The Words of the Moffitt Family
Reconciling My Heart With God's
April 30, 2004
Blessed are the peacemakers: Muslim Imam Haitham Bundakji has transformed his life from seeking vengeance against Jews, to being a dedicated worker for Islamic-Judaic harmony worldwide Twenty years ago, if you were Jewish and lived next door to Haitham Bundakji, your life would not have been easy. Residing alongside such a Mount Saint Helens of hatred, constantly aware of being in the presence of white-hot loathing, you might have found your tires slit and yourself subject to physical abuse, likely involving police intervention at some point.
Haitham Bundakji hated Jews. "I never carried a weapon or anything," he said, "but I used my fists a lot. I had many fights. I did many stupid things."
Bundakji is now president of the Islamic Society of Orange County in Garden Grove, California. An imam, he is the spiritual leader of 1,200 Muslim families in Southern California, and he is never far from tears when he recalls those hair-trigger days of his early manhood.
Shortly before he was born, his parents lived in Betshan, north of Jericho, in Palestine. The 1940s were a time of open conflict between Arabs and Jewish paramilitary organizations. "The Jewish organizations were stronger and better armed," said Bundakji, "and determined to take over Palestine."
During that era, entire Arab towns were being forcibly relocated to create Israel. There were massacres in many small villages, such as Deir Yassin (where over 100 men, women and children were killed in April, 1948). People believed to be from the Jewish organization Itzel shot and killed his parents' first two boys. "One was four years old and the other was six," he said. "They rampaged through many homes, shooting randomly, including our house, so both babies got shot. Wherever they felt there was some resistance in the area, they just went crazy."
His father took the family to Jerash, in Jordan, where Bundakji was born in 1948, the same year Israel came into being. Seeing the suffering of his parents created and nurtured his hatred. His mother, in particular, never stopped grieving. "She cried constantly until 1986, when she passed away," he said. "I never saw my mother happy in the way that other human beings are happy."
Being raised in Palestinian refugee camps, he never actually met a Jewish person face-to-face until 1967 at age 18, when he left Jordan to visit some friends in a coastal town in Greece. Looking out to sea, they spotted an Israeli flag on a ship named <I>Haifa<I>. "I thought, this is my chance," said Bundakji. "We went to the docks and hid until the first person came ashore. I remember that was the very first Jew I ever saw in my life. I confronted him and I told him I was an Arab. I called him some nasty names, then I attacked him and started beating the daylights out of him. My friends got frightened and pulled me away." With that act, Bundakji inserted himself into the endless payback loop that has characterized Arab-Israeli relations.
A year later, a strong, athletic young man filled with rage, he immigrated to San Francisco. Friends met him at the airport, and they went directly to an anti-Israel demonstration. "The Jewish Defense League was there in full force. There was a big fight. I beat up a couple of guys," recalled Bundakji. "I don't remember any demonstration where we didn't get into a fistfight." The JDL confronted us at every demonstration we held, and I did my crazy stuff."
During the seventies he rose through the ranks of leadership in the Palestine Arab Fund, a PLO affiliate, organizing demonstrations and meetings. He recruited people for the cause and booked speakers at universities. He was fully committed: "I never said the word Jew without an expletive before it. Whenever I went to a store that had any kind of Jewish display, like for Hanukkah, I always made sure I took a small can of spray paint. When no one was looking, I would spray it, mess it up." He even invoked God as an ally in his resentment. "I prayed always to find ways to get back at the Jews. Whenever I heard an ambulance siren, I said a small prayer hoping the ambulance would be on its way to a Jew about to die."
Such abhorrence and venom are hard to reconcile with the image of the soft-spoken imam sitting quietly at the table fingering a string of prayer beads. "But the worst thing I did," he said, his expression saddening, "is that I tried to inject my own hatred of Jews into my children." And he began to weep.
In 1986, Bundakji made a pilgrimage to Mecca. As is traditional for those going to the Kabba, he also paid a visit to nearby Mount Arafat to pray. In Arabic, arafat means "knowing one another." The mountain is a sacred site, so named because it is believed to be the place where Adam and Eve met.
"I went there a few days before people normally go," he said. "I was all by myself and I went to the top to be alone with my God." He cried out in his prayers, feeling the need to ask forgiveness for various personal sins that weighed heavily on his heart. Beating up Jews certainly wasn't one of them.
"That wasn't part of my plan. I had no concept that hating the Jews was something that needed to be repented of," he said. "But as it is with atonement, when you begin confessing, sometimes a lot of other stuff comes out too. In this case, it was thoughts of my parents.
"I began to hear verses of the Qur'an in my head so vividly:"
Be accountable to yourself before someone comes to question you. Weigh your deeds before they can be weighed for you.
.those people who hold their anger and forgive people.
Oh people, we have created you from a single pair of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes so that you may know each other, not that you may despise each other. The most honorable of you in the sight of God, is the most righteous.
No one should pay a price for the mistake of others.
He who harms Christians and Jews [literally, "taxpayers" in Arabic] will be my enemy until the day of judgment.
The cycle stops here: Bundakji's six-year-old son, Gussin, asleep in his lap. The worst part," Bundakji says, "is that i was infecting my children with my hatred."
The verses ran through his mind like a quiet river. "Then, in my prayer, all the people I had beaten up in those fights had individual faces," said Bundakji. "They were not just collective 'Jews,' they were real people. I remembered them all, and I remembered spraying the Hanukkah decorations. Everything started coming to my mind, and I found myself asking God for forgiveness for that. And I was surprised that, for the first time, I felt guilt for having hated the Jews.
"All this stayed in my mind and in my prayers. The next two weeks, when I was in Mecca and Medina, I felt God's forgiveness. I felt like a heavy load had fallen from my shoulders. However, I still had two bridges to cross: The first was that upon meeting a Jew, I did not wish him ill. The second bridge was, upon becoming vice president of the Islamic Society of Orange County, there were Jewish people at our various interfaith meetings. I found myself embracing them to convince myself that my repentance was genuine."
"The experience was profound," recalled Bundakji. "I saw that the way I had been living my life was completely against God." He realized he had to reverse the way he had been living, and that he had to reeducate his children to unlearn the hatred he had been instilling in them. "It turns out my children were relieved," he said. "They were young, between 10 and 14. They had Jewish friends from school they had never been able to tell me about, and now they could bring them over to the house."
Since then, the Imam has put as much energy into atonement and reconciliation between Muslims and Jews as he earlier put into vengeance. "I met a rabbi in Irvine named Bernie King," said Bundakji. "He didn't trust me because newspapers had written a lot about my activities. I had been outspoken on radio and television. So I started to make an extra effort. In the years since, Rabbi King's family has become my family." At Bundakji's invitation, King became the first rabbi to speak in a mosque in southern California.
Bundakji decided not to work so hard in his business (investing in real estate) so he could dedicate his life to building bridges. He also serves a chaplain for the Garden Grove Police Department and started the first Islamic shelter for battered women in California.
"I cannot afford to be our prophet's enemy until the day of judgment," said Bundakji. "Nobody can. I focus on the verses I heard on Mount Arafat, and I study the Qur'an. As a result, my Islamic values and conviction has become stronger. Through becoming a better Muslim, my hatred dissipated. And I mean completely.
"I still have political differences with Israel. I still want the liberation of Palestine. That will not change. But as to how to solve the differences, that has changed completely."
Looking toward the next generation, he said, "I would love to see my son marry a Jewish or Christian girl."
His transformation immediately calls to mind Saint Paul and Malcolm X. Both men carried an inordinate load of resentment toward another nationality or race, yet both were able to overcome their unreasoning anger. Like those two men, Bundakji was healed of his hatred toward another people, and his healing has transformed him into a dynamic force for righteousness.
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