KUALA LUMPUR - The passport control officer at the luxurious international airport opened his eyes in amazement; five years on the job and this was the first time he saw an Israeli passport. Embarrassed and frightened, he ran to his superiors and after receiving their approval to grant me entrance, asked amicably if he could photograph my passport with his cell phone.
When the next passenger on line, Hind Khoury, the former Palestinian minister for Jerusalem and ambassador to France, told him that we arrived together, he was at a complete loss for words.
It’s a strange experience to be an Israeli in Malaysia, the state whose passports state "valid for all countries of the world, except Israel." It's strange to be an Israeli in a large, developed Muslim country that has diplomatic relations with all countries in the world except Israel.
I was invited here by Tun Mahathir Mohamad, who served as prime minister for 22 years consecutively; he once voiced his aggression against the Jews who "held whole governments ransom …" and still invited me to take part in an international convention dealing with world peace, held this week in the trade center in Kuala Lumpur, under the auspices of the NGO he now heads.
I learned a lot during my nine days in Malaysia. Humility, for example; there are countries in the world whose infrastructure is more developed than Israel's. Some of these, would you believe it, are even Muslim countries. There is a softer Islam out there than what we are exposed to, and frightened by on a daily basis. There are even multinational states, one state for several nations, such as Malaysia - with a huge Chinese minority (almost a quarter of the population), a smaller Indian minority and some 10 percent migrant workers – and still the relations between the different groups are reasonable, although tension is often high. The last bloodshed here was in the riots of 1969, but since then they live together, Muslims and Chinese, citizens and migrant workers. Mahathir himself, the founding father of modern Malaysia, is, in fact, of Indian origin.
There are states whose governments are (very) hostile to Israel, but one can still feel at ease as an Israeli, maybe even more so than in several European countries. Every time I identified myself as Israeli, I was met with surprise, not hostility, as well as the warm and generous Malaysian hospitality.
This is Asia, the continent Israel actually belongs to, whether we like it or not. Once we played soccer in Asia before moving to European competitions. The self-portrait we prefer shows us as European, Western, but often bears no connection to reality. Sometimes it is downright ridiculous. The notion that we Israelis are the best in so many fields is often proved wrong in Malaysia. It this is considered a Third World country, then its transport infrastructure and skyscrapers reveal Israel as a Fourth World country.
There is another world that isn't the United States and isn't Europe, and it is awakening. There's also a world that is extremely hostile to the United States and isn't willing to follow its line. The hostility toward the United States and President Barack Obama, due to visit soon, was more pointed than I had ever experienced before. Israel is abhorred due to the occupation, the control of Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa mosque and abuse of Malaysia’s Palestinian brethren, but also due to its being seen as America’s pawn - and yes, sometimes America is considered Israel's pawn.
The duo of the United States and Israel are considered by many in this part of the world as responsible for all evil. This might be ignored, but again, one must remember that the future is here, in this continent. One can assume that a different Israel – not an occupying power, not condescending or abusive – will be warmly welcomed; ask Tun Mahathir, or, if you will, the passport control officer at the international airport.
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