The latest character making waves in America’s pro-Israeli Right demonstrates the special relationship between the “war on terrorism” and Israel’s rabid supporters in the United States. During this “war on terrorism” that transformed America’s legal and political landscape, it might be hard to believe that a Palestinian immigrant to the United States publicly confesses to being a former PLO activist and “terrorist” who personally attacked Israelis. This figure unabashedly repeats stories of his own vicious hatred and violence against Israelis during well-publicized speaking tours at universities and synagogues, and on radio and television shows.
Yet, he has enjoyed immunity from the Department of Homeland’s Security’s machinery, which has been actively churning out victims in the Arab and Muslim community in the United States. This seems odd. Activists around the country have to fight to free secretly detained individuals held captive for nothing more than a past association with a known terrorist.
Walid Shoebat, from Beit Sahour, in the West Bank, is paraded by pro-Israeli organizations on speaking tours, in articles, and radio and TV interviews. An article in Jewish Week announces the secret of his magic: “a former terrorist repents and discusses his metamorphosis on six-city speaking tour.” Articles on BBC’s website, as well as pro-Israeli organs such as WorldNetDaily and FrontPageMag depict Shoebat on his own terms, as an ex-terrorist now fully supportive of Israel. In Arlene Pecks’ words, he went “from terrorist to zionist.”
Regularly, during his talks, he describes openly his past crimes and his jailing by the Israeli authorities. He admits to stoning Jewish worshipers at the kotel (the western wall), having “worked with Fatah bomb makers in Jerusalem,” and even going on a bombing mission to destroy a branch of Bank Leumi. Shoebat abandoned it after noticing that Palestinian children were nearby. He speaks of the time he and other rioters mauled an Israeli officer. They “clubbed and pounded his head with a nail-studded stick, until the officer became a bloody gore.”
After immigrating to the United States, he continued to be a “hard-line PLO activist.” He raised funds and recruited for the PLO on college campuses. In 1993, when most other Palestinians were optimistic about the prospects of the Oslo peace process, Shoebat converted to Christianity and began to support Israel’s exclusive claim to that land, all of it. As he attests, his new wife (his third) “challenged me to find any mistakes in the Bible.” After a “six-month journey to do that” he failed and decided to change religions.
Taking the word of the Bible as literal, he subscribed to the view that “the Jews have the Biblical right to the Holy Land, Israel.” In his public campaign he not only defends Israel across the board, on every account, but espouses positions widely held as extreme. For instance, he told a crowd at the University of Toronto that Israel should “Please take back the holy Temple Mount” despite the obvious implication that such a total measure against a Muslim holy site would provoke a holy war.
This bizarre tale contrasts sharply with the story of another Palestinian immigrant to the United States. Michel Shehadeh, and another Palestinian, Khader Hamide, are currently facing deportation proceedings for being affiliated with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), which the United States designates as a terrorist organization. Shehadeh has denied any association with the organization.
In 1987, thirteen armed Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS) officers stormed his apartment. Since his initial detention, the case was dropped several times, as judges ruled it unconstitutional to target individuals for First Amendment activities. According to David Cole, a professor of Law at Georgetown, and his one time attorney, he is being deported for “for distributing Palestinian magazines and raising humanitarian aid in Los Angeles more than twenty years ago.”
The legal crusade against Shehadeh has taken different turns. Most recently, the Department of Homeland Security tacked on retroactive provisions in the PATRIOT Act. Those First Amendment activities at the center of the proceedings have been re-defined as giving “material support” to a terrorist group under the PATRIOT Act even though the alleged activities and affiliation occurred nearly two decades ago. It also continues to rest its case on the McCarran-Walter Act, which was “declared unconstitutional fourteen years ago and was repealed by Congress thirteen years ago.”
Still, no authorities allege that Shehadeh participated in any criminal acts. The Washington Post reported that then-FBI Director William Webster told Congress in 1987 that Shehadeh had not engaged in any terrorist activity and he would not have been detained if he were a US citizen.
For the past seventeen years, Shehadeh faced these charges along with seven others in what has been termed the “LA 8” case. During that time, he remained an outspoken and highly transparent activist as the Western director for the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), which was founded by ex-Senator James Abourezk.
Compared with Walid Shoebat’s self-described record of violence, Michel Shehadeh’s first amendment activities are trivial. So trivial in fact that another Palestinian-American activist with a similar history, Imad Hamad, was going to be awarded the “Exceptional Public Service award” by the FBI.
It was revoked after a New York Post article by Debbie Schlussel condemned him for being subject to past deportation proceedings himself, as well has speaking out in defense of other “suspected terrorists.” In the Schlusselian plane of logic, Arabs and Muslims, especially politically outspoken ones, are presumed guilty. Acquittals and other legal failures to establish guilt just do not matter to her; being tried is a crime itself. After all, she reasons, it was “political pressure from Michigan politicians” that saved him from deportation, not, we are to believe, the lack of conclusive evidence plus the feeble legal theory holding the case together.
The FBI officially stated that evidence being used against Shehadeh referenced Hamad. As David Cole explained it, “[i]t would have been too much of an embarrassment to honor a man (Hamad) who had once been affiliated with the same Palestinian groups, while trying to deport two men for the same affiliations.” John E. Bell Jr., the special agent formerly in charge of the FBI’s Detroit office, called the FBI’s decision to rescind the award “embarrassing to the FBI and Hamad.” Hamad’s past role with the PFLP does not differ substantively from Shehadeh’s, and both became regional directors of the same mainstream organization. Going after Shehadeh based on charges of terrorism, then, appears to be a stretch to the say the least.
The double standard is obvious. Publicly, Shoebat boasts of a criminal past with an apparent immunity. The key difference between the two is that Shehadeh remained an outspoken supporter of Palestinian rights, whereas Shoebat became a Christian Zionist lauded by pro-Israeli organizations as well as Televangelist Pat Robertson, who interviewed Shoebat on the Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN). As for his violent background, the pro-Israeli community not only turns a blind eye, they actually welcome it. They see it as legitimizing. Central Connecticut State University Professor Jay Bergman, said it gave “his testimony a special credence and credibility that it might otherwise lack.” Shoebat’s pro-Israeli supporters then validate and benefit from Shoebat’s past anti-Israeli violence. While Shehadeh worries about his future and where his family will go in the case of his deportation, Shoebat freely tours synagogues, Hillel centers, and universities where he flaunts his militancy in Palestine. With supporters like Pat Robertson, and close friends of Christian fundamentalism leading the “war on terrorism,” it is no surprise this double standard exists.
The last thing I want to suggest is that Walid Shoebat should be deported. The American government should not be prosecuting partisans in the Israel-Palestinian conflict who have never directed violence in or against the United States. Ideologues behind the expanded war on terrorism have used it to do Israel’s bidding, to direct legal measures against critics of Israel such as Michel Shehadeh. Thus, Shoebat enjoys a de facto exemption that he would not have had he emerged as a pro-Palestinian activist. It does not take an active imagination to picture the legal consequences if someone with Shoebat’s history publicly discussed his record of violence while defending the rights of Palestinians to self-determination on college speaking tours.
To move on to another point, there is an underlying irony in Walid Shoebat’s new found popularity. This celebrated political convert adopted a form of religious fanaticism known for its historical Anti-Semitism. A review of his website, www.abrahamic-faith.com, reveals the roots of his views. His ultimate expectation is that Jewish control of Israel-Palestine is essential for Armageddon. Then, rapture will come. The Messiah will destroy the enemies of Israel, but the “many countries who confess Jesus as their saviour will be amongst God’s people, called as his people, and will all personally know the Lord Jesus Christ.” In short, the Jews will be forced to accept Christ or perish in hell a deeply and traditionally Anti-Semitic view.
Pro-Israeli groups are relying on a speaker who, first, is motivated by a fundamental Anti-Semitism and, second, has actually perpetrated malicious acts of violence against Jews. These also happen to be the two most significant charges they levy against critics of Israel. With the latter, they very rarely find an outspoken critic of Israel in the US who actually committed any violence themselves, rather they lower the charges to rhetorically supporting terrorism, or in the case of Sami Al-Arian, financing it.
It is telling that the most prominent Palestinian supporter of Israel is a religious fundamentalist, whereas Jewish supporters of Palestinian rights range from the religious anti-Zionist orthodox Jews to secular Jews who oppose Zionism for secular reasons. The hospitality Jewish groups are giving Shoebat is a counter to the growing visibility of Jews openly critical of Israel. For example, the Jews for a Free Palestine (JFFP) is sponsoring a campaign for Jews renounce Aliyah, in effect, Israel’s anti-Palestinian “Law of Return.”
Some would expect that a warm embrace of a religiously extreme Anti-Semite by pro-Israeli groups would be embarrassing. However, leading advocates of Israel’s anti-Palestinian policies welcome this arrangement given the power of Christian fundamentalism in the American polity. Abraham Foxman, National Director of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), said that American Jews should be “highly appreciative of the incredible support” from such religionists, even if their support looks forward to the vast conversion or eternal damnation of all Jews. Their views, he reasoned, “speak to an unknown future (indeed one that Jews do not envision).” He also argued that ADL polls show that Christian fundamentalists harbor no more Anti-Semitism than the American population at-large. The one area of concern he shared was with Evangelical efforts to convert Jews.
Shoebat represents the ominous collusion between Christian fundamentalists and supporters of Israel; a recipe for disaster. Though he offers no compelling secular framework, his talks mostly demonize Palestinians and Islam in the kind of language that only affirms the pro-Israeli community’s more ignorant misconceptions. He talks about the inherent hate of Islam, being taught to oppose violently Jews and Israel, and the eternal Jewish right to the land. None of his points give audiences the slightest perspective into the movements for peace among Palestinians, nor the substance of their claims against a state that occupies and controls their daily lives (whether or not the Old Testament justifies it).
His goals are deadly. Clearly, he seeks to further polarize Palestinians and Jews with his extremist positions. As with the overall influence of Christian fundamentalism, his theological tenets make reconciliation in this conflict less likely. Peace forestalls the End of Times the end of the World, which some Christian fundamentalists such as Shoebat look forward to enthusiastically. His personal and religious stake is in helping speed along Armageddon ideological maneuvering ultimately much more deadly than anything Shehadeh preached or did. I fear that in their ideological zeal to defend Israel against criticism, American Zionists are making a deal with the devil.
WILL YOUMANS is a California-based writer. He has contributed to ‘The Politics of Anti-Semitism,’ and the recently released ‘Civil Rights in Peril: The Targeting of Arabs and Muslims.’ firstname.lastname@example.org