I am the first Bangladeshi national in history to travel to Israel. If social trends are anything to go by, I would have been an anti-Semite like most of my countrymen - not someone on the threshold of conversion to Judaism. I would have hated Israel and thought of them as the controller of the world who wanted to destroy Muslim identity. My story ended differently.
Bangladesh, a country of more than 165 million people, 90% of which are Muslim, was established with secularism as a virtue. However, political turmoil and subsequent military coups established governments who were sympathetic to Islamist groups and dependent on Middle Eastern aid. This made Bangladesh a breeding ground for Wahhabi Islamic teaching which has plagued the Middle East. This version of Islam promoted by Saudi Arabia, the driving ideological force behind groups like ISIS and Al-Qaeda, also found its way into the minds and textbooks of Bangladeshi people. Most people around me hated Jews and Israel, and in a country with no registered Jews, there was hardly anyone to teach about Judaism and the Jewish people. My textbooks and teachers in school used to demonise Jews and Israel as the “Satan.” The culture of Bangladesh used to encourage and indoctrinate its people in anti-Semitism from a very early age.
Luckily for me, my story ended up being radically different to what is predestined for so many other Bangladeshis. Born into an affluent family, my parents promoted humanity as a virtue above all else. My father is a secular atheist and my mother is a liberal Muslim. My maternal grandfather, an atheist, was the first Bangladeshi Zionist and it was he who introduced me to Zionism and the beauty of Judaism.
At school and in public places, I was always told to hate Jews but at home I was given a very different message. My parents and grandfather encouraged me to read about Judaism, Zionism and Jewish history - something unheard of in my country. They told me to first read and then question whether the hatred that the average Bangladeshi harbours towards Jews was justified or not. As a curious 12 year old, I read the book “A Case for Israel” by Alan Dershowitz and my perception of Israel changed forever. Since then, I have read a lot of books on Israel and the Middle East and I have no doubt that to prevent another Holocaust, there has to be an independent State of Israel.
My father is an engineer and my mother is a teacher, a philanthropist and a women’s rights campaigner. In January 2015, I qualified as a doctor from Chittagong Medical College and did a one-year internship in Bangladesh. I would try to call out anti-Semitism when I saw it, and shared with others my belief that diplomatic relations with Israel would benefit us. My public support of Israel led to regular death threats from Islamists. They also threatened my parents too. I moved to the UK in order to pursue my career as a doctor and to my surprise, found that anti-Semitism existed here too. After passing the registration exams and becoming an A & E doctor in the NHS, I joined Queen Mary University of London to do a Masters in Public Health.
I was shocked to see the level of hatred towards Israel and Jews on university campuses. It became my moral duty to stand up against hatred towards Jews and I became the secretary of the “Jewish and Israel Society” of Queen Mary University of London. I took to the streets with my fellow Zionists to campaign and uphold the truth about Israel. Since moving to the UK, I have already received 37 death threats, but that will not deter me.
While working as a doctor and studying for my masters, I decided to take a break for a week and visit Israel. I knew that if Israel approved my visa application then I would be the first Bangladeshi national to do so. Salah Chowdhury, a Bangladeshi national, had previously attempted to go to Israel in 2003 and as a result is still in jail in Bangladesh. When I applied for the visa, I was worried that my visa application would be rejected as Bangladesh is one of the countries that bans its citizens from going to Israel. But my application was successful and I travelled all over northern Israel with a close Israeli friend. The opening of one door has most likely closed another – as if I were to set foot on Bangladeshi soil now, I would likely be arrested at the airport and charged with high treason.
I travelled to Jerusalem, Haifa, Caesarea, Netanya, Abu Gosh, Ma’ale Hahamisha kibbutz and Sha'arei Tikva. In Jerusalem, I visited the Kotel, the Temple Mount, the Church, the Mammilla Mall and Yad Vashem. Praying at the Kotel was an incredibly uplifting experience and one of the factors in my decision to convert to Judaism.
After coming back from Israel, I felt even more obligated to tell the truth that I witnessed, the democratic rights Israel provides to all its citizens irrespective of their colour, ethnicity and religion. Now I campaign on a regular basis in the UK on the truth about Israel and I face lots of abuse for being a Zionist and for my decision to convert to Judaism.
For me, anti-Zionism is the modern anti-Semitism. While advocating for Israel, people ask me how I connect to Zionism. Bangladesh was founded at the aspiration of Bengali people just as Israel was for the Jewish people.
Israel helped Bangladesh during our own liberation struggle, but that part of history is not often cited. Israel was one of the first nations to recognise Bangladesh in 1972 following the Bangladesh Liberation War, however, the country rejected this recognition.
One of my life goals remains the establishment of relations between Bangladesh and Israel, which I believe would be hugely beneficial for both countries. I’m getting more traction in Bangladesh because of what I’m doing in the UK and although I am painted in a negative light, my message is being heard.
Before he died, my grandfather told me the first country I should visit is Israel. He gave me his shoes, and when I came to Israel for the first time I wore his shoes so that he would feel like he was walking in Israel with me. Now, on my path towards becoming a Jew, I can only think that the support of my family towards pursuing truth above all, helped direct me on my journey.