Walid Shoebat stood in the sanctuary of the Beth Sholom and told the crowd of more than 100 — mostly Jews — how he came to hate them.
In kindergarten, Shoebat was taught an Arabic song whose lyrics translated to “Arabs are beloved and Jews are dogs,” Shoebat said. “I did not even know what a Jew was. ... My education taught me to hate you.”
Shoebat is a self-proclaimed former Palestinian terrorist. He grew up in Bethlehem in the disputed West Bank of Israel and as a young man joined the Palestine Liberation Organization. In 1976 he planted a bomb in a bank. He lynched an Israeli soldier and threw rocks at rabbis praying at Jerusalem’s Wailing Wall. For most of his life, Shoebat believed that the Holocaust was fictional.
Shoebat did not cry when he recounted this in the sanctuary of the orthodox synagogue on Seven Locks Road. He did not quiver and his voice did not crack. He received a standing ovation.
“Confession is the beginning of healing. Without confession there is no healing,” Shoebat said.
Shoebat, the author of “Why I Left Jihad: The Root of Terrorism and the Return of Radical Islam,” has appeared on Fox News and national radio and television programs.
He was invited to speak at Beth Sholom by Aish HaTorah, a national Jewish non-profit organization with a Washington area branch in North Bethesda.
He is now a regular speaker at universities and synagogues.
But Shoebat’s speeches have also draw criticism — and sometimes demonstrations — from supporters of a Palestinian state, which Shoebat opposes, and by those that call his views racist.
“The situation in the Middle East is really similar as what happened in the Nazi era, when myth was being taught as fact — historical fabrications,” Shoebat said in an interview. “It really has nothing to do with issues about land.”
"That’s factually inaccurate not to mention historically inaccurate," said Laila Al-Qatami, communications director for the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, who said she had heard and read about Shoebat. "Palestinians and Jews have been living in peace for a number of years, if you look at history."
Al-Qatami emphasized that the Arab-Israeli conflict is, in fact, a dispute over land and not a religious conflict, contrary to many Americans' perceptions.
IN HIS SPEECH, Shoebat argues that hatred of Jews is endemic to Arab culture and that Jews, the most persecuted group in history, are nobly but pointlessly engaged in trying negotiate and compromise with their enemies.
He also argues that certain aspects of Arab culture, such as "honor killings" and violence against women, are primitive and brutal.
Honor killings are a serious problem, Al-Qatami said, though one that is not unique to the Arab world and one that unfortunately fuels anti-Arab sentiment.
As for the argument that anti-Semitism is central to Arab life, "I disagree with that entirely," Al-Qatami said. "There's a movement that any criticism of the state of Israel and its policies is inherently anti-Semitic."
“The issue is not the issue of occupation of land. The issue is the issue of the occupation of the minds of young children. That’s what needs to be liberated,” Shoebat said in his speech.
Israeli Jews are living through an ongoing Holocaust, Shoebat argued, and are vilified for trying to protect what is rightfully theirs. Political talk of two-state solutions and efforts like the Oslo Peace Accords miss the point, he said.
Many audience members agreed.
“There is no solution. Unfortunately, it’s very sad. But there is no solution," said Rabbi Yaacov Benamou, a Moroccan-born Israeli who fought against Lebanon in the Israeli army. Benamou, of Aish HaTorah, said that as an officer he often tried to help wounded Arab soldiers in the war, but found that even as they were dying, they still wanted to kill him.
"We think like Western people all the time; we think two people are having an argument, just compromise and everything will be fine. There is no compromise here, because every side wants something else. You know, Jews want to live in peace, they’re willing to divide the land, they’re willing to give two states, they’re willing to be rational about it. I don’t think the Arabs are willing to be rational about it,” Benamou said.
But Al-Qatami had a different analysis, both of the political situation in the Middle East, and of Shoebat's motives.
"Having read and seen and kind of understanding the political scene, he’s probably in for his 15 minutes of fame. … He could have monetary objectives behind it, he could have other objectives. But it doesn’t seem he has the objective of peace, which is what we all should be working for," Al-Qatami said. "Nobody wants to live in a state of violence and oppression. No rational person, that is."