I Was a Zionist Until I Fell in Love

Hate is harder when we see each other’s humanity

Mindy Stern
Published in
5 min readMay 17, 2021


Photo: kolderal / Getty Images

1987My freshman year at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C. The First Intifada had just begun. Young Arabs with keffiyehs around their necks stood at a long table near the cafeteria’s exit, a Palestinian flag hanging behind them.

“Sign the petition! Free Palestine!”

They terrified me; I walked by as fast as I could. To me, a keffiyeh stood for the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), and Palestinians weren’t human beings, they were terrorists. Right in front of me, in real life.

I wasn’t alone. The main student cafeteria, the Marvin Center, had its own imaginary Green Line. Arab students sat on one side, American Jews on the other. Cross at your own risk.

I was 19, born and raised in a conservative Jewish home. My dad and I often walked to synagogue, most of my friends were Jewish. I went to Hebrew school, had a bat mitzvah, read from the Torah. My best teenage memories are from my conservative youth group, United Synagogue Youth (USY).

I was also a Zionist. I spent the summer of 1985 in Israel. On Shabbat, I attended an orthodox synagogue; I participated in Gadna, the Israeli military youth program. I planned to return, enlist in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), make Aliyah to Israel.

I planned to major in foreign affairs and go into the diplomatic corps. I studied Hebrew; I would help solve the Arab-Israeli conflict. But when I got to GWU and saw all these Arab students, I stayed away from them. They were not partners in peace, they were my enemy.

Then I met Ramzi Jamal, and everything changed.

Ramzi was a business major who tutored some of my friends. I’d see him around campus. This adorable, chubby, olive-skinned man with a head of tight black curls and an unrelenting smile. My friends—all Jewish—loved him: “Oh, he’s different, he’s not a real Arab.”

Of course he was a real Arab. What they meant was he’s an actual human being. And he was impossible to hate.

1989. My junior year. I had given up dreams of solving the Middle East conflict and changed…