The Bronfman Fellowship was the most influential summer of my life. It changed my perspective regarding religion, politics, and culture, both in America and Israel. The most impactful moment of the summer for me, though, occurred not during a text study or a late night conversation, but in an Arab village near Tel-Aviv, in the home of a girl whose family was gracious enough to host a group of 26 American Jews for dinner.
We were walking through Tayibe, learning about Islamic culture and the history of the location. I was fading in and out of focus, fatigued by the full days we’d been having. This made it even more shocking when we turned a corner onto a side street where a row of swastikas was graffitied onto the side of a public building. This was the first time I’d seen such a public, unabashed display of anti-Semitism, and I was disgusted, angry, and afraid. Learning about the Mamelukes and crusaders, it had been easy to forget the geopolitical realities of where we were and that there were people there who hated me for what I was.
When we arrived at the home of a local Arab family for dinner, I was still uneasy and disturbed. One of the family members was a 17-year-old rising senior named Sima. I smiled and shook her hand, complimenting her on her earrings, a mismatched pair of antique coins from the region dangling among rows of hoops and studs. Her immediate response was, “I have another pair, do you want them?” and the tangible reminder of this incredibly generous act of human kindness almost moved me to tears and is currently tugging gently at my ears. During dinner, we learned about a coexistence initiative in which Sima and her family were participating where an Arab and Jewish school were running joint programming for students, teachers, and parents to both humanize the “enemy” and to discuss real and controversial political topics with the opposing sides. Sima said that this program had instilled in her more respect for Jews as people, and that she still had Jewish friends even though the program had ended for her in junior high.
I understand that Sima and her family are not necessarily representative of all Arabs living within Israel, but they reminded me that whoever had drawn the swastikas was not representative either. As long as people like Sima and her family exist on both sides of the conflict, I can maintain hope for a sustainable future for the State of Israel and the people living in it. I do not know if I will ever see Sima again. I hope I do, but if not, the memory of that night and what it has taught me will resonate within me for a very long time—if not for the rest of my life.
This essay originally appeared as a recording on This I Believe Rhode Island
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