Boys played soccer, girls gossiped in tight groups. The setting was all too familiar. After all, I had only just been in high school a few months before.
However, this was my first time in an Arab high school.
I had come, as a component of my gap year program, to attempt to build relationships with Arab students and engage in dialogue that hopefully would better our understanding of one another.
Each year, a significant number of Jewish high school graduates from all over the world spend a year studying in Israel. I was fortunate to be chosen to participate in “Kivunim: New Directions” through which I was able to live in Jerusalem and study history, politics, Hebrew and Arabic. We also visited many Jewish diaspora communities in North Africa, Europe and Asia to learn more about their history and modern status and, as North American Jews, extend our support.
I had visited Israel in the past, but had never been exposed to its largest minority. I had spent two summers living with my cousins, returning home believing that I had fully experienced what it was like to live in Israel. I felt excited — yet anxious — to be part of the first meaningful interaction these Arab kids would ever have with their Jewish peers. They were Israeli citizens, but most had never had any kind of relationship with a Jew — Israeli or foreign-born — which shocked me.
Awkward at first, our conversations soon turned amiable and uninhibited.
Kivunim’s January trip took us to the Neve Shalom school in Casablanca. During a discussion about anti-Semitism in Morocco today, Rabbi Jacquy Sebag drew our attention to a faint scar that divided his face into two. Some time ago, while walking down a street, he had been attacked by a person holding an axe who targeted him because he was Jewish.
Today Sebag continues to attend to the daily needs of the school. I couldn’t believe he was willing to resume his
leadership role in the Jewish community after almost dying as a victim of a hate crime; I imagined fleeing to a safer community in Israel or the United States as a more logical response.
A minority in a Muslim country, Sebag still views himself as Moroccan first. Despite the acrimonious Jewish-Muslim relations that permeate much of the world, he persists in engaging with the Muslim community.
That Casablanca visit infused me with energy when we returned to my regular Ramla visits. While we still conversed about the generics: hobbies, school and movies, we also discussed — extensively — both the Arab-Israeli conflict and the conflict between the Arab and Jewish citizens of Israel. Although I still identify as pro-Israel, I listened to the students argue their opinions and describe their encounters with prejudiced Jews and biased police. In turn, I hoped the Ramla students acquired a new outlook on Jewish youth, who wanted to listen to them.
In addition to the lessons from my interactions with diaspora Jewish and Arab-Israeli communities, I learned that it was a personal struggle for me to stay organized. An adult now, I must take responsibility for every one of my mistakes. I was traveling to 13 countries, so I understandably got harried, packing and unpacking every few weeks. However, I did make a couple of trips to Western Union to withdraw cash when my wallet was stolen. I also called the phone company more than once when I misplaced my cellphone, and several times I retraced my steps to retrieve whatever it was I left behind.
This past year, I saw more than I could ever hope to in such a short time. I learned lessons that now alter the way I see the world, and I discussed issues that never interested me before because they did not directly affect me, or those close to me.
Most significantly, I learned that connecting with others begins with dialogue, which can generate more understanding and tolerance and — hopefully — increase the possibility of coexistence.
I never realized just how eye opening my year in Israel would be. I advise those taking a gap year to enjoy every moment. Remember to keep an open mind; you never know whom you might meet and, most importantly, what they might teach you.
(Ariel Schnitzer, a Los Angeles native, is a freelance writer and a rising
undergraduate student. She traveled Israel, North Africa, Europe and Asia
from Oct. 10, 2011, to June 13, 2012, as part of Kivunim..)