From India To Irvine: The Man Behind @JihadiJew
Weissman had received notice of the protest from a local rabbi. One of the fundraiser’s slated speakers, Imam Siraj Wahhaj, had been accused of making statements in support of Hezbollah and a contingent of the local community, including members of the Republican Party of Orange County, had planned a demonstration.
Weissman, already familiar with the historically tense relations between Orange County’s growing Muslim population and their Republican counterparts, decided to go. But he brought a sign along with him: “I’m here to talk, not to protest.”
“I had no idea what I was walking into,” Weissman remembered with a heavy sigh.
He arrived at the community center to find hundreds of people gathered along the street carrying signs emblazoned with slogans like “No Sharia Law!” and “God Bless America." Others had gathered on the front lawn yelling, “Go back home!” to Muslim families arriving to the event.
“I bet your husband beats you!” they shouted at Muslim women.
“And they’re directing these at women and children,” Weissman said. “There was a priest who was just yelling, ‘Muhammed was a child molester!’ into the kids’ faces.”
To arriving families and the angry protesters, it appeared Weissman was part of the angry mob. Weismann wears the peyos - long curls of hair on both side of his head - that mark him as an observant Orthodox Jew.
“Part of it was comical,” he said. “You know there was a guy behind me yelling, ‘Bacon! We need some bacon!’ And he would turn around to me and say, ‘Sorry, rabbi.’”
Weissman is not a rabbi. But he could not believe the level of vitriol on display that night.
“That was Germany in 1933,” he said, referring to the protest. “That was not why my family came here to America.”
He crossed the barrier to stand at the doorway of the community center, greeting every Muslim family who passed.
On Twitter, his 8,300 followers know him as JihadiJew. His display photo, black and white, depicts his bearded, beaming, bespectacled face.
Weissman’s tweets are 140-character nuggets of wisdom, infused with concepts from Jewish, Islamic, Christian and even Hindu traditions.
“In the inner jihad, apathy is really the enemy within your ranks, quietly weakening the heart for the battle,” he wrote in one tweet.
“The Torah says ‘love your NEIGHBOR’ because loving someone far away is often so much easier,” he wrote in another.
He started the Twitter account about a year ago at the insistence of his students at the Tarbut V’Torah Jewish Community School in Irvine.
“I'd say things in class and they'd be writing them down feverishly,” he said.
When he sat down to choose a Twitter handle, he already knew what he wanted. He had a blog already - called “Jihadi Yehudi," which translates directly to “Jihadi Jew” - where he wrote reflections on Jewish and Islamic theology.
“This was a word and an idea that had becomes so demonized,” he said of the word “Jihad”, the Arabic word for struggle, most often used to connote militancy. The word, however, is layered, used to describe a spiritual struggle as well.
“I wanted to bring out that concept because I think that's what we most share: that idea of the struggle with the self to become better people,” he said. “If I wanted Muslims and Jews to be able to relate to each other, that's the area I would want them to relate to.”
Weissman became familiar with Islam more than 20 years ago when he was studying in India. He grew up in a secular household in Philadelphia. His encounters with Judaism until then had been largely cultural.
“When I was in high school, I became very hostile to it because the kind of Judaism I was raised with...was really pretty impoverished,” he said. “It was a little bit of Israeli nationalism mixed with some vague ethnic identity and a couple of rituals people didn't really understand very well.”
In high school he became interested in Indian philosophy. Years later, his curiosity would bring him to Madras, India, where he studied for a doctoral degree in Sanskrit and Tamil languages. He spent his nights dissecting religious texts with a Muslim Sufi Sheikh who doubled as a physics professor during the day.
“We're sitting late one night and he says to me, what are you doing here? What do you do with your life?” Weissman said. “So I said, well, I'm here doing research. He said, what do you research? I said, I research religion. And he said, what do you do for fun?”
Weissman found himself giving the same answer.
“Has it ever occurred to you that what you really want is your own ibaadat Allah, your own service of God?” asked the Sheikh.
Weissman knew the answer was yes.
“Start praying,” the Sheikh told him.
“I tell people I'm the only Jewish person I know who was made Jewish by a Muslim,” Weissman said.
India To Irvine
Eventually, Weissman made it to Irvine where he remarried his current wife, Laura, and lives with his daughter, Sara. His involvement in the Muslim community began after 9/11, when anti-Muslim hysteria was at its peak.
“There was a part of me that said, you can’t let that happen to somebody else,” he said. " America can’t turn into Germany 1933. I decided people like me need to be on the vanguard.”
The Yorba Linda protest was not the first, nor the last, incident of its kind. In the last couple of years, Orange County has been notorious as a battleground for fervent right-wingers, Zionist organizations, Muslim student organizations and pro-Palestinian groups.
The UC Irvine campus, in particular, has been a hotbed of nasty conflicts between pro-Zionist and anti-Zionist groups. The Muslim Student Union, which counts itself as among the latter, has been placed squarely in the center of these conflicts, causing much uproar by organizing events like Anti-Zionism week.
Weissman became familiar with the event through the Jewish community.
“All I heard was ‘jihad was beginning in Irvine, California,’” he said.
He decided to go to an event himself.
“I was half-expecting that everything I heard was true,” he said. “But these were the nicest kids.”
Weissman began a relationship with the Muslim Student Union and they began inviting him to events. He has led halaqas - spiritual discussions - and given talks to MSUs all over California, most recently at UC Davis.
He doesn’t agree with some of what they do.
“My feelings on Anti-Zionism Week continue to be mixed,” he said, but Weissman prefers to engage in discussion with them. When some of the students were put on trial - dubbed the Irvine 11 - for disrupting the speech of Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren, Weissman served as a character witness for one of the defendants.
“In my opinion, [disrupting speeches] causes more problems than it solves,” he said. “But I thought it was a little embarrassing that the district attorney felt they had to prosecute.”
Weissman has recently received flack for his involvement with the Muslim Student Union. He's often the recipient of inconspicuous jabs for his “Arab friends” and unmasked disapproval from some congregants of a local synagogue. But he’s happy to ignore it, because – from both sides – feedback of his work, on Twitter and off, has been largely supportive and he believes the only way to bridge the gap is get each side talking to each other.
“We have very similar lifestyles,” he said. “All I wish is that we know each other.”
Reach senior staff reporter Tasbeeh Herwees here.