Have you ever met someone whom you felt like you already knew, even though you’d only just been introduced? That’s how I felt about Amir. He was charming and alluring. Amir seemed more American than I was. He spoke perfect English, knew the latest American music, and wore familiar brands like Ralph Lauren and Abercrombie and Fitch. He spoke without a trace of an accent and exuded a tough-guy attitude. He answered his iPhone confidently. He said, “Yeah” and not “Yes.” He stood tall and swaggered down the street like he owned it.
He introduced me to some of his friends, all of whom were students at an American school in Israel. He lived in the dorm next to mine at the Masa Israel-accredited Hebrew University of Jerusalem and studied business management. He was educated, athletic and had piercing blue eyes. He reminded me of my friends from home, but Amir was different: Amir was Palestinian.
So I wasn’t totally caught off guard when I found myself in a car with three Arabs and Anna, my best friend from Jewish day school, en route to the West Bank. Anna and I could exchange glances that said everything, but that night, there was complete silence between us.
My head dropped down in shame and I noticed my chai necklace, close to my heart, right where my religion has always been. I removed it, along with my Hadaya ring, and slipped them into my purse as I checked that my passport was still securely inside. I felt naked. I stripped off my Jewish armor and hid my Jewish identity to travel to a place where I was forbidden.
How stupid my Hebrew teacher would think we were. How disappointed my parents would be. During orientation, the school administration warned us against traveling to the West Bank. They said no one could save us if something happened. But then I remembered my Contemporary Issues in Israeli Society class at Hebrew U, where my professor encouraged us to question everything. Before I’d studied abroad, my perspective had mirrored what I had always been taught: Arabs bad, Jewish-Israelis good.
Now, sitting in the car, I wondered, “Is Israel really a democracy? Does it only treat its citizens fairly, but not all of its residents?”
I considered the typical American childhood dream: to grow up and become the president of the United States, and then I glanced over at Amir in the driver’s seat. He could never dream of becoming the Prime Minister of Israel.
Sitting behind Amir in the car, I suddenly felt this thirst to explore, to see what lay beyond the Green Line, to mentally and literally cross the border into the West Bank and prove to myself that Arabs are just as human as any of us. I knew “curiosity killed the cat” but I reminded myself that “cats have nine lives.”
We pulled up to what looked like a toll booth, but there were no E-ZPass signs. Instead there were soldiers armed with massive guns. They were dressed in bulky, bulletproof gear and looked so different from the soldiers I always saw on city buses. They were covered in black padding and looked like they could step into combat at a moment’s notice.
They took Amir’s passport and asked to see ours as well. Four guards scrutinized our documents for what felt like an hour, even though it was surely only a few minutes. They allowed us to pass through the blockade and we drove through Bethlehem. It was midnight and felt like a ghost town. The only signs of life were armed soldiers in black masks and stray dogs roaming the streets. It looked like a movie set, desolate and preserved.
We pulled up to a nightclub and stepped inside. After paying an entrance fee, I opened the door and braced myself for what I might find. It was more shocking than anything I could have imagined…
Dancing. That’s all there was. Twenty year olds, just dancing. The music was loud and the dance floor reminded me of a Penn State fraternity. The guys were just trying to impress the girls, and vice versa. From the corner of my eye, I spotted Amir making his way toward me.
Here I was, in occupied territory, a place that was so taboo, and everyone was just dancing, drinking, talking and laughing.
For those next two hours the cultural, religious and political divides were silenced and the music was all I could hear. After all, it was just another Saturday night.
Samantha Robins is a study abroad alumna of the Masa Israel-accredited Hebrew University. www.MasaIsrael.org
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