There I am standing. I have never felt this way before, a feeling of sadness, anxiety but proud at the same time. Right in front of me is the face of all evil, Hitler. And beside that are pictures of the ghastly, rugged, powerful Nazis. Yad Vashem, Jerusalem, the museum where the world can come together and commemorate on the horrific murder of 6 million Jews. I was there, standing beside these grim photographs, shaking and crying in denial. Squeezing my hand through all this was my friend Rowan, an Arab Sunni Muslim teenager from Lakiyah. Together we journeyed through the museum, comforting each other. Everything she saw, she asked about, she wanted to learn. For me, there was no better feeling than teaching her about the history of my people. We progressed through the whole museum together in sorrow, but we left strong. We ate lunch together outside the museum. We weren’t speaking but I can tell something was on her mind. I asked her, “Rowan, is everything okay?”. She takes a deep breath and says, “Sarit, I want to apologize for what happened to your people, I really apologize”. I didn’t reply, but it was something no one has ever said to me. This is JITLI.
This summer I had the amazing opportunity to participate the Jacobs International Teen Leadership Institute (JITLI). This program takes 10 selected high school juniors from San Diego to Israel in the month of July for two and a half weeks. In that short time you become part of a new family, a family of 10 Israeli Jews and 20 Israeli Arabs. My San Diego group prepared for nine long months for this experience; learning the history of Israel and Palestine, reading Israeli and Arab websites 24/7, and learning about the meaning of leadership, what it really is to be a true leader. That was my task, to discover my role as a leader.
I came into JITLI with with a total intolerance for the idea of a Palestinian state. The formation of such a state, I thought would be a total insult for the Jews. The sole reason I agreed to participate in this controversial passion was so that I can engage and immerse myself in the practices of other cultures. I wanted to gain a better understand on the Arabs that live in Israel.
My adventure started on the first day of JITLI when we had our opening ceremony and got assigned our roommates. My room mate was Rowan. She immediately hugged me and said, “We must remain friends, no matter what happens in the political discussions my friendship with you is the most important”. Her words surprised me. Instantaneously, it hit me that this will be an experience of a life time.
Once we finished eating lunch, our whole group went into a circle. We were told by our counselors to discuss our experience at Yad Vashem. We were all sharing our thoughts and then Rowan got up and said, “I understand that the Jews went though the holocaust with the Germans but in 1947 the Palestinians went though the holocaust with the Jews”… Just 15 minutes ago Rowan had told me something I didn’t expect, something I was happy to hear. But this, this wasn’t anything I expected. I felt stupid, guilty and sad. She was my partner in the museum and I felt that I had failed my job at teaching her about the holocaust. How can someone go through such an emotional experience and say something like that? I couldn’t seem to grasp her statement, even though I tried to see where she was coming from.
As the day became night I thought about the reason why I applied to JITLI. I came into JITLI wanting to gain a new perspective, to learn a side I have always chosen to ignore. However, at the same time, this is the exact reason Rowan came on JITLI. She wasn’t exposed to the Jewish perspective, more specifically the history of the Holocaust, as I wasn’t exposed to the Arab claims, and their attachment to Al Aqsa. This is the beauty of JITLI. Who would ever think that the two opposite religions could ever be a reciprocal? Yes, in the broader perspective it almost seems like there will never be an end to the violence and hate towards each other, but if you allow yourself to focus on the small things, and make a difference in one persons life, you have won it all.
This correlation applies to the situation with Rowan. She was honest and spoke from her heart. She allowed me to see her perspective, which opened the doors for her to see mine. The next day I explained to her my feelings about her statement. I told her that her statement didn’t have anything to do with religion, it was just a false fact. And that is all she needed to hear. I didn’t put her down and I didn’t have to yell, all I had to do was give her the truth.
My bond with Rowan was something rare. I began to equate myself to her, she may have been false with her claim but I was also false with mine. I judged the Arabs before JITLI. I thought I was going to encounter what I have seen in the media, the terror and hatred expressed through violence. But Rowan conveyed her confusion through language, which is what the bigger problem is missing. The lack of communication between the two sects is the macro issue which can be resolved in smaller situations on JITLI. Rowan is one of many Arabs, but she isn’t a number to me. She is someone I will never forget in my life, she is someone who has taught me what it really means to listen and learn. JITLI is about declassifying the individual and to forget about the difference in religion, its about forming a bond based on education, patience and love. This is JITLI.