My friend, an Israeli American, told me ” I am not going to tolerate this!” It’s said that bravery isn’t the absence of fear, but the decision to do what’s right despite the fear. We were 18 and 20, for us it was solely the absence of fear. I thought she was in potential danger, so I went with her.
She argued with the demonstrators, their responses seemed emotional and irrational, what I could make out of their arguments contained a great deal of blatant anti-Semitism, not always cloaked in anti-Zionism. One person, showed me the sole of his shoe where he had drawn a Jewish star so that he would always be walking on it. No campus police were present, no Jewish organizations were there to oppose it. We were in it alone. Time stood still as it can at moments like this. Eventually the crowd dissipated and we went to our respective classes.
As time went by, I crossed paths with the students who had participated in the demonstration. Despite my first impression, apart from the crowd and the cause they turned out to be quite nice. Honi, who had been among the demonstrators showed up in my marketing course. On the first day of class he sat next to me. We awkwardly acknowledged each other, put the past aside and got to work. Over the following months I learned more about his experiences, and he took the opportunity to ask me everything he had always wanted to ask a Jew, as if I was the spokesman of the Jewish people. In time he was reading about the holocaust. He told me once that a professor on campus, one who was actively involved with the Arab student organization, asked him why he was reading about Jewish topics and that he explained he wanted “to understand the enemy”, but through this his views moderated. I was 20 years old at the time, and I can’t say I didn’t follow a similar route from the Jewish perspective, including the starting point. We both expanded our worldview. More than the facts I became aware of, I realized that it is in everyone’s interests to put themselves in the shoes of the other side for a moment. Even if the initial motivation is “to understand the enemy”, understanding does not need to lead to accepting the narrative of the other but it is a prerequisite for dialogue, which in turn leads to pragmatism and working out a way to live together.
Years later I worked in a United Nations organization alongside many Arab coworkers. I was the first Jew most had ever met. I neither wore it on my sleeve nor made any effort to conceal it. This was an organization the Lubavitcher Rebbe had once referred to as “a house of darkness”. My coworkers went out of their way to be welcoming and friendly to me. Behind closed doors I was again approached as if I were the spokesman for the Jewish people, as if this was their one chance to ask an actual Jew what they had always wanted to ask. It was evident that they had never heard the pro-Israel side of the story. Where was Israel advocacy? After some research I discovered that Israel advocacy seems to be focused on synagogues and other Jewish groups, “preaching to the choir”. Why is Israel advocacy not done in Arabic, in mosques and madrassas? There are Moslem and Palestinian figures who could facilitate this. Communication requires delivery of the message in the language of the intended recipient.