When you live under Arab autocracy, having Jewish friends isn’t exactly an option.
Until recently, I had never met, spoken to, or interacted with, a Jew.
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve read my fair share of Einstein, Freud, and Marx — but that has only allowed me to delve into the brilliance that Jewry has contributed to the world, and nothing more. I can’t play a game of football with Freud, nor can I exchange anecdotes with Marx. I knew what a masterful Jewish genius was like, but I was yet to meet an ordinary, everyday, Jewish person.
Having grown up in nations that publicly denounce Israel and uphold anti-Semitic organisations, propaganda here dictated that Jews were – at the least — stingy, greedy and insensitive, and — at the most — genocidal, cruel and abnormal. I was raised in an environment where the skullcap was seen as revolting, and the fine line between Jews and Israelis was getting fuzzier by the day. Israelis were banned from setting foot in the country, and Jews that did found themselves harassed.
For the longest time, I began to accept the seemingly axiomatic fact that I might never meet a Jew in this life.
My time at the Yale Young Global Scholars Program changed that.
The Yale Young Global Scholars Program was, besides being the most intellectually stimulating experience of my life, the most diverse congregation of young minds from across the globe. From Kenyans to New Zealanders and South Koreans to Mexicans — the diversity of high school students interacting at Yale’s campus in New Haven was mind boggling. There was no way I wouldn’t bump into a Jew, even if I tried not to.
And I did try not to meet a Jew. The reason being that I didn’t know what to expect.
To you, the reader, this may seem like utter nonsense, but to me it was truly frightening. Unlike you, who meet and greet Jews every other day, I had spent my entire life without ever meeting one in real life. I was culturally quarantined from anything that was Jewish since I was a little boy.
While you may find it easy to converse with one of your Jewish neighbours, my tongue was paralysed as I didn’t know what to say and what not to say. I didn’t know if Jews were easily offended, or if they took things lightly. I didn’t know if all Jews sided with Israel, nor did I know if Jews were predominantly conservative or liberal. These somewhat silly concerns managed to stop me from mustering enough courage to finally speak to a Jew.
As the program reached its halfway point, however, I decided to drown these irrational anxieties and do what I had not done my entire life.
I met a Jew.
He was a descendant of Russian Jews who had embarked on an exodus to the US in order to flee Soviet persecution in the 1920s, and I had approached him in the richly furnished courtyard shortly after dinner that evening. We didn’t talk much, but my mind was hit by epiphany after epiphany. I analysed him from head to toe as we spoke under the shade of Harkness tower, and I found myself shattering all precedents that my mind had constructed regarding Jews.
This was no stingy miser — he was a normal kid, just like me. This was no harbinger of genocide — he was an ordinary person. He was no sworn enemy of Islam, he was just a talented teenager. As I looked at him, I didn’t see anything that made him “Jewish”. I only found a teenager staring back at me.
Our conversation was so brief that I doubt he even remembers me, but he holds the distinction of being the first Jew to have ever conversed with me, something I do not intend to forget.
What I realised on that pleasant evening was that nations paint disgusting images of their enemies. Whether it be the Indian government’s perception of ordinary Pakistanis, or Iran’s perception of everyday Israelis, it is disheartening to see that innocent men, women and children whose sole objective in life is to lead happy lives — and not some twisted political agenda — suffer the most when governments choose to stereotype them.
As the program ended and we went our separate ways, Yale’s Hebrew motto proudly shined at the University’s gates – Lux et Veritas — Light and Truth. I felt a strange solace fill my heart every time I read those words.
I had met a Jew, and he was no genocidal abnormality, he was a person, just like me.