In September, Jews celebrated their New Year of 5765 with the holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. I know very little about the Jewish religion, but I had heard of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. My Jewish friends explained to me the importance of a ten-day period from the eve of Rosh Hashanah through the day of Yom Kippur. This marks the “ten days of repentance" in Jewish tradition.
Yom Kippur encourages Jews to examine themselves, to assume responsibility for their transgressions and for the task of self-improvement. Given my cultural background, this concept is entirely new to me.
I was born a Muslim and raised in the 1950’s in Cairo, Egypt and in the Gaza strip. A moderate form of Islam was prevalent in those days. But destructive forces loomed large in other aspects of Arab society – in particular, shame and pride. Arab culture, not Islam, taught me to hate.
In 1978, I moved to the United States, bringing the usual baggage and prejudice from a Middle East upbringing: fear of Jews, of government, of speaking my own mind. I had lived through the ‘56, ’67, and ‘73 wars with Israel, which left me with deep skepticism of authority. A new and pleasant life in America soon opened my mind – and allowed me to look objectively at myself and my culture of origin.
To admit one’s flaws and mistakes, to correct and repent, challenges a person of any nationality. In Muslim culture, however, it is inconceivable. To acknowledge one's shortcomings before first blaming others would bring deep shame and dishonor not only to the individual but to his or her entire family. Those who admit fault, even unintentional guilt, are regarded as foolish. If the mistake is a cultural taboo, one's reputation may be scarred for life and the perpetrator might end up brutally punished.
In Arab society, I was discouraged from sinning out of fear of a wrathful God – and fear of society's cruel punishment, which awaited sinners right here on earth. There was no reward for loving humanity as whole, striving to improve oneself, and bringing out the best in the human spirit. Many aimed only to please brutal dictators, currying favor and wealth at the expense of their fellow Arabs. Such widespread corruption in a religious society may seem paradoxical. But in Friday prayers at the mosque, no one mentioned the common sin of wronging one’s neighbor, of stepping on him in a rush to self-promotion. Evil was always out there, never in here. Arabs talked eagerly of old glory and the Middle East’s contributions to the world, but they refused to tolerate discussion of what their communities can do to end terrorism. Those who had the courage to be self-critical were harshly punished. Many others feared shame – and having to face uncomfortable truths – surrounding the negative aspects in Arab and Muslim culture. No one can deny the current sad state of Middle Eastern society. Terrorism flourishes in every Muslim country, poisoning the world. War and genocide have ravaged communities of Muslims and non-Muslims in the Sudan, Algeria, Iraq, and Kuwait, and the list goes on. Terrorists burn churches, take refuge in Muslim holy shrines, behead Jews, destroy Buddha temples, and weaken economies – and the Arab media react with deafening silence.
Despite its wealth from oil, the Arab world is among the poorest societies on Earth. The once-great Nile Valley lies amid pollution and garbage. With rampant unemployment and low average incomes, poor citizens must bribe government officials to survive. And yet, Arab media correspondents ignore these difficult problems, focusing instead on the destruction of Israel. In this manner, they shift the blame for societal problems to an outside force.
At a time when most religions struggle to explain evil in the world, radical Islam has found the answer: without hesitation, they say it is the Jews. In Friday sermons in mosques around the globe, this theme repeats itself every week. In the wake of the Beslan tragedy, when Muslim terrorists attacked Russian schoolchildren, some Arabs speculated about a Jewish conspiracy. After writing in support of Israel, I personally have been accusing of participating in such a conspiracy. Israel has become the useful enemy that Arabs blame for everything.
On Rosh Hashanah, Jews do not wish one other a “Happy New Year,” as others do on the first of January. The traditional Hebrew greeting is “Shanah Tovah,” which means a "good year" or "a year of goodness." This simple phrase stresses one’s yearning for moral uprightness and a life committed to improving the world. Hearing my Jewish friends explain the teachings of their faith during the “ten days of repentance,” I am in awe.
I, too, want to repent. I personally apologize to Jews around the world on their High Holidays, and I thank them for their culture’s contributions to humanity. Theirs is a great tradition of atonement, and many of us non-Jews can benefit from it. We all need to examine ourselves, to bring out the good and see what we can accomplish as members of the human race.
On this tiny planet, we learn from each other every day. Much of early Islamic thought and practice derives from the Prophet Mohammed’s observations of Mecca and Medina, two Jewish tribes who contributed to the life and culture of the Arabian Peninsula in the 7th century. Let us revive a gracious cultural exchange, with understanding and appreciation. May the New Year bring to fruition our highest hopes, and may it bring us closer together.