There are some transformations that simply defy the imagination – and belief. When I tell people about Walid Shoebat, they mock my naivete in accepting his story as true. “Impossible!” they scoff. “He must be a charlatan perpetrating some kind of giant hoax!” “No one could ever make such an enormous change in his life.” “Maybe he’s a CIA agent,” one acquaintance suggests. “Or a member of the Mossad.”
All kinds of clandestine, scurrilous scenarios worthy of John Grisham or Robert Ludlum are proposed - scenarios far more convoluted and complex than the actual truth. But people would rather believe that Walid Shoebat is an undercover operative working for (choose one), (a ) the Arabs, (b) The Israelis, (c) The Americans than what he is in reality: a former PLO terrorist who repented his ways, converted to Christianity, and now travels throughout the United States, Canada, and England, advocating for Israel and the Jews - on his own initiative and at his own expense.
What a world we live in! We can more readily believe in people’s capacity for evil than in their capacity for goodness and change. A Charles Manson we can accept as flesh-and-blood reality, but a Walid Shoebat makes us wonder if he’s genuine.
I first learned about Walid from – where else? – the Internet. An online magazine published a report on Walid’s successful forays into troubled college campuses where turbulent clashes among Arab and Jewish students had taken place. In September 2002, Bibi Netanyahu, former prime minister of Israel, had been forcibly blocked from delivering a scheduled speech at Concordia University in Montreal by Muslim students, but Walid’s pro-Israel speech at the same campus in March 2004 went off without a hitch. Perhaps the Arab students were seized by the same insatiable curiosity as everyone else, with the oddity of a reformed PLO terrorist piquing more interest and astonishment than ire. Certainly, those were my reactions.
I tracked down Walid and learned he would be in the New York area – where I live - within a week. We made arrangements for me to sit in on two different speeches he would be delivering to Jewish audiences at HANC High School in Long Island and Lincoln Square Synagogue in Manhattan. (An appearance originally scheduled for Pace University – where Arabs students had held an anti-Israel rally a month before - was suddenly canceled) It was instructive to watch Walid relate to high school students in the morning and adults at night. With the teenagers, he was warm, cuddly, and tender; the adults, however, made him bare his teeth.
Unsurprisingly, he was handsome. The “other,” as Alfred Kazin once pointed out, always is. Walid is short but wiry, dark-haired and olive-skinned, intense, edgy, with flashing brown eyes that alternately narrow in scrutiny, grow soft in sorrow, or blaze in anger. His bushy eyebrows and elegant mustache are reminiscent of a younger Omar Sharif, and he is equally charming. It’s hard not to feel the tug of his personality pull you into his orbit.. Walid vividly reminds me of the late Meir Kahane in the easy way in which he spellbinds an audience.
“Shalom Aleichem,” he greets the four hundred HANC (Hebrew Academy of Nassau County) students who have assembled in the school’s auditorium. I suppress a giggle. The incongruity of a former PLO terrorist who, in the language of the enemy, wishes Jewish students peace; who requires squadrons of Uzi-toting policemen to protect him and prevent his assassination by terrorists; who advocates passionately for Israel; who chastises the teenagers for their lack of Biblical literacy; and who warns of the dangers of giving back one inch of the West Bank – it’s almost too much to digest at a single sitting. I feel as though I’ve either stepped into a Kafkaesque novel or that the Messiah must be hovering nearby.
After Walid stuns the students with his opening volley – the traditional salutation in Hebrew – he pauses and waits for their response. The students fall silent, confused. “Well?” he prods them tenderly, with a mischievous gleam in his eye. “Aren’t you supposed to say something back to me?”
“Aleichem Shalom!” (the customary rejoinder – “And peace be unto you, too”) they chorus quickly, taken by surprise.
Walid smiles broadly -- clearly a man who delights in taking people by surprise -- and opens his talk with a dramatic flourish. “I come here today to confess to you – like an alcoholic confesses in AA. AA states that confession is the beginning of healing. I come here today to confess to you that I once was a PLO terrorist. One day, I hope that I too will be completely healed.”
Walid Shoebat was born in Beit Sahur (a village just outside Bethlehem), the grandson of its Muslim mukhtar (chieftain). Walid’s wealthy grandfather was an intimate of Haj Amin al-Husseini, the grand mufti of Jerusalem, notorious for forging alliances with Adolf Hitler. The family -– at least from his father’s side -- had been prominent landowners in the area for generations, and were securely ensconced in the life of their community. But the DNA that Walid inherited from his mother was altogether different material, and perhaps ultimately accounts for the dramatic U-turn his life has taken in the last ten years.
“My mother’s saga eerily resembles the storyline of the Sally Field movie Not Without My Daughter,” Walid tells both audiences. “She was an American and a Christian, the daughter of the mayor of Eureka, California. She met my handsome , irresistible father in the mid-1950s at Humboldt University where both were students, fell prey to his charms, and became pregnant with my sister. Abortion wasn’t legal then, but it also wasn’t an option she would have considered anyway. She was utterly infatuated with my father, and so she married him. Her first mistake,” Walid adds wryly. “My mother didn’t know anything about my father’s religion, but willingly agreed to convert to Islam. She gave birth to my brother and sister here in the United States, and was pregnant with me in 1960 when my Palestinian grandmother fell ill. She accompanied my father on what she believed would be a short trip to Bethlehem to visit his ailing mother. That was her second mistake. She remained trapped there for forty years. You know the song ‘Hotel California’? The lyrics say ‘You can check in, but you can’t check out’? That’s the way it was with my mother. My father took away her American passport, and his family conspired with him to keep her a virtual prisoner inside their ancestral home. My mother made repeated attempts to escape, but each time they were foiled.”
Walid’s mother was consigned to the kitchen, together with the other women of the household (the entire extended family of aunts, uncles, and cousins lived under one roof), and Walid’s father took charge of his son’s education. Walid was enrolled in a Jordanian-run kindergarten, where, at the tender age of five, he learned his first nursery song: “Arabs are beloved, Jews are dogs.”
Walid does the unexpected again -– in both venues I attend –-by crooning in a soft, sweet voice the Arabic nursery songs that he was taught at school. These are gentle melodies -– the lulling notes of the universal nursery song -- but the sound is deceptive, indeed. When Walid translates the lyrics into English, chills run down my spine. Groans of horror resound from audience members, who gaze up at him with stricken eyes as he almost taunts them with:
Sharpen my bones and make them swords.
I come in the name of death. Kill all the Jews;
your blood is kosher to us.”
“My people don’t know that YOUR nursery songs are only about peace and love,” Walid tells the audience. “Our songs – and our days – are filled with hatred. You Jews have been painted as monsters, your rabbis portrayed as people who dip matzo into our blood.”
Walid’s mother tried on occasion to enlighten her son about “the outside world,” but she was rarely given an opportunity to spend time alone with him. Her rights, both as a female in an intensely patriarchal society, and as a mother, were severely restricted. In a traumatic episode that Walid still recalls with a shudder, his mother finally gave vent to her frustration at being ignored.
Walid’s mother rarely saw or interacted with her husband; by day he worked as a principal of a Muslim school and in the evenings he played backgammon incessantly with the other men of the household, oblivious to her needs and lack of company. One evening, she angrily approached the group of men huddled over the table intent on their game, grabbed the backgammon set, and hurled it to the floor, where it broke into a hundred little pieces. In punishment, Walid’s father beat her with a hammer, and a fountain of blood gushed from her head. Walid, then eight, grabbed his mother’s arm and ran outside with her, looking for help, but local residents refused to get involved in a marital dispute. Finally, the two fled into a church, where the nuns stitched her up and then sent her back home.
When Walid was ten years old, his mother made her first serious attempt to escape. Over the years, she had concealed a growing cache of money in the hollowed portion of a towel rack . Flight was perpetually on her mind, but opportunities were limited: she was constantly being watched by the other females of the household and, as the only American woman in her village, was regarded with suspicion and hostility by the neighbors. There was no one she could turn to for help.
But one fateful day when circumstances augured well for a safe passage to West Jerusalem, she fled with her children to the King David Hotel, where she stayed overnight. In the morning, she headed to the American consulate, where she knew she could find sanctuary. Her heart expanded with thanksgiving and joy as the building came into view, haven only a few feet away. Giddy with relief, she advanced quickly, and then she saw them. Lined up in front of the consulate gate was a platoon of her husband’s family members, waiting grimly. Before she could dart into the refuge the consulate would have provided, the men snatched her and dragged her away. There would be many subsequent attempts to escape after this one, but it would be another thirty years before Walid’s mother would finally be free.
“And so I rarely had access to my mother,” Walid says. “My education was mapped out for me by my father, and the hatred of the society in which I lived was my reality. Because of that education -- the same education that all Palestinian children are given today -- I was brainwashed with tremendous hatred for the Jew. Not the Israeli, the Jew. As a result, I refused to believe that the Holocaust had really taken place; I was sure it was a fabrication. I used to watch the Holocaust shows on Israeli television and roar with laugher. I wondered where they found those skinny actors to portray the victims.”
By the time he was 14, Walid was already the successful product of his indoctrination, well on his way to becoming a martyr for the cause. He threw Molotov cocktails at Israeli soldiers, hurled stones at Jewish worshipers at the Wailing Wall, joined in anti-Israel riots and demonstrations, and participated in the near-lynching of an Israeli soldier in Bethlehem. The gratuitous violence was propelled by the teachings of Islamic eschatology, Walid explains -- the concept that ”the end times” could not be ushered in until all the Jews were killed. Among the phrases drummed into our heads was the prophecy: ‘The day of judgment shall not come to pass until the tribes of Islam defeat the tribes of Israel. And it was asked of the prophet where will this be, and he said Jerusalem and its neighbors’.”
At 15, Walid was already serving time in a Jerusalem prison. Ironically, it was there that he was inducted into the PLO, and immediately upon his release, he began working with Fatah bomb makers. He was given his first mission when he turned 16: destroy the Israeli Bank Leumi in Bethlehhem. He was instructed to take a loaf of bread filled with explosives, smuggle it past the Israeli checkpoint, and place it in a garbage can outside the bank. “But when I got to the bank, I saw Arab children playing nearby, and I was afraid to hurt them. So instead I hurled the bomb onto the roof of the bank, where it exploded with a deafening noise. When I saw black smoke pouring out of the bank, I fled.”
Later Walid would learn that no one had been seriously hurt in the incident, and much, much later he would rejoice in the fact that there was no real blood on his hands -– neither Arabic nor Jewish.
But still the episode left him shaken and depressed.
“It was my first major terrorist attempt, and also the first time I encountered the possible consequences of my deeds,” he recalls. “Up until then, I didn’t really think about –- or face -- the feeling of what it means to kill. I didn’t enjoy what I did, but I felt compelled to do it because it was my duty. How else was I going to go to heaven and bring salvation to my family?”
Walid’s initial twinges of disillusionment with the PLO came after a second unsettling episode. In this instance, he was told to place a bomb in a certain spot at precisely 12:00 noon. The time was emphasized repeatedly by his superiors.. Walid wondered why the exact time was so important, and following a hunch, he flouted orders and placed the bomb at the assigned target a few minutes earlier. Then he hid nearby to watch. The bomb exploded -– at precisely 12:00 noon. He had not volunteered, nor had he been told -- but had he followed the instructions he had been given, he would have become an unintentional suicide bomber.
Alarmed at the violent path his son was treading, Walid’s father -– an intelligent man who deeply valued education -– shipped him off to America, where he was enrolled at 18 at the now-defunct Loop College in Chicago. There, he continued his activism , albeit in a somewhat different form. He recruited for the PLO on campus, raised funds, organized rallies, and served as the college representative of thousands of Palestinian students in the Chicago area. Fund raising events were advertised deceptively. In English, posters would invite students to “a Middle East feast with baklava and lamb.” In Arabic, the same poster would characterize the event as a “fund raiser for the cause.”
In an eerie echo of his father’s youthful experiences, Walid proved irresistible to his female classmates, and began a relationship with an American student.. Walid assumed that she, like his own mother, was a Christian with no real ties to her faith. The woman was so smitten with Walid that she constantly prevaricated about her background. Her religion was meaningless to her, but she knew it would be of tremendous significance to him. She didn’t want to lose him -- so how could she tell Walid that she was Jewish?
Six months after they married, Walid’s new wife took him for a first visit to her aunt, who lived in Chicago. An observant man by nature, Walid was stunned to see a mezuzah affixed to the doorpost. His wife’s elusive family history -– her secretive manner, her constant equivocations, her clearly contrived vagueness -- suddenly made sense. “You’re Jewish, aren’t you?” he spat out at her. Hoping that their six months together had cemented their relationship, she admitted the truth. To Walid, however, her “sin” was unforgivable. At home, he beat her, and the next day, he filed for divorce.
Despite his residency in the United States for the next 15 years, despite his exposure to American values and a pluralistic society, and despite his own unwitting marriage to a Jewish woman, Walid’s hatred for the Jewish people continued to run deep. Aside from his first wife, Walid actually had no experience with either Jews or Israelis -- had never interacted or even talked briefly with them; but hatred isn’t rational. Still, the razor-sharp mind and keen intelligence that had saved him from becoming an unsuspecting suicide bomber also led to intellectual inquisitiveness and a natural curiosity that was hard to contain. When Walid found himself seated next to a religious-looking woman on an Air France flight from Paris to Israel in 1991, he decided to seize the opportunity and, for once in his life, engage in discourse with the “enemy.”
“Hi, my name is Bill, and I’m from Dallas,” he dissembled, mimicking a Texas drawl. “This is my first trip to Israel. Where are you from?”
“Oh, I’m an Israeli,” the woman answered politely.
“Really?” he leaned forward eagerly. “What’s it like living in Israel? I hear you guys like to kill Arabs, is that true?
“Oh, no!” the woman protested. “That is not true at all.” And then she began to cry.
“Why are you crying?” Walid asked.
“My daughter is in the army,” she said.
“So how would you feel if your daughter killed Arabs?” he said.
“I would hate it if my daughter had to kill anybody,” she answered. And then she cried some more. “But I’m so worried that they will kill her.”
What kind of Jew are you? Walid remembers thinking during the dialogue.You’re not the Jew I learned about.
Walid never told the woman that he was in fact a Palestinian and that this was his first conversation with an Israeli. He doesn’t remember her name, and he is sure that she in turn attributed little significance to their talk. But for Walid, communicating with and connecting to an Israeli humanized the enemy. “This discussion affected me tremendously, and softened my heart,” Walid recalls. “It conflicted with the notion of the Jew as monster that I had been taught all along.” A seemingly inconsequential conversation that reverberated with profound aftereffects helped shape the beginning of Walid Shoebat’s transformation.
The first stirrings began almost as soon as he disembarked from the plane and was met at the airport by his uncle. During the car ride home, Walid suddenly became aware of the fact that anti-Israeli and anti-Semitic graffiti was splashed on every single building, sign, and wall that they passed.
“Uncle!” Walid exclaimed in dawning recognition. “Do you realize that there is not one square mile here that isn’t plastered with hatred? Why is there so much graffiti everywhere?”
And then, abruptly, he stopped himself. “Why am I asking you this? I’m the one who used to write it!”
Later that week, the crack in his armor of hatred would widen, as he witnessed an incident that was commonplace in Hebron -- an incident that previously he would have been oblivious to, or simply dismissed.
“I watched an armored bus of Jewish passengers drive through the streets of Hebron on its way to the settlement of Kiryat Arba. There was wire mesh around the outside of the bus, and the passengers looked like they were inside a cage. When the bus stalled for a minute, Arab women on the street starting throwing large rocks at it. For the first time in my life, I felt anguished by our treatment of the Jews. This is not right, I thought. Jews have to travel like caged animals to their homes and we travel freely about and without fear. How can the Jews live like this? People shouldn’t have to travel and live like this! Who’s treating whom badly? For the first time, I watched with different eyes. This incident affected me a lot.”
But the real breakthrough for Walid Shoebat occurred in 1993 when he was back in the United States, living in California. And that breakthrough was?
“Love,” he smiles sheepishly. “I fell madly, deeply, passionately in love. And everything changed after that.”
Walid was about to pull out of a parking lot when he heard the angry noises of an altercation nearby, followed by a scream. Jumping out of his car, he ran in the direction of the uproar and discovered a weeping young woman bending over the figure of a severely beaten man , bleeding on the floor. It was her husband, she explained, who had gotten into an argument with the man who had done this to him. Walid drove them to the emergency room of the nearest hospital, and the man’s wife thanked him profusely, expecting that he would now leave. “Oh, no,” Walid insisted, “I will stay with you while they work on your husband. I want to make sure he’s okay.” Later, when doctors had stitched him up and reassured them that he would be fine, Walid took the woman to get something to eat. The woman was overwhelmed by Walid’s kindness and took his phone number. Later that week, she invited him to her home for dinner.
“Would you like to see our wedding album? “she asked shyly after dessert had been served and they had retired to the living room to talk..
“Sure,” Walid answered politely.
He leafed through the photos casually, and then abruptly stopped, as if hit by a bolt of lightening.
“Who is this?” he asked, mesmerized by the picture of a stunning young beauty.
“Oh, that’s my sister Maria.”
“Is she single?” Walid asked.
“I would love to meet her,” he said.
“The moment we met,” Walid recalls today with a dreamy smile, “there was a certain electricity that I had never experienced before. It sounds corny, but yes, it was love at first sight. I knew instantly that she would become my wife.”
Maria reciprocated Walid’s feelings and agreed to marry him, but she wasn’t pliable or easily influenced when it came to changing faiths. Walid asked that Maria convert to Islam, but she was from a Catholic family and reluctant to abandon her religion. Instead of complying with Walid’s dictates, she instead challenged him theologically. What made him so sure that Islam was the true religion? Had he ever actually read the Bible? No? Just the Koran? So how could he eschew the teachings of the Bible when he didn’t even know what they were?
“I set out to convert her,” Walid says with a laugh. “But what happened was that she converted me instead. Maria challenged me to read the Bible and find mistakes and inconsistencies. I claimed that the Jews had corrupted the Bible and were prophet-killers. ‘Prove those claims,’ Maria said. So I purchased my first Bible (the King James Edition) to show her the contradictions and corruptions introduced to it by the Jews. I did not begin my Bible study for pure reasons. It was pure selfishness that motivated me: I wanted to convince my wife to become a Muslim. But as I read the Koran and the Bible side by side, I was struck by the discrepancies between them. The Koran was a holy work, the foundation of our religion, but it was filled with hatred. The Bible, on the other hand, overflowed with kindness and compassion. I also began to understand the spiritual link between the Jewish people and their land. I was surprised to see their deep connections to Israel mentioned throughout and at the very beginning of the Bible. As a Palestinian, I had always been taught that Israel was ours --- that the Jews had expropriated it from us. But after reading the Bible, I saw this was patently false. I had also been taught in school that Abraham, Jacob, and Moses were all Palestinian Arabs. As a young boy, I grew up in Bethlehem, near Rachel’s Tomb. Throughout my childhood, I repeatedly asked my father who Rachel was, and he always said sneeringly, “A Jewish whore.” As I studied the Bible, I was stunned to learn that Rachel was in fact one of the holy matriarchs.”
“After I finished poring over the Bible, I began to study the Prophets and was startled to read thousands of ancient predictions that I knew had already come true -- many of them had come true in my own lifetime. And I asked myself: How could it be that Allah is the true God if the Six Day War in 1967 resulted in the greatest victory for the Jews since Joshua’s encirclement of Jericho? And how do I explain to myself that Muslim conquests have always been filled with rape, pillaging and massacres, but in contrast Israel’s victories have only brought freedom for all people and religions?”
One night, Walid woke up his wife and confessed: “Maria, I think I was wrong to try to convert you to Islam. The Bible is the truth.” A few months later, Walid was baptized, and became a Christian. The reverberations –- at least within his own family –- were irrevocable and profound.
“Converting to a different faith from Islam is considered an act of apostasy,” Walid says, “punishable by death. When my family learned of my conversion I was denounced as a traitor and immediately disowned. The land in Bethlehem I rightfully stood to inherit was taken away from me. My brother made death threats and I was warned never to set foot in Beit Sahour again. Islam allows no rights whatever to born Muslims who leave the faith -- including the right to life.
“To compound matters,” Walid says, “I didn’t merely become a Christiian. I became an evangelical Christian, a Christian Zionist.”
Upon his conversion, Walid embarked on a path of reconciliation, experiencing deep regret for his past actions as well as anger toward those who had indoctrinated him to carry them out. He remains haunted by the memory of the young Israeli soldier he almost lynched, and wishes he could find him and beg his forgiveness. His only clue to his identity is the name “Amnon” which he heard another soldier call him. “If I could find Amnon, I would beg him to understand that I underwent an educational occupation of hatred which brainwashed my mind to hate Jews. I would say: ‘We were crazy and blinded with frenzy. Please forgive me and become my brother.’ I truly want to do teshuvah (the Jewish concept of repentance).”
Meanwhile, although he hasn’t found Amnon yet, Walid is busy making amends in myriad other ways. “When I finally realized the lies and myths I was taught, I felt strongly that I must speak out. The Jews don’t speak up as much as they should, so I try to do it for them. I want to fight for Israel both from theological and political perspectives. Israel is a small state and the Muslim world is a giant. My personal goal is to give strength to the Jewish people, to give them encouragement. I had a change of heart and this is the way I atone.”
Walid has become a one-man pro-Israel campaign, traveling across North America and England,
delivering passionate speeches to Christian and Jewish audiences. His aim, he says, is to build a “grass-roots movement like Martin Luther King.” He is particularly interested in going to universities and facing down the Palestinian students who have massed their numbers sufficiently so that it is now PC on campus to be anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic. At Concordia University in Montreal, Walid confronted in the audience his own cousin –- Samer El Tarash, the Palestinian student leader who had successfully instigated the riots that blocked Netanyahu from delivering his speech there in 2002.
“My cousins remain passionate Palestinian activists,” he says. “One cousin ran his taxi into a Chicago synagogue several years ago. Another cousin was on his way to Ben Yehuda Street (the famous pedestrian mall in Jerusalem) with a bomb when he was intercepted by Israeli soldiers and killed. That night, my aunt -– according to the dictates of our society – distributed candies to the other women in her town, in celebration of her son’s martyrdom. But at night, alone, she wept.
“I, too, thought I would die as a martyr. But now it may be for an entirely different cause that I will die….There is a ten-million-dollar bounty on my head. I don’t know how long I will last.Yes, I am afraid. But I feel it is my duty and my mission to seek justice for Israel and the Jewish people. Eventually, I hope to go back to Israel and to live there, and to establish a program for the Palestinians, to un-brainwash them. This is essential if there is ever to be peace in the region.
“The occupation is not that of Israel occupying the land,” Walid says. “The true occupation is of the minds of the Palestinians who are taught hatred.
“I am still a terrorist,” Walid laughs, “but now I terrorize intellectually instead of physically.
“Don’t ever think that YOU can’t make a difference,” Walid tells the HANC students gently, as he winds up his speech. “That you’re only one person, that you’re not gifted enough. Moses was a stutterer who couldn’t even speak. I didn’t know how to speak either, when I first started on my crusade. What’s important is to believe in what you’re doing, even if the whole world tells you you’re wrong. Noah warned his society of the impending flood, but they laughed at him.
“Yes, I’ve lost my entire family,” Walid states sadly. “But,” he says bravely, waving at the members of the audience to encompass them all, “look how much family I’ve gained instead.”
“He lived. They drowned. “