These are the words that I heard over and over again on my trip to Israel.
Over winter break, I was selected to attend the Campus Leaders mission sponsored by the Anti-Defamation League. This was an eight-day trip to Israel filled with a variety of speakers, cultural experiences and learning first hand about the issues in the area.
At a point, I honestly questioned whether our group leaders told the speakers to tell us beforehand that it was complicated. Once I confirmed that this was not the case, I had to believe what was the hardest thing for me to process: it is complicated and there is no right answer.
It is so easy to categorize people, places, and things.
It is not only easy, but it makes it possible to make overarching generalizations. For example, one generalization is that Israel is the land of the Jews, and Palestine is the land of the Muslims. But, there are Israeli-Muslims, and Jews who live on Palestinian land.
These religious generalizations lead to stereotypes about a person's history or beliefs. One of our speakers was Lucy Aharish, a news anchor for the Israeli news network i24. She asked the question, "How did we get to the point where we stopped seeing human beings and started seeing religions?"
I was the only Muslim student on the trip, and that also automatically categorized me. I identify as a Shia-Ismaili Muslim, which is not part of the majority group in the Israel and Palestine area, but I was lumped into the same beliefs and practices.
I am proud of my identity and beliefs, but at times felt overwhelmed by the strong emotions associated with them in the holy land. I was lucky enough to be able to enter the Dome of the Rock, which is an extremely historical site for Muslims, Christians, and Jews, but currently serves as a place of prayer for those practicing Islam.
In order to enter the area, you had to be able to recite a Surah from the Quran, and I was asked to recite this at three different checkpoints on my way in. When I finally got to the dome, I was astounded.
It was unbelievable.
This was a site that I had seen in my religious books growing up and learned about as apart of my religious history. It was beautiful, and with the little broken Arabic I knew, I asked a young girl to take a picture of me standing in front of the Dome. She spoke a little English, and after she took the picture she asked me where I was from and why I was in Israel.
I told her I was from the U.S. and came with a national civil rights group to learn about the history and conflict. She responded by saying, "This is my land, and this is my country. No one can ever take it away from me. If they try to, I will not go."
I had no idea how to respond. I smiled and thanked her for taking a picture, and she went on her way. I can't really explain why this one interaction is something that replayed over and over in my head, but it was the first interaction with someone in Israel that really displayed the passion and connection to the land that was in the middle of the conflict.
After our group had visited Nazareth and saw the Church of the Annunciation, one of our group leaders pointed out to me that I was the only student on the trip who got to pray in a church, synagogue and a mosque, all in the holy land.
I had not realized this at first, but it really made my experience on the trip unique and something that I could embrace; it was part of my pride in being Muslim that I was able to visit the Dome at the Rock, but also my acceptance and respect of the beliefs of Christianity and Judaism that really made each experience worthy.
While I knew the 17 other students on the trip didn't really have concern about me being a Muslim, from an Israeli perspective, my participation on this trip was a juicy story.
An Israeli reporter who was interviewing some students on the trip had specifically asked if there were any Muslim students in our group. Our group leader confirmed it, and the reporter asked to interview me. Our group leaders and the director of the ADL in Israel didn't want me to feel singled out for being Muslim.
After more conversations with ADL staff, the staff person in New York said I would be singled out if they didn't let me do the interview because I was Muslim. It was a tough situation.
Our group leaders didn't really know the reporter that well and didn't trust that she wouldn't twist my story and my thoughts because I was Muslim. At first, I didn't care. I wanted to do the interview anyways. I knew that being Muslim wasn't the only thing that defined me.
I thought I could share my insights, my perspectives; I would focus just on my experiences as a student from America. While this is something I did not want to hear, the director of the ADL Israel office reminded me that unfortunately whatever I say could potentially have an impact at my university, and in my religious community.
My words could be twisted -- this would be a "sexy" story for the paper because of my religious identity. While our group leaders advised me of the potential consequences of doing the interview, they said the final choice of doing it was up to me.
I decided not to do the interview -- I figured the ADL staffers were right and knew the newspaper better than I did. After I made my decision, I was filled with a wave of disappointment. It wasn't because I couldn't do the interview.
It was because there was nothing I could do to change the fact that I was Muslim, to make outsiders realize that there was more to me than my religious identity. I thought back to Lucy's words, and realized that the paper was not seeking me out for my individuality, but for my connection to Islam. What the reporter saw when she saw me was my religion.
When I got back to campus, I was 100 percent glad that I did not do the interview.
The first day back at school, I was questioned by a student who was involved in Students for Justice in Palestine. While the conversation began as a simple inquiry about my trip, by the end of it, I felt threatened.
The student asked me how I could possibly go on a trip funded by a Zionist organization. I was blatantly told that if I were ever to run for some sort of public office, that I wouldn't get the support of Muslim communities because I went on this trip. The student also referenced a picture on Facebook that I had with Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) soldiers. The student questioned how I could proudly take a picture with the same soldiers that harass and torture Palestinians at the border crossings.
I had no idea how to respond to any of these accusations. My picture with IDF soldiers was not an endorsement of their actions, rather, it happened at the conclusion of a dinner we had with a few soldiers after talking to them about mandatory military service in Israel. My attendance on this trip funded by a Zionist organization does not mean that I don't believe in Palestinian justice. I was shocked to hear this because the Anti-Defamation League's mission is "to stop the defamation of the Jewish people and to secure justice and fair treatment to all."
Not just Jewish people, but to all people. I would not have gone on this trip with this organization if I didn't believe in their mission of justice and fair people for all. After this conversation, I felt uneasy and a little bit angry. I felt like I was being categorized once again because I was Muslim -- that I should have a particular set of views because I am Muslim, and believing in anything else would be an atrocity.
When people ask your views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, they are only looking for two things: pro-Israel or pro-Palestinian. The most important thing to remember is that one side does not imply "anti" the other. The most frustrating thing was explaining that just because I identified as pro-Palestinian that did not mean I was anti-Israel.
I guess I want identify as pro two-state solution, pro-peace and ultimately, pro-human. It sounds so cheesy, but it felt like the best way to express how I was feeling, and what I hoped the future would bring. Ken Jacobson, the Deputy National Director of the ADL, said during our trip orientation that, "When there is a competition for victimization, you don't really get a lot accomplished."
In order to move forward, we have to stop comparing and categorizing people. Muslims and Jews were and continue to be victims of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. Yet, identifying with one cause tends to imply that you can't work with the other. It is an unfortunate reality of the society we live in that these categories exist, but I continue to be hopeful that one day we might be able to see past them and work for peace.