quebec Conservative party candidate for the NDG borough, garnering 405 signatures.
Upon settling in Montreal, he met with some Muslims and made a few friends. But he felt uncomfortable with the antisemitic comments he heard from the Muslim community and started avoiding the Muslim community, though he remains a devout Muslim.
His dream: “I’d love to go to Israel on a civil program to help Tzahal. I’ve never been to Israel. I want to go. Maybe next year.”
His brother visited Israel last year. He took his wife, who isn’t Muslim to the Temple Mount. When trying to enter the Al Aqsa mosque, the Islamic Waqf denied her entry. “This is for Muslims only,” they told him. When he responded that tourists of all religions are allowed to visit mosques in Tunisia, the guard answered, “This is not Tunisia. This is the state of Palestine.”
When his brother later went to the Kotel, no one even asked if he was a Muslim. “The Arab world thinks Israel controls everything on the Temple Mount, but the reality is the Waqf control it,” says Souhail. “My brother used to not believe some of what I was writing, but having lived through that experience, he now completely supports Israel.”
I thanked Souhail for the opportunity to share his story and with a heart to heart hug, we parted with a blessing for peace.