I visited Israel for the first time when I was thirteen. The Jewish day school I attended from kindergarten through middle school planned a two-week tour of what we were taught was our homeland—a time designated to connect to a place thousands of miles away before our graduation.
To me, this period represented a different sort of culmination in my life: the end of a time in which I exclusively knew Jewish people.
I did find connection in Israel, on that trip six years ago. I explored everywhere from the Negev to the Kineret with my classmates; I visited now familiar family members near Tel Aviv. Pressing my palm against the Western Wall, mouthing the Shema—the prayer I still recite each night before going to sleep—I felt the weight of generations that completed the same act in that place.
I also felt something I had not expected to feel in the Old City: discomfort. To my thirteen-year-old self, the Adhna (the Muslim Call to Prayer that occurs multiple times each day) was chilling.
I felt unsettled, and even frightened by hearing words in a language foreign to me recited by the muezzin from the minaret of the Al-Aqsa Mosque. My world was narrower then.
I first encountered Asmaa on the 2014 Friendship Tour, when Ultimate Peace brought a team to my high school’s tournament. A seventeen year old Arab Israeli from Tamra, fluent in Arabic, Hebrew, and English, Asmaa gave a speech in her third language in front of my entire high school about her journey in UP. The following day she layed out to catch the first score of our game against each other (I was guarding her, but she schooled me); Ultimate Peace’s team, MashUP, proceeded to win the entire tournament, defeating some of the top youth teams in the United States.
A few months later, I had the honor of playing with Asmaa on the Israeli National Team at the World Junior Ultimate Championships in Lecco, Italy. I trusted her on the field, always certain she would make a smart decision with the disc in her hand. Away from game time, we began to talk: about our lives at home, our hopes for our futures, and her discomfort with wearing the Star of David—the emblem of the Israeli flag—on her jersey that week. She left her family during Ramadan to compete at the tournament. Of my teammates, the one I became closest to was the one whose background looked most different from mine.
This summer, I got to spend another week with Asmaa at Ultimate Peace. From a camper to a CIT to a coach, Asmaa now aids the administration of UP—she is a leader among leaders. She exudes goodwill, and a sense that she will alter the world she has grown in: dominated by men, divided by politics, ravaged by war.
After the campers said their final goodbyes, the staff departed for an afternoon of rafting on the Jordan River. Asmaa and I sat together on the bus. She asked me about my friends from home; we talked about her plans now that she has graduated from high school. As we watched the desert sunset outside the window, she said: “This country is so beautiful, but there are too many dumb people here.”
Too many times my campers had to run to bomb shelters in the past year, they and their families’ lives threatened. Too many innocent people lost. While we were rafting, an Ultra-Orthodox Jewish man stabbed six people at the Jerusalem Gay Pride Parade. Shira Banki, a sixteen-year-old girl, died of her wounds shortly thereafter. In the early hours of the next morning, a one-and-a-half year-old Palestinian infant was burned to death and three of his family members were seriously wounded in an arson attack by Jewish extremists in a West Bank village.
Not enough people exposed to the other; not enough people allied in peacemaking.
I spent my last day in Israel, this second time, touring the Old City of Jerusalem. I again stood with my palm pressed to the Western Wall, saying the Shema. I again walked the streets so holy to my people and to many others, feeling the force of the place. This time I stayed in the Muslim quarter, and was woken at 4:30 AM to the sound of the muezzin reciting the Fajr prayer from the Al-Aqsa Mosque. In the morning I thought I had dreamt it: something eternally eerie, yet beautiful.
Tensions were high in Jerusalem that Friday. Our Israeli Jewish friend came to meet us at a restaurant near where we were staying, by the Damascus Gate; he was turned away at the checkpoint, along with all other males below the age of 50. Asmaa joined us later in the afternoon. She told us about a friend she had made on the bus ride to Jerusalem: an Israeli Jewish girl, around her age. This girl had never spoken with an Arab before. She told Asmaa that hearing Arabic spoken often frightened her. They talked for the whole ride, learning from each other; they took a selfie together and exchanged phone numbers.
Years ago, I was not so far off from the girl Asmaa met on the bus. I was afraid of what was foreign to me.
Things are different now. I have friends in a faraway country, some who share my religion and heritage, and many who don’t. For me, a little exposure went a long way. All of us at Ultimate Peace hope that a short time spent with people from different cultures can alter perspectives in the long-term.
It’s pretty damn hard to hate a group from which you know an individual. If we’re open to understanding, we can be open to peace.