On a visit to the north with the Career Israel group, we visited an Israeli-Arab high school in a small town called Deir al-Asad. I was excited to talk to Israeli-Arab youths about their lives, perspectives, and families, but was also a little nervous about the age difference between the students we were to speak with and myself. I had to keep reminding myself that my time at Rancocas Valley Regional High School concluded only four years ago. Despite this little fact, high school seemed like forever ago. But I resigned myself to this inevitability and decided to simply dive into any conversation possible.
Unfortunately, the first two students I was seated next to seemed resolutely determined to avoid conversation. I’m not sure whether they were simply uninterested in speaking with me or uncomfortable with the situation, but the only words I could get out of them were one word responses muttered in almost incomprehensible English.
The second arrangement of seats proved more fruitful. I was seated near a boy around age 16. He was Romanian and had only arrived in Deir al-Asad a few months prior. As we talked, I learned more about him and was fascinated by his perspective on life in the town.
Youseff was the boy’s name and his Israeli-Arab father had gone to university in Romania, where he met Youseff’s Romanian mother. From what I had grasped, his family lived in Deir al-Asad when Youseff was first born, but moved back to Romania soon after as Youseff’s mother did not like living in the town. Unfortunately, due to difficult economic circumstances in Romania, Youseff and his family had to return to his father’s hometown, where family helped them get by.
There was no question that Youseff disliked his new home and wanted to return to Romania. Part of his dislike may have been attributable to the fact that he spoke very little Arabic. He cited many other reasons he was unhappy, though. He felt he was different from the family he had in Deir al-Asad and didn’t want to spend too much time with them.
Youseff made it clear that he felt Romanians were more open-minded and tolerant. He mentioned how girls in Deir al-Asad were not allowed to go out with boys on their own at the risk of ruining their reputations. While this is not entirely uncommon in the world, he continued to say that religious distinctions were far more prevalent and divisive in his new town. He explained how in Romania, Christians were friends with their Arab and Jewish neighbors. He didn’t write off Romanian discrimination as nonexistent, though—he stated that Gypsies were regarded negatively in Romania and were considered to be low class criminals. Nevertheless, Youseff planned to return to Romania for university and hoped to become a surgeon.
Meanwhile, he was very conscious of religious distinctions that existed in Israel. He was disappointed by the limitations imposed upon Arabs when it came to enlisting in the IDF. When I asked if he was interested in enlisting, he laughed and said no. I inquired as to why and he explained that he didn’t think killing was the right solution to conflicts and that other courses of actions were possible and preferable. While his perspective seemed to oversimplify in its blindness to the fact that armies aren’t constantly at war and often exist as preparatory measures in the eventuality of armed conflict, his statement was refreshing to hear in light of ever-present tensions in the Middle East.
Youseff followed his commentary with an astute observation. He recognized that there were ongoing coexistence efforts seeking to foster peace between Jews and Arabs in the Middle East through educational and recreational youth programming. Yet he noted the largest challenge such programs face: families. As much as a youth may love playing soccer with another youth of a different faith and as little as he notices distinctions between himself and other children, his upbringing in a household preaching hatred for another can be definitive. If children are raised being told to hate a specific group of people, they are likely to do just that through their adulthood despite all efforts to mitigate such blind prejudices.
I looked at this boy in awe as he eagerly spoke to me in his broken English. Eventually, when my questions ran out, he looked at me sheepishly and asked what type of music I liked. I was flabbergasted by his question, coming after our discussion about liberal versus conservative mindsets, the Israeli army, and discrimination. I gave him my usual vague answer when it comes to my music preferences: “Oh, I’ll listen to almost anything really… just not so much rap or country. You?” He responded, “heavy metal!” quite excitedly. I couldn’t help but smile at him.
While Youseff’s outlook on his town and inter-ethnic relations were quite negative, his tolerance, awareness, and understanding gave me hope for a better future. I can only hope that there are more youths like him out there that I just haven’t had the opportunity to meet yet.