Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Shoebat draws crowds, debate

Self-described former terrorist Walid Shoebat told an audience of about 750 at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee on Tuesday night that Muslims in the Middle East are raised to believe in the destruction of Israel.

But after his speech, which got a standing ovation, the question-and-answer session became raucous and heated.

One questioner, Abd Elhamid Elsayed, a Muslim opposed to Shoebat’s message, didn’t get to his question quickly enough for some people, who shouted at him to finish. Security officers pulled him away from the microphone.

Another man yelled, “Hallelujah!”

Shoebat said he was born in Bethlehem to a Muslim father and an American Christian mother held in the Middle East against her will. As a young man, he said, he committed acts of terror against Israel, including throwing a bomb at a bank in Bethlehem that he said killed no one.

He later moved to Chicago, where he said he openly advocated for the Palestinian group Hamas. He converted to Christianity in 1993 and lives under an assumed name.

“The idea of destroying Israel never left our minds,” Shoebat said. “We didn’t have any of the critical thinking you enjoy here in the West. . . . We had the idea that Israel must be wiped out, and we must establish a state.”

The event was sponsored by the UWM Conservative Union. After the event, the Muslim Student Association held a counter-forum. Ahmed Rehab, executive director of the Chicago chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, described Shoebat’s speech as historically inaccurate and one-sided.

“What’s his qualifications? He’s not a scholar or even a Muslim,” Rehab said. “He’s an ex-terrorist, and you can guess what that says about him.”

A handful of protesters stood outside the Wisconsin Room, carrying signs that read “Jews Against Islamophobic Hate Speech.” Many others, including Anne Franczek of Wauwatosa, wanted to hear Shoebat’s message.

“The Muslims are trying to kill off the Jews. I don’t think it’s hate speech,” she said. About 70 people were turned away because the room was full. Shoebat’s appearance sparked controversy last week after UWM charged the Conservative Union an unusually high fee for extra security at the speaking engagement. UWM officials decided to rescind the extra fee, and the UWM Conservative Union paid Shoebat a $5,000 honorarium.

Security was tight: A bomb-sniffing dog swept the auditorium beforehand. Guests passed through metal detectors and weren’t allowed to carry signs with sticks.

Shoebat accused Muslim Student Associations of supporting Hamas and promoting hatred toward Jews.

Copyright © 2007, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel