How a “Muslim Zionist” became an IDF officer and a voice of peace


Bill Motchan, Special to the Jewish Light

The phrase “Muslim Zionist” may sound a bit contradictory, but it is exactly how Yahya Mahamid describes himself. Mahamid is an Israeli-born Muslim and a staunch defender of the Israeli state. So much so that he volunteered to be drafted into the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). After defending his country, Mahamid is now committed to educating others about antisemitism and misinformation about Israel.

On Sunday, June 5, Mahamid visited United Hebrew Congregation and told members why he has dedicated his life to serving his homeland during his presentation, “A Young Man’s Journey To Peace.” The event was co-sponsored by St. Louis Friends of Israel and facilitated by Traci Goldstein.

Mahamid grew up in Umm el-Fahm, one of Israel’s largest Arab cities. Like many Muslims who grew up in Israel, he was warned at an early age not to trust Jewish people. In high school, during a lesson about the Holocaust, his teacher told the class that “Hitler did a good thing.”

Eventually, Mahamid got a job in a Tel Aviv hotel as a busboy. He was nervous about working with Jewish Israelis, compounded by the fact that he spoke no Hebrew. Then he met his coworkers.

“They just accepted me for who I am,” said Mahamid, 25. “I remember thinking, ‘I have Jewish friends now.’ And our friendship kept growing and growing.”

One day after work while waiting for a bus, Mahamid was confronted by a Chabad rabbi, who explained the importance of prayer. The rabbi asked if the young man had wrapped tefillin that day. Mahamid told the rabbi that he was sorry, but he wasn’t Jewish.

“The man looked me straight in the eye and said, ‘It doesn’t matter if you’re Jewish or not. What really matters is that you’re a good person,’” he said. “I came to the decision maybe I should change my mind about everything I was taught about Israel and about the Jewish people.”

On June 14, 2014, Mahamid was watching the news and a report that three teenage students went missing in the West Bank after being kidnapped by a terrorist organization. One of the students was Mahamid’s age. He joined a campaign called “Bring Back Our Boys” and posted a photo of himself on Facebook holding the Israeli flag.

The reaction came fast. The Muslim community denounced Mahamid for supporting Israel. His relatives were targeted by threats.

“I saw my friends turn on me,” he said. “I couldn’t go to school. I was on house arrest for two months.”

Mahamid relocated to Jerusalem and began advocating for Jewish Israelis. He felt many Muslims were misled about Jews and he wanted to educate them. Eventually, he made the decision to join the IDF. He was turned down twice but remained tenacious. On the third try, he was accepted, making him one of a small minority of Muslims who have joined the Israeli army. He found that difference was of little consequence in the military, where all soldiers are equal.

“I learned very fast that the IDF is the best melting pot there is because we are all soldiers,” he said. “Your background doesn’t matter. There’s a bond that builds up between the people.”

Mahamid served two years in the IDF in the infantry, then as a shooting instructor and a disciplinary officer. After his service, he was asked to participate in a special mission. He knew little about the specifics but discovered he would be part of a delegation in Dubai working toward the Abraham Accord, the treaties normalizing diplomatic relations between Israel, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco.

“The people we met were very warm, very welcoming,” Mahamid said. “They were very supportive of Israel and the Jewish people and of the culture that we have in Israel. They took us in with open arms and admiration.”

Mahamid is currently touring the United States, spreading his message of hope and peace. He believes it’s a goal that can be reached because polls in Israel show increased support of the government by Arabs like him.

“I think the Arab world is waking up since now we’re facing a mutual enemy—Iran—in the region,” he said. “They are waking up to the real danger in the area and they are uniting with Israel because we have been facing terrorism for a really long time and this extremist agenda.

“My vision for Israel would be that Israeli Arabs and Israeli Jews can live side to side peacefully. One day I hope that in the Middle East, we’re going to be able to cross borders just like you can cross the Mississippi River.”