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My Journey From Kuwaiti Arab To Jerusalemite Jew

It seems like it was only yesterday that I was a young teenager wearing a dish-dasha (white robe) in Kuwait, and now I wear a kipah and live in Jerusalem.

It seems like it was only yesterday that I was a young teenager wearing a dish-dasha (white robe) in Kuwait, and now I wear a kipah and live in Jerusalem.

Jerusalem is where my grandparents on my mother’s side met. My Jewish grandmother met my Palestinian Muslim grandfather when they were both in their late teens. She later converted to Islam, got married to my grandfather, and lived in Shechem for many years. Following the 1970 Black September uprising, my grandfather—who was a high-ranking officer in Jordan’s Arab Legion—was cashiered when King Hussein purged his army of Palestinians. The family relocated to Kuwait, where oil profits were fueling huge business and construction projects. In Kuwait, my mother met my father and got married.


My father was born in Beisan (Beit She’an in Hebrew), Israel, and owned a successful construction company in Kuwait that built some of Kuwait’s popular landmarks (which I proudly show off to my friends over Google Earth today). My father attended university in Egypt and was a staunch follower of the Nasser school of thought, Pan Arabism—the unification of the Arab World. I was brought up to believe that Israel was the only obstacle to Arab unity, a satellite presence planted by Western colonial powers to keep the Arab world divided. Therefore, Israel had to be destroyed.

Our family was as secular as a family can be in Arabia. My father was more of a deist than an atheist—he believed in a creator, but strongly rejected all religions, especially Islam. My mother wasn’t into religion either at the time, as her priorities were our home and social events. At home we were loosely traditional; we partially observed Ramadan (not the fasting part) and celebrated the two Eid holidays by hosting feasts and visiting friends, family and business partners.

The only religious influence around was my grandfather. Out of love for him, I accompanied him to mosque several times. I never really learned how to pray; I’d stand, kneel and bow in sync with everyone else, then sit on the ground and listen to the sermon. The “sermon” often consisted of the imam’s nonstop screaming and shouting about the evils of the Jews. The imam would tell many stories of the horrible things Jews did to Prophet Mohammad, and explain how Allah doomed them to the level of animals, and that fighting the Jews was the duty of every Muslim who loved his religion.

I’ll never forget how the Imam described Joseph’s brothers as “evil Jewish brothers of the prophet of Islam, who threw him down the well and then sold him into slavery.” The imam then said, “You see how Jews treat their own brothers!” That story angered me. Then, according to custom, the imam finished his sermon with a stream of supplications calling for the destruction of the Jewish people, while the crowd responded to each supplication with a thunderous “Amen!” Even then, as a ten-year-old, this was quite chilling.
After an eventful prayer session, we’d walk back together to my grandparents’ home to have lunch with everyone. The smells of my grandmother’s delicious food took my mind off of the horrible stories I heard at mosque. But as we ate, I’d think to myself, How could my sweet grandmother have belonged to an evil Jewish cult built on killing of innocent people? Is that why she left? And was she a descendant of pigs and monkeys? Or perhaps the imam was exaggerating? After all, my father told me that religious people were crazy: “Never trust people with beards! “

When my parents went on vacation, they usually left us with our grandparents. As kids will do, I snooped around in my grandparents’ room, and once found my grandmother’s birth certificate, along with old pictures. The last name on the birth certificate was Mizrahi. It struck me as an odd name that I had never heard of. The header on the document was in Arabic, Hebrew and English. I didn’t know what Hebrew looked like, but I recognized the letters I had seen in the small book my grandmother would sometimes read from when she sat alone in the guest room, tears trickling down her face. I suspected my grandmother was reciting Jewish prayers, because on the news, I had seen Jews praying by “Ha’it al Mabka”—the Wailing Wall in Arabic.

Anti-Semitism was commonplace in Kuwait. I remember a show that the Palestinian boy scouts would put on, which ended with the burning of the Israeli flag. One year, I took part in one of the shows. In a twisted way, the organizers wanted to show their success in creating a generation of defenders of the “cause,” which helped them raise millions in donations from sympathizers.

My father was a strong supporter of the PLO himself. Since the 1960s, a portion of his monthly salary was deducted and sent to the organization founded by Yasser Arafat (also an engineer working in Kuwait at the time), which promised to finance armed groups to liberate Palestine one day. Arafat raised money from wealthy Palestinians working in Kuwait, as well as from Kuwaitis and the Kuwaiti government. Later, he’d turn against the same government that helped him become a political force, by aligning with Saddam Hussein against Kuwait. My father said that with the hundreds of millions of dollars Arafat raised, he could’ve created five-star services and infrastructure in the West Bank, but he decided to appropriate the money instead.

In the summer of 1990, when I was 12 years old, our lives changed completely. We were on vacation when Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein invaded and annexed Kuwait. My father’s business—along with much of the country—was ravaged. Our savings became worthless pieces of paper. We could not return to Kuwait, so we immigrated to Canada. My father managed to sneak back into Kuwait for a few days to retrieve important business documents that would later be useful in recovering compensation from a United Nations fund.
But life in the new world didn’t suit my family well, and they returned to the Middle East, while I stayed in Canada to attend university.

During my final year at the University of Western Ontario, while I was studying at the Weldon Library, I went down to use the pay phone and found a man sitting at a small table cutting up a green apple. From his dress, he looked Jewish, so I went up to him and asked him straightforwardly, “Hi, are you a Jew?”

He looked up with a smile and answered “No, but I like to dress this way.”

I wondered to myself, Are Jewish people supposed to be funny? I introduced myself and told him that I wanted to do something to advance peace in the Middle East. I added that I didn’t believe in religion and didn’t completely hate Jews because my grandmother was Jewish.
He introduced himself to me as Dr. Yitzchok Block, a professor of philosophy from Harvard who taught at UWO. He invited me to sit down, and cut me a piece of his apple. He asked me, “Which side of the family is that grandmother from?”
I replied, “My mother’s side. My father’s parents died before I was born.”

Dr. Block said gently, “If that’s the case, then by Muslim law you’re Muslim, and by Jewish law you’re a Jew. A Jew can convert 10 times and he’ll still be a Jew, and by Jewish law religion is transferred by the mother, which makes your mother Jewish, and makes you a Jew. “
I was completely dumbfounded. Memories flooded into my mind—my grandmother, the “evil Jews,” mosque sermons, Israeli TV . . .
I ran home and told my roommate, who said, “So that makes you a ‘Mus-Jew.’” I was not amused.

I went up to my room, called my mom, and told her what happened. She told me to stay away from Dr. Block. But I called my grandmother, and we spoke for quite some time, and she told me about her family and younger brother who died in the early days of the establishment of Israel. I finally mustered the courage


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