in their shoes

Avi Shalev’s new book chronicles his time as the only Jew at an Arab Islamic college 

Shalev’s two years studying at Al-Qasemi Academic College form the basis of his book, ‘The Only Jew in the Room’

Archie Granot/Book cover

Avi Shalev/The Only Jew In The Room

At less than 100 words, the foreword to Avi Shalev’s book, The Only Jew in the Room,  a chronicle of his two years studying at an Islamic college near the Green Line, is quite brief. 

In the foreword, Shalev, who retired from the IDF as a lieutenant colonel after 24 years, explains that the English translation of his book had been ready for publication in the first week of October 2023. “Then the horrific events of October 7 unfolded.” 

Dedicating the book to the victims of Hamas’ deadly assault on Israel, Shalev writes: “Israel is a country and a people forever changed, as are our hopes for a peaceful coexistence.”

Such hopes form the basis of Shalev’s first book, whose subtitle is “Searching for Understanding in an Arab Islamic College.” It is a heartbreaking introduction to a book that seeks to navigate the cultural differences between the region’s Jewish and Muslim residents — and bridge the gaps between them. 

After retiring from the IDF in 2017, Shalev enrolled in the Al-Qasemi Academic College, an institute of Sharia and Islamic Studies in the Israeli-Arab town of Baqa el-Gharbia in the so-called “Triangle” region of Israel, home to many Arab Israelis. In doing so he became the only Jew ever to register and study there. 

It was a move that shocked his friends and family, who questioned his decision and begged him to reconsider. Yet Shalev, 52, who had spent his career working in military intelligence, as well as serving in civil administration in the West Bank and Gaza, was steadfast.

Once he embarked on his unusual journey, everyone wanted to hear about it — which is why he started writing a diary, which formed the basis of his book. 

“I spent 24 years trying to understand Palestinians and trying to present their narrative and their understanding and their point of view to the Israeli side,” he told Jewish Insider.

His fascination with Arabic began when he traveled to Egypt for his bar mitzvah. Soon afterwards, he began learning Arabic. His interest grew during his years in intelligence, and he went on to obtain a master’s in Islamic studies from Berlin University. 

But still, Shalev’s curiosity persisted.

“Even in Berlin, I was taught by European or American scholars. They were great scholars, outstanding figures, but none of them were Arabs or Muslims. The understanding was that we keep on learning about them but not with them — and not in their environment,” he said.

Al-Qasemi Academic College

“Al-Qasemi was really the only academic college that somebody like me could attend, and so I went there because of this keen interest.”

Teaching took place on Fridays and Saturdays as most of the other students had to squeeze lessons in between full-time jobs and busy family lives. For Shalev, who describes his Judaism as “traditional,” this meant trading in synagogue services for Arabic classes. 

He spent two years studying for an education diploma at Al-Qasemi, which he followed up with two years of teaching in an Arab college in east Jerusalem. 

The experience was “outstanding,” he said, though it took time to settle in. Staff and students initially viewed him with suspicion, fearing he had been sent by security services to spy on them. 

In the book, he writes: “In Israel everyone thinks that my interest in Arabic is due to either the conflict or a hidden desire to convert to Islam. It’s as if no one can fathom the possibility that someone might actually be eager to learn about the art, science, literature, philosophy and language of a culture that was once the epicenter of the enlightened world and today is under scrutiny mostly by historians and institutions that research terrorism.”

The experience was not just about studying the language and culture, but getting to meet Israeli Muslims on their turf. Still, barriers remained. 

“A lot of friends asked me if I made friends and went out to have a beer. I didn’t go to an American college,” laughed Shalev.

“I studied with mainly younger Muslim women from very religious backgrounds,” he said, explaining that the education sector is overwhelmingly female and many of his fellow students were Bedouins.

“The idea of having a friendship with one of them was just not really possible,” he said. “But we had a lot of conversations and a lot of time together, and they helped me a lot.”

These conversations and interactions are woven through the book, covering everything from linguistics and Arabic poetry to gender roles and sexual harassment. 

“The two years I spent at Al-Qasemi were eye-opening,” he said. “I experienced so many different anecdotes and moments of ‘wow’ that I started writing this diary.”

The experience underscored something he had long been aware of — the deep chasm between Jews and Muslims. 

“Israelis have great difficulty understanding Palestinians, just as Palestinians have a huge difficulty understanding Israelis,” he said. “Despite the fact that we live so close by, we are a world apart.”

Many Israelis blame the government and IDF for being unprepared for Hamas’ attack on Oct. 7. This gulf in understanding is in part to blame, Shalev believes. 

“We have a great intelligence service and are technologically very advanced, but all the technology we have doesn’t really help us know the other,” he said. 

“In order to really understand the mindset of Palestinians you have to speak their language, you have to know their religion, their history, their culture. And the nature of their society, which is essentially tribal and is so different to Israel’s modern Western society. 

“I think part of the reason we’ve experienced this epic failure is because we’re not Palestinian and we obviously haven’t made enough of an effort to step into their shoes and understand their mindset. I don’t mean we should accept it or favor it or accept their narrative — I’m talking about understanding the narrative.”

That narrative, he believes, was on full display just months before Hamas brutally attacked Israel, killing more than 1,200 people and wounding and kidnapping many hundreds more. 

He is referring to a popular television show called “Fist of the Free,” which aired in Gaza over Ramadan in 2022. 

“After the seventh of October we discovered that it described, over 30 episodes, the preparedness of the Gazans to attack Israel.”

Hamas official Yahya Sinwar, who is believed to be the mastermind of the Oct. 7 attacks, spoke and honored the team behind the show at an awards ceremony soon after it aired. 

The series ended with the occupation of the IDF Gaza division headquarters, near the location that hosted the Nova music festival, according to Shalev. 

“The Palestinian hero takes down the Israeli flag and replaces it with the Palestinian flag,” an eerily prescient foreshadowing of what was to come.

With hindsight, the scene he describes is utterly shocking. 

Of Hamas and the filmmakers, Shalev said: “Do you think this is how it’s going to end? Do you not understand Israel at all? Just as we missed it, they watched the series and missed what this would lead to.”

The IDF has focused on technology and overlooked important aspects of cultural life that might have provided crucial insight, Shalev believes.

“Israel had a lot of information that flowed their way and some of it was indicative that a very big attack was planned, but they brushed it away because they had this idea that the Hamas leadership was committed to long-term stability,” said Shalev. “This was wrong. There was a lot of information that indicated otherwise.”

Does he have any hope for the future? 

“I think we are going through a very difficult process,” he said. “There’s a lot of reasons for why and it can and will get worse.”

He added: “I don’t see how you can reason with jihad, but not all Gazaans are jihadists so it’s really a question of when will both sides be able to sit down and look each other in the eyes and have a serious talk about what’s going on.”

Shalev is still hoping to make a difference. 

He said: “In the last two years I have actively supported the Al-Qasemi group in its efforts to receive formal recognition from the Israeli council for Higher Education for a third fully academic college in the town of Baqa el-Gharbia. The new college aspires to be the first fully accredited Israeli academic institution in an Arab town in the country — a significant milestone in achieving equality for Arab students in Israel.”

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