The recent near-death beating of an Arab teenager in the heart of Jerusalem is disturbing on so many levels. That a gang of Jewish youths could attack another youth for reasons other than self-defense. That it could happen in a public square, watched by dozens of people who did not apparently intervene on his behalf. That even a policeman reportedly stood by as it was taking place.

And the experience takes me back 21 years to a summer I spent in Jerusalem.

I was 22 and taking part in a student leadership program for North American Jews. There was a great deal of “down time,” which meant many evenings hanging out on Ben Yehuda and Emek Refaim streets and occasional mornings or afternoons to roam around Jerusalem.

Flash back to one sunny day in a park-like area near the King David Hotel. My friend and I were sunbathing on the grass when a group of young Arab men approached us. They asked where we were from in Hebrew, and my friend Gilat, who spoke the language better than I, answered and asked them the same. One answered, “Hevron.” She looked at me and said, “Let’s go.” Obediently following her, I ran breathlessly back up the hill to a more public area on the street. I felt naive for even engaging in conversation with them, and ultimately agreed with her that it wasn’t worth taking chances by hanging around with Arabs from such a volatile place.

The young women in our program were all housed in a dorm-like setting on Lloyd George Street off of Emek Refaim (now the Little House in the Colony hotel). We were kept apart from the male students, who had their own apartment in the Rehavia neighborhood. So it was inevitable that my friends and I would spend evenings on (pre-gentrified) Emek Refaim, often hanging out at a local pizza shop, Pizza Ami. A few  of us befriended two workers, Rafi and Ilan, who became known to our group as “the pizza men.” Rafi was kind and somewhat different from the typical Israeli guy, but I had no reason to suspect anything out of the ordinary, and I did not hesitate when he invited several of us to his small apartment in the neighborhood.

Nothing could have prepared me for the revelation that followed. I don’t remember what prompted him to tell us his whole “story,” but we were stunned to find out that there was no “Rafi” — rather, his real name was Ra’id, and he was a Palestinian Muslim! A student in Bethlehem, he worked in Jerusalem and discreetly stayed there after hours during the summer months. He told us his family was originally from Jerusalem — noting the irony that many Arabs used to live in the elaborate mansions around the German Colony before Israel’s War of Independence. It was a revelation that rocked me to my core.

Jerusalem's Zion Square, the scene of the incident in which a group of Jewish youths severely beat an Arab teenager, Auhgust 2012 (photo credit: Nati Shohat/Flash90)

Jerusalem’s Zion Square, the scene of the incident in which a group of Jewish youths severely beat an Arab teenager, Auhgust 2012 (photo credit: Nati Shohat/Flash90)

My initial instinct to his bombshell was to run away, just as I had done in the park a short time before. How could he deceive us all summer like that? Had we done something illegal socializing with him? Were we in danger? Where did he fit into my Israel experience, a narrative which, until that point, viewed Arabs as the “other”?

While more to the left on the spectrum of views regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I was (and remain) unabashedly a Zionist. But this encounter with Rafi/Ra’id put a face to the conflict, to the “other.” He seemed sincere in his wish for peace; the impression I received was that he would have lived in a binational state of Jews and Arabs, naive as that may sound. I remained in touch with him for several months after that, noting the irony of addressing envelopes to him in “Bethlehem, Israel” — a distinction that in many ways embodies the identity struggles he must have dealt with on an ongoing basis.

We eventually lost touch, but for a long time whenever I read of clashes between Israeli soldiers and young Palestinians, I would wonder about his well-being. (I recently did a Google search, and found a photo of someone with a strong resemblance to him working as a “diversity educator” at the University of California — I guess my trust in him was not unfounded.)

I know there are fears in Israeli society about Jewish women being raped or held captive by Arab men; one of the reasons the mob may have descended upon the teen was a reaction to an allegation that a Jewish girl was raped by one. I’m certainly not advocating for Jewish women and Arab men to date each other. And Israelis will rightly point out that it is not so safe ­for women or men to walk around the Arab shuk or parts of eastern Jerusalem while Arabs are largely free to roam around the western part of the capital.

But to beat up a person almost to the point of death? What excuse could there possibly be for such a heinous crime? Thankfully, Israeli politicians roundly condemned the attack, and the speaker of the Knesset, in fact, visited the boy in the hospital and labeled the incident a “microcosm of a national problem.”

As with all aspects of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, there are no easy answers to this situation. But we cannot stand idly by in the face of terror — regardless of who perpetrates such crimes.

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