The Kuwaiti Muslim who found out he was Jewish

Mark Halawa, the grandchild of Palestinian refugees, who now lives in Jerusalem, shared his unusual personal odyssey with a Limmud audience


Mark Halawa remembers the Friday when he was 10 or 11 going with his grandfather to a mosque in Kuwait. It was not something he did with his father, who had little time for religion. 

The imam began by talking of the importance of taking care of parents or of giving charity in secret. But then he moved on to more political matters. “Look what the Jews are doing to our Muslim brothers and sisters in Palestine,” he declared. 

And then he went on to “how the evil Jewish brothers of the prophet of Islam, Yosef [Joseph], dumped him down the well to kill him just because he went to them and told that he is the prophet of Allah… Everyone became angry, I was huffing and puffing.” 

It was not the kind of upbringing to prepare him for where he is now – raising a Jewish family in Jerusalem across the street from where the Prime Minister of Israel lives. 

While his father came from a Palestinian Muslim family, Mr Halawa - who shared his story at last week’s Limmud Festival - always knew that his mother’s mother had grown up Jewish. When she was 16 she had met a young man working for the Jordanian army and married him.  

When Mr Halawa’s father was three, Israel’s War of Independence broke out and the family fled their home in Beit Shean, according to Mr Halawa following instructions from the Jordanian army “to go to Jordan because the Arab armies are on their way to liberate the place and kick the Jews’ butts”. 

In Kuwait, where the family moved in the 1960s, his father became a successful engineer and worked with the man who became the face of the PLO, Yasir Arafat. 

Although enjoying a cosmopolitan education at the American school, Mr Halawa could still recall one teacher regularly talking of Palestinian teenagers killed by “Zionist bullets” and another asking him, “If one rocket can kill seven Jews, how many Jews could you kill with five rockets”. 

And after his visit to the mosque, he wondered whether his sweet grandmother could have belonged “to the descendants of pigs and monkeys”. 

In 1990, when he was 13, the family was holidaying in Spain as they often did, on their way to Canada, where they intended to settle. But the plans were derailed by Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Iraq. As a result, the family ended up in Amman, where they had a flat and where the United Nations had set up an office to compensate victims of the invasion. 

On an old-fashioned TV set, they tuned into a channel where the language sounded a “bit gibberish” – Kurdish or Persian, he first thought, until “Suddenly I hear ‘Shalom’ – oh my gosh, the Jews!” And with the Hebrew version of Sesame Street came his introduction to Israel. 

For many years, he was glued to Israeli TV – “an important point in my life which allowed me to be a little bit open-minded”. 

By the time it came to university, the family had reached Canada, living in London, Ontario, which he describes as a “rip-off of the real London – I lived in Piccadilly Street, I lived in Pall Mall Street, we had the Thames River, the whole thing was little England.” 

During his last week of finals, he had gone to make a call on a pay phone in the library, when he spotted a man with a large black kipah and a grey beard who was reading and eating a green apple. 

Mr Halawa had been considering launching a website, to export the “Canadian values” he saw as enabling people of all religions and backgrounds to mix and learn together, and he thought of discussing the idea with the man. 

“I walked up to him and asked, ‘Are you Jewish?’” The man replied, “’No, I just like to dress this way.’ I couldn’t laugh, I didn’t know if he was funny or not. I learned a lot of things about Jews but none of the things I learned [was] that Jews could be funny or humorous.” 

They fell into conversation and the man offered him a piece of apple. “I was taken aback – this Jewish guy could be funny, Jews could be hospitable and generous. Come on!”  

And when Mr Halawa revealed his family story, the man had a further surprise, explaining that according to Jewish law, he was Jewish too. Even if his grandmother had converted to Islam, Mr Halawa wanted to know? 

“It’s absolutely fine,” the man smiled. “By us, A Jew could convert ten times and we’d still consider him a Jew.” 

The man in the kippah was Yitzchok Block, a retired philosophy professor, and some months later Mr Halawa decided to pay him visit at his synagogue one Saturday morning. “I met people from Indian background, from Egyptian background, Polish, Hungary, Yemen, everyone welcomed me,” he recalled. 

Invited back to Professor Block’s home, he remembered the deep impression hearing the Purim story made on him.  “I was just gone. Just to think there was evil being boiled and perpetrated against the Jewish people twenty-five hundred years ago in the days of Haman and Mordechai and Esther, and they survived it. And I felt strong. Slowly, slowly I started to connect.”    

Within a few years, he found himself speaking out against campus antisemitism and learning about the Holocaust. “I never knew there was such a thing called the Holocaust.  A rabbi from Aish Hatorah offered me to go Poland and Israel on a leadership trip in 2009.  I saw everything that we were taught we wanted to do to the Jews had been done to the Jews already. I was just devastated.” 

On a trip with 30 students from North America, he spent a week in Poland and three weeks in Israel, where he “fell in love” with the country – “every day I had a culture shock”. Having previously thought it was an apartheid country, instead he saw “Jews and Arabs and Muslims and everybody – you don’t know who was who”. 

He returned to Israel to study for eight months in yeshivah – and ended up spending nearly four years there. He met a “wonderful lady” whose parents “loved my story. The next thing you know I amstanding under this chupah… and suddenly I break a cup and everybody is saying Mazeltov.” 

In his tenth year in Jerusalem, he works in the food industry and his daughters go to Jewish school. “If anything brought me to Godliness, I believe from the bottom of my heart, [it] is Judaism – and I thank God for that,” he said. 

But while some people who undergo such a religious transition come to repudiate their past, he still likes Muslim culture.

Yet his journey has come at a cost. “Today I am barely speaking with my parents,” he told Limmud, “but I am trying always to keep the peace.” His dream remains to welcome them one day at his home in Jerusalem over Shabbat.


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