What a Breslover chassid discovered in the Arab mosques
Photos: Pinchas Emanuel
he turning point in the life of Tzvi Yechezkeli, head of the Arab desk at Channel 13 and a leading Arabist and documentarian known for his research on ISIS and the Muslim Brotherhood, was a gunshot fired at him at close range by a senior terrorist. Only by a miracle did the bullet whistle over his head.
At the time, he was the Arab-affairs reporter for Israel News 10, and before that, even as a rookie correspondent for Galei Zahal Army Radio, he’d already made a name for up-close-and-personal talks with wanted terrorists. He was so comfortably embedded within the Arab world that he decided to attend the hysteria-laced funeral of the assassinated deputy of Zakaria Zubeidi. But Yechezeli didn’t know that Zubeidi, the Jenin chief of Fatah’s Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades and an arch-terrorist with the blood of dozens of Israelis on his hands (he was eventually included in an amnesty deal with Israel and turned in his gun), had decided that the first Israeli journalist who came to cover the funeral would get a bullet.
“Zubeidi grabbed his gun, took aim… and fired right over my head,” Yechezkeli remembers. “I was stunned, but I decided to try and bluster my way out. I grabbed his arm and asked, ‘Hey, what’s the big idea?’ And he tells me, ‘Enough, there’s no more peace, no more cease-fire, and you’re here on borrowed time too. Who are you anyway?’ I told him that I’m an Israeli, a Hebrew, and a human. But Zubeidi wouldn’t let me off: ‘You don’t consider yourself a Jew? One thing’s for sure, you’re a total idiot. Because if I killed you now, I wouldn’t say that I killed a human or a citizen of the world, I would say that I killed a Jew.’
“Life went on for several more years, but something within me had been shaken, and eventually, it took me far, far from Jenin.”
Today, Yechezkeli is still as familiar a face as ever to Israeli television viewers, but not only to news aficionados. He also hosts the long-running Jewish-values-and-spirituality program Nekudah Tovah on Channel 20. And while he’s fearless and pointed in his news reports, our conversation in his spacious living room in the Gush Etzion town of Bat Ayin, surrounded by seven little children (his boys go to cheder in the nearby chareidi city of Beitar), reveals a deep and abiding faith.
Happily, he says, the spiritual transformation he underwent over a decade ago is still alive and well.
“People told me that many baalei teshuvah find that after ten years the fire burns out, the spark is extinguished,” he says. “But baruch Hashem it’s still blazing in my heart. Now I’m trying to pass it on, to instill it in my children, my colleagues, and in any Jew who’s willing to listen.”
He’s still as popular a journalist as ever, as well as a university lecturer, but now, as a baal teshuvah, a husband and father and still one of Israel’s leading Arabists, he says he puts Hashem front and center.
Who Am I?
The backdrop of Tzvi Yechezkeli’s early life portended his future. With an Iraqi-born father and Kurdistani mother, Arab language and culture was familiar to him, and the egalitarian atmosphere of his childhood was a free-thinking paradise.
“There was no such thing as a hierarchy,” he says. “I called my father Dovi.”
(That changed at his 2008 wedding to Meital, who was a full partner in his eventual spiritual journey. When the mesader kiddushin heard Tzvi call his father by his first name, he was shocked. “You don’t call him Abba?” the rav asked. Tzvi told him, “I’m the oldest — we were raised like friends.” The rav told him, “If you don’t have a father, then you can’t really understand what it means to have a Father.”)
Tzvi served in an elite infantry unit, then worked in security for the Shin Bet, and spent the next six years on diplomatic missions in Israeli embassies abroad. Upon returning to Israel, he studied media, Mideast history, and Arabic. He also began working for Army Radio as a private correspondent, once the IDF pulled out of many Palestinian cities in Judea and Samaria and military correspondents who were part of the IDF could no longer enter.
“I always dug deep,” he says. “I always wanted to have a better understanding of what was going on around me.” That desire to really feel the Arab street up close led him into Arab towns and villages, where he perfected his understanding of Arabic and his intimate familiarity with Arab culture.
“That’s where I learned how to blend into Arab society. I had known Arabic before, but now I was able to get the right accent as well as the slang terminology, which has been of great use to me. You can’t acclimate into a society without learning its code words,” he says.
During that time, he spent months in the Arab part of Chevron. “They knew I was an Israeli student studying Arab society, but they didn’t know that I was also a journalist,” he relates. “One of the locals even offered to host me in his home for three months, and I became almost like a member of the family. I did everything they did: I went to the mosque, I ate at their table, and I worked with them at their business.”
But Chevron is a religious city, and that led to a niggling internal crisis. “My sense of identity was shaken. Who am I? What am I doing here? Where do I belong? Those were questions that never stopped gnawing at me. Even though I saw violence and barbarous behavior, I was actually jealous of their faith, their grounding, of the traditions that have been preserved from generation to generation, even in this modern age.”
Only later would Yechezkeli discover that faith and a living tradition were available to him too.
He’d planned to travel to Dharamsala, India, with a detour through Ukraine, when a friend told him, “On your way to India, go to Uman. There’s a big celebration going on there.” It was Erev Rosh Hashanah, and Tzvi was utterly confused when he descended on the Ukrainian town filled with religious Jews.
“And suddenly I heard the magical sound of the davening from the kloiz and all the bad memories I associated with shuls — I learned my bar mitzvah reading from a tape, because my father was afraid the rabbi would try to preach to me, which resulted in a severe reaction against any organized tefillah — just melted away. I looked around, and saw someone signaling to me to come take the seat at his side. It was Reb Kalman Goldschmidt a”h, the great Breslov mashpia. His words were so powerful and comforting, we talked for hours.”
Tzvi didn’t abandon his itinerary — he did spend a few weeks in India — but when he returned to Israel, Rav Goldschmidt tracked him down and invited him to his home in Har Nof, suggesting he might click with a very special rabbi named Erez Moshe Doron, who spoke his language.
“When Rav Erez Moshe Doron opened the door of his house in Beit Shemesh, my heart fell,” Yechezkeli remembers. “He looked like any other chareidi. How would this bearded religious man be able to connect with me? But I warmed to him from the moment he started talking — and in a way, I never left.”
Soon Yechezkeli began giving voice to the Jewish soul that had languished within him for so long. He began hosting radio and television programs on faith and Judaism with other friends in the teshuvah movement, but his star rose nationally as well. In 2012, he created his first documentary series. It was called All-h Islam and it exposed the Islamic State’s inroads into Europe. To penetrate the mindset of expat Muslims and document the Islamization of Europe, the calls for jihad and the clash of cultures from up close, Yechezkeli went undercover and mingled among the Muslim immigrant communities in Europe. Some of the information he revealed during that mission was later used by the Israeli intelligence community.
In 2016 and 2017, Yechezkeli again left his young family behind, and taking on the identity of a Muslim cleric by the name of Sheikh Abu Hamza, went undercover in Europe and the United States to investigate the Muslim Brotherhood’s presence and power in the free world. The resulting five-part series, False Identity, aired on Channel 10 in 2018.
In these documentaries, Yechezkeli got his interviewees to admit the kind of inconvenient truth politically correct operatives don’t like to hear. In Sweden, Germany, Belgium, Holland, France, and England, he’d meet Muslims who left their native countries for the comfort of the European continent. In the company of the “sheikh,” these Muslims freely discussed their contempt for their European hosts while touting an increasingly radicalized version of Islam — like the two smiling young women he interviewed who left a Lebanese refugee camp for the comforts of Sweden, and declared their disdain for their Swedish ID cards even as they collected all the financial benefits of asylum.
In one frame, Yechezkeli stands outside a mosque in Luton, England, with the soundtrack a recording by a radical cleric named Taimour Abdulwahab al-Abdaly, who in 2010 detonated two bombs in the center of Stockholm: “To all Muslims of Sweden,” says the recorded message coming out of the English mosque, “I want to say, stop degrading yourselves… This is the time to fight back, not to wait anymore. Be violent, do not be afraid of death.”
“The world has to be made to understand what’s taking place in plain sight,” says Yechezkeli. “Islamization, radical education, recruiting foreigners, and religious extremism. The Europeans are so blindly committed to the principle of religious freedom that they don’t understand that they’re being used.”
With the help of intelligence personnel, Yechezkeli had undercover training and brushed up on the nuances of the Muslim prayers and the different street dialects. But in order to edit and produce the series properly, he knew he’d need a like-minded film director, which ultimately led him to Ohad Gal-Oz.
Gal-Oz, a veteran film director who regained popularity last year with the heart-gripping series Od Nipagesh — real-life stories of secular family members reuniting with estranged relatives who’d become baalei teshuvah — had stopped directing films once he’d become religious. When Yechezkeli met him, he was at the beginning of his journey, and felt that television and film were no longer appropriate. Still, it was his profession, and his parnassah, and Tzvi convinced him to get back into the field, even though politics was never his thing.
Yechezkeli had one camera hidden in his eyeglasses and another hidden in his collar. He also enlisted a Muslim agent who was equipped with additional recording devices. They did have a few close calls, though. In a Paris mosque, Yechezkeli aroused suspicion and was forced to make a quick getaway through a side entrance, and in Turkey, they were detained by local police, who fortunately didn’t search them thoroughly — if they had, Yechezkeli and his crew would have been arrested as Israeli spies.
He has no regrets though, and is happy that he did his part in bringing a hard political truth to viewers in Israel and beyond.
“ISIS is still very much alive,” he notes, “and its strength lies in its being a radical Islamic movement committed to restoring the golden age of the caliphate to a broken Arab world. As an ideology, it’s still here — a virus in the Muslim world, the secret dream of Islam. I went undercover in order to infiltrate Muslim society and show that what they talk about behind closed doors is very real.”
But for all of ISIS’s flagrant brutality, Yechezkeli says that the greater danger is the Muslim Brotherhood. “That’s because the more consequential battles are the ones that take place stealthily, and the greater dangers often don’t make the headlines. Militarily, Hamas isn’t really stronger than Israel — Israel could mop them up any second, but they take shelter behind the civilian population. Because of that dynamic, the weaker party holds the upper hand and the stronger is scared to exert its full strength. It’s the same with the Muslim refugees in Europe — they’ve learned how to leverage their vulnerability to their advantage, so they’re given political rights and everyone has to walk on eggshells around them.”
And as for the danger, knowing he’d left a wife and little children back home?
“Well,” he says, “it looks pretty dangerous on camera, but in reality it’s safer than you’d think, for someone who lives in the Arab world, speaks the language flawlessly, and knows how to blend in, I’m not saying it’s easy, but you get used to it. I don’t think I was putting my life in danger.”
The Ultimate Performance
While his wits were constantly tested on his international adventures, at home Yechezkeli was being challenged on a different front: raising a bunch of little kids, and in his newly adopted chassidic spirit to boot.
“How can going undercover among ISIS compare to that? Try daily life with seven children during corona. Now that’s a challenge,” he admits. “Remember, everything’s new to me. I come from a home of three siblings, all spaced apart, and now I sit at the Shabbos table with seven small children. One of them turns his plate upside down, another pours his grape juice on the floor. When I’m trying to say a devar Torah and one of the kids knocks his plate on the floor, I say, thank You, Hashem. Thank You for noticing me. Because growth can only come through pain. That’s the essence of a Jew. There’s no mistake here, I tell myself. This is exactly the Shabbos table that Hashem planned for me. Let the kid make a mess, let the devar Torah wait. It’s a greeting from Above.
“Sometimes I have no idea what I’m doing, but then I remember Rebbe Nachman’s last words: “Pavele pavele — slowly slowly.” You need to find the golden mean and not push too hard in an area where caution is needed. I’m not talking about halachah per se, but a lot of people ask me for advice on how to develop a more authentic spiritual sensitivity, how to come closer. I tell them to take small steps. In areas where change is hard — such as how you behave at home, educating the children, regard for halachah, and so on — you have to advance slowly and gently. You can’t do it all at once.
“The teshuvah movement has come to appreciate the wisdom of this gradual approach, after losing some of the younger generation of returnees. I won’t go into numbers, but we’re seeing this issue where baalei teshuvah who are filled with excitement at discovering the truth about everything become parents, and then they are overeager to share their newfound treasures with their children. They don’t always realize that you need patience and guidance about where to expend your energy and where it’s better to wait. When to pressure the children and when to leave them be. I know baalei teshuvah whose children went off the derech because they were treated too strictly.
“And the same is true for ourselves — we have to aim for small, realistic steps in our own journeys too. I think that today we have a new generation in the teshuvah world, much more complex, that’s creating its own new reality inside the existing order. Even inside the teshuvah world things are not as they used to be. And yes, the children are a significant part of my personal avodah. That’s the real challenge.”
Yechezkeli says that people tell him they’re jealous of the freshness and novelty in his observance. When religion has been handed to you on a silver platter and you’ve never expended any hard work to own your faith, how can you achieve that authenticity that Yechezkeli lives and breathes?
“My kids will also be like that, I suppose,” he muses. “But you know, Ein baal haneis makir b’niso (the one for whom the miracle was performed does not recognize the miracle). For some people, it feels natural to have been born into a frum family, but really, it’s a miracle. But trust me, you don’t want my path. I’m full of self-recrimination and judgment. When I was young, I was taught to avoid or evade hardship. Now I’ve learned that I’m in Hashem’s Hands, that everything that happens to me is for a purpose, and there is no roundabout route to my destiny — hardships are part of the itinerary and there’s no avoiding them.”
Yechezkeli, who is open about his spiritual journey, has garnered quite a following, to whom he sends out a daily dose of chizuk — a short and incisive missive that comes straight from the heart. It started last Erev Pesach, at the beginning of the coronavirus, when he made a short video clip he sent around to his colleagues, in which he said, “Guys, we’re going to leave Mitzrayim. And the first stage is to do teshuvah.” The response demonstrated a real hunger for bite-size chizuk.
“I’ll only send out something that touched me personally,” he says, although he admits that despite the years of radio and television behind him, “I’m not so media savvy. I’m not really active on many social media platforms.”
So from where does he draw his daily dose of inspiration? “I always tell myself, what did you create today? Every day I cover the news in the Arab sector. But before that I start my day with hitbodedut, tevilah, davening, and learning. Then I send out a daily dose of chizuk. For the most part, I don’t have much in the way of chiddushim, but I try to tap those things that touched me during my learning. Whether it’s daf yomi, Rebbe Nachman’s teachings, Chok L’Yisrael, Chumash and so on, I always try to share and pass on something that I took away from it. I don’t think my divrei Torah are particularly elevated. But I speak from the heart. A Jew’s thoughts. Where it meets me, where I meet the Torah and Hashem. Even if the children conducted a minor intifada at home, even if a morning went badly and all my plans went down the drain — in my eyes that’s Hashgachah. I met the Creator in the reality of my life, and I share the Hashgachah I experienced.”
What’s next for Yechezkeli in the professional realm?
“I do have some plans for the near future, but they involve less risk,” he says. “My face is a little too well known right now in the Arab world, so infiltration isn’t on the agenda, but my next project will still be interesting. Look, I’ve been a journalist for 25 years — it’s been my occupation through thick and thin. I’ve stayed in the field even though I’ve changed. Every morning I get up to the same job, and every evening I deliver commentary on the news. So when you ask what’s next, I can tell you that when I started with Channel 10 in 2002 I was told that a peace agreement was around the corner and that it would spell the end of my job. Twenty years later I’m still here, and it looks like things won’t change anytime soon.
“But ultimately what I’d love is to be able to sit and learn Torah. When I first became religious I was afraid that as the years passed, the fire would burn out, but baruch Hashem, I still have something left. I want to be a simple, good Jew. I’m not interested in honor, and politics don’t speak to me — I was offered a slot in a political party on the religious right, but how can someone command others if he’s still figuring out how to be a leader in his own home? A man like me who only discovered his Creator at age 40 needs time to build his character and become the leader his family and children need. I just want to cling to the rope until the Geulah comes and make it out of Olam Hazeh safely.”
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 856)
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