The real reason Catherine Shakdam rejected Shia Islam.
Catherine Perez-Shakdam’s life reads like One Thousand and One Nights. Her biographical stories include a paternal grandfather incarcerated in a Nazi concentration camp in Tunisia, a maternal grandfather who sought to escape Hitler by converting to Christianity and fighting in the French resistance, four years living as a Sunni Muslim wife in Yemen, escorting the future President of Iran on the campaign trail, and other tales more intricately woven than a deftly designed Persian carpet.
Who is Catherine Perez-Shakdam? A self-hating Jew? A devout Shia Muslim? A political analyst with two Masters degrees? A London-based consultant to the UN Security Council? A virulent anti-Israel mouthpiece of the Iranian government? A Zionist who blogs for an Israeli newspaper?
The truth is: all of the above in turn, as she followed a path of self-discovery that demanded hair-pin turns and the courage to admit, “I was 100% wrong.”
The Making of a Self-Hating Jew
When the liability of being a Jew outweighs any spiritual or social advantage, some Jews not only renounce their Jewish identity but turn against it with loathing. Such is the story of Catherine’s father, Isidro Perez. His secular Jewish parents lived in Spain. In the 1930s, his father Eli Perez became a Communist, and thus in the crosshairs of Franco’s fascist government. The family decided to flee to British mandate Palestine via North Africa.
They stopped in Tunisia, a French protectorate. After France fell to the Nazis, Tunisia was ruled by the pro-Nazi government of Vichy France. The Perez family were arrested as Jews and interned in a Nazi concentration camp. There were no gas chambers in the camp. The Jewish inmates were simply left to die of disease or starvation. One of the Perezes’ sons died of starvation. Eli Perez was a doctor. He helped cure a camp guard of typhoid. Before the rest of the Perez family succumbed, the guard helped them escape.
After World War II, they remained in Tunisia. When their son Isidro turned 18, he moved to Paris for university. As Catherine relates in an exclusive Aish.com interview:
“My father literally inherited the trauma of his parents. They never recovered from what they suffered. The whole family was fractured on a cellular level because of what they had gone through.
“My father spent his entire life denying his identity. He hated being a Jew. He did everything he could to change his accent and to become as French as he could. For him Judaism was literally a plague.
“I grew up with my mom being quite comfortable with her identity, where she was quite happy being a secular Jew. My father was not only secular, but he was quite antisemitic in that he hated himself and everything that had to do with Judaism and Israel.”
Catherine’s mother’s family had followed a different trajectory. Living for generations as Jews in southern France, her maternal grandfather Jean-Baptiste Levy recognized in the 1930s the encroaching antisemitism of Europe. He had his whole family convert to Christianity, changing his name from Levy to Laval. Although the Nazis recognized no such conversions, living under the Vichy government in southern France, the family passed safely. Jean-Baptiste fought in the French Resistance, was captured twice, and escaped to fight again. He was later awarded France’s highest military honor.
After the war, the Lavals resumed their Jewish identity, but it was a tenuous identity rooted neither in Jewish observance nor tradition, like a cut flower that cannot propagate.
Catherine’s mother died when she was 11, so Catherine was left with her antisemitic father. “I had no sense of belonging to the Jewish community… I was raised extremely secular. And I feel like for the longest time I was sitting between two chairs, where I had a regular French upbringing, but at the same time I had this part of my identity that was never explored nor cultivated.”
Marrying into Islam
Shortly after her mother’s death, Catherine’s father married again, a Christian woman. Catherine was shipped off to an elite boarding school. After high school graduation, she moved to the United Kingdom for university. There she met a handsome Muslim man from Yemen who had everything she lacked – a stable family and a strong religious identity.
“I had just left an all-girls boarding school,” Catherine explains, “so I was very, very naïve. And I was so desperate to belong somewhere. I had a hunger for belonging and acceptance and a sense of identity. Although I was not raised religious, I always had this hunger for the spiritual.”
With no understanding of what it meant to be Muslim, Catherine married him. She was 18 years old.
Catherine eventually fell in love with Shia Islam.
Her husband told her that she had to convert to Islam in order to be accepted by his family. “I didn’t mind,” remembers Catherine, “because I didn’t know what it meant.”
Catherine read the Koran and became interested in Sufi mysticism. But from the beginning she had an almost visceral rejection of the Sunni Islam that her husband devoutly practiced. “The interpretation that the Sunnis have of Islam is very restrictive. It’s dark and nefarious and I never liked it. It’s not coming from a place of seeking knowledge. It’s all about the practice, without teaching people that through the practice they would elevate themselves. It’s divorced from the Divine.”
Eventually, through her reading, Catherine was introduced to and fell in love with Shia Islam. “Shia Islam is very spiritual,” she asserts. “It’s not so much about the practice, but about the ideals, that we have to speak truth, fight oppression, and all the universal values. They encourage you to learn and to have critical thinking, to work on yourself and try to become a better person. I decided, that I can do. That speaks to me.”
Meanwhile, at the age of 19, she gave birth to a son, and three years later a daughter. In 2008, after nine years of marriage, they moved to Yemen, where they lived with her husband’s family for four years.
Yet her abandoned Jewish identity continued to plague her. “My in-laws bullied me every day for being Jewish,” she remembers. “Any time there was something about Israel on TV, they would blame me, saying ‘YOUR people this and YOUR people that.’”
The Invitation to Iran
While in Yemen, Catherine, who had earned two Masters degrees, worked as an economist, political analyst, and journalist. Her area of expertise was Yemen. She became a consultant on Yemen for the United Nations Security Council. Her articles condemning Sunni Saudi Arabia as the cradle of radical Islam eventually caught the attention of Shia Iran. In 2015, the Iranian regime invited her to Tehran.
At a conference in Tehran
By that time, Catherine and her family had returned to England. In 2013, Catherine ended her emotionally abusive marriage. Her Sunni husband’s opposition to her Shia allegiance gave her the courage to finally break free. “I had been so profoundly touched by Shia Islam,” Catherine reminisces, “that there was no way I was going to let him take that away from me.”
My being so sincere in my belief in Shia Islam allowed me to get very close to the Iranians.
The Mullahs in Iran, scrutinizing Catherine’s articles in a plethora of respected newspapers, recognized a devoted believer. “My being so sincere in my belief in Shia Islam allowed me to get very close to the Iranians. They saw my sincerity and thought they could use me to become a pawn in their games. Which they did.”
The occasion of Iran’s first invitation to Catherine was a conference on Palestine. Her virulently anti-Israel reporting had made her a prime candidate to represent their hatred of Israel on Iranian TV and beyond. The surreal experience of that conference still causes Catherine to wonder:
“I walked into the belly of the beast. I was sitting in a hall in Tehran, and across from me was sitting not only the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran, but also the head of Hamas, the head of Hezbollah, people whose whole purpose in life is to destroy the Jewish people.”
I directed my anger at Israel and decided to make them the devil of the story.
Apparently, no one noticed Catherine’s name tag with her obviously Jewish maiden name Perez. “All they saw was this Western girl from France that they could use for their propaganda machine.”
Catherine willingly complied, spouting criticisms of the “Zionist entity” that further endeared her to the Iranian regime. Today she analyzes what drove her:
“I had been quite critical of Israel. I think I was doing what my dad did, to be very angry at myself for being Jewish. Israel had been such a source of bullying for me during my marriage, that I was so angry. I just wanted them to stop. I tried to disappear my Jewishness by vehemently defending the Palestinians. I just refused to try to see things in context or from the Israeli point of view. I just refused. I directed my anger at Israel and decided to make them the devil of the story.
“But at the same time, I had a profound disgust with myself for doing it. I was very conflicted, but I did it anyway. I was a self-hating Jew, and the worst part for me was that I wasn’t aware that I was doing that. I was being this self-righteous analyst speaking on behalf of the oppressed of the world, not realizing that I had become a weapon against my own people.”
In a turn of events worthy of a spy novel, Catherine found herself the darling of the Mullahs. Over several trips during the following two years, she was granted access to the inner circle of the Iranian regime. The day before Iran’s 2017 presidential election, Catherine was granted an interview with Ebrahim Raisi, who would become president in 2021. She then was allowed to follow Raisi on the campaign trail from Tehran to Rasht, while he candidly described to her his vision for Iran.
Catherine with Ebrahim Raisi, future President of Iran
“Very few Western journalists with decades of loyalty behind them,” declares Catherine, “reached the people I reached in a couple of years. I don’t know how. But there must be a deeper reason for it, because those things don’t happen. They allowed me into their circle. I saw things. I know how they work.”
Catherine revealed that the Iranian leaders, all religious men, propositioned her.
While the antisemitism she saw didn’t horrify her, something else did. In her Aish.com interview, Catherine revealed that the Iranian leaders, all religious men, propositioned her. “I have text messages,” she revealed. “They all tried to proposition me. All of them. I could bring down the house of cards on them because their religious institutions are just a sham. They made sexual overtures to me. Not just me, but all Western converts. They have an obsession with Western girls.”
Taking Off the Hijab
A disillusioned Catherine returned to England and took off her hijab. As she describes that choice: “By then I had gotten close to so many of the clerical institutions, and saw so much wrong-doing. There were so many allegations of rape and cases of molestation that I kept hearing from other women, that I decided, ‘This community is perverse on a level that I can’t even comprehend.’ There are beautiful things in Shia Islam, but I’ve learned that there is such a divorce between those principles that they claim to embody and who they are as a people in their religious identity.”
Prof. Marandi, Dean of Tehran University, called Catherine and demanded that on Iranian TV she wear the hijab. Catherine refused. After that, the Iranian regime gradually cut off all contact with her.
“Shia Islam,” she says, “is a form of spiritual colonialism; they try to disappear people’s identity. I think it’s pernicious and fascist, and I will do everything I can to expose it, because I was a victim of it. I came out the other side. I just woke up. It was really quick and quite profound. I just woke up and said, ‘What are you doing?’ and that was it. Once you wake up, there is no way you can go back. It’s like someone is trying to put you back in an old skin.”
Catherine, the girl desperate for an identity, was again left drifting, not knowing who she really was.
Both Sides Now
Two years later, Catherine’s daughter Rianne challenged her mother in a fateful encounter. Rianne wanted to understand where she came from.
Knowing that she had Jewish roots, she read everything she could about the Holocaust. Then she came across a YouTube video of Rudy Rochman, a Zionist activist, talking about Zionism and antisemitism.
One day, when Catherine came home from work, Rianne insisted that she watch a video by Rudy. Catherine demurred. She was tired; she would watch it later. Rianne insisted, “You’re always telling me to look at both sides, but you’ve never been willing to look at the Israeli side of the Palestinian conflict.” Catherine gave in and watched the video.
“My daughter saved me,” Catherine later declared. “Everything I had believed up to that point about the Israel-Palestinian conflict crumbled. Rudy put it in terms that were so simple yet so powerful, and I heard it. You know how sometimes you’re not ready to hear something, and then one day, you’re ready? That video deconstructed years of what I believe was brainwashing. I felt such a relief, because I realized then that I don’t have to hate myself any more.
I had actually become a weapon in the hands of the people who are trying to destroy us, including me.
“I watched many more, including some about Jewish identity. And I didn’t feel alone anymore. Everything I heard I just knew on a visceral level.”
“From that point on I promised myself that I would do everything I could to atone. Because I really felt guilt. I was 100% wrong. And I really feel it’s important for me to come clean and to tell people. I’m not proud of what I’ve done, but I want people to know that it’s okay to change your mind, to mess up, as long as you are responsible enough to own up to your mistakes and say, from now on I will do better.
“I want to atone for what I’ve done because I’ve done a lot of disservice to my people. It’s not fair, because my suffering did not justify the hate that I put on them. I had actually become a weapon in the hands of the people who are trying to destroy us, including me.
“There are forces at work, they make us hate ourselves for who we are. And that needs to stop.”
The Media Storm
In November, 2021, Catherine publicly came out for the first time as a Zionist, writing a blog for the Times of Israel, “What my interview with President Raisi taught me about Iran.” In it, she told of her experience as a mouthpiece of the Iranian regime and their orientation to the world.
On March 13, 2022, Aaron Boxerman wrote in the Times of Israel about the media firestorm caused by that piece:
Perez-Shakdam wrote three posts on the Times of Israel’s blog platform in November, the third of which described her interview with Raisi. It went largely unnoticed for three months, but in recent days has started to make headlines in Persian and Arabic media, causing a social media firestorm even amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Iranian media quickly declared her an Israeli Mossad spy, and broadcasters who had been spotted with her were forced to issue clarifications.
Iranian chief cleric Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s office quickly disavowed any connection with her. Many of her media appearances and articles were wiped from state websites, although archived versions of some can still be found.
Catherine scoffs at the absurdity of the accusation that she was a Mossad spy. But how have the massive denunciations affected her? “Since I have come out publicly as a Jew and a Zionist, I have never felt more powerful within myself, more grounded. I’ve been put in the middle of the storm, and it hasn’t phased me. Because for the first time in my life I know exactly who I am.”