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Former Rabbis, Second Wives and Charismatic Kabbalists: Jews Who Convert to Islam

The reasons some Jews convert to Islam are as unique as the converts themselves

Yousef al Khattab and wife

A  few years ago, rabbis, worshipers at synagogues and those who worked at Jewish organizations in the United States dreaded the name Yousef al-Khattab, webmaster of Revolution Muslim, who listed addresses of Jewish leaders and openly advocated that his followers hunt them down and kill them.

Yousef al-Khattab wasn’t just any terrorist advocating the murder of Jews in the name of Islamic jihad, but was one of their own. He was born Joseph Cohen in America to assimilated Jewish parents, had spent years in ultra-Orthodox communities in the United States and Israel and achieved rabbinical ordination before he and his family converted to Islam. After a few failed terror attempts by his followers, Yousef al-Khattab was imprisoned and was remorseful.

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As any protagonist in a tale of hubris, he seemed unsure of exactly at what point things had gotten out of control, but there was one thing he was sure of; he had failed. Whether it is true remorse or whether it was self-disgust at having failed to pull off several attacks, including one on Times Square involving a car bomb, is something Yousef al-Khattab most likely will not tell us.

Conversion of Jews to Islam, at least up to the present time, has been relatively rare, but not unheard of. One of Mohammad’s main followers, Abdullah Ibn Salman, also known as Al-Husayn Ibn Salam, was a dedicated and popular rabbi before he converted to Islam. Born in 550 C.E. in Yathrib, he said he was a descendant of Joseph. In the course of his Torah studies, he began to anticipate the arrival of the ultimate prophet whose vision would be the culmination the work of all the prophets who preceded him. On Muhammad’s journey from Mecca to Medina, Abdullah Ibn Salam stopped to meet him.

After questioning Muhammad, Abdullah concluded he was the prophet, but Salam wrote, “I concealed my conclusions from the Jews. I held my tongue.” Abdullah was the first Muslim who was said to inhabit Paradise while still alive. According to Islamic writings, Muhammad said to his followers, “Do you want to see a man walking on Earth and Paradise?” Muhammad pointed to Abdullah Ibn Salam.

Yousef al-Khattab

The notorious mystic Shabtai Tzvi, the man who single-handedly caused Kabbalah to be all but banned among Ashkenazim for generations,  proclaimed himself as the Jewish messiah and sparked off a movement among Jews in Europe that bears his name, a movement that became a byword among Jews for heresy. He was said to have converted to Islam to save his life while in prison in Constantinople.

His release from confinement was regarded as yet another of his miracles, and 300 of his followers and their families also converted to Islam, even though he didn’t show signs of practicing the religion following his release, aside from wearing a Turkish style turban. His brand of heresy remained essentially Jewish in flavor, as he slaughtered a Paschal lamb for Passover, but contrary to Torah law, ate the fat, and altered his blessings to say, “Blessed be God who hath restored again that which was forbidden.”

Maryam Jameelah

A more modern case of a convert from Judaism to Islam was Maryam Jameelah, who passed away in 2012. She was born Margaret Marcus in New Rochelle, New York to a non-observant Jewish family. She decried that lack of dedication of her fellow Reform Jews to rituals, and described how a shouting match would ensue whenever her mother wanted to take her sister to Sunday School to learn about Judaism. She criticized the fact that other children brought comic books to a bar mitzvah and that the children seemed to be given a free reign.

Whenever Margaret was introduced to Judaism or Zionism, she immediately was drawn to other side. Any discussion of Jewish practice led her to want to explore the Islamic views on God. She equated Palestinian suffering with images of Jews murdered during the Holocaust. She joined a Zionist youth group, but found the ideology narrow and nationalistic. Margaret told her family of her desire to convert to Islam years before she did, but they discouraged her. Margaret suffered from nervous exhaustion and was institutionalized on several occasions.

She took a course at NYU taught by Rabbi Abraham Katsch on Judaism’s influence on Islam. As a result, she became more attracted to Islam than Judaism, which seemed contrary to the aim of the course. Margaret dropped out of college and had another mental breakdown. This time, she was confined to a hospital and diagnosed with schizophrenia. A few years later, in 1962, Margaret converted to Islam, took the name of Maryam Jameelah, became the second wife of Muslim leader Mawlana Madudi, and bore him four children. She moved to Pakistan and became a prolific writer and defender of right-wing Islam as well as a vocal critic of Western culture and values.

Joseph Cohen, like Margaret Marcus, was born into an assimilated Jewish American family and was looking for a deeper devotion to religion. Initially, he thought he had found what he was looking for in his own faith, albeit the Orthodox form. He ended up living in one of the most insular chassidic communities in the United States, the Satmar community in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. On his blog, revert2islamtoday, he describes his journey to Orthodox Judaism and eventually to Islam, always placing “racist” before the word “Orthodox.” He writes, “I entered Yeshivah and started my journey into the racist Orthodox rabbinical cult.”

Cohen, now al Khattab, was dissatisfied with Williamsburg and went to Ocean Parkway. Of Williamsburg, he writes, “I used to see all the lying and cheating, government scams and money laundering, using the synagogue and Yeshivah bank accounts and the poor hygiene of the folk.” It was in Ocean Parkway that Joseph, later Yousef, discovered what this “racist cult” was up to—namely, keeping its adherents forever studying an endless Talmud for the sole purpose of keeping them subservient to their rabbis.

“You will never finish learning all of the rabbinic texts, ” he writes in his blog. “You are subservient to your rabbis (a.k.a. Elders of Zion) who will interpret Judaism for you.” He must be writing about this “discovery” in retrospect, because he would continue to live as an Orthodox Jew a few more years before converting his Islam.

His family then moved to what he then called “Israel, “; “Then, ” he writes, “like most Westerners, we were brainwashed to refer to the Jew entity as “Israel.” Strangely, in his jaundiced account of his time as an Orthodox Jew, Yousef does given grudging admiration to Shas, the Israeli religious political party (he notes his wife was originally from Morocco before she emigrated to America and attended Beis Yakov). He praises Shas approach to education and betrays a bit of nachat ruach (pride) at his children being top of the class in Hebrew.

“My kids went from knowing no Hebrew to being at the head of their class, Alhumdulilah (thanks be to God, or as he once said in Williamsburg, Baruch Hashem).” Later, he would boast about the fact that his children had forgotten Hebrew, and in Morocco, Arabic was “their first language.” Yousef says he converted after discussing theology with a Muslim friend, reading an English translation of the Koran and feeling that it answered all of the problems he had with Judaism.

Yousef al-Khattab, unlike Marayam Jameelah, wasn’t content simply to live a koran-true life with his family and write about Islam; he, according to his website, Revolution Muslim, was dedicated to jihad and made special targets of his former Jewish haunts, including 770 Eastern Parkway, known as Lubavitch Headquarters (after leaving the Satmar movement, he had briefly studied with Chabad).

He displayed for readers of his website links to “The Anarchist’s Cookbook” which gives instructions on how to make rudimentary explosives. He praised Osama bin Laden and posted videos on the site encouraging his followers to go to the homes of Jewish leaders (he provided their addresses)  and “deal with them directly in their homes.” He also accused several Jewish leaders of a terrorist plot and urged followers to “hold them responsible” as reported by Haaretz.

Several people who have been convicted of terror-related activities were regular visitors of the site, including “Jihad Jane” who was arrested for giving death threats to a cartoonist for drawing Muhammad. al-Khattab himself also issued death threats to “South Park” creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone for a cartoon of Muhammad. A car bomb was found outside of Viacom in Times Square and it was thought there was an attempt to blow up Comedy Central, which broadcasts “South Park, ” eerily similar to the unfortunately successful attack against Charlie Hebdo, the satirical French magazine, years later for a similar “offense” of mocking the Prophet.

In April, 2014, Yousef al-Khattab was sentenced to two and a half years in prison, and pleaded guilty to incitement. Strangely, he behaved in his interview with NPR as if he had no notion that his statements were anything beyond free speech and might inspire terror or his followers to actually attempt terror attacks. Nonetheless, like a drunk driver who sobers up, he was contrite about his accidental jihad, “What I did was stupid and wrong, ” al-Khattab said on NPR, as reported by Haaretz. “I am paying the price for that now, period.

I thought we had stayed on the right side of this with regard to free speech. But it appears we went over it, went too far, and I’ll say it; this is stupidity and this is what happens when you hang out with the wrong type of people. So it is my fault. I know when I go to jail, they will be saying, ‘Allah, Allah he’s a mujahadid. I am not a mujahadid. I’m a failure.”




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