Politically conservative Jewish activists have embraced a former Hamas member who turned on his group, his religion and his family to become an informant of the Israeli security services. But when Mosab Hassan Yousef declared war on Islam at a recent dinner the activists held to recognize him, the activists quickly distanced themselves from his stand.
Yousef, son of one of Hamas’s founding leaders, recently won his lengthy battle to remain in the United States after being granted political asylum on June 30.
Leading the call to support Yousef during his struggle to remain here was the Endowment for Middle East Truth, a relatively young pro-Israel organization. EMET honored the former Hamas activist at a June 25 Capitol Hill event, which also provided a stage for harsh anti-Muslim rhetoric.
EMET was founded four years ago by Sarah Stern, a veteran of Washington Jewish advocacy, who now serves as the group’s president. The organization’s board consists of many well-known faces from both hawkish and neoconservative pro-Israel circles, and its stated mission includes portraying Israel as filling a “unique role as being the eastern outpost of Western democratic values, holding down the fort against a rising tide of radical Islam.”
“Mosab is one of the most amazing heroes we can honor,” Stern said of Yousef, for whom she later hosted a Sabbath dinner at her home. “He is one of the heroes that utter the words that cannot be uttered.”
As the son of Sheikh Hassan Yousef, a senior Hamas leader, Mosab had free access to operatives of the terror group and was therefore a valuable asset for the Israeli intelligence. In his younger years, he participated in Hamas activities that eventually led to his arrest. In prison he was recruited to serve as an informant for Israel’s general security service, the Shin Bet, and was given the code name “green prince,” referring to his status as an heir to Hamas leadership. After his release in 1997, he began to show interest in Christianity, while providing information to the Shin Bet through his handler, a man he knew only by his code name, “Captain Loai.”
Yousef’s missions as an Israeli agent, which he described in his recently published book, “Son of Hamas,” went beyond spying and passing on information. According to the book, Yousef was asked during the second intifada to locate and follow terrorists on their way to carry out suicide attacks, allowing the Shin Bet to arrest them. “Mosab’s contribution to the security of Israel is immense. This is a person who stopped terror attacks from happening,” said Captain Loai, who is now retired and recently revealed his real name, Gonen Ben-Itzhak.
In January 2007, Yousef, who had already converted to Christianity, arrived in Los Angeles and sought political asylum. He joined an evangelical church in San Diego and began working on his book, while waiting for immigration authorities to grant him asylum.
But in an ironic twist, Yousef’s book became his major obstacle to remaining in the United States. The Department of Homeland Security turned down his appeal for asylum, based on passages from the book in which he described his work with Hamas. This work, which according to Yousef and Ben-Itzhak was done on Israel’s behalf, was seen as providing material assistance to a terror group, therefore disqualifying Yousef from obtaining political asylum.
On June 30, Yousef won his immigration battle, when a judge in San Diego ruled he should be granted asylum. A representative of the Department of Homeland Security told the court the government is dropping any objection it had to Yousef’s appeal. His supporters viewed the decision as a product of their concerted effort in recent months on his behalf.
Supporting Yousef in his battle against deportation were former CIA director James Woolsey, two dozen members of Congress, and The Jewish Federations of North America, all of which sent letters to the secretary of Homeland Security, asking her to consider Yousef for asylum status. Even more compelling was the decision of Gonen Ben-Itzhak to show up at the hearing and plead with the judge not to deport his former source, who has since become a personal friend. By appearing in court and revealing his full name, Ben-Itzhak risks legal action in Israel, since the Shin Bet restricts the ability of former agents to identify themselves.
“Israel is my country, my homeland,” Ben-Itzhak told the Forward on June 24. “I love Israel, and I love the Shin-Bet, but I have to help my friend.”
Ben-Itzhak’s appearance at the EMET annual “Rays of Light in the Darkness” dinner, where for the first time he revealed his real name, was among the highlights of the event, in which the group honored those it describes as “speakers of the truth.” The recipients also included Republican Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas; Rep. Brad Sherman, a California Democrat, and Doug Lamborn, a Colorado Republican.
But while the politicians receiving awards spoke mainly about Israel’s security, the two former Muslims who were honored at the event delivered a different message, in scathing speeches depicting Islam as a murderous religion.
“Our god loves anyone unconditionally,” Yousef said as he described his decision to convert to Christianity. “Unfortunately, the god of Islam is not this type of god. I think he is a terrorist, because he mandates killing.” Addressing a room full of donors, activists and members of Congress at a Senate office building, Yousef went on to accuse the Quran of mandating killings. He vowed to “keep fighting the god of Islam.” He also stressed his determination to “defeat this evil god” by raising doubts in the heart of every Muslim against his or her god.
Amil Imani, a former Iranian who denounced Islam and said he is since facing daily threats to his life, delivered a similar message. “The Quran is a license to kill,” Imani said at the event. Later he told the Forward he does not believe that moderate Islam exists. “The true Muslims are the jihadists,” he said. “The moderates are those who do not understand what the Quran says.”
Stern said that the attacks on Islam were not part of her group’s policy. “I do not endorse what they said on Allah and the Quran, but I definitely endorse the struggle they’ve gone through,” she said. Stern added that she opposes any persecution of dissidents because of their faith or politics. “I would have probably also become a dissident if Israel would have turned into a theocracy, and we’d all have to live like in Mea Shearim,” she said, referring to the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Jerusalem.
Sherman, in a written response, said he “cannot confirm what the two speakers said,” and added that the war against terror is not against Islam.
Mark Cohen, Khedouri A. Zilkha Professor of Jewish Civilization in the Near East at Princeton University, refuted the description of Islam as a faith that endorses the killing of Jews, Christians or those who left their religion. He argued that both sides — those in the Jewish community that see Islam as antisemitic, and the Hamas extremists who believe that religion mandates the killing of Jews — are exploiting the original text. “Both have taken it out of context and are using it to validate their views,” said Cohen, who is also an ordained rabbi. Cohen, author of “Between Crescent and Cross,” a 1995 study of Jewish life in the Middle Ages under Islam and Christianity, added that Islam “advocates religious pluralism, supports freedom of religion, and forbids forced conversion from another religion to Islam.”
Contact Nathan Guttman at firstname.lastname@example.org
Nathan Guttman staff writer, is the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Ha’aretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Contact Nathan at email@example.com, or follow him on Twitter @nathanguttman