In the novel “Tom Sawyer Abroad,” Mark Twain writes, “I have found out that there ain’t no surer way to find out whether you like people or hate them than to travel with them.”
Twain did much traveling during his lifetime to test this hypothesis true. Throughout the course of his career he traveled to various locations across the United States, and in 1867 he set his sights abroad, venturing on a tour of Europe and the Middle East. Much like Twain, I got to test this same statement on my most recent journey abroad, to the land of Israel.
I am going to assume it is known that, as of late, Israel has been making headlines around the globe. Some headlines, admittedly, are less flattering than others. This provides the Jewish state, its citizens and its army with a certain negative social stigma. I have heard all the judgments — Israel is a bully, the army is full of murderers, the citizens are belligerent, it’s overly conservative, dangerous. The list goes on and on.
Ignoring such judgments, I registered for my free birthright trip to Israel and departed for the country on Jan. 2 to test Twain’s statement.
Upon my arrival into Ben-Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv, I was informed that this trip composed of American Jews was going to be accompanied by eight Israeli soldiers.
Yes, the monsters that everybody hears about on the news were going to be eating, sleeping, breathing and living with 40 unsuspecting Americans for five days. Hold onto your hats folks, this is where it gets interesting.
The soldiers were sweet. Yes, sweet as in nice, kind, polite, caring — fill in any other positive adjectives of your choice here. It was completely against what I had been expecting. I pictured severe, intense, judgmental and damaged. Instead I got…“like me.”
In the state of Israel, all citizens are drafted into the military immediately upon the completion of their senior year of high school and serve for a mandatory 2-3 years. So while you and I nap in college lecture halls and drunkenly stumble down Broad Street, they defend their nation. Much to my surprise, this practice doesn’t make them super soldiers, or emotionally cold. It doesn’t make them anything other than what we are: teenagers.
Natan, Ortal, Eden, Ore, Mika, Inbar and Idan were the soldiers that I had the honor to meet, and they have since changed my outlook on the Israeli Army.
During those five short days I got to know each of these young people fairly well. This is what I learned: They love to listen to Rihanna, they think beer tastes great — especially when consumed quickly and in large amounts — they think clubbing is awesome, enjoy poking fun at Chris Christie, and love to eat. They laugh, they date, they have lives and meeting them was by far the most meaningful part of my travels.
They taught me something important about the world. People are people; everywhere and in every situation they are just people. Screw the geographical and the situational differences because, at the heart of it all, everyone’s the same.
Everyone smiles, jokes and loves the same and the world would be a less cruel place if everyone got a chance to realize that people are really not so different from you.
So the next time I pass by an anti-whoever protest or hear a judgment about the Israeli people or army, I will repeat Twain’s quote aloud and I will add: I have traveled with these people, I know them and I like them.
Cindy Stansbury can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.