Growing up in Israel one quickly learns what the attitude towards “the Arabs” is. And you guessed right – it’s not always a positive one. Even though Arab-Israelis are 20% of the country’s population, when you grow up in Tel-Aviv, you don’t really see any Arabs and you certainly don’t have any Arab friends if you are Jewish. When you finish high school and go to the mandatory 3-year military service, you definitely don’t see Arabs there. Especially given the fact that the IDF (Israeli Defense Force, aka our army) fights the Arabs, remember? Arab-Israelis are clearly excused from that endeavour. Common children’s talk usually includes derogatory terms and in Israel it’s usually “gay” and “Arab”. Examples include “don’t be so gay man” and “ don’t be such an Arab”. I’m not naive, I know that in Israel’s neighboring countries, the situation is not very different – children grow up hating Israelis and Jews similar to how we are taught to hate Arabs. It sucks, but that’s the current situation.
My story begins in the spring of 2012, in Tel-Aviv. I was 29 years old (my name is Itamar by the way) and only a few weeks earlier, I received a letter from Columbia University that I had been accepted to their Master’s degree program in International Affairs. I had heard at the time that the Israeli Foreign Ministry organized a session for Israeli academics who were going to study abroad. The session was in a very nice building in Central Tel-Aviv but the content was slightly depressing. The reason for the gloominess, was the realization that we (Israelis) were not liked outside our country. We were told about the Apartheid week in foreign universities, about the BDS movement, and what we should say when asked about our military service. After a session like that, the last thing you wanted to see abroad is an Arab who want to get into a conversation about your country… because why bother with the headache?
But strangely enough things don’t always go like you plan. In August 2012, I moved to New York City and before school started, we had a couple of social introductory sessions, in order to meet our fellow future classmates. I remember going to a beer garden in Harlem by myself. I didn’t know anyone there. I got to the place and started socializing. This guy was from New Jersey, great! That guy was German (that’s a different conversation right there, but sure), and so on. I vividly remember the girl who entered the bar wearing a “Hard Rock Cafe – BEIRUT” T-shirt. As a good Israeli, all your defense mechanisms start in a heartbeat. I was super curious to see her reaction when she learned I was from Israel. Surprisingly, she – her name was Eli – was super cool and pleasant. Her family was indeed from Lebanon but she and her family were also American citizens. During the two years of studies we became very good friends, despite having opposing political views (she’s a supporter of the BDS movement and I’m clearly against it).
During the first year of the program, a group called “the Middle-East Dialogue Program” formed. There were a few interesting anecdotes over this period of time. For example, at the beginning, the Arab students really made a distinct differentiation between Israeli students and “Israeli soldiers”. For example, “you guys are great and we love you, but the Israeli soldiers are the worst!”. The funny thing with this argument is that we, Israelis, are all soldiers. Always. Most of us. Because most Israelis serve in the IDF as it is mandatory. I remember Eli asking me afterwards “did you have a rifle?” (of course), “did you shoot it?” (of course) and lastly, “did you kill anyone?” (of course not…). That line of questions hinted that she didn’t really understand the reality I was coming from – a small country in conflict with its Arab-Muslim neighbors. Buses and coffee shops being blown up by suicide bombers and terrorists when I was growing up. Security and mandatory service, sadly, is not an option for us not to participate in.
While in New York, I met a lot of people from a plethora of countries,. Some of them were Muslim and even from Arab countries. The more I talked with these individuals, the more I realized what we are missing back home. Ironically, I had more in common with the Arab students than with the random guy from Texas. This time in New York really gave me a different perspective. It made me believe that peace between Israelis and Palestinians is not only achievable, but crucial. I returned to Israel in December 2014 and since then I have been involved with the Israeli NGO “Peace Now.” I really hope that with my small contribution through my activism, in the future, some of my Arab friends will be able to visit me in Tel Aviv, and that I can visit Beirut. After all, some call it the “Paris of the Middle East”.