In 2011, I moved from Damascus to Strasbourg, France. After dragging my heavy suitcases up to the fifth floor of an old building, I realized that the family hosting me had several pets, including the world’s largest cat. Finding accommodation in Strasbourg was a nightmare, therefore, I decided to stay with them despite my pet allergy.
In less than 24 hours, I was wheezing and could not open my eyes anymore. The family released me from the leasing contract and the school where I was taking courses offered a solution for my emergency. A room down the road was available due to a last-minute cancellation. The room was in the Jewish quarter. Little did I know that, unlike such neighborhoods in Beirut and Damascus, this one was actually inhabited by Jews.
Across from the house where I was going to stay for the following few months was a small grocery store. The first time I went there, I was happy to find all the ingredients I needed for cooking, even the spices I used back home.
While I was filling my shopping cart, I heard men entering the store. They greeted the shopkeeper in French, but then they switched to a different language, a language I did not know until I knew it was Hebrew. It was the language of animations we used to watch as children, whenever we got a signal while adjusting the antenna – I turned in shock and saw four bearded men dressed in black suits, wearing tall black hats and long sideburns. I dropped the shopping and ran out of the store, across the street up to my room. I locked the door and could not breathe.
A few minutes later, my brain kicked in, urging me to calm down. After drinking water and washing my face, I decided to go back and fix the situation as I was going to pass by the store every day. My shopping was still where I left it and the men had gone. I went to pay and told the shopkeeper that I had forgotten my wallet earlier. He asked where I came from and smiled when I answered. I thought he understood what really happened, nevertheless, from then on he was kind to me.
After that incident, I wondered why I had a panic attack although the men did not even look at me, let alone bother or threaten me. The answer turned my world upside down: I wasn’t afraid for my safety, but rather of sharing the same space with Jews.
Up until that encounter, I had never seen a Jew in real life, although the Jews were always in the center of my existence; they were in the school history books, in American films we watched about Jesus, in Egyptian films as spies, in reports about the Palestinians, in the news during wars as the aggressor. They were the antagonists with whom we are never to speak, or else.
When we were not yet 5 years old, my sister and I were in the back of the car when an announcement came on the radio. My dad raised the volume and slowed down. My mom’s jaw dropped, and they both said nothing for a while. Our neighbor, the mother of a girl our age, was found guilty of spying for the Israelis and was sentenced to death with her sister. Eventually, my mother said: “How could they? After all the Israelis did to Lebanon!” My father was skeptical; He said that the allegations weren’t necessarily true, nonetheless, since they were charged with treason, they were doomed.
As I grew older and Hezbollah stronger, the term “Jew” became, in my world, synonymous with “enemy,” or even “monster.” Time and time again, Hasan Nasrallah vowed to protect us and drive all Jews out of our region.
Yet, those Jews I watched from my window in Strasbourg seemed nice. Also, they resembled me more than they did the French. Initially, I thought that the monstrous Jews that Nasrallah referred to must be those living in Israel. But the truth slowly unfolded.
Meeting Israelis always left me under the same impression: they are just like us, normal people. And just like us, they too are traumatized by war and would love to live in peace with us. So why don’t we live in peace?
Because our reality in the Middle East does indeed include war-mongering monsters, and they are those who vowed to rid the region of Jews, namely those who claim to be our protectors against the Israelis. The facts no longer accommodate their narrative.
Israel did not kill half a million Syrians. The Syrian regime did, with the help of the Iranian Regime and Hezbollah. One would think that this alliance is ready to sacrifice its own people for the sake of the Palestinians. Except even Palestinian life doesn’t matter; the Syrian regime imposed a siege on the Yarmouk Camp for many years after 2011, causing more than 200 Palestinians to die of starvation. Many of those who survived the siege were feeding on grass.
The people of the Middle East realized in the past years that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was a pretext for the Axis of Resistance to gain power in the region. It is time for them to learn that what they know about Israel and the Jews is wrong, and that peace can reign and replace the senseless suffering. Yet for that to happen, you’ve got to roll up your sleeves. Every Israeli needs to help reshape the perception of Israel in the mind of the neighbors. If you don’t, who else would?
Personal encounters are the best remedy for estrangement. You might not be able to visit Lebanon or Syria yet, however, you are able to meet Syrians and Lebanese on neutral ground wherever fate chooses. When it happens, don’t retreat out of despair or mistrust. Engage them and change their mind about Israel, like the shopkeeper in Strasbourg changed mine. All he had to do was to smile.