“Do not go where the path may lead.
Go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.”
-Ralph Waldo Emerson
Jewish day school. Jewish high school. Jewish summer camp. Jewish family. Jewish friends. Jewish student groups in college. Jewish Studies 10. Jewish fraternity. It may go without saying that my upbringing could be called, well… biased. That bias had unfortunately fostered arrogance, an arrogance that would be humbled and, truthfully, shattered during my semester abroad at the Masa Israel-accredited Tel Aviv University. While at the time, I was no novice to the Arab-Israeli conflict, having visited the region on three separate occasions, there is one experience that has and will always stand out to me as one of the most memorable, life-changing experiences I have ever had.
Wait… is that a (gasp) Keffiyah???
That’s right. This is a picture of me (grey coat) in the city of Bethlehem with my friend Alex (white sweater). Between us, you are looking at one of our good friends, Fadi, a Palestinian living in the West Bank, Judea and Samaria, Palestine… whatever you call it, who invited us to stay over his house in a Palestinian refugee camp. That night was one of the most memorable experiences of my life. A small anecdote might help explain:
“Fernbach?” asked Fadi, looking at my friend Alex’s passport. “Isn’t that a Jewish name?” My heart dropped as I looked around the open-roofed (or should I say, no-roofed) house with cracked walls showcasing paintings with foreign Arabic script.
“Yes,” answered Alex quite confidently—in sharp contrast to the way I felt.
“You are Jewish?” Fadi asked with his thick accent and broken, hesitant English. My heart began to pound faster. The outdoor air must have grown colder, I thought, shaking.
“Yes,” he said again. A look of bewilderment – not hostility – crossed Fadi’s face. “Is that a problem?” Alex asked.
“Of course not. I guess I am just a bit surprised,” said Fadi, as though hurt that he’d been left out.
Manning up, I cut through the tension: “You have to understand—we did not feel safe telling you at first, but we came here to put ourselves out of our comfort zone and to see a different point of view,” I heard myself saying.
“Yes, I understand,” said Fadi.
My uneasiness suddenly began to evaporate. I continued, “Perhaps after tonight, you can tell your friends here that you had two Jews stay over your house, and that you’re now friends with them.”
“Absolutely,” Fadi said. He seemed to be having an epiphany. “You know, I hope you will tell the same to your friends.” He smiled.
“No doubt that we will.”
Israel, to me, is not just Birthright, the Dead Sea, the clubbing and beaching in Tel Aviv, nor the Western Wall in Jerusalem. Israel, to me, signifies tolerance. This anecdote breathes life into my convictions: progress can be achieved through understanding and tolerance. In this picture you find two Jews together with a Palestinian Muslim standing next to the Church of Nativity (where Jesus is said to have been born). What this picture means to me, is what Israel means to me: it is the heart of the movement toward religious, cultural, and ethnic tolerance in the Middle East.
Ever since my return from the Holy Land, I have had a deep yearning to spread these beliefs to my surrounding Jewish friends and family in an attempt to help them recognize that stubbornness holds you back, hostility begets division, and hatred can only breed more hatred. It is through the acceptance and understanding of others’ differences that we see progress.