Article by Nonie Darwish

[Comments are welcome at our Dialogue Corner]

Forbidden Country

An Arab-American Discovers Israel

I was privileged to speak at the second annual "Jerusalem Summit" held at the Jerusalem Kind David Hotel, November 27-30, 2004. As an American of Arab origin, born and raised in Egypt and Gaza, my visit was a giant step in breaking an Arab taboo. Arab governments forbid their subjects from visiting, doing business or interacting with Israelis. Israel has been the "Forbidden Nation" to Muslim and Christian Arabs ever since its creation; even the peace treaty with Egypt did not end that ban.

Because of that boycott, Muslims and Arabs have no idea what Israel and the Jews are really like. They are fed with lies, misinformation and hatred towards Israel, which they easily believe since they have never seen Israelis. Israel is not perfect, but it is time for Arabs to lift that ban and start down the road of reconciliation to normalizing their relationship with that tiny neighboring country. That would be a gesture of goodwill expressing Arab readiness for peace.

Before departing the USA, I was asked by several Christian and Muslim American Arabs "Are we allowed to visit Israel?" I answered that American citizens, regardless of origin, do not even need a Visa and are welcome to visit Israel. My friends were stunned. Many Americans of Arab Christian origin are still in a self-imposed psychological boycott of Israel preventing them from fulfilling their dream of visiting the Holy Land.

I was happy to visit Israel and I encourage all good people, Arabs included, to visit. Israelis are very welcoming and happy to receive tourists. Israel is a country that combines the charm of both East and West. I felt as safe as anywhere. As I mentioned, Israel is not perfect and has its problems and challenges like, or a little more than, other nations. However, I believe that visiting that country is a life changing experience that will alter many misconceptions about Israel.

I chose to travel by El Al in order to have the complete Israel experience. Understandably, security was very thorough; I was politely and extensively searched.

Ben Gurion airport is one of the most beautiful airports I have ever seen. I was amazed at how beautiful the coastal city of Tel Aviv is. The drive to Jerusalem took approximately a half hour. As we approached Jerusalem, I had goose bumps reading the sign "Jerusalem." This is a city the oppressed Arab Christian minorities are prohibited from visiting by their governments.

The trip to Israel put into perspective many facts I already knew but never personally experienced. I physically felt how small Israel is and how its size impacts its security needs. I also noticed that most Israelis are Middle Eastern Jews from Arab countries who had been forced or harassed to leave. You can tell a lot about a society by the status of its women; I found Israeli women to be very interesting. Most have high self-confidence and are trusted and respected by their government to carry out many security and other duties, which they perform admirably.

I visited the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem, one of the holiest Christian sites. I noticed that today the city population is mostly Muslim. As I passed through the small church door, I observed a small office, where I saw a picture of Yasser Arafat! Most of the Christian population started to leave Bethlehem after the Oslo Agreement and the PLO takeover. Many Christians fear that the great old Churches will end up as museums for tourists. When I saw the heavy Muslim population surrounding the Christian and Jewish holy sites, I could not help but wonder, how many Christians and Jews are allowed in Mecca and Medina? (The answer, of course, is zero.)

Going from Jerusalem to Bethlehem and back, I went through a checkpoint. Both times, the Arab taxi driver and I were never harassed and were treated professionally by the Israeli soldiers.

I met several Arab Israeli citizens and none complained about discrimination, bad treatment or their wish to leave Israel. To the contrary, many told me that they were disappointed by visiting neighboring Arab countries and were happy to return to Israel. One said that Israel is not perfect, but he preferred to live there than, for instance, in Egypt. Some complained that they were mistreated on their visits to Egypt. Since they had Israeli passports, they were accused of being Zionists. One young Arab then added: "Can you imagine how they would treat us if we were Jews?"

The Jerusalem Summit was a great success. I was happy to meet Muslims and Arabs who spoke in support of peace with Israel. Among the themes were 'New Ideas from the Old City' and humanitarian solutions to the Arab-Israeli conflict. I was happy that my speech posted on the summit website, was well received by the diverse audience including Arabs and Muslims.

I visited the Hadassah Hospital and saw the excellent treatment given to all patients, including many Arabs. I also went with an Israeli friend to an Arab pastry shop, which was busy with Muslims and Jews who got along fine. I loved it and felt, at least for a while, that there was hope for peace.

Israel is a beautiful country and a great nation that is thriving despite the sea of hostility that surrounds it. Although it is not perfect, Israel is doing its best to rise to the level of its humanitarian ideals. I know that Israelis want peace desperately and I wish all Arabs could see and understand the humanity of Israel for what it is; a demonstration of faith, courage and goodwill. After my visit, I am even more committed to supporting Israel.

Nonie Darwish, 20/January/2005

Visit: Arabs For Israel


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