A packed house sat to watch Marc Lamont Hill (left) debate Mosab Hassan Yousef (right) at Evans Hall at UC Berkeley on Thursday, April 18, 2024. (Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins)
A packed house sat to watch Marc Lamont Hill (left) debate Mosab Hassan Yousef (right) at Evans Hall at UC Berkeley on Thursday, April 18, 2024. (Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins)

‘Son of Hamas’ and Al Jazeera host find little common ground at UC Berkeley

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

Updated at 5:10 p.m. April 19

It was dubbed “the great debate,” but it was more a mashup of two people talking past each other.

Thursday evening’s event at UC Berkeley, sponsored by Zionist student group Tikvah and Cal’s Chabad center, was originally planned as a talk by Ramallah native Mosab Hassan Yousef, whose father co-founded the terrorist group Hamas.

Yousef, widely known as “Son of Hamas,” was heir apparent to his father’s position before he defected to Israel in 1997. He worked as an Israeli spy for 10 years before converting to Christianity and, in 2007, received political asylum in the United States. He now moves between secret locations and gives frequent interviews to the media, vigorously denouncing Hamas and Islam, and supporting Israel.

At the 11th hour, organizers added Al Jazeera host Marc Lamont Hill to the mix, reimagining the lecture as a debate. Chabad Rabbi Gil Leeds, whose organization raised the money for the event, told J. that students said they wanted to hear “all sides of the story” rather than a “monologue.”

“We wanted this to bring civil discourse back to campus, to kind of wrap up the academic year,” he told J.

Hill, who is a journalist, activist, television personality and professor of urban education at CUNY Graduate Center in New York, hosts the Al Jazeera show “UpFront.” He speaks often about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from the Palestinian point of view and lost his contract as a CNN contributor in 2018 the day after making controversial remarks about Israel, though the network never confirmed that was the reason.

Before inviting Hill, Leeds said, a Jewish student senator invited members of the Muslim Student Association and other pro-Palestinian campus groups to attend and “to challenge” Yousef during the Q&A. None of them responded, he said.

Mosab Hassan Yousef debates Marc Lamont Hill (not pictured) at Evans Hall at UC Berkeley on Thursday, April 18, 2024. (Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins)
Mosab Hassan Yousef grew up in Hamas and now spends his life denouncing the organization.  (Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins)

According to Leeds, Yousef donated his speaking fee to Chabad so they could pay for Hill’s appearance.

More than 500 people, mostly students, registered for the debate, but only 237 could fit in the lecture room in Evans Hall. Another 800 watched the livestream, organizers said. Security was tight, with armed police and metal detectors. Unlike at earlier pro-Israel events, notably the February talk violently derailed at Zellerbach Playhouse, there were no protesters on Thursday night besides a white-bearded man standing outside with a Palestinian flag.

From the start of the debate, it was clear the two speakers had radically different narratives.

Yousef’s M.O. is to tell his personal story of disappointment and fury at Hamas, a terrorist organization he says is seeking to destroy Israel and to proclaim an Islamic state. He also says the Palestinians are to blame for their ills and that they suffer from terminal victimhood. He is not a native English speaker, and his style of delivery is emotional and uncompromising. He has lived through horrors and does not recount them dispassionately.

Hill, by contrast, is a skilled public speaker whose take on the Middle East is part of a worldview that sees colonialism and oppression as the prime movers in history. He is American-born and conversant with politics and history, including the history of Zionism. (He quoted early Zionist activist Ze’ev Jabotinsky several times.)

The topics they covered included the history of Zionism and Palestine — no such country, said Yousef. Hill said that even the founders of Israel acknowledged their mission involved settling the land and replacing the “indigenous” people; Yousef countered by saying Jews are the ones who are indigenous to the land and thus cannot be colonialist settlers.

Both agreed that the Hamas massacre of 1,200 people in Israel on Oct. 7 was horrendous and without excuse. Both denounced Hamas as an organization bent on destruction rather than helping the Palestinians. Both denounced the taking of an estimated 253 hostages into Gaza on Oct. 7. Of them, 133 remain captive, though it’s unknown how many are alive.

Turning to the ongoing Israel-Hamas war, they agreed that an immediate cease-fire will not end the conflict. But Hill said that any real peace will demand justice for the Palestinians, saying “history didn’t begin on Oct. 7.” Yousef said that no hope is possible until Hamas is “completely destroyed” and “Palestinians end the cycle of violence.”

Marc Lamont Hill debates Mosab Hassan Yousef (not pictured) at Evans Hall at UC Berkeley on Thursday, April 18, 2024. (Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins)
Marc Lamont Hill at UC Berkeley on Thursday, April 18, 2024. (Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins)

Yousef presented the term “Palestinian” as a colonial construct invented by the British and callously seized upon by Yasser Arafat in 1967 to create hostility toward Israel. Noting that he was born in the West Bank and carries Jordanian citizenship, Yousef rejects the notion of “Palestinian” and calls himself Arab.

Hill disputed this narrative, saying that Arabs in the region called themselves Palestinian even before Israel’s establishment in 1948.

Yousef also said there is no occupation, which Hill called “baffling.”

And so it went. Tit for tat, with voices raised but politesse respected. Ultimately, the two men, both 45, come from very different worlds that colored their approaches.

“I’m a son of that conflict,” Yousef pointed out. “I’ve seen so much bloodshed that there’s a volcano inside me ready to blow.”

In response to Hill’s depiction of the “expulsion” of 750,000 Arabs during Israel’s War of Independence, Yousef pointed to his own grandparents, who he said never felt oppressed. “If your ‘scientific’ theory contradicts my firsthand experience,” Yousef said, “then your theory is invalid.”

In the end, Yousef offered an optimistic vision. He acknowledged that he may “draw a dark picture of the situation.” But if the Palestinians “stop playing the victim card and see Israel and the Jewish people as our neighbors and honor them, then we can build bridges of understanding,” he said.

“The Arabs have a birthright to be in this land, but they have to cooperate with the Jewish people. We are one family. Enough of this madness.”

Sue Fishkoff

Sue Fishkoff is the editor emerita of J. She can be reached at [email protected].