Just before the Israeli-Gaza conflict, I emailed Mousa, a Palestinian-American actor I know, to say that I wanted to sit down with him to discuss what's going on in the Middle East and to see if there was something the two of us could do as artists to try to help spark change for the better. I come from the mindset that Israel is repeatedly trying to make peace and failing because the Palestinian leadership and radicalized civilians care more about wiping Israel off of the map than sovereignty. Mousa sees the Palestinians as an oppressed minority, forced from their land and unable to gain freedom due to the colonization by the Israeli government. We do not agree with each other about each side's motives. But we both want peace. And we're not only willing to sit down to discuss it -- we want to.
I'm on a flight back from Copenhagen right now, having spent eight days with two close friends visiting Stockholm and Copenhagen as a gift to myself for my 40th birthday. Both countries were wonderful in their own way. Stockholm was the cleanest city I've ever seen -- the only thing more beautiful were the people on the street. Copenhagen was rawer -- a little rough around the edges -- but the people were less reserved than Sweden, and I loved that bicycles seemed to be the main transport. We made friends in both cities, and if I had the opportunity, I'd love to go back again.
But the trip was tainted by a twinge of unmistakable anti-Semitism, which lingered in the air almost everywhere we went. I traveled with Shmuly, a religious Jewish friend with a long beard and a yarmulke. He's a gregarious guy, and like me, he loves to meet all kinds of people. But his visage drew stares -- some curious, some angry. And as the night grew longer, and the people grew drunker, even in reserved Sweden, anti-Semitic cries rang out in the streets. In Stockholm, it mainly took place at the bus stop near our Sheraton hotel. One night it was some Somalian Muslim girls in hijabs, who instead of helping us with directions, turned to us and seethed, "Put a dick in your ass!"
Another night it was a group of Arabs who stared at us as we passed. A tall man raised a fist in the air and shouted, "Fuck Israel!" When we ignored it, he persisted -- "Fuck Jews!" I was frustrated. And instead of cursing him back, I found myself singing, "Am Yisrael Chai! (The People of Israel Live)" over and over again -- a song I probably mumbled my way through in elementary school. I've never had a reaction like that to ignorance. I've fought back, I've run away, I've been both rational, and immature. But song? What was this? West Side Story? He and his friend started walking towards us, a game of chicken to see if we'd confront him head on. But we didn't. We quickly turned the corner to our hotel and ducked inside.
We drank at a beer garden late one afternoon and met great people at the shared tables overlooking the city. But racism peeked its head out again, as we headed down an elevator, the door closing to reveal a swastika crudely carved into the door.
In Copenhagen it was more of the same -- only it wasn't solely Muslims who confronted us. Danes wanted to know where we stood on the Israeli-Gaza conflict, and they weren't shy to ask. I don't mind a healthy debate, but this was loaded. Our answers were irrelevant. They wanted an excuse to rage, and in a country with very few Jews -- especially ones so easily identifiable -- we became the perfect victims. With the conflict in Gaza going full tilt as of the writing of this article, tensions are understandably high. The loss of lives on both sides is a tragedy. Thanks to Israel's Iron Dome defense, many Israeli lives have been spared. But Hamas keeps trying. And Israel keeps fighting back. And the horrible cycle goes on and on.
On a bike ride around the city, we came across the City Hall Square, only to realize a Pro Gaza rally was wrapping up, the anti-Zionist and anti-Israel chalk-writing all over the cement. We rode on, not wanting to get caught up in anyone's anger.
On our last night, we went to a bar by the hotel, where we befriended a group of college students. They taught us how to play a Danish dice game called Meyer, and we laughed, drank and left with hugs as they pointed us to Pizza Huset, a late night pizza place they recommended.
Shmuly only eats kosher, so I joked with him about having to watch me eat delicious pizza while he waited to get back to his prepackaged food in our room. I remembered seeing Pizza Huset the night before. We were actually going to stop there to eat but there was a large group of Muslims outside, and even though Shmuly was in a cap we heard them whispering, "Yehudi?" the Arabic word for Jew, when they spotted us. A man shouted Shalom to see if we would turn around. We didn't.
But on our last night, the small restaurant was quiet. While my pizza was cooking, Shmuly waited outside. He poked his head in to say hi, and saw two girls ordering their food. One girl wore pants, checked with a similar pattern to the counter wall. Shmuly, always looking for a laugh, told the girl she matched the tile. She didn't turn around. He took the hint and went outside, but her friend darted after him. I heard yelling so I quickly ran out to make sure all was okay. "You stole my land," she told him, and I took out my phone to film the diatribe. Oddly, not only did she give me permission to film her when I asked, she repeated her rant for the camera, raising her arm in a Nazi salute as she recited Heil Hitler over again. After she went back inside, I went in to check on my pizza. She directed her anger at me, but when I responded her more volatile friend screamed, "Shut the fuck up!" I took out my camera again. I wanted to document what people have been denying is happening. I wanted to document it in case anything went wrong. And then she ran over to me and slapped the phone out of my hand. The glass shattered on the floor, and she ran out of the shop to get her boyfriend.
We turned to the man running the counter of Pizza Huset, but before I could say a word, he said, "I'm not getting involved." He didn't like us. I didn't need to ask why. The entrance to the restaurant is tiny, and as I ascended the stairs to leave before her boyfriend got there, I was pushed back inside by a brick wall of a man. He was large, intimidating, and he asked me if I filmed his girlfriend. He then told me to delete all of the videos. When I tried to defend myself he pushed his chest against me, making it clear I better do as he insisted. And I did. And he let us go.
Luckily Shmuly had some of the video footage on his phone, as well. And we uploaded it to Facebook so we could show our friends what is going on in Europe. The video quickly spread, and soon politicians, reporters and Danish citizens were writing us to say they were sorry for our experience. It made me feel like most people are good in the world. But fighting hate and ignorance takes work. It takes hard conversations. And it takes being able to sit down with people you may not agree with, in order to spark change. If a Palestinian and I can do it, I'm sure a Turkish Muslim on the streets of Copenhagen can, too.
I got an email from Mousa telling me he'd like to know what my experience has been like in Europe. I told him. When I get back we'll sit down and have a coffee. I'll drink mine with ice. He'll drink his hot. But we'll clink glasses, take a sip and then have the hard conversations people need to have to try to make the world a better place.