Zak visiting his father on Rikers Island in 1991. Photo courtesy of Zak Ebrahim
On November 5, 1990, El Sayyid Nosair walked into a Manhattan hotel and assassinated Meir Kahane, the ultranationalist rabbi who founded the Jewish Defense League. Egyptian-born Nosair was sentenced to 22 years in prison for his crime—the first known terrorist killing in the US by an Islamic jihadist—but subsequently managed to co-mastermind the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center from his jail cell.
Zak Ebrahim was seven years old when his father shot Rabbi Kahane dead, and nearly ten when the bomb went off in the World Trade Center, killing six and injuring more than 1,000. Visiting Nosair in prison, a young Zak believed his father’s protestations of innocence, as most of us probably would at an age where your mom’s still buying all your clothes. It wasn’t until years later—when he read the details of the 1990 police raid on his home—that he realized who his father really was, and that he had “[chosen] terrorism over me”.
Zak now tours the lecture circuit promoting tolerance, and recently released a book, The Terrorist’s Son: A Story of Choice, that chronicles his upbringing and describes how he escaped the radical ideology he'd been raised with for a life advocating peace. I caught up with him recently for a chat.
Zak Ebrahim at TED2014—The Next Chapter, Vancouver, Canada. Photo by James Duncan Davidson
VICE: Hi, Zak. Please introduce yourself.
Zak Ebrahim: Sure. My name is Zak Ebrahim, and on the Fifth of November, 1990, my father assassinated Rabbi Meir Kahane in New York City. He was then found to have co-masterminded the World Trade Center bombing in 1993. So I’ve been trying to use the experiences growing up [surrounded by] an extremist ideology—and the experiences that helped me come out of that—to preach tolerance and acceptance of people who are different from myself.
What’s your earliest memory of growing up in Pittsburgh?
My very first memory, that I can recall, is our entire family going to Kennywood Park, which, to this day, is still an amusement park. I still have flashes of riding the carousel with my brother and father.
You’ve talked before about visiting a gun range with your father when he was becoming more radicalized. Was it a sudden, noticeable change, or something more gradual?
Until I was around five or six years old, my father was a very loving and engaging man. He was very much involved in our family life. He had a great sense of humor. We spent lots of time together. We would go to the park and play baseball and soccer. It wasn’t until I was about six or seven that he started to become more radicalized in his views. He had some negative experiences in his life and began going to this mosque in Jersey City where the “Blind Sheikh” Omar-Abdel-Rahman would often give sermons. He became very involved with a group of men there who would ultimately be responsible for the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center.
Along with your father.
Yes. He was found to have co-masterminded the bombing from his cell while he was in prison for the assassination of Meir Kahane.
Did you visit your father while he was in prison?
He maintained his innocence for many years. He was found not guilty for the murder of Meir Kahane, but guilty of assault and weapons charges. So he was sentenced to 22 years in prison, and with that came the possibility of our family possibly being together again. We visited him at Rikers Island in New York, and at Attica Penitentiary.
So he was a part of our lives after he went to jail, but we moved around so much that it eventually became financially impossible for us to visit. So, over the years, the visits became less frequent, as did the phone calls. The last time I saw him face to face was probably about 16 or 17 years ago.
What effect did these visits and phone calls have on you at the time?
My life was in complete turmoil. Beyond being bullied literally every day, I was always getting into some kind of physical altercation. I had to transfer schools because I was having so much trouble with bullying. After many years of having the same conversations with him, such as “How are you doing? How’s school? How are things around the house?” I just thought to myself, If you actually cared how your family was doing, why did you choose this terrible path? I got fed up with having the exact same conversation with him every week. So that played a big role in disconnecting ourselves from him.
Zak visiting his father in the Attica Correctional Facility, 1994. In the background is the small house where the family stayed together for the weekend. Photo courtesy of Zak Ebrahim
What kind of reaction did you have from your peers after your father’s arrest?
From the very first moment that my father was arrested, it didn’t appear that we were welcome to go back to our community where we lived. We were lucky enough that a private Islamic school in Jersey City offered us scholarships because we had nowhere else to go. Obviously everyone at that school knew who we were, as they were a part of the Muslim community.
I can understand why, but many people didn’t want to be associated with us, given we were the children of El Sayyid Nosair. So I was ostracized to a certain degree because of that. It kind of settled down until the World Trade Center bombing. At that point we had moved around a few times and kind of escaped, to a degree, from the shadow of our father, in the sense that most people didn’t know who we were by then.
And what was your life at home like during that time?
For many years after my father went to prison, members of the group of men who he was in very heavy contact with—many of whom would later be arrested for involvement in the World Trade Center bombing—would come and visit our house. They would try to be a part of our lives. They knew we had lost our father, so I suppose they were just trying to honor whatever his legacy may be by watching over his family somewhat. So I was exposed to [the same kind of ideology] quite a bit.
How long did that continue?
Unfortunately, once my mother and father divorced, my mother remarried and my stepfather was also an incredible bigot who often tried to teach me lessons about the outside world. He kept us isolated for many years. I would go from home to school, walk back home, and that would be it. For about three and a half years I didn’t go out anywhere. I didn’t hang out with friends outside of school. I was kept very much in an ideological bubble. It wasn’t until I had some freedom to experience the world that I started to shed a lot of the lessons that I had been taught. [My father] was fond of saying that “a bad Muslim is better than a non-Muslim." The lessons I’d learned from my father about all Jews being evil also carried over with my stepfather.
Zak's TED Talk
Do you remember the moment your opinions started to change?
One of the more influential moments for me was becoming part of an initiative for young people tying to discuss topics centered on youth violence, particularly youth violence in schools. I was at a national youth convention, and I was working with a group of kids from the Philadelphia area. About three days into it I realized that one of the kids I became close to was Jewish. I had never had a Jewish friend before. I was surprised, as my whole life I’d been taught that not only could we not be friends, but that we were natural enemies of one another. Immediately I realized that wasn’t true. At the same time I felt that I had done something that I’d been led to believe was impossible. So I felt a sense of pride in that. That was one of the first instances in which I challenged the ideology I was raised in.
You’ve spoken before about the impact Jon Stewart's The Daily Show had on you. What did he force you to engage with specifically?
Due to my isolation, I was always fascinated with the outside world. He made it seem like it was cool to be interested in what was going on in the world, and not just be interested in MTV. In particular, he challenged the ideas of being bigoted toward gay people. Not only that, but he has a way of breaking it down and explaining the implications of having a bigoted ideology.
Finally, why did you write your book? What message are you trying to promote?
The main reason I wrote the book was that I wanted to give people insight into what it was like for a child growing up in this sort of ideology. Moreover, I want to get across the lessons that I learned from the experiences I had that brought me out of this intolerant way of life.
But also it’s very important for me to highlight that, despite being exposed to this ideology that so many people are fearful of, I came out of it promoting tolerance and acceptance of others who are different from myself. If I can come out of that, then what does that say about the vast majority of Muslims in the world who are never exposed to this level of extremism?
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