Gender & Identity, Life

I got pushed out of my Hillel because I was pro-Palestine

Point blank, the Hillel director didn’t like me bringing Muslims to events.

Yes, my Arabic is better than my Hebrew. Yes, I wear jallaba out in public sometimes. Yes, I make my own henna. Yes, Jewish mothers – I have dated Muslim men. I eat kosher and halal. I oppose extreme Zionism. I have close Muslim friends. Because being anti-Semitic is also being Islamophobic.

My experiences in college were really what brought me out of my shell of ignorance. Coming from a Reformed-Jewish, Zionist religious background, I never knew much about Muslims, outside the few attending my high school and what I’d heard in Sunday school lectures.

The first Muslim friend I made in college was a girl named Mariam. We met at a Muslim Student Association icebreaker in 2009. She introduced me to other sisters, and as I met Anisa, Shukri, Amel, and Shamima, I slowly learned more and more about Islam. Then in the spring semester, my world changed.

I registered for an Arab cinema class, where 90 percent of the students spoke Arabic. I met my Kuwaiti gal friend, Hissa, and my Palestinian “sister” Dahlia – though I called her my twin because we looked so similar.

“The world is our classroom,” Dahlia once told me. “We need to get to know our classmates and be nice to our teachers.” Her words were the water that helped nurture my thirst for learning about others. Through my cinema class, I connected with my most loving and open-minded professor: my Arabic professor.

She’s now a second mother to me. She showed me how similar my Jewish heritage is to that of the Middle Eastern and North African cultures, and Islam itself. Being Libyan and Egyptian, she always told me about her Jewish friends from her childhood, how all three religions coexisted, and the stark similarities Arabic and Hebrew have. We bonded over our shared love of traditional dances and music.

Through my professor, I met my Qatari friend Reem. Reem is a fashionable hijabi and columnist who does diplomatic work, and loves coffee and activism as much as I do. I’d never met a Qatari woman before, and was amazed at her liberalness and her willingness to attend her Jewish friend’s college-budget Passover seder. Before she returned to Qatar, she even joined me at the campus synagogue’s Yom Kippur/High Holiday services. From our beautiful friendship, I learned you can be a stylish, strong and forthright woman in a Gulf country where your editorials will be challenged by many. I always try to follow her example and have learned to embrace my identity.

Thirsty to learn more, I studied abroad for a year in Meknes, Morocco. I assimilated myself with the traditions, the Moroccan dialect of Arabic, and the beautiful people I encountered. I wore jallaba, drank shay bil-nana (tea with mint), hung out with my Moroccan classmates, and attended synagogue with the Sephardic Moroccan Jews. The intangible and diverse culture that is Morocco grew my determination to destroy xenophobia and Islamophobia.

Before I left for Morocco, I’d already been an activist for Palestinians.

I posted a video on Facebook, soon after the movie Avatar came out, where activists from Israel, Gaza, and worldwide painted themselves like the Na’vi natives from the popular film. They were being colonized by power-hungry humans, which activists used to symbolize the Palestinians’ situation under Israel.

My Hillel director was unamused by my controversial posts. Needless to say, they’re now hidden from her news feed.

My Moroccan living bled into the rest of my time back at university. I returned from my trip to a new Hillel director, who saw that I could add some change and spice to our contradictory Jewish organization. Alhamdulillah, she was very tolerant of my views and ideas. Though a lot of my inclusive ideas, such as interfaith Jewish high-holiday celebrations, were shut down at board meetings, I brought my non-Jewish friends to Hillel Shabbat services whenever I could. My friend Lauren, too, brought along international students of various backgrounds: Muslim, Indian, German, Christian, whatever it may be.

Even with our bit of inclusivity, like inviting Muslim friends to attend certain Israel-themed events, I felt like an outcast. My ideals didn’t fit the organization’s platform and agenda. Once the year ended, I had enough and left Hillel’s board. I attempted to start a new organization that included everyone. It fell through, but the spark never died.

Last year, Hillel’s director changed once more. He was less than accepting of Jews with different views. I found that out after I invited Hillel, along with other student organizations, to join a peaceful Solidarity Walk. It was for a group in Israel that does monthly walks with Jews, Muslims, Christians, Druze, Israelis, Palestinians, etc.

He was the only organization director to ask me not to post “political” events on Hillel’s Facebook page, saying, “Hillel doesn’t participate in political events.” Wow! Little did he know that I was once a board member, and I knew Hillel is really all about politics. The man who facilitated the walks is a Jewish-Israeli himself.

I began to feel like such an outcast in the small Hillel community, and I started coming to fewer and fewer events. I went to Shabbat with my Muslim and Christian friends on occasion but refused to become closely involved with Hillel again after I experienced immense rudeness from the director. Point blank, he didn’t like me bringing Muslims to events.

“Hillel has always been pro-Israel,” he told me. Well, wouldn’t it be better if Hillel was pro-peace and still focused on Jewish-living? He didn’t like my views, of course. That was fine with me, though as a seasoned “Hillelite,” I didn’t expect such blatant rudeness.

Despite falling out with Hillel, my Muslim and Jewish friends always went to one other’s events. I’ve attended Jumma prayer services, while my Muslim friends have gone to the local synagogue with me. The MSA was always welcoming and warm, being the first to reach out and include Hillel to their services and inquiring about starting interfaith events with them. They were named the Most Inclusive Organization on campus in 2013 just as Ramadan ended, which speaks for itself as far as their progress in interfaith action. My Arab friends and I hold dozens of religious and political discussions, inevitably ending with coffee or something halal-slash-kosher. (Honestly, they’re pretty much the same.)

Look: I am a Jewish-American woman with Muslim and Arab friends. I will always have Muslim friends who want to make challah, learn Hebrew and ask about Judaism. We’ll keep getting together with tea or soda, henna, a few Bollywood films, and delicious halal or kosher foods. They’ll keep celebrating Passover with me, and I’ll continue to attend Iftars and protest air strikes on Palestine alongside my Arab friends.

I want to work toward a world where pluralism is the norm, social justice creates love, and where interfaith marriage between Muslims and Jews is not protested. Because I will always fight for peace, social justice, and pluralism. I will call out Israel when I believe an injustice has been done. I am no longer afraid to stand my ground for my beliefs.