In 1988, in a London dormitory just steps away from Hyde Park and Royal Albert Hall, a young Lebanese girl with olive skin and dark brown eyes, pushed me up against a wall, and with a passion I had never seen, made the demand “TALK TO ME! JUST TALK TO ME! TELL ME WHY YOU SUPPORT ISRAEL!” And I did. It was a moment that changed me. You see being a Jewish boy having been born and raised in the north suburbs of Chicago, far removed from the realities of everyday life of an Israeli citizen, I was taught that we support Israel. I learned that Israel was the home land of the Jewish people and the state of Israel was surrounded by hostile neighbors. I learned how Israel was attacked by the Arab states that surrounded it the day it declared itself a country and Israel fought back to win. I learned of the Six Day war and numerous other battles. I learned of the PLO and planes that were hijacked, Jews singled out by their passports, shot and tossed onto the run way. I learned of busses blown up filled with innocent men, women and children, time and time again. I learned about Entebbe and the Jews that were taken hostage by PLO terrorists, only to be freed in a now historic mission by the IDF. I remember watching with my class mates as Israel and Egypt signed the peace treaty, and I remember hearing about the death of Anwar Sadat only too soon afterwards. I learned of the Holocaust and “never forget” and “never again.” I remember being taught that Jews were good and Arabs were bad. And as a kid I wondered why so many people hate us.
Then when I was attending college in Chicago, I decided in my last year to spend a semester studying in London. Through my school I found an exchange program at Richmond University, an American University in London. I was thrilled to be going there and knew this would be the experience of my life. When I got there I quickly discovered something I had not anticipated, not a bad thing just something I did not expect. Half of the students at this American University were Arab Muslims. They were mostly the sons and daughters of Arab nationals based in London. Being a boy from the Midwest, I had never encountered this many Arabs in one place. Their certainly were not this many on the North Shore of Chicago. So I decided to make this a learning experience. I decided to open my mind and erase all of the pre-conceived notions that I had learned over the past 20 years. After all wasn’t that what this experience was all about. First I signed up for a class called “The History of the Muslim Religion from 600A.D. to the present.” Next, I tried to interact with the Arabs attending this university as much as possible. I hoped it would allow me to form my own opinions, entirely separate from what I had been taught. I found it fascinating that here were two groups of people, who traditionally, by label alone, Americans, and Arab Muslims, were not known to have the best relationship, and were thrust together and forced to interact. It was like a great social experiment. I never told any of them I was Jewish. It was obvious I was American.
What I quickly noticed was that it was not easy to get to know them. They mostly socialized with each other. There was nothing wrong with that, in fact it's very natural. After all I hung out mostly with other Americans. I’m not sure if it was the policy of the University but as far as housing went, we were all kept very segregated from each other. It wasn’t until I had a business class that I encountered a very friendly young girl named Abeer. She was from Oman. Honestly, she was beautiful as were most of the Arab girls. She had long dark hair, very dark eyes and beautiful skin. She was also a bit shy but somehow I flirted my way into becoming friends with her. We would sit together during breaks and talk about class and each other’s cultures, but I still never mentioned I was Jewish. Then one day, about halfway through the semester she said to me, “You’re Jewish, aren’t you?” I said, “Yes I am. How did you know?” and with a little smile she said, “I’ve always known.” I asked her if she wanted to have dinner one night and she made it clear that was just not going to happen so I didn’t pursue it. I never talked politics with her or what she thought about Israel because I wanted to get to know the person not the politics, also believe it or not, I did not like to talk politics, especially when it came to Israel.
But the girl from Lebanon was different. First of all she lived in the same dorm as all of us Americans. She was attractive but somewhat of a tomboy. She seemed more at home with the Americans than anyone else. She was just one of many in the group of people who all hung out together. But every once in a while, after a few to many pints at the pub she would ask me what I thought about Israel. She kept it real open-ended and I always told her, “I don’t like to discuss it.” I had my views, they weren’t going to change, so why discuss it. I know it frustrated her but I didn’t know why. What I did know is I always supported Israel. Whatever they did I supported Israel because that is what I was taught to do, but the truth was besides being Jewish and knowing it was the Jewish homeland, I really did not have a true understanding of why I supported Israel beyond that’s how I was raised and I really didn't question it. So every time she would ask me, I would tell here, “I really don’t want to discuss it. I have my reasons, and you have yours, and I just don’t want to discuss it.” After that she would usually back off, annoyed by my answer.
Finally the semester was nearing its end. We would all be leaving, going back to the countries that we came from hopefully being a bit wiser then we were before we arrived. We went out for one last time to the local pub that we would go to each night after classes. At 10:30 pm when all pubs in England closed we headed back to the dorm. We all sat around the main lobby of our dorm and had a great time. We talked for hours. Then the Lebanese girl with olive skin and dark brown eyes tried one last time to talk to me about Israel. She found me in the hallway and asked me again, “Why do you support Israel!” I said, “I just don’t want to talk about it.” She grabbed me, pushed me up against a wall, and with a passion I had never seen, made the demand “TALK TO ME! JUST TALK TO ME! TELL ME WHY YOU SUPPORT ISRAEL!” And I did. And after I was done, after I told her what I had been taught, so far removed from the realities of life in that part of world, she told me the other side, the side not so removed, the side I had never been told. Not the side of a terrorist, or a soldier but the side of a child, a child who didn’t know or care about the politics of the situation, or who fired first. She told me the side of a frightened little girl who saw the bombs and the missiles come down and kill her aunts and uncles, cousins and friends. She showed me the side I had never seen before, not the Lebanese side, but the human side, the side you never see on the news, the side removed from politics, not of who’s right and who’s wrong, but instead the side of a pretty little girl who saw things she should never have seen, who’s attitudes and opinions have every right to exist based on her perspective and experiences, a side that we all too often forget when we talk about not just Israel, but also Iraq, and Afghanistan. We forget that no matter what side we support, there are family members who are devastated by the loss of a loved one, parents in the middle who lost a child, children orphaned by a bomb, soldiers and civilians both American and foreign, maimed by explosions. Do I support Israel? Yes I do, but not blindly. I don’t support any move by any side that is counterproductive to peace and all sides have made mistakes. But most importantly I support the human side because somewhere there is a little girl with olive skin and dark brown eyes watching her family get blown apart. And whether that little girl is Israeli, or Palestinian, Iraqi, Afghan, Lebanese or American it doesn’t really matter, now does it? We are all people and we all have families that we love. Our leaders need to remember that, but they seldom do. We all need to remember that in every conflict, on every side, there is a little brown eyed girl.
You can read more from Brian Dann at www.NorthShoreDad.com.