WASHINGTON (JTA) — When Mosab Hasan Yousef left a San Diego courthouse with the news that he would not be deported from the United States, he telephoned Sarah Stern in her Washington, D.C., office.
“Sarah, we won!” he told Stern, president of EMET: Endowment for Middle East Truth, in the June 30 call. “They’re going to give me political asylum and are dropping the case. I want you to know that you’re the first person I’m calling.”
“I let out a scream I was so happy,” Stern said of her reaction.
The news climaxed Yousef’s three-year legal effort to settle in the United States, which he nearly sabotaged inadvertently with the March publication of "Son of Hamas," a book that described his undercover work for Israel’s Shin Bet domestic security agency.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security had moved to deport Yousef on the basis of passages that it said indicated he aided Hamas, which the United States lists as a terrorist group.
The reversal culminated a short campaign waged by EMET, a small, 4-year-old American Jewish organization, on behalf of a Palestinian Muslim-turned-Christian who had subverted the terrorist organization co-founded by his father.
Stern had worked in Washington since the early 1990s for the Zionist Organization of America and the American Jewish Congress. In 2006 she alerted the Congressional Task Force on Terrorism and Unconventional Warfare to the anti-Israel statements of a man it had nominated to the panel.
The task force’s co-chair, then-Rep. James Saxton (R-N.J.), recruited Stern to help identify moderate American Muslims as potential nominees.
She would found EMET as a platform for highlighting the courage of those who exposed the dangers of radical Islam. The organization also works to sensitize members of Congress to threats to Israel’s security.
“The first thing my mother taught me was to say thank you. The first thing we as Jews are taught is to say thank you,” Stern said. “These people need to be thanked.”
After learning of the imminent publication of "Son of Hamas," Stern utilized her network of previous EMET honorees to locate Yousef and propose presenting him with the organization’s annual Speaker of the Truth Award at its June 23 dinner. Concerned for his safety if he were deported to the Middle East, Stern began assisting him in fighting deportation.
In June, Stern secured three letters that Yousef’s lawyer, Steven Seick, said “made all the difference” once they were entered as evidence:
* The chairman of Israel’s Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee thanked Yousef for acting with “resolute determination … personal courage, reliability and dedication” to save lives.
* U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.), one of Yousef’s co-honorees on June 23, wrote a letter with 21 House of Representatives colleagues that urged Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano to “take into account all the evidence,” particularly Yousef’s “cooperation with Shin Bet at significant risk to his own safety and life.”
* Former CIA director James Woolsey, a member of EMET’s advisory board, urged the U.S. to drop deportation proceedings, which if successful would be “an incredible travesty” and an “inhumane act” that would harm America’s recruitment of anti-terrorism agents and “set us back years in the war on terrorism.”
Another key factor, Seick said, was an affidavit signed by Gonen Ben-Yitzhak, Yousef’s former Shin Bet handler, attesting to Yousef’s character and to his pivotal role in preventing terrorist attacks, including against Israeli President Shimon Peres and ex-Sephardi chief rabbi Ovadiah Yosef.
Seick was about to call Ben-Yitzhak as his first witness when the Homeland Security attorney announced that she was dropping the case. Yousef’s lawyer expects the official letter granting asylum to be issued by mid-August.
William Daroff, director of the Jewish Federations of North America’s Washington office, who wrote to Napolitano and Attorney General Eric Holder on Yousef’s behalf, credited Stern with being the leader in bringing the case to Jewish leaders.
"Having the dinner and putting the focus on him brought his case [out] in a way that hadn’t happened previously," Daroff said.
“Despite there being a large number of Jewish and pro-Israel organizations, there’s still a need for organizations that find a niche and a focus and that do good. It takes a village to build a pro-Israel community," he said, "and one person with a megaphone can have an impact.”
In a conference call with reporters, Yousef credited EMET for the outcome.
“I am very grateful for EMET, for Sarah Stern. I will be grateful forever," he said. "They didn’t do this as a political agenda. They did this as a matter of heart.”
He added, "To me, it was a matter of life and death.”
The campaign, Stern said, was the least she could do to repay Yousef for assuming risks as a Shin Bet agent.
“I feel great about this because we saved the life of a young man who deserved to be honored, praised and celebrated,” she said. “I’d like to clone him. If more people were like him, we wouldn’t have these problems in the Middle East.”
Her effort, Stern noted, also was personal: Her son, daughter and daughter-in-law are working and studying in Israel now, and their safety might be attributable to the intelligence Yousef provided, she said.
“I feel like he’s one of my children. There’s nothing I wouldn’t do for him,” said Stern, the mother of three grown children. “In his e-mails to me he signs [off], ‘Your Jewish son.’ ”