He came to Palestine with a group of Jewish immigrants from the United States and his wife and children in tow. He lived in an ultra-orthodox neighborhood in the southern Israeli city of Netivot. He studied the Torah in a synagogue, spending most of his time buried in books with little regard for the outside world. Although he occasionally heard of the bloody events in the Palestinian territories, he gave them scant attention.
But one day, a quick search on the internet and a coincidental cyber meeting with Sheikh Saleh from the United Arab Emirates changed the life of Joseph Leonard Cohen, the Jewish immigrant. He is now Yousef Khattab, the Muslim.
The man who now calls himself Khattab used to be a faithful follower of the Jewish movement Satmar, a mystical trend of Judaism that brought him to Israel four years ago. He then moved to the more prominent religious movement, Shas, which he says “enchanted” him.
But that enchantment did not last for long. About a year and a half ago, Khattab, then 36, was sitting before his computer, chatting on the internet with several people from around the world. One day, Sheikh Saleh happened to be in the same chat room and the two struck up a conversation.
That was the beginning of a series of discussions about the Jewish and Islamic faiths. Of course, their talk was not devoid of political issues, including the Israeli occupation.
“I asked Saleh to enter a private chat room with me and he agreed,” says Khattab. “We began to talk and I realized that Saleh was very well read in the Islamic faith. I was weak in my discussion with him. He relied on proof and evidence and although I studied the Torah, his ability to persuade exceeded my abilities.” After the chat session was over, the two men parted, trading email addresses and hoping to meet again in cyberspace.
“I started to think about what Saleh had told me,” says Khattab. “I would sit for hours thinking, especially as I lay in bed at night. After some long hard thinking I realized the weakness of the Jewish religion as opposed to Islam, especially in providing proof and evidence about the Creator.”
Khattab says he called Saleh by phone and had a number of conversations and debates with him. “I also visited many Islamic websites to read more about Islam. After all this, I came to a decision to convert.”
Khattab says that once he made his decision to convert to Islam, he approached his wife. “I have decided to become a Muslim,” he told her. “If you want to remain Jewish, you may because I love you and I love our children.”
Two weeks later, after his wife Luna did some serious thinking and also read about Islam on the internet, she too decided to convert. Their four children followed suit. “My son Ezra, 12, became Abdel Aziz, my daughter is Hasiba, 7, my son Rehavam,9, became Abdel Hamid and my youngest son Ovadia,4, became Abdallah, all of them Muslims,” Khattab says proudly.
Today, upon entering the Khattab house, one notices that his children do not speak Hebrew, but English and Arabic, a language Khattab himself is trying to master. His children now go to Arab schools and the family lives in an Arab neighborhood in Beit Hanina. Before this move, they lived briefly in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Al Tur and also in Abu Ghosh, which Khattab says they were forced to leave because of threats they received from Jewish settler groups. “They would threaten us with death because I was Muslim and because they said I was an Arab lover,” recalls Khattab.
Given these enmities, was the declaration of his conversion easy? Khattab says that after he decided to convert, he went to an Arab acquaintance who advised him to read the Quran in English. “I did this, even though I knew it was one of the greater sins in Judaism,” he admits. But his conviction in Islam only grew stronger after reading the holy book.
“I then went to [Jerusalem mufti] Sheikh Ikrama Sabri and asked him for a conversion to Islam. However, he said I must first go to the Israeli shariya court and get the conversion from them before he can give me one from the Islamic authority in Jerusalem,” he continues.
Khattab says this was not an easy task, but after much perseverance, he did obtain the legal document on October 4, 2001 that allowed he and his wife and children to become Muslims. After that Sabri also obliged.
But Khattab’s problems were not over. “My troubles were now with the Israeli government and the Jewish people,” he says.
Jewish groups repeatedly threatened him and his family and Khattab was harassed at work, he says. “I was finally fired from my job because I was seen praying the Muslim prayer at work,” he remembers. He recalls his boss’s last words: “Joseph, do not abandon the Jews.”
Now, Khattab struggles with the Israeli interior and religious ministries, both of which refuse to change his religion on his legal documents. “They asked me to see a psychiatrist first,” he says. Khattab believes the authorities made this request so they can claim him mentally unfit and take his children away from him.
“What they are doing only makes me doubt the democracy of this state – not to allow someone to become a Muslim, just because he is Jewish,” Khattab contends.