Switching sides: Hussein Aboubakr’s journey from future Jihadist to Israeli educator

Hussein Aboubakr was jailed in Egypt for conspiracy of Israeli spying. As a refugee with “nothing to lose,” he came to the United States in 2012 and now works at StandWithUs, an antisemitism-fighting nonprofit.


Ava Fattahi

Aboubakr answers questions from his audience of community members during the Q&A portion of the event.

Ava Fattahi

The Harvard-Westlake Jewish Family Association (HWJFA) hosted a Zoom event with guest speaker Hussein Aboubakr, a political refugee from Egypt and an educator at StandWithUs (SWU), a nonprofit Los Angeles-based Israeli empowerment and education organization dedicated to fighting antisemitism April 13. 

Aboubakr was jailed in Egypt for studying Israeli history and learning Hebrew to better understand the culture that Egyptians perceived as the “enemy.” In his youth, Aboubakr hated Jews and wanted to become a Jihadist later in life but his studies taught him about a different side of Israel which he had never seen, which he described as “familial, peace-seeking and welcoming.” He was jailed, tortured and beat because Egyptian law enforcement believed that Aboubakr was an Israeli spy. He then came to the United States as a refugee seeking asylum in 2012 and he now continues his Israeli studies as he works with teenagers at SWU to share his findings. 

Parents, faculty and students joined the hour-long event to hear Aboubakr’s story

The event began with an introduction of Aboubakr and his documentary about his journey, “A Minority of One.” Prior to the event, guests were encouraged to watch the documentary to learn more about his experience. Aboubakr was described as “brave, hardworking and persistent” by his SWU colleague Robyn Fener (Sydney ’22) during his introduction. The event followed a Q&A format with 28 attendees including students, parents, teachers and alumni.

Aboubakr spoke on how he began his learning process and how he was ultimately caught and forced out of his hometown in Cairo, Egypt.

“Antisemitism was part of the cultural fabric near me and I just believed stories that said Jews were evil and controlling,” Aboubakr said. “This bias was present in daily conversations and even media presented to young kids including myself. I was so fascinated by this that I wanted to get involved. I went online and read everything I could and started to teach myself Hebrew and learn about the history of Israel and Judaism. It was like I woke up from this false reality I lived in and I started to talk about these issues and reach out to Israeli people to learn more. At that moment, I started to encounter serious challenges from the Egyptian government and even my own family. It was a very difficult experience that got me kicked out of the country.”

Aboubakr produced and directed his documentary in 2010

Fener said the event was an opportunity for students and other community members to get to know Aboubakr and his one-of-a-kind experience.

“The event was filled with thoughtful, intelligent questions by students and brilliant answers from Aboubakr,” Fener said. “The students were engaged throughout and made me proud to be an HW parent. During the event he elaborated on the story of his life which was also documented in his film that I recommend everybody watches. I’m proud to now work with him at SWU.”

Asher Schwartz ’21 said he enjoyed learning about Aboubakr’s journey and noted its significance in discussions of race.

“It was really interesting to learn about Hussein’s unique experience, and how he was able to shed off the hatred and prejudice that was cemented in his mind by his upbringing,” Schwartz said. “I think it’s important that we learn more about people like him, as he is living proof that racism is something that is bred by ignorance and can be abolished through conversation and exposure to what is unfamiliar.”