I Was a Zionist Until I Fell in Love
It was 1987, my 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, and 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 served a week in Gadna, the Israeli military youth program. I planned to return, serve in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), and 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 the 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.
It was 1989, my junior year. I had given up dreams of solving the Middle East conflict and changed my major to art history. I spent my sophomore year with a serious boyfriend. Friendships changed, and my relationship ended.
I was a free agent.
So when a friend asked if I wanted to go to Cities, the nightclub frequented by foreign students and lots of Arabs, I said yes. No longer scared, I was curious and ready to party.
I guess we were cute enough because a tall and yolked bouncer opened the velvet rope and let us into the VIP area.
House music pumped through speakers. The best-dressed and most sophisticated people I had ever seen danced and drank and swirled around me. The only other nightclub I had ever been to was Chippendales, the male strip club, and wow, this crowd was different.
I stood at the bar, equal parts nervous and invigorated. I wore a black off-the-shoulder blazer I had bought that day at the Urban Outfitters on M Street. My long, dark, curly hair cascading past my bare skin, I did my best impression of someone who belonged there.
“Hey, I know you. You’re Melissa’s friend,” Ramzi shouted over the pounding bass as he slipped next to me at the crowded bar. “Hi,” I said awkwardly.
But Ramzi wasn’t shy or awkward, and before long, we were on our second drink and dancing to Deee-Lite’s “Groove Is in the Heart,” and holy shit, groove was in our hearts.
Days later, I was at Ramzi’s apartment when several of his friends came over. I learned they were from Palestine and Lebanon and Syria. I learned we liked the same music and movies, and we laughed at the same jokes. We breathed the same air and drank the same water and all needed food to survive.
Ramzi and I became friends, then we became lovers. And his friends became mine. And like in all friendships, at least the best ones, I listened to their stories.
I heard devastating stories from Palestinian refugee camps and heartbreaking stories about surviving Israeli bombings of Beirut. I learned about Syrian families ejected from their homes in the Golan Heights and ancestral land lost to Jewish West Bank settlers.
In turn, I corrected their misinformation, challenged their stereotypes, and shut down their anti-Semitism. Together, we dispelled myths and cut through each other’s propaganda.
Hours spent together with wine and cigarettes and cocaine and conversation changed me. My heart and mind opened. I could not hate these people I loved. I moved to their side of the cafeteria.
I was home for summer break. It was hot, and the New York humidity was thick like paste. We were in a friend’s backyard, tanning by the pool. High school friends sharing stories from college. We all went to private universities on the East Coast, schools that made staying in a bubble easy.
“You’re fucking a camel jockey?”
“So you’re into sand-niggers now?”
I was horrified by what they said to me.
I knew they would never use the n-word to describe a Black person. But when speaking about Arabs, they felt no need to soften their language or conceal their feelings.
My parents tolerated my politics and welcomed my exploration. I had left the bubble, and there was no turning back.
In the summer of 1990, I returned to Israel. I lived with a friend in the northern city of Safed, home of the Jewish mysticism Kabbalah. I worked in an art gallery and smoked hash in caves with spiritual mystics and listened to esoteric debates I barely understood.
My departure date was open. Perhaps I’d stay forever.
Then, in August, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait and threatened to attack Israel. From Kuwait, he could attack anywhere in Israel. It terrified me, so when my parents asked me to come home, I did.
I returned to the United States more committed to peace than ever because no one should live with the daily threat of violence and existential extinction.
The First Intifada began more than 30 years ago. Peace treaties have failed, Israel has annexed more land, and Hamas has fired more rockets. Israel has committed countless human rights violations, and its current government seems intent on committing more. Too many innocent lives have been lost on both sides.
Hate is harder when we see each other’s humanity. When we hold each other’s hand. Ramzi came to my Jewish wedding and danced the hora and embraced my husband and held my daughter and made my life exponentially better. In 2005, Ramzi died in a tragic car accident. But as long as he was alive, our friendship never waned.
I have no solutions, but I know that if every American Jew could meet a Ramzi or an Iyad or Mouk or Ali or George or Mona or one of the dozens of other Arab friends I made, it would help. Perhaps they would question the $3.8 billion in military funding the United States gives Israel if they spent some time in Gaza. We are all better when our hearts and minds expand. When we create space for more love.
Peace now. We cannot wait another 30 years.