I’m sitting at a pub my first night in Cyprus with a group of strangers. Peering around at potential friends I begin to talk to this hilarious guy. Syria, he tells me, that’s where I am from. He giggles as he sees the shock in my eyes. “I am not going to bomb you, I promise.” He then stuck out his hand for me to shake and smiled. We shook hands and jokingly made a “world peace” promise to each other. The rest was history. The Syrian-Muslim and the American-Jew were best friends.
This was my first encounter with anyone from anywhere I was taught to hate.
The rest of my trip to Cyprus was impacted most by these situations. Coming home I found myself so torn between my pre trip and post trip views on the conflict in the Middle East. Growing up as a Jew in America I was taught that Israel was my homeland, that all the Palestinians were wrong and that the Middle East was a scary and dangerous place that hated Americans and wanted all Jews dead. It has been a month since I have been home now and my views have become so different.
I am not writing this because I think it will change the world. I don’t have statistics to share or a photo of a bomb going off in a helpless city. I am writing this because I do not feel as though I can sit back and do nothing as my best friend fears rockets while taking the bus in Beersheba and my Palestinian friends are threatened in the west bank daily. I am writing this because after being to Israel three times I believe I have the right to state my own unbiased opinions.
I am writing this because with my arrival date in Tel Aviv less than two months away; I am afraid.
Facebook is the worst. I sign on and scroll down my feed looking for a distraction. Suddenly I could use a distraction. My news feed feels like a battlefield. People throwing out opinions, facts, and pictures of burnt children. Middle aged adults yelling back and forth through comments in a computer screen. Warped videos, misleading news articles and subjective opinions plague the once peaceful feed. But something is different. The colors of the flags in the articles are different; they are the “enemies”. For the first time since I installed my Facebook I have Muslim and Palestinian friends. There becomes no escape from the war. I am not just talking about the actual war. I am talking about the verbal war against brothers.
One of my most memorable moments during my semester abroad was a project I did for my Middle Eastern politics class. I was told to research the Sharia law and report back to the class with what I learned. I neglected to find the answers on Wikipedia and instead decided to discover the answers from first hand sources. I gathered a group of Muslim students together and went around interviewing them on their views of the law and on being Muslim in general. We sat for a good half hour talking deeply about their interpretations and how it affected their personal lives. Before I knew it more Muslim students were gathering around. In a matter of moments we were no longer strangers from conflicting countries; now we were friends laughing together and educating each other. Getting of topic, we instead discussed our similarities; the similarities between our two seemingly opposite religions.
Really made me wonder how two groups of people who don’t eat pork can’t seem to get along…
We had just spent an afternoon hiking in the rain through uncharted territory. Exhausted, we spend most the car ride home silent. He then broke the quietness with a question I was not expecting. “What religion are you?” He asked sweetly. This Muslim, body builder and I had been creating a solid friendship for the last few weeks after meeting at a soccer game. I had always assumed he knew I was Jewish so I was a little put off when he asked. Hesitantly, I responded. He then looked me in the eye, smiled, and told me, “We are cousins”.
These three short words had me reevaluating all my past beliefs. The people in these supposedly Jew hating countries didn’t hate me at all, in fact; they wanted to be friends.
It is my second week and I am Couch surfing in the Turkish Republic of North Cyprus. My pay-as- you go phone does not work on this side of the tiny island and I have never Couch surfed before, so you can believe my anxiety when two girlfriends and I planned a trip to stay at a Palestinians house for a couple days in the middle of nowhere.
Flash forward a few hours and, relaxed, my host and I walk around an ancient castle ahead of the rest of the group. Before I know it the conversation takes a turn and we begin talking about the conflict in Israel. He had left his Palestinian home months ago because he could not stand being in a country with so much hate. He told me that he did miss his family but did not know if he would go back because there was so much pain there. Sadly, he began to tell me that one of the main reasons he left was because his fiancé was killed by an Israeli soldier during a rally. He kisses me and thanks me for listening.
This conversation began to put things in perspective.
Before I knew it all my Palestinian friends were telling me horror stories from their own personal experiences in the country. Suddenly the country I was taught to love my whole life didn’t seem so innocent. And yet I couldn’t help but still feel the need to defend it.
We are not perfect people. There are evil people out there. There are people out there whose sole mission in life is to kill my people. But that does not make it my mission to do the same to them. Vengeance is not the answer. Nor is the answer to stand by and let innocent people die. There is no answer.
I am writing this because soon I will be living on a religious kibbutz in Israel. I am writing this because all my Palestinian friends want me to visit them while I am there and now I don’t know if I will be able to. I am writing this because having such dear friends on both sides makes me feel like I need to stand up for everyone. However, I am primarily writing this because I am sick of seeing so much hate comes out of the people I love.
There will never be peace without acceptance.
We can post our predisposed opinions all over the internet. We can shoot our guns and kidnap our children. We can shield our eyes to the harm. We can turn our heads and flip our T.V channels. We can hate each other and scream it. But what will it all do? There is no one completely in the right. And there will never be peace until we can speak to one another respectfully. There is terrorism on both sides. But there is also so much more. There is also love.
We can turn against our fellow man as long as we live. But then where will we be if not extinct? There are no easy answers, no automatic solutions. There are no mediated agreements or fair resolutions. We might not be able to fix the problems, stop the rockets or bring back the murdered but we can put down our weapons and instead discuss our similarities. There are so many to be learned.
All it takes is that first handshake.