While most American college students visiting Israel this summer seldom
ventured across the Green Line, Sarah was among several dozen Americans
participating in the Palestinian Summer Encounter (PSE) program, based
in Bethlehem. The participants stay with Palestinian families, study
Arabic and volunteer in various projects. Sarah was a counselor at a
summer camp for children in Walaja, a West Bank village of about 2,000
people, just south of Jerusalem.
Both of Sarah's grandfathers were born near Ramallah, immigrated to Brazil in 1948 and married Brazilian women. "I've been told all my life that I'm half Brazilian, half Palestinian," Sarah explains. Her parents were born in Brazil, but moved to the U.S. with their respective families as youngsters. Sarah's first language was Portuguese. "When I really didn't understand English in pre-school, my parents realized it was time to start teaching me English," she notes.
She did not hear much Arabic at home, but says she was "forced" to go to an after-school Arabic program. Her experience was similar to that of many Jewish Americans who have suffered through "Hebrew school" programs: "I switched Arabic schools like I changed my clothes, because I hated all of them."
Her attitude toward Arabic changed when she arrived at Smith College. She had studied Spanish in high school and thought Chinese would be too tough to handle. "I went down the list," she recalls. "How about Arabic? No, you hate Arabic – but actually it's a pretty cool alphabet, it's pretty to write – so I've been doing Arabic ever since and it's actually my favorite class."
Sarah spent two months studying Arabic in Jordan last year and crossed into Israel for a few days. Her "horrible" experience at the Allenby Bridge and Ben-Gurion Airport reinforced her emergent Palestinian identity. "I was like – I don't understand this, I'm an American. I have a blue passport. Why was I at the Allenby Bridge for eight hours?" Sarah says she was questioned for "only" two hours at Ben-Gurion Airport, but this delay was enough to make her miss the flight home.
After missing her flight, she was faced with the choice of taking a cab to her uncle's home near Ramallah or spending the night at the airport. "I didn't really feel like enduring any more checkpoints, so I hung out at the airport," she says. This ended up being her most positive Israel experience: "I met the most wonderful Israeli people at the airport and I was really happy to have had that chance because at that point I had a lot of anger in me."
Sarah originally planned to spend this summer interning with a law firm in Boston or New York City. But after receiving an email with information about the PSE program, she became excited about the prospect of living with a Palestinian family, improving her Arabic and learning more about the situation here.
Growing up, Sarah did not hear a lot about her Palestinian heritage. "It was like – the Palestinians had land, the Jews came in and took over and that was about it. So [I decided] before I start believing one way or another, I should kind of figure things out for myself."
Her parents were fearful and tried, unsuccessfully, to dissuade her from going to the PSE program. After the war erupted in Lebanon, they were again unsuccessful in trying to convince Sarah to return home. "I would have felt like an awful human being if I had left," Sarah explains. "How would I have explained that to my children in Walaja? I was here to help, play some games with you all, teach you some English, I became part of your everyday lives, but then I bail out when things get a little rough?"
After improving her spoken Arabic this summer, Sarah is looking forward to having a conversation with her Palestinian grandfathers about their experiences in 1948. The fact that this conversation has never taken place, she suggests, is partly due to the language barrier and partly attributable to her grandfathers' pride: " I think if it were the opposite, if both of my grandfathers were from Brazil and both of my grandmothers were from Palestine, I would have heard a lot more. But Arab men are proud at times and don't like to admit things.
"My grandfathers aren't over the hurt that Israel caused them in the mid-1900s," she continues. "They have not found closure – they are still hurting and cannot see past it, nor should anyone expect them to. I, however, can see that such an attitude will not bring homes or lands back, but just perpetuate the violence."
While prepared to accept Israel as an indisputable fact, Sarah is enraged with the situation in the territories and frustrated by what she calls the "de-politicized" manner in which most Palestinians accept this reality. On the other hand, she realizes that as an American, "I can walk through a checkpoint and have an attitude" while "the Palestinians here have to try to survive." It is the job of internationals, she concludes, to help educate people about the reality in the territories. "Even I, as a Palestinian-American, was ignorant of all of this, so how do you expect anyone else in the States to understand?" she wonders.
Her determination to spread the word about the situation in the territories was reinforced by an experience she had on her flight back to New York. "I found myself sitting next to an American man who had just spent two weeks in Jerusalem with some sort of program for Jewish Americans," she says. "My airplane friend was very educated, articulate, and from what I could tell, a genuinely good person." She was amazed, however, by how little he knew about the situation in the West Bank.
"We were able to have an emotionally charged conversation and then move on after it was over," Sarah recalls. "What were the odds of an American Jew and an American Palestinian, same age, same education, being seated directly next to one another on their departure flights? I felt this was a healthy end to my trip. He helped support what I have always thought and hoped – that people are willing to listen and understand when presented with the information in the right way."
Now back at Smith, Sarah is working to organize advocacy events on local campuses. She has contacted a number of student organizations about hosting a visit by "The Wheels of Justice Tour Bus" – a project committed to "nonviolent education and action against war and occupation in Iraq and Palestine," according to its Web site.
"After this sort of an event," Sarah says, "I'm sure many, especially my fellow humanitarian Smithies, would want to get more involved. I also have plans to start some sort of Israel-Palestine Peace Coalition organization. I'm hoping that members of our Smith Hillel and Al-Iman (Muslim student association) would want to be active in the cause. I'm excited."
*this article was reprinted from Ha'aretz newspaper