Journey of a Jew at Jazeera: Building bridges and courting controversy too

10/11/2016 02:22 pm ET Updated Oct 11, 2016
In the Al Jazeera English newsroom, holding a copy of Muammar Gaddafi's infamous "Green Book" brought back from Libya by corr
In the Al Jazeera English newsroom, holding a copy of Muammar Gaddafi's infamous "Green Book" brought back from Libya by correspondents.

Yom Kippur and Ashoura overlap this year as Hebrew, Islamic calendars coincide

Tomorrow is the holiest day of the year for the Jewish people. A time for reflection and introspection, as individuals, as a community, and as citizens of the world.

My journey, starting from Baltimore, has taken me around the globe. In 2005, at the beginning of the first Hebrew month of Tishrei, I was the victim of a hate crime on the streets of the European capital, at least partially targeted because of my religion -- mugged by reality and stabbed by two Tunisian Arabs in Brussels.

Though tough to forgive, and impossible to forget, I moved on. Feeling a responsibility to learn from the encounter, I adopted a realistic perspective. The event was shocking, yet forced me to ask myself big questions about identity and politics. I resolved not to be overcome by anger or prejudice. Instead, my quest to promote tolerance and tikkun olam was only just beginning.

Five years later, in 2010 (coincidentally also in Tishrei), I began my odyssey at the news organization Al Jazeera, in Doha, as an online journalist for the website of the English channel.

Last Tishrei, in 2015, I celebrated my fifth anniversary working for the company, where I was a digital editor in New York City for the now-defunct American version of the network.

How, you ask, did I get from Tishrei to Tishrei to Tishrei?

The story is one of adventure, enlightenment, and also plenty of struggle. I witnessed the height of the Arab Spring from a country intimately involved in the region’s political dynamics, experiencing several of those revolutions firsthand.

We beamed a cosmopolitan and progressive message to a diverse audience, but also stirred up controversy and divisiveness. Meanwhile, I found my piece of home, temporarily, in a part of the Middle East safer than any other place I’d ever lived.

During the 2012 U.S. elections, working on the news desk as reports come in from 7-10 time zones away.
During the 2012 U.S. elections, working on the news desk as reports come in from 7-10 time zones away.

As a Jew at Jazeera, there were also also trying times. Some of the roughest were extraordinarily offensive references to Israel, Hitler, and Hamas.

That being said, my mission focused on building bridges of understanding, making peace in small ways, and carrying bits of knowledge back home.

Much of what I learned in Qatar’s hyper-modern desert oasis was unexpected. One scorching hot afternoon, I sat in the cafeteria with a few work buddies: Azad, Soud, and Mohsin. A cafeteria worker, paid less than $200 per month, brought over trays of lunch that we had ordered. Everyone began eating -- except for Mohsin.

Inquisitive as ever, I looked over, and his hand was grasping his beard. He then explained how he was fasting, since it was the 10th day of the first month of the Islamic calendar. I paused, trying to parse the details.

I had known that Shia Muslims observe rituals of mourning for Ashoura (literally, “tenth”), but it was news to me that Sunni believers would abstain from all food and drink. Why? To commemorate how Musa -- Moshe, Moses -- and the Israelites had achieved victory over the Egyptian Pharaoh. He also mentioned the significance of other Hebrew prophets to this holy day: Noah, Jonah, and Job among them.

To think that I could create a spiritual bond with my Saudi-raised coworker based on the same sacred day was incredible. I did more research at home later that evening, thinking about yet more linguistic commonalities. Shabbat is sabt. Rosh Ha-Shanah is Ras As-Sana. Yom Kippur -- yawm -- also “day” in Arabic. Kippur is cognate to kaffarah, meaning penance or compensation for damages in Koranic law.

The list of overlapping words and meanings goes into the thousands, from theological concepts to parts of the body. Digging further into the language, I realized an ever greater historical affinity for our cousins -- despite a complex geopolitical situation. My appreciation for joint cultural heritage brought me to amazing cuisine, music, and more.

And my connection to Israel became stronger, as trips to the Holy Land reinforced that even though I felt a shared sense of destiny with the Middle East as a whole, there is one particular slice of Promised Land where that attachment is most profound.

Yet, my attraction to Tel Aviv, and Jerusalem, does not come at the expense of Jericho, and Ramallah. I believe firmly in the Jewish homeland, and, not but, and, I also believe fully in a viable Palestinian one.

I’m not able to suggest any grand new strategy for how to implement a lasting two-state solution or create peace in an increasingly chaotic part of the planet. There’s no silver bullet for fixing the Syrian refugee crisis on the shores of Mediterranean, defeating ISIS, or mollifying Iran.

But on the 10th day of Tishrei, I hope that my perspective on forgiveness informs how you are building upon your own personal narratives, as we begin 5777 with renewed hopes and dreams.

Let’s come to terms with the past, make the most of the present, and construct our future together. Easy fast, tzum kal, and gmar chatima tovah: may you be sealed in the Book of Life for a good year.

This piece was excerpted from a speech given last Yom Kippur at Baltimore Hebrew Congregation.

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