As a child in Kuwait, Mark Halawa’s normal included proudly donning his PLO boy scout uniform to march in the troop’s regularly scheduled and virulently anti-Semitic parades. Storming the streets of Kuwait City, the boys were encouraged to burn Israeli flags and chant against Jewish demons and infidels who “rape” the holy Al-Aqsa Mosque.
His Palestinian refugee father, a secular Muslim, was a dedicated nationalist who had worked as a government water engineer alongside Yasser Arafat in the 1960s. He, like much of the Palestinian diaspora, tithed from his paycheck significant regular contributions to Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization.
Fast-forward almost 30 years.
Today Halawa is an observant Jew and resides in Jerusalem with his Jewish wife and daughter — when he’s not touring the world singing Israel’s praise, that is.
“Quite a jump,” he agrees, sitting recently in The Times of Israel’s Jerusalem office.
It was a zigzag as well as a long jump that saw Halawa — bespectacled and sporting a black kippa and informal button-down shirt on this hot summer day — both reclaim his halachic Jewish birthright and formally convert in an ultra-Orthodox religious court.
In a wide-ranging interview and follow-up telephone conversation, Halawa gives snapshots of his life — as a Kuwaiti youth, a refugee in Jordan during the first Gulf War, a privileged playboy in Syria, and finally, a Canadian college student who came to discover that his Muslim identity was not, in fact, immutable.
Marked by war, chance encounters, and perhaps a bit of divine intervention, Halawa’s unlikely journey from privileged secular Muslim to Jewish Jerusalemite has taken him through continents and cultures.
And now he wants to share what he’s learned along the way with the Arab world.
Just a week prior to the current Palestinian-Israeli clashes, Halawa was visiting The Times of Israel to promote “Ask Halawa,” an Arabic-language YouTube video series he has created in cooperation with pro-Israel advocacy organization StandWithUs.
Released this week and already chalking up over 30,000 views, the series aims, says Halawa, to dispel spurious anti-Semitic notions among the Arabs in the Middle East and start conversations about a free and democratic Israel.
Speaking again a week later, during the fresh wave of terror, Halawa emphasizes he also hopes to reach the Palestinian youth, who are being incited to this bloody violence by their clerics and leadership — just as he was during his childhood in Kuwait and Jordan.
Middle East side story
Halawa’s story begins two generations before his birth, when his grandmother Rowaida, born a Jew in Jerusalem in 1930s British Mandate Palestine, met and fell in love with his grandfather, a Jordanian army soldier named Muhammad al-Masri from Nablus.
Their marriage was a model of mutual affection and respect, says Halawa, whose mother is their daughter. While growing up close to his grandparents, knowing his gentle, loving grandmother was born Jewish had always caused dissonance with the Kuwaiti clerics’ characterizations of Jews, he says. Today she is a widow in Jordan and during our discussion, each fresh memory of her brings a smile to his face.
But back then Halawa labeled himself “a secular atheist” who couldn’t care less about religion, so he didn’t give it much thought.
“Like my father, I think Muhammad, and Jesus, and Moses were just nice guys who wanted to fix the situation,” he says.
The Halawa family fled Kuwait after the Iraqi army invasion in the summer of 1990, along with some 200,000 other Palestinians there. As Jordanian citizens, they made a new life there and Halawa’s father set up a lucrative business while attempting to gain reparations from the UN’s 1995 Oil for Food program. It took his father 13 years to see a dime, says Halawa.
While the family awaited response from an application for residency in Canada, Halawa was sent to Tishreen University in Syria’s now war-torn Latakia province. There, on $400 a month, Halawa lived a life of relative luxury and, instead of attending classes, bought himself a fake transcript.
“I paid off and learnt how to pay off — this is what I studied. I learned how to get what I want for a certain price, which served me later on in the Middle East,” says Halawa.
At this point Halawa’s father asked him to join his business. But Halawa, now in possession of a Canadian passport and jaded from his time in Syria, instead decided to travel to the new world to make it on his own.
“I went off and started a life,” he says, and registered at Western Ontario University where he studied while working full time. “I tried my best, sometimes gaining, and sometimes failing, but I did it with honesty and honor in a country where life is honorable and people are honest on the street. Nobody is asking me for a bribe in order to pass; nobody is asking me for a bottle of perfume to pass.”
He took on the name Mark and tried to blend in, stepping out of his privileged bubble and finally learning to cook, clean, shop and do laundry for himself.
“I fell in love with Canada,” he says.
A chance encounter
In his final years in university, the 2004 Halawa is confident, buff, making a good living from his own business, and perhaps a little cocky, he wryly admits. In the library he spotted an elderly man wearing the garb of a religiously observant Orthodox Jew. He went up to him and said, “Hey, are you Jewish?”
The man, without missing a beat, says, “No, I just dress that way.”
That simple ice breaker let Halawa sit down with Dr. Yitzchok Block, a Harvard-schooled retired philosophy professor at Western Ontario University. Halawa tells Block he is interested in meeting a Jew because his grandmother was born Jewish.
Upon learning Halawa’s Jewish roots stem from his maternal grandmother, Block tells Halawa, “By Jewish law, you’re Jewish, same as by Muslim law, you’re Muslim. You’re born Jewish, as you were born a Muslim.”
Halawa says Block “shattered his mind.”
“I think I felt immediately shortness of breath, wondering what was going on. And the first thing I was thinking about was, this guy could be a missionary trying to convert me,” he says.
(Block, a Chabad devotee, is now suffering from Alzheimer’s. His son, Rabbi Chaim Block, director of a Chabad center in San Antonio, responded to The Times of Israel’s fact checking by saying, “When the story first came out a number of years ago, I only got a vague recollection of the encounter… I will say, that Mark’s account of the encounter sounds just like my father and quite typical of his well known style and behavior.”)
The chance encounter ended amicably with Block giving Halawa his phone number and inviting him to come to his synagogue sometime.
“In a way I was like, ‘Cool, I have something to tell my friends about!’ Now I can say I have Jewish in me — a lot of depth! But you go to bed, you’re a Jew; you wake up and you’re still a Jew. It’s not easy to tell somebody from the Arab world he is something that was used as a curse word,” he says.
‘I belonged to a group of people that I wished death for all my life’
Halawa says he “grew up being told that Israelis and Jews were the lowest type of creature in existence, put on Earth only to kill us Arabs. In math class the teacher would say, ‘If one rocket killed X number of Jews, how many would six rockets kill?'”
Eventually, bored on a Saturday morning, he felt drawn to Block’s synagogue. That led to an enchanting Shabbat lunch at the professor’s house, which brought Halawa firmly onto the path of reclaiming his Jewish identity.
In a first-person account Halawa posted on Aish.com, he writes that Block told him at that first Shabbat meal, “Every Jew is born with a little Torah and a little Menorah inside. All it takes is for another Jew to bump into him and light it up.”
In Jerusalem several years later, he says he realized then that “I belonged to a group of people that I wished death for all my life.”
All lit up, and nowhere to go
Halawa says he definitely believes in the idea of a “Jewish spark” and in his travels he has met many many others like him — Arabs from interfaith families with a Jewish background who find their way to Judaism. (In his StandWithUs video, Halawa claims that 25% of Palestinians have Jewish roots.)
Godliness wasn’t originally a part of his life, however much he was drawn to the Jewish peoplehood and however “super curious” he was.
After deciding to break with his family’s traditions, face the wrath of his newly religious mother, and join his lot with the Jewish people, Halawa was soon to realize that the halacha (Jewish law) about matrilineal descent cited by Block is far different from its practical bureaucratic application in Orthodoxy today.
Halawa knew his grandmother was born Jewish, had once seen a Jewish prayerbook in her home, and knew her family name was “Mizrahi,” a Jewish last name. But despite repeated questioning, Halawa’s beloved grandmother is, till this day, unwilling to discuss her Jewish background.
This presented a problem for Halawa, who was resolved to explore Orthodox Judaism as his path into his Jewish heritage. Without documentation he has no way to prove his Jewishness to the stringent Toronto religious court asking for proof.
Regardless, he began studying at a Chabad-Lubavitch yeshiva and after staging a one-man pro-Israel demonstration a few years later during Operation Cast Lead, Halawa was approached to join a March of the Living trip to the death camps in Poland, and then to Israel.
Initially apprehensive — convinced that the Israeli Jews would harm him for being a Kuwaiti — he says he quickly fell in love with the country while walking its streets and seeing widespread diversity and freedom unlike any other Middle Eastern country he knows. And so he quickly found a way to return, and entered an Aish HaTorah yeshiva in Jerusalem’s Old City full time.
He studied there for three years, donning the black and white garb of a yeshiva bocher (complete with sidelocks), and in time made his way to an ultra-Orthodox conversion court in Bnei Brak under Rabbi Nissim Karelitz for his “formal” induction into Judaism.
In a curious wrinkle, unbeknownst to Halawa, the Karelitz court, while 100% halachic, is not authorized by the Israeli rabbinate to perform conversions. Its converts are not legally recognized as Jewish by the State of Israel.
Dramatically, Halawa discovered this in the week of his marriage to Israeli citizen Linda Brunnel, a Finnish-born convert. But instead of calling off the wedding, Halawa and Brunnel were married by his conversion rabbi, Karelitz, in an illegal, yet halachic Orthodox wedding. To make things official, the couple also got married abroad.
But, ironically for a person who travels the globe delivering stirring speeches about the positive side of Israel, the state was slow in giving him residency. Only this week, months after the birth of his first child Atara, countless bureaucratic hurdles and tens of thousands of shekels later, Halawa was finally granted a B1 work and residency visa.
“I can finally pay taxes and contribute to society at the age of 38,” he jokes. “I love Israel, and I love Canada too, but I’d love to finally pay taxes here.”
We can all just get along
Today Halawa is reconciled with his mother, who became so religiously observant a few years ago that she and his secular father divorced. Although it’s sometimes difficult, he communicates with his father and four siblings, who live spread across the Middle East and North America.
His once nationalistic father, he says, is now completely disenchanted with the legacy of Yasser Arafat, whom he says used the PLO as his personal piggy bank, and the further corruption of the Palestinian Authority, citing what he said were mansions Mahmoud Abbas had in Jordan and Ontario.
For Halawa, the Palestinian uprisings are all functions of greed and its leadership’s degeneracy, citing some $53 billion the PA has been given in refugee aid and the lack of any adequate humanitarian facilities.
“Where did the money go? It should be the richest place on earth,” he says. But the PA has nothing to export except terror, says Halawa.
“That is huge money,” says Halawa. “For that money, they sacrifice youth and children.”
‘Arab youth are intelligent and idealistic youth, here and abroad, but bombarded with misinformation’
In Jerusalem and beyond, Halawa passionately discusses current events with his Arab friends who, he says, are increasingly disenchanted with Palestinian leadership.
“Arab youth are intelligent and idealistic youth, here and abroad, but bombarded with misinformation. They are used and abused by political regimes that don’t care if anyone gets stabbed,” he says.
But, says Halawa, who has traveled and lived in much of the Middle East, this subjugation of the Palestinian people goes well beyond the Palestinian Authority. As proof, he points to the very existence of the overflowing refugee camps in Israel’s neighboring Arab countries.
The world is so focused on Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians that it overlooks atrocities — extreme poverty, subjugation, sex abuse — committed against them by Israel’s neighbors, says Halawa. In these camps, and even in big cities, they have few rights. Many lack travel documents, or any hope of bettering their futures.
“You’re not allowed to change your life. You’re not allowed to live outside the ghetto that they put you in,” says Halawa.
Halawa hopes to raise awareness of these injustices. He says that the only country in the Middle East where Arab citizens can express themselves freely and make an impact on their own lives is Israel. And Arab leadership is threatened by this, and so demonizes the country to manipulate its citizenry.
For years Halawa has been traveling the world and engaging the masses on social media. His goal in making the video series?
“I want to show the beautiful creativeness of Israel, the people of Israel, how they live, how they help each other,” he says. In short, he wants to show the Arab world “his Israel.”
“By me standing up, it will encourage others to stand up and talk. Already there are a lot of comments. Some curse at me, and some say, what he’s saying is right,” says Halawa.
What’s important to Halawa is at least there’s room for debate.