On the eve of Iran’s 2017 presidential election, Ebrahim Raisi, who would become president in 2021, sat down to give an interview to the Russia Today news outlet. His interlocutor was a French citizen, Catherine Perez-Shakdam, then a practicing Shi’a Muslim.
The veiled, religiously observant Perez-Shakdam had become a regular figure in Iranian state media, giving favorable coverage to the regime and its proxies around the region. She wrote dozens of articles in English in the Iranian press and rubbed shoulders with some of the Middle East’s most notorious figures.
“Zionists are planning to annihilate Islam,” trumpeted the headline of one 2014 piece she wrote for the Iranian state mouthpiece. In the article, she vilified religious Israelis ascending to pray at the Temple Mount, Judaism’s holiest site, as “rabid dogs.”
What Raisi likely did not know at the time was that Perez-Shakdam had been born to a Jewish family. Five years after her interview with the Iranian leader, Perez-Shakdam has become an atheist and reconnected with her long-discarded Jewish identity.
“It started to dawn on me that for years I had played into the hands of the very people who want us gone… For years, I was motivated by a kind of self-hate. But you realize that you can’t deny who you are,” Perez-Shakdam told The Times of Israel in an interview.
Perez-Shakdam wrote three posts on the Times of Israel’s blog platform in November, the third of which described her interview with Raisi. It went largely unnoticed for three months, but in recent days has started to make headlines in Persian and Arabic media, causing a social media firestorm even amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Iranian media quickly declared her an Israeli Mossad spy, and broadcasters who had been spotted with her were forced to issue clarifications.
Iranian chief cleric Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s office quickly disavowed any connection with her. Many of her media appearances and articles were wiped from state websites, although archived versions of some can still be found.
Perez-Shakdam dismisses the espionage allegations as nonsense. “I’m used to it. When they don’t like what you have to say, they come for your character — although I didn’t expect it to become quite this kind of circus,” she said.
“The only thing that really irks them is that they woke up to the fact that I’m Jewish after they let me into the circle, now that they realize that I’m the enemy — or what they perceive as the enemy,” she said.
‘I never spoke about my heritage ever’
For Perez-Shakdam, who now resides in London with her two children, the current media attention has been another step in a winding, complex life story.
Born in Paris to Jewish parents who fled Nazi persecution, Perez-Shakdam converted to Islam and spent years as a journalist and commentator in the Middle East.
“I was raised very, very secular. It wasn’t that I was cut out of the Jewish community, but I had no sense of religious belonging. I never grew up with a sense of Jewish identity,” she said.
At first, Perez-Shakdam wrote, from the UK and from Yemen, for international publications. But as her career went on, she appeared mostly as a talking head on Iranian state media. She presented Iran’s talking points to the world, but stresses she now holds very different views.
“I was really in the club. I was on television all the time. I think I’ve written for every media outlet they have, and I met quite a few people,” Perez-Shakdam said with a chuckle during her Zoom interview with The Times of Israel. “To have a Jew be featured on Press TV — the mouthpiece of the regime — bothers them.”
In 1999, as a young student at the London School of Economics, Perez-Shakdam had met her future husband, a Sunni Muslim from Sana’a in Yemen. They were married six months later. Although Perez-Shakdam converted to Islam, her Jewish background was a source of friction with her in-laws and eventually became a source of shame for her, she said.
“I never spoke about my heritage ever, because I knew that if I mentioned it, I would get bullied into silence. So I just stopped mentioning it,” Perez-Shakdam said.
While her husband was a Sunni Muslim, Perez-Shakdam found herself drawn to Islam’s second main branch, Shi’ism. Shi’ite Muslims revere a separate set of Islamic leaders — the prophet Mohammad’s son-in-law Ali and his descendants.
A strong theme of sacrifice resonates through the Shi’ite religious tradition, often centering around the figure of Hussein, Mohammad’s grandson. Hussein was killed alongside his brother Hassan by Sunni leaders at the battle of Karbala during the factional struggle in early Islam.
Every year, millions of Shi’a gather in Iraq to observe the Arba’een march. The worshippers walk to Karbala to mark the anniversary of Hussein’s martyrdom, sometimes traveling long distances on foot.
“It’s 20 million people walking, not because they have to, not out of religious duty, but out of love for this one imam that means everything to them,” Perez-Shakdam says, her voice filled with religious devotion, in a video filmed during one of the pilgrimages.
Do you remember this lady. She is Catherine Shakdam who was raised as a Jew in France then married a Muslim man in Yemen. Acted as a revolutionary lady and infiltrated into the revolutionary circles and visited #Iran. She finally revealed her true colours as a spy for #Zionism. pic.twitter.com/L7cktuGLbPAdvertisement
— Javeed Ali (@javeedalikmr) February 25, 2022
It was after her divorce, in 2014, that Perez-Shakdam got involved in Iranian media. “It snowballed really quickly. Iran is so starved for Western support that they’ll talk to anyone with a Western passport,” she said.
Even at the time, she said, she was aware that Iranian media was attempting to draft her into a “propaganda machine.”
“To a certain extent, I played along,” she said, although she said she was never compensated for her articles.
Hearing Khamenei in Tehran
In 2017, Perez-Shakdam took a trip to a mass conference on the Palestinian cause in Tehran — one of about five trips she made to Iran. She moved around apparently unhindered: by that point, she’d already been vetted by the regime, she said.
Khamenei opened the conference with a fiery diatribe condemning Israel as a “cancerous tumor.” The leader — the most powerful man in Iran — vowed that Tehran would never stop supporting Hamas and Hezbollah, to whom he attributed the successes of the Palestinian national movement.
Hamas terror chief Khaled Mashal was in attendance, as was top Iranian general Qasim Soleimani, who would be assassinated in 2020 by the United States in a drone strike in Iraq. For Perez-Shakdam, the atmosphere dovetailed nicely with her own views at the time.
“With Hamas stands the idea of resistance against oppression, and I think it’s very important today. I think that Israel fails to understand that – it has nothing to do with politics per se, but more to do with an idea or philosophy that people were born free,” Perez-Shakdam said in one of many interviews she did with Press TV, the Iranian state mouthpiece, in 2018.
“In the case of the Palestinians, I think that the only way forward is through armed resistance,” she added.
London-Based Analyst Catherine Shakdam on Iranian TV: Armed Resistance Is the Only Way Forward for the Palestinians pic.twitter.com/KEAriIalSO
— MEMRI (@MEMRIReports) January 2, 2019
But Perez-Shakdam said she was always sensitive to what Iranians and others around the Middle East said about Jews. In her telling, Iran is a conflicted society, torn between liberal impulses and its conservative leadership. But antisemitism is widespread and can be found at all levels of society.
“It’s insane what people say about Israel and the Jews in Iran. I’ve been told by educated people that the Jews have horns and a tail. It’s quite scary how far the hatred runs,” she said.
A kind of mea culpa
Perez-Shakdam credits her now 17-year-old daughter with opening her mind about Israel. Her daughter, who was first exposed to pro-Israel videos on YouTube, began developing Zionist views as a teenager. When she challenged Perez-Shakdam, it sparked an intellectual journey that brought her to her current worldview.
“She kept telling me ‘I don’t get it. You’re always telling me to look at both sides of the story. Why do you keep attacking Israel, when whenever people attack Jews in general, you get angry?’” Perez-Shakdam said.
“There was this guilt I was carrying, this shame about my background, and I did a lot of reading. And I realized that I was just wrong, 100 percent wrong,” she said.
According to Perez-Shakdam, her daughter hopes to serve in the Israeli army.
“It’s been important for me to do a kind of mea culpa, to own what I’ve done and own the mistakes I’ve made. But also, I have something important to say, as someone with my journey: I’ve seen the other side of things, and I have a fuller perspective,” she said.
“My intent isn’t to defame anyone, or to become the poster girl for Israel,” she Perez-Shakdam. “But it’s important to break people out of their narrative, which is a narrative of hate.”
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