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What I Learned Hosting a Former Hamas Member for Shabbat Dinner

As an Alaskan-born Jew who grew up with an open house, having exotic Shabbat guests was pretty standard. Those brave enough to withstand the Alaskan elements were typically rewarded with a Shabbat meal expertly prepared by my mom, a solid schmooze session orchestrated by my dad, and plenty of entertainment provided freely by my brothers and I.

Sometimes those guests came for dinner, lunch, or third meal, sometimes they’d stay in our house for a few hours, a few days, or a few months. A few people even discovered their Jewish roots and either became religious again or converted to Judaism after having a meal at the Grashin house.

A little more than a month ago, I was fortunate enough to host Ahmad for his first Shabbat dinner.

Ahmad grew up in the “West Bank.” Like any good Palestinian, he was studious, and sadly, like most Palestinians growing up in the environment he came from, was the victim of abuse. Not just emotional or physical abuse from his family members, but also sexual abuse from members of Hamas.

But before we jump to the end, I’d like to describe my observations from our first encounter.

Admittedly, I was a bit nervous. Ahmad was a stranger who I only found out about from an article he posted on X that was then shared in a writer’s group, saying “This guy is looking to have his first Shabbat meal, is anyone willing to host?”

I glanced at the article and threw my hat/kippah in the ring. I did it knowing it was a risk, but we are in risky times. Jews are risking their lives and their safety by wearing obvious signs of their Jewishness when they walk in the streets. Jews are under attack in our homeland, and in the diaspora, if God wants to punish me for opening my home, then so be it.

With not much time to prepare, my new friend, Guy, whom I met the day I agreed to host, had doubts about the safety and/or reality of Ahmad’s story. After our meeting ended a bit on a cliffhanger, I received a text from Ahmad, from an American phone number. Since I was driving, I saw the message but didn’t reply. 8 minutes later, I received a phone call from a +970 number, the caller ID read: PALESTINIAN TERRITORIES. I answered the call but heard nobody on the other end. It sounded like someone was listening, but not talking back.

I checked my phone for Ahmad’s message and called him on the number he messaged me on, and asked him if he had just called. He genuinely sounded confused, and responded “No, I texted you about ten minutes ago.” Knowing that maintaining his identity a secret was important, I told him about the phone call. We were now both confused and a little hesitant, but almost immediately, as we spoke I could sense a genuine desire from Ahmad to connect and to put my mind at ease that his intentions were pure.

To be completely honest, (and yes he will read this), some of his story seemed a bit fragmented, particularly the “references” he provided from within the Jewish community. However, despite my skepticism, the overall warm and friendly tone of his voice allowed me to give him and myself the benefit of the doubt. Looking back, he was probably as nervous as I was, if not more.

Shabbat arrived, and so did Ahmad. He walked into my house, and he was a big presence. His first words were “Allahu akbar” followed by a boyish giggle. I knew then this was not going to be an ordinary meal, and despite the unique guests I’ve had in my house throughout my life, Ahmad was going to stand in his own category.

In preparation for the meal, I brought a bottle of wine to the table to uncork it for Kiddush , and his eyes lit up, “I’ve never seen someone open a bottle of wine before” he told me. I tell him we’re just getting started.

As we sit down for Kiddush (as is my father’s custom), I am about to explain its significance to Ahmad, and I can see the eye rolls from the impatient guests, who have been to plenty of Shabbat dinners before and don’t need the explanation. Undeterred by their desire to start dinner, I gave him a similar explanation to what my father would give guests at our house. Something like, “God created the world in six days, and on the seventh day He rested. That day of rest is sacred, and to create a distinction between the regular workweek and the holy Shabbat, we bless wine with a testimony from the Torah that talks about the creation and the rest.”

We then sang the traditional songs and blessed the wine. At this point, Ahmad, who’s also wearing a kippah, was crying, or at least tearing up.

We started the meal, and everyone was chatting. Ahmad would share fragments of his story with people who’d ask, but since he was sitting next to me, and my innate curiosity was kicking in, I paused the robust table chatter to allow Ahmad to tell his story.

I’m not going to recount his entire story, he has articles out that you can read, and he is currently working on writing his full story. Suffice to say, these days Ahmad wants to teach compassion and respect for others, and has sought out connections with the Jewish community. I wasn’t the first Jew he met, but I was the first to host him for Shabbat. I could see the genuine desire to build positive relationships with many people at the table that night.

He called himself a Zionist and told us he believes the Al-Aqsa mosque doesn’t belong where it is, on the site of the holy Jewish Temple. Not only does he believe that, but he plans to show how the Quran backs up that opinion. He also talked about the difficulty he had with his wife as he started to advocate for Israel. This went against the values they had when they got married and angered his wife. Imagine her surprise when a DNA test confirmed she had Jewish ancestry on her mother’s side… which means, his children are Jewish too!

Fast forward – the Sunday after the meal, there was a pro-Israel rally in Beverly Hills that displayed the flags for every victim of October 7th. Walking through it brought us both to tears. He apologized. I told him it was not his fault, and that with more people like him, we’ll see less death on both sides.

Later that day we had lunch at an Israeli restaurant (his request), and that is where my deep learning began. It was clear that this weekend had changed his life, but that he was terrified to go home. At home, he feels isolated from the world, unable to share his opinions openly, especially in the Muslim community his family is a part of. Beyond just being scared, Ahmad’s view of life is extremely fatalistic; he said on multiple occasions that he had hoped to be sent into Gaza to free the hostages and die in the process. He also has suicidal thoughts and has made attempts throughout his adult life to act on them. I told him, that perhaps if you haven’t succeeded at ending your life, it might be worth trying to live his life instead, and that Allah is sending him a message that his work here is not done. He laughed but continued to say that his dream was for his son to become self-sufficient and have enough money so he could leave this world.

Even as someone who’s experienced an inordinate amount of death in my lifetime, I couldn’t understand this mindset. I told him that usually when your children have reached a point where they are independent and set up, that’s the “golden era” where you get to relax and enjoy the fruits of your labor. But my perspective is a Western one, and a Jewish one. A way of seeing the world with all its flaws, but still choosing life despite it all. Because to a Jew, life is our core value. We may disagree on how we practice Judaism, what we define success as, which political party to vote for, but we are imbued with a passion for life, for achievement, and service.

What I learned from seeing someone have the best weekend of their life, who also seemed to want to end his life, is that people are a product of their environment and their upbringing, and the radical version of religion and culture he was brought up with, that exalts death, that promotes struggle, and denies worldly pleasures that other faiths create guidelines for, perverted his belief system to deny all those pleasures, even at the expense of his own happiness. There is no grey in the life of a jihadist, it’s all black and white, life and death.

Honestly, it was sad. It is sad. As our friendship has continued over the last several weeks, I find myself frustrated at the fact that he has such an open heart, and yet such a closed mind. It’s even more frustrating because I can see the limitations in the way of thinking as a direct byproduct of horrible conditioning, which is not his fault in the least. I don’t mean that he is not interested in learning, quite the opposite, but as Jews, we are taught to question, to compromise, to arrive at our own conclusions, especially if there’s a rabbinic source that backs it up. ‘Islam’ means to “surrender” or to “submit”, making the notion of questioning everything to find a middle ground not part of the world he was raised in. You can’t submit yourself and question theology at the same time. As a result, even when Ahmad shifted his opinion and his perspective on how he saw the world — the abuse, the education, and the mindset is not something that melts away so easily.

So, what does this mean for peace in the Middle East, and the future of Jews and Palestinians?

I wish I had an optimistic message. Ahmad’s story is both heartwarming and tragic. Heartwarming, because in his quest for knowledge and truth, he was able to uncover the lies, manipulation, and poor conditioning he was brought up in to have a healthier perspective on others, especially the ones he hated the most – the Jews. But, as a result of his speaking up, he’s had to keep his identity a secret, he gets death threats directed at him and his family and is struggling to navigate life now that the blinders have been removed.

Much like a camera lens, if you remove the lens cap, light floods the lens and it takes time to calibrate and filter. Ahmad is in that stage in his life, and ironically, it is the community he grew up detesting, who are as optimistic for this connection as he is. But how can we get more Ahmads to see the light, to embrace love over hate, and compassion over terror?

This question comes up in our conversations and in my mind every day. As a creative, I hope to bring like-minded Jews and Palestinians or Muslims to write, compose, or collaborate on creative projects that reflect our desire to connect rather than distance ourselves, and to coexist rather than point fingers.

Sadly, and I hope I’m proven wrong, but I believe there are more people like me, willing to host a former Hamas member in their house than there are people who support Palestinians willing to host and cherish a relationship with Jews who support the existence of the Jewish state.

While this is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the relationship Ahmad and I now have, I admit I don’t know if every detail in his story is true. I’ve been warned by family and friends to be careful. But what I do know, or at least strongly suspect, is there are more like him. More people who know they’ve been fed a bad bowl of hummus, who want to connect with a world they were closed off from. It is a difficult path to find peace in the world today, but my Jihad is to continually build connections, and spread truth without alienating or blaming the silent Ahmads of the world, so they too can rise out of the rubble of bad education, violent conditioning, and a misconception of who we are to be that or lagoyim, not just when it’s convenient, but especially when it’s not.

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