It would no doubt come as a surprise to many to know that Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas (aka “Abu Mazen”) has Jewish ancestry.
Abu Mazen was born in Tzfat, a city in northern Israel that, after the expulsion from Spain in 1492, became a major center of the Kabbalah. His father was a descendant of one of the rabbinic families that settled in Safed.
How did Abu Mazen’s family become Muslim? On Jan. 1, 1837, a major earthquake struck Safed, causing many of its residents to flee, though some stayed. The Muslims forced the Jews who stayed to convert to Islam. The ancestors of Abu Mazen’s father were among those who, despite a rabbinic legacy, converted.
How do we know this? Due to the nature of Arab society, the parents of young children inculcate them with the history of their own family, clan and tribal relationships as well as those of their neighbors. Muslims from Safed were therefore well aware of the fact that Abu Mazen’s ancestors were originally Jews, and they passed this knowledge on to their descendants.
In private, these Muslims are sometimes prepared to divulge this. That is how we know about Abu Mazen’s Jewish origins. But the same Muslims refuse to say this publicly because doing so would endanger their lives.
Many Palestinian Muslims and Christians are, in fact, of Jewish origin. I have heard from a significant number of young Palestinians that they know they have Jewish ancestry. However, they will not dare to say so publicly because they fear being labeled as traitors to the Palestinian cause. In their culture, that treachery would be punishable by death.
Abu Mazen was a protégé of Yasser Arafat. As is usual among Arab leaders, Arafat encouraged division and discord between his deputies to ensure that none would attempt to overthrow him. Arafat encouraged rivalry and enmity so his subordinates would focus their anger on each other—not on him.
As a result, Arafat’s subordinates were always on the lookout for “acts of treachery” by their colleagues, which they would report to Arafat.
Abu Mazen joined Arafat when the latter was expelled from Beirut to Tunis in Aug. 1982. Stories of Arafat and his cohorts’ time in Tunis include the claim that someone once put a sign on the door of Abu Mazen’s office that read wikalat al-yahud—“The Jewish Agency” in Arabic. Clearly, the man who put up the sign wanted to shame Abu Mazen, implying that he was a “spy” for Israel, and thus gain brownie points with Arafat.
I have been told that when Arafat wanted to remind Abu Mazen who was boss, Arafat would yell anta yahudi—“You are a Jew!” This became common knowledge to others in Arafat’s entourage.
Does Abu Mazen’s Jewish ancestry explain his deep animosity towards Jews and Israel? Muslim Palestinians of Jewish origin usually know that others with whom they associate are aware of their origins. These ex-Jews often overcompensate in order to prove their loyalty. They sometimes do so by joining Muslim terrorist organizations such as Hamas, the PLO and so on.
For example, the Palestinian Muslim terrorists who murdered Jews in the Sarona Mall in Tel Aviv in 2016 were Mohammad and Khaled Mukhammara. They belong to the Mukhammara clan in Yata, a village near Hebron in Judea.
It is known among the villagers around Hebron that the people of Yata were originally Jewish. Moreover, the meaning of the clan’s name—Mukhammara—comes from the Arabic root KH-M-R, which means “wine.” Thus, the clan name means either “winemakers” or people having some connection to wine. As is well known, having anything to do with wine is a major sin to Muslims. In that context, today’s Mukhammara clan members, as good Muslims, almost assuredly would have nothing to do with wine. But their Jewish ancestors clearly did—hence the name of their clan.
Even more interestingly, it is common knowledge among the locals in the Hebron area that after the 1967 Six-Day War when Israel took control over Judea and Samaria, heads the above-mentioned clan and other clans in the area, even some living in the city of Hebron itself, went to then-Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Dayan—who was in charge of the newly acquired territories—and asked him to help them return to Judaism. Dayan rebuffed them.
Why did they approach Dayan in the first place? In the Middle East, people go with the strong horse. Israel had just soundly defeated the Arab Muslim armies of Jordan, Egypt and Syria, and was the new strongman.
Dayan’s refusal to help them meant that these clans no longer enjoyed any external protection. So, many local Muslim descendants of Jews chose the next best option: Going overboard to prove their loyalty to the Muslim cause by committing terrorist acts against Jews.
This phenomenon is common among others as well. For example, local Christians who chose to identify with the Arab or Palestinian cause tended to join or form what State Department Middle Eastern specialists tended to call extremist organizations. These included the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP), headed by the Greek Orthodox Christian George Habash. A later offshoot, the Popular Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PDFLP), was headed by Nayef Hawatmeh, a Greek Catholic Christian.
Abu Mazen has done the same. For example, his Ph.D. thesis written at Moscow’s Institute of Oriental Studies in 1982 is saturated with antisemitism, including Holocaust denial. It is entirely possible that, in choosing this topic and making such historically absurd claims, Abu Mazen was just trying to prove his loyalty to the Muslim Palestinian cause and deny his Jewish origins.