I was given the opportunity to not only travel to Spain and Israel, but to make a significant change in the way that Jews and Muslims approach the Arab-Israeli Conflict. As a junior in high school, I was accepted into the Jacobs International Teen Leadership Institute (JITLI). JITLI is an organization that brings ten Jewish Americans, ten Israeli Jews, and twenty Muslim-Arabs living in Israel together for a three week trip with the mission to coexist. Each group prepares for the summer trip throughout the year educating themselves on the conflict and becoming close as a group. We had a goal to break down barriers and really dive into the conflict together as a cohesive group, but what we experienced was much more than a traveling group of forty kids.
We began the trip in San Diego. The Israeli Jews and Muslim Arabs all flew out to experience a week of pure fun. Throughout the week we participated in light, fun things such as tours through downtown, spending the day at Sea World, and sleeping all together at the San Diego Jewish Community Center. There were no discussions about the conflict yet. Our counselors were trying to get us to build a foundation of friendship to fall back upon once we started discussing. While I am sure it may have looked strange to see religious Muslims covering their heads walking next to a bunch of Jewish teens, we were just excited to be together.
Spain proved to not be as easy going and fun as San Diego was. We arrived in Spain for our second week of the trip in extremely hot weather! We toured mosques and Jewish synagogues, the Alhambra, the Spanish Cordoba Mosque, and even got to participate in some flamenco dancing! The purpose of visiting Spain was to not only explore the Spanish culture, but to discover the history and time periods where Jews and Muslims did coexist and live as neighbors. Spain was our living proof that it was possible. In Spain, we also began talking out about our opinions of the Arab-Israeli conflict. What we didn’t realize, was that many of us had put on a facade during the first week in San Diego and that many were fostering dangerous, scary feelings towards others. One night, I roomed with a girl named Sarah Alsana, a Muslim-Arab living in a southern village in Israel. We were watching an Arab news station in our room when a video of an innocent Palestinian man being shot at by an Israeli soldier came on to the screen. Sarah started crying and quickly turned at me and screamed, “Do you see? Do you see what your people do? I have the most hatred in my heart and I hate all Jews.” Suddenly, the weight of the Jewish people and of Israel was in my hands. Instead of yelling back or retaliating, I tried to engage Sarah in a conversation that ended up lasting for two and a half hours. We talked about where we come from, the horrible stories we had of the other side inflicting pain on our people, and we talked about how similar we were. At the end of the night, she began to hand me her trust and in the debates to come, I was her shield as she broke down hatred barriers. She suddenly began to open up to the Jewish participants and began speaking of people as individuals, and not as groups. As our trip went on, her love for participants on the trip only grew.
The next stop in our travels was to finally go to our homeland, Israel. All forty of us were extremely happy to be home. We spent a day traveling through the Armenian, Christian, Jewish, and Muslim quarters of the Old City, visiting all of the holy sights. I took the opportunity to dress as a traditional Muslim (with a headdress and all!) in the blazing heat so that Sarah could take me through the Dome of the Rock. It was an incredible experience to truly walk in her shoes. I then took Sarah to the Western Wall, the Jewish holy sight and we both went down to pray together. She began crying and she told me that she finally understands that Jews and Muslims are all the same, and that a holy sight is holy no matter which religion it belongs to.
After we spent time touring Jerusalem, we went down to the South of Israel where we walked a few miles in the dessert to a Bedouin tent, where we slept next to camels! We then went to the Muslim Arab’s houses and villages where their families prepared us an amazing, but large, meal. I went to Sarah’s house where I got to witness a Bedouin Arab wedding. I went into the tent where the girls were (the boys were on the other side of the house drinking coffee) and danced with the Bedouin women. We were able to explore the culture of Muslim Arabs who live in Israel.
Just as we visited the Muslim villages, we went to the Israeli Jews villages which are called kibbutzim. All the Israeli Jews live on the border of Gaza and are under the threat of bombs dropping on their houses daily. There was a cease-fire during the time that we went to visit so we were able to spend the night and spend time with their families. Seeing the difference between the Jewish villages and the Arab villages was incredibly interesting and eye opening.
Our three week trip ended there, but our friendships still remain. Sarah Alsana went into JILTI with a predetermined hatred for all Jews, and left with me (a Jewish American) as her best friend. I was given the opportunity to travel around the world, see incredible sights, but also create connections with people that the world tells us not to create. We successfully coexisted, with some bumps and arguments, but at the end we were all extremely sad to leave. It was the most eye-opening experience of my life, and I would never have been given the opportunity to meet the people that I did and see the places that I did. It redefined the Arab-Israeli conflict for me and it proved to the world that peace is possible.
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