As I walked alone onto Salah Eddin Street in Palestinian East Jerusalem for the first time, just over three years ago, I was afraid. A gangly, white 22-year-old American, fresh out of college, I could barely speak a word of Arabic. I had offered to volunteer for an American democracy promotion organization in East Jerusalem, and now I was looking for the Palestinian woman who was supposed to show me the way to the office. She was late.

I frantically scanned the unfamiliar surroundings. I started to get strange glances from Palestinian passersby. I looked in vain for an Israeli police officer, just in case I started to attract unwanted attention. In my mind I reviewed the self-defense tips an Air Force buddy had given me before I left home.

The woman eventually appeared and showed me how to get to the office. The next day, she suggested that we visit Ramallah. I wasn’t so sure that was wise. I went anyway. As we crossed the checkpoint into the West Bank, we got into a minibus shared with several other Palestinian passengers. One of them asked me, in badly accented English, where I was from. Against my better judgment, I told the truth and said “America.” He smiled and replied, “Welcome to Palestine.” . . .

After hearing about the recent alleged attack on three Palestinian students at Guilford College, I sincerely believe that I am safer in Amman and Ramallah than Palestinian students are in America. I am shocked that my good friend Omar Awartani, the gentle, idealistic and bright student with whom I played basketball and watched movies in Ramallah, and two of his friends were allegedly kicked, punched and beaten with brass knuckles while being called “terrorists” as well as racial slurs. I am disgusted at the contrast between the way I have been welcomed as an American in the Middle East, and the experience he had last week as a Palestinian in America.

I vividly remember how scared I felt the first time I walked into East Jerusalem and Ramallah. I imagine a Palestinian 18-year-old flying into JFK alone, heading to a strange college to start a double major in aerospace and mechanical engineering, might feel the same way I did. In the current climate, I would not have relished that interview with customs or trying to explain that particular choice of major to fellow freshmen.


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