Ever since my first trip to Israel in 2000 I have been obsessed with the Middle East and the pursuit of making peace there. A few months after my first trip, the second Palestinian Intifada broke out and the prospects for peace seemed dim ever since. It would be naïve to deny that the current strife between Israel and its Arab neighbors causes pain for the greater Jewish and Muslim worlds too. I spent a year living in Israel after high school but knew that if I really wanted to make a difference and try to bridge the gap between Israelis and Arabs, Jews and Muslims, and Americans and Middle Easterners, I would have to venture out into the Muslim world itself and try to do something on the ground.
Between May and December 2006, I lived and traveled throughout parts of the Arab and Muslim world as an openly Zionist American Jew studying, making merry, and building bridges with those who perceive our people as the enemy. I lived in Cairo, Egypt for two months and Sharjah, United Arab Emirates for four months and also spent significant time traveling through Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Oman, Indian Kashmir, and Sri Lanka. When I was a little boy and just beginning to find out what being a Jew meant, I was constantly told to remember that wherever I went and with whomever I spoke I represented not only myself but the entire Jewish people. That lesson truly came alive in the course of my experiences.
Living in Sharjah, especially, I was looked on as an ambassador of America, the Jews, and even the State of Israel. Whatever I said about any given topic mattered a lot because I was the only voice these people had from the outside. My mere presence in these places produced a lot of shock and disbelief. Quite a few of my fellow students believed me to be a spy. Many simply could not comprehend the notion that a Jew would actually come to the Arab world in the first place merely to learn and make peace. Some proved so suspicious that the secret police of the United Arab Emirates were even caught spying on me. Unfortunately a lot of the stuff you hear in the media about the rise of Islamist extremism and the spread of hatred and misinformation is more accurate than you could imagine.
I learned a great deal about the complex issues within the Arab world first hand such as bringing the Arab world into modernity, the Sunni-Shia divides, and the debate over the role Islam will play in these countries. Sometimes I find it difficult to maintain hope that peace in the Middle East will be achieved in the near future and that the entire region will experience stability and success. Many obstacles lie in the way and I cannot always tell if more are being created or removed.
The best friend I had throughout my time abroad in that part of the world was an East Jerusalem Palestinian studying in Sharjah who held Israeli, Jordanian, and Palestinian citizenship. His name is Ahmad and his father is a doctor at Hadassah hospital on Mt. Scopus. I saw my friendship with Ahmad as a microcosm of all the benefits that peace would bring because of how well we understood each other, how honest we were, and how much fun we had hanging out.
I feel I made some very meaningful connections and was definitely able to learn and teach a great deal. I lectured in mosques, taught Hezbollah supporters Hebrew, went clubbing with members of the Saudi and Emirati royal families, and made sand castles with Yasir Arafat’s nephew and Anwar Sadat’s granddaughter. But most of all, I believe I showed people that they could be friends with an American Jew who loves Israel. Some might think that what I did during my time abroad was a little crazy. But if you want something so badly you might have to act a little nutty sometimes. Inshallah (God willing), peace will come soon. Just keep praying.