Michael Bassin joins Terps for Israel: From college student to IDF Soldier

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Michael Bassin’s book “I Am Not a Spy” illustrates his life traveling through the Middle East and eventual service as part of the Israeli Defense Force. Photo from Bassin’s book

By Brandie Bland
For Mitzpeh
@BlandBrandie

With passable Arabic language skills on a quest to understand the Israeli-Arab conflict, self-described “proud, pro-Israel American Jew” Michael Bassin got on a plane headed to the United Arab Emirates as a junior for a study abroad program at the American University of Sharjah in 2006 at the start of the Second Lebanon War. 

His parents weren’t happy.

This is how Bassin begins his book “I Am Not a Spy,” originally released in October 2017 by WiDo publishing. 

The title of his book was inspired by the phrase, “I am not a spy,” which Bassin found himself often repeating throughout his time at the American University of Sharjah and throughout his travels around the Middle East. 

After revealing his Jewish identity to classmates, word spread around the Muslim-majority campus that there was not only a Jew among them, but also a Jewish spy. 

Bassin’s book is a diary of his travels over the course of seven months through five Muslim countries and India, as well as his subsequent immigration to Israel and service in the Israeli Defense Forces. 

Bassin recounted his experiences and the inspiration for writing his book at a Terps for Israel event. Terps for Israel is a Zionist organization that engages the campus community on matters related to Israel through educational, cultural and political programming. 

“I wrote the book because I felt like most memoirs about the Middle East were not accurate. I feel like most memoirs about the Middle East in the Arab world, and the Arab-Israeli conflict, were written by people who didn’t really have much insight into day-to-day life,” Bassin said. 

“I Am Not a Spy” gives readers a glimpse into Muslim society in the Middle East that most people would otherwise never get, according to Bassin. His journey offers an insight into negative misconceptions the Arab world has about Jews while also challenging common stereotypes. 

Bassin’s simple writing style makes his book easy to read and understand, even though he sometimes writes about a difficult subject matter. 

Terps for Israel aims to unite Jewish and non-Jewish students in diverse discussions, whether they are pro-Israel or not. The organization is broken up into different groups called va’adahs (Hebrew for committees), and individual va’adahs are led by a student board member. 

Senior public policy and communications major Atara Kahn is the programming chair and leads Terps for Israel’s programming va’adah. Kahn plans most of the group’s events, but for this event, she took a step back and let someone else take the lead. 

“This semester, I tried to let each of the girls in my va’adah really have a chance to lead their own events, so they could have a chance to apply the skills they got last semester from helping me plan the programming I did,” Kahn said. 

This event was organized by freshman Russian and Jewish studies major Rebecca Bernstein. Attendees at the event got to ask Bassin questions and some learned life lessons. 

Sophomore operations management and business analytics major Ayelette Halbfinger attended and said she learned a valuable life lesson about personal interactions from Bassin at this event.

“My biggest takeaway would be the emphasis on the importance of personal interactions,” she said. “I’ve seen the role that these interactions play in my own life and I think that’s hugely important for people to understand and apply to their own lives.” 

Bassin’s book ends with him retelling his last day in the Israeli Defense Forces in the West Bank. He promised a Palestinian child to keep him safe if he comes to Israel, and the child promised to keep him safe if he comes back to the West Bank.

“What I want people to take away from my book—and in general my life experiences— is that peace is possible. And the way that a better world comes about is through direct human interaction,” Bassin said.

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