Editor’s Note: The following article, is a finalist of the Fresh Ink for Teens/StandWithUs High School Writing Contest. More than 60 contestants from around the country answered the following question: “Describe a time when you were put in a situation where you had to defend Israel. Share your feelings, thoughts and actions in response to this experience.”
The quietest I’ve ever heard a room was when a 16-year-old Palestinian girl told the story of her uncle, a suicide bomber. We—Americans, Israelis and Palestinians—sat in a shockingly inappropriate setting, a preschool classroom, and we hung so deeply to every word that the air itself quivered.
Her voice bounced off posters of animals and colors and mingled with stale yellow light. As she related her uncle’s decision to become a martyr for the extremist group Hamas, and following, his brother’s neutralization for plotting the same, I could almost see a younger version of this girl sitting in one of the toddler-designated chairs off to the side. She became any child, skin the same olive complexion as my tanned sister’s, and I could not vacate my mind of this image.
Throughout our shared program, a seminar on the conflict, our worldviews had clashed repeatedly. She was always skeptical of Israel, quick to contrive criticism or blame. And in this moment, I so desperately wanted to confront her, to say, “See, we are the good guys; now, you must understand!” However, the silence, marred only by her soft recollection, broke through my veneer of frustrated scorn. I hesitated.
I slipped from my moral high ground and thought for a minute about the arbitrariness of the lives we’d been born into. She had lost two loved ones, on top of growing up in a truly unimaginable environment. Even now, she had been willing to travel to America and look American Jews and Israelis in the eye. I still felt compelled to share my stories, my ideas with her—perhaps, they could even make her life better—but I first had to connect with her struggles.
It started with the acceptance that I didn’t have to view myself as a defender, her as an aggressor and me the sane bastion of truth come to rid her of any cultural attachment. Instead, as the weeks passed, we merely spoke, more and more comfortable as we continued. English, a great unifier, obviated any Arabic-Hebrew barrier. She had questions about Israelis and Jews; I had questions about Palestinians and Muslims. Despite marked differences, we could communicate.
My epiphany went largely unspoken, but I will forget neither her nor these encounters. It was an episode that reflects so much of what I value: fundamentally, the idea that though I cannot ever know everything, an open ear closes the gap.