I recently appeared as a speaker at the second annual Jerusalem Summit held at Israel's King David Hotel. In doing so, I deliberately flaunted the rules that govern Arab behavior toward Israel. Israel's neighbors, the dictatorships that compose the Arab League, forbid their subjects to visit or do business with Israel and its citizens. I am an American raised in Gaza and Egypt; needless to say, I expected my visit to raise some eyebrows.
Before departing the U.S. for Israel, I fielded questions from some incredulous Arab-American friends, both Christian and Muslim, who asked, 'Are we actually allowed to visit Israel?' I explained that American citizens, regardless of origin, need no travel visa to enter Israel. My friends were stunned. Israel has been off-limits to Muslim and Christian Arabs in the Middle East ever since its creation. Even Egypt, which signed a peace treaty with Israel, kept its ban firmly in place. And apparently some Arab-Americans continue to abide by travel restrictions imposed by far-off tyrants.
In fact, Israel is a traveler's delight. This tiny country welcomes tourists from around the globe. Israel combines the charms of East and West, and given the threat of Middle East terrorism, Israeli army and police forces provide tight security at all times. One feels well protected in Israel as a result.
You can tell a lot about a society by the status of its women. In Israel, many females are self-confident and highly educated. The government relies on such women to perform important duties in military and security operations.
My trip to Israel began on the beautiful Mediterranean coast, at Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv. Next, a half-hour taxi ride took me to east to Jerusalem, the ancient holy city. I took a moment to remember the Christian minorities in Arab countries -- people of faith forbidden to visit their Holy Land.
In Bethlehem, I visited the Church of the Nativity. I expected to see Christians milling about this holiest of sites, but the city population was predominantly Muslim. Entering the church, I noticed a tiny office off to the side. From where I stood, I could see a picture of Yasser Arafat hanging inside.
A little history: The Christian population of Bethlehem started to leave after the Oslo Agreement of 1993 and the creation of the PLO. When I saw Jesus Christ's birthplace full of Muslims, I had to wonder how many Christians and Jews are allowed in Mecca and Medina? (The answer: zero.) Yet, to this day, Israel respects all religions.
To access Bethlehem from Jerusalem and back, I passed through a checkpoint twice. Each time, the Arab taxi driver and I were treated by Israeli soldiers with professional courtesy.
I spoke with Israeli Arabs during my visit, and not one complained to me about any discrimination or expressed a wish to move elsewhere. In fact, several Muslims told me that their travels to neighboring countries in the Middle East made them appreciate Israel's freedoms. One recounted his experience visiting Egypt, where he was accused of being a Zionist on account of his Israeli passport. He wondered aloud, "Can you imagine how they would treat us if we were Jews?"
At a high point in my trip, an Israeli friend who took me to an Arab pastry shop. The place was alive with Muslim and Jewish customers who coexisted cheerfully in the store. In that sweet-smelling place, it seemed that peace was possible.
Israel has passed a test of amazing endurance, surviving and thriving in a sea of hatred, violence and terror. Its people remain optimistic, but they desperately need relief from the fear and violence that dominates daily life. I wish the Arab world could see Israel as I see it -- as a diverse society of people living in peace.
After my visit, I am even more committed to supporting Israel.