My Eyes Wide Open

Julia C. Hurley is a human rights advocate and speaker on Palestinian rights. Hurley also works with American Friends of UNRWA, promoting their Adopt a School Campaign, which she initiated in 2010, and she volunteers with the Greater DC Chapter of the Palestine Children’s Relief Fund. Hurley is currently speaking at American universities  on the conditions in Palestine and what Americans can do about it with her talks, “Images of Hope: One Woman’s Journey to Palestine & Back.”

Growing up in suburban New Jersey, I was always exposed to different people and cultures. I was comfortable with diversity and never felt I had to fear or hate another group of people. My parents instilled in me the idea that we should always be concerned for people and do what we can to help anyone, regardless of race or religion, simply because they are our fellow human beings. I never judged based on these criteria before, but September 11th changed that in a way.

I will never forget that morning. The images of the towers burning and the horror I watched unfold is etched in my mind, as it is for most Americans. I was 14 years old and in my first week at Immaculate Heart Academy in Washington Township, NJ, I would come face to face with the reality of what a more globalized society meant. I no longer felt safe in my bubble in Northern New Jersey and was solidly convinced that an entire population of people were ignorant, uneducated, and wanted me and my fellow Americans dead. I was afraid; I was naïve; and I directed this anger and fear toward Muslims and Arabs. Fox news instantly became my source for information and I fell in line with the Bush Doctrine and the War on Terrorism.

This continued into college, despite many heated arguments with my parents, and I started my freshman year at the School of Diplomacy at Seton Hall University convinced I was going to help the War on Terror by joining up with the State Department, cheered on Bill O’Reilly at night, and hung my giant American flag on my dorm room wall.

West Bank Side of Israeli Separation Wall Photo: Julia Hurley

As I began my classes, I kept this fear-filled, naïve mindset, and faced quite a bit of opposition during debates. My Arabic class, though, would be the one that would begin my transformation. My professor, Issam Aburaya, was Palestinian and constantly challenged us to see the situation in the Middle East from a different perspective before we began class. Suddenly little cracks began to appear in the giant wall of intolerance I had built around myself. I had never been presented with this information from a Palestinian before. How could I argue with someone who lived this?

Now that there was at least a crack in the wall, I began to see that not all Arabs and Muslims were as bad as I thought, but I still kept the attitude that the vast majority were still against my beloved country and the policies we were pushing forward were necessary. During my sophomore year, a Palestinian-American friend helped chip away at this crack even more, as did another friend who supported the Palestinian cause. Next thing I knew, I was seeing the documentary, Occupation 101, at the Harlem Film Festival in New York City, crying my eyes out, standing up after the screening to tell the directors, who were present, that they had changed my life. Finally, the epiphany moment: I suddenly knew why many Arabs and Muslims were angry with us and why a tiny fraction took that anger to an extreme. Our policies in the Middle East were killing their children and ruining their lives, and actually making us less secure as a result. We had the same reaction when we were assaulted on 9/11.

The Fall semester of my junior year, I decided it was time to see life in the Middle East for myself, and I went off to the American University in Cairo to study Arabic and live in the heart of Cairo for five months. I would come back a different woman. I fell in love with the Middle East and was welcomed with open arms everywhere I went – in Egypt, Jordan, and the West Bank. I drank more tea than I thought possible. That was what the Arabs and Muslims of the Middle East do. They welcome you with cups and cups of wonderfully sweet tea. I remember being scared to admit I was an American when I first got there, but was pleasantly surprised when the first time I was asked where I was from, I gulped, muttered “America,” and had a jovial cab driver inform me “America?! We LOVE Americans! We just don’t like your government so much.” This was the part when I breathed a sigh of relief and my defenses came down. I truly was welcome.

Palestinian Children Taking Photographs with Hurley

Since that time, I have ventured to the Middle East twice more, backpacking from Istanbul to Cairo and delivering humanitarian aid to the Gaza Strip. During both trips, I was welcomed again, sometimes feeling as though I were an old friend and even family. The Middle East that I once feared, the Arabs and the Muslims I once thought would kill me the first chance they got, now have a deeply special place in my heart. This is the view most Americans never get the chance to see, but if we would all just open our eyes a bit wider, as I once did, our entire world can be transformed.

If you have a personal story that you would like to share, we’d love to hear it. You can share it or comment on Julia’s story below. Or you can email us at blogislam@insideislam.wisc.edu.

13 thoughts on “My Eyes Wide Open

  1. “During both trips, I was welcomed again, sometimes feeling as though I were an old friend and even family. The Middle East that I once feared, the Arabs and the Muslims I once thought would kill me the first chance they got, now have a deeply special place in my heart. This is the view most Americans never get the chance to see, but if we would all just open our eyes a bit wider, as I once did, our entire world can be transformed.”

    In the light of what Palestinian Islamists just did to pro-Palestinian Italian Kumbaya-singer Vittorio Arrigoni, this article was quite a belly laugh.

    Keep up your 1-sided journalistic work. Sometimes like any snake you end up biting yourself in the ass 🙂

    Read the Historyscoper’s Islam Watch for a balanced view of the work Islam is doing in the world today, almost 100% bad.

  2. Historyscoper, you should not base your judgements of a whole race/religion on actions committed by some radical members. It is undeniable that there are some radical, extreme Muslims/Arabs in Palestine. That is a fact. But there are, without a doubt, crazy people everywhere. That being said, one should not judge all Americans to be racist after learning about the KKK. Similiarly, one should not judge Palestinians/Arabs/Muslims based on the horrendous sins committed by their fanatic and mentally unstable counterparts. Vittorio Arrigoni was a hero- in every aspect of the word- and his killing was indeed, barbaric and unacceptable. The murderers, whoever they may be, are not, in any way, Muslim nor are they Palestinian. The people Julie so kindly spoke about were true Palestinians. People who wanted nothing more than their own human rights. A whole race should not be judged based on the actions committed by some of its citizens. Please keep this in mind, Historyscoper, and think about the stereotypes frequently made about your own people…are they true? Most likely not.

  3. Dear Historyscoper,

    I appreciate your opinion on Julia’s piece but unfortunately I have to disagree with you.

    Actually what is fascinating is that you said she has a “1-sided” journalistic view when she clearly stated in the beginning of the article that she was on the opposite side. So I am a little confused as to why you think it was 1-sided when she clearly was 1-sided in the beginning and then become more aware of the OTHER side later on in her life. Sadly, it is you who is 1-sided and if you would like some sources to learn about the “opposing” side then please let me know and I would gladly send you some references. You don’t necessarily have to agree with those references but I think it would be good to become well-rounded don’t you think?

    And also about the recent murder of Palestine activist Vittorio Arrigoni – yes it has been said that the extreme Muslim group of the Salafists have killed him but have they gone out and said this? No they have not. Also do you not find it odd that we have never heard of Salafist attacks in Gaza till now? My own opinion leads to point to the Israeli counterpart unfortunately and I’ll tell you why. This coming September the UN General Assembly will finally take a vote to create a Palestinian state because they feel that “Palestinians are able to govern themselves” and this does not sit well with Israel nor does it bode well for them or the apartheid state they have created over the span of 44 years. This is because if they continue to occupy Palestine after this vote goes through then they will be breaking a whole new international law and that is, they will be occupying another country of the UN and this will open the eyes of the world on the terrible conditions in which they have placed the people of Palestine, especially Gaza. Gaza has become an open-air prison where people cannot get in OR out and have limited access to water, food, homes, and jobs. Trust me, Israel does NOT want the world to know the details of this atrocious situation. So what I am saying is that this might be another approach for Israel to prove that Palestinians are unable to govern themselves when on the contrary, we Palestinians have been able to govern ourselves for a very long time but unfortunately Israel’s occupation has limited our ability to do so. In addition, Israel does not want foreign activists like Vittorio fighting for the cause and after his death and Juliano Mer-Khamis this will only scare foreigners and turn them off from becoming activists for the Palestinian cause. Also if you saw the recent video, the people in Gaza marched for Vittorio and said that he was a “son of Palestine” and that they loved him very dearly. Also ask yourself this, what did these Salafists gain if they in fact did kill Vittorio? Absolutely nothing. Who had much to gain from his death? Unfortunately the Israeli government.

    Islam is an incredibly peaceful religion that not only preaches almost the exact same things as both Christianity and Judaism, but is in fact a continuation of it. Islam believes in all the prophets and respects all people and religion. And as a good friend told me once, “terrorism has no religion” and that is true about Islam. People who are of the Islamic faith and are using it to gain political and radical change are not portraying the faith correctly and should not be considered Muslims as much as they should be considered bad people. There are bad people everywhere in this world, regardless of faith, and that is how it should be. Now why are there many Muslim “terrorists”? Well, I think the US has to use a mirror to answer that question. When the United States is sending $1.3 billion dollars in aid annually to Egypt and are supporting and “friends” with Presidents like Hosni Mubarak who has only stolen his people’s money, jobs, food, and their children’s lives with the torture they endured from the Egyptian Police Force, then what do you expect? The Egyptian people and the whole Arab world are not stupid. They know that the US supports this type of authoritarian regime because it promotes “stability” but what type of stability is it when 20-30% of a population of around 82 million people are living BELOW poverty? Do you think the people will cheer for the US government or hate them? I believe you’re a smart individual and will know the answer to that question.

    Or what about the Iraq War? I commend what our troops are doing but ask yourself, did they even have to go in the first place? Probably not. There is a lack of consistency on the part of the US government and these examples prove clearly why. When they claimed that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, they invaded his country without sufficient evidence and not only did they find nothing but they also squatted for 8 years now. If you want Muslims out of your country, then why don’t you get out of their countries first? Also if we are talking about Saddam, Saddam did not treat his people good and so we caught him and tried him and had him hanged, whereas, President Mubarak treated his people EQUALLY as bad some would say and he is now resting in a villa in Sharm El Sheikh (and if you’ve never been it’s beautiful, looks like Aruba). So please tell me how the Muslim and Arab world are not supposed to feel anger towards the US government when they are never consistent and that their foreign policy always treat the people in their countries badly. Or how about Iran? Iran clearly has WMDs and yet we do nothing. It just doesn’t add up. And now unfortunately for the US but the people in the Arab and Muslim world just don’t trust them. They have a history of looking out for their own self-interest at the stakes of their lives so no the Arab and Muslim world are not very fond of American government or its foreign policy and I do not blame them one bit. If you put yourself in their shoes and separated yourself from the ideals of American exceptionalism then you would sympathize with what they have had to endure and at the expense of who(m).

  4. @Historyscoper: If only you paid attention to the thousands of Palestinians who are memorializing Vittorio’s life and work. Palestine is united against blatant acts of terrorism, but mainstream media doesn’t find an intriguing story in that.

    You cannot define an entire population by one terrorist act. God help us if we let the Oklahoma bombing define America.

  5. Dear HistoryScoper,

    I have encountered many of your persuasion on views of the Middle East and Islam. Like the author of this article I too was Arab-phobic or Islamaphobic until I actually went to the region. I have traveled all over the world and have never been more welcomed that I have in the Middle East. I find it hard to believe that your Islam Watch is not one sided as you refer to it as 100% bad and I have met many Muslims in and out of the region and they are anything but “bad”

    It’s people like you that read what you want to read and take the statistics that fit your distorted view that put a bad name on yourself and the people you are insulting. Not to lower myself to your level of un-professional insult, but you should watch biting yourself in the ass.

    It’s people like the author and me who have had your opinion from what we read, hear and are fed in the round the clock cable news networks with the “if it bleeds it leads” rule and taken it at face value. What makes us different is we had the guts and common sense and intellectual scope and actually challenged our views by facing what we thought by going on the ground.

    On an even more personal note I was in Lebanon during the 2006 war. Of course any Muslim would jump at the chance to slit the throat of a citizen of the great Satan. Instead while buying food at a small market a woman in a hijab heard my friends and my terrible accent in Arabic and asked if we were Americans. When we said yes she began screaming at her husband to call her cousin who had the bigger car to get us to the embassy and that some of us could stay at her house but it wasn’t large so some would stay with her cousin. Is there any greater example of humanity than someone in the throws of a war offering their home to strangers?

    So read your books by the people you want to hear and close your eyes to the truth, stay scared and don’t confront what you fear. Stick to your side of one-sided journalism. It’s my pity to you and those who unfortunately listen to you.

  6. Just as a clarification, what I meant by “The murderers, whoever they may be, are not, in any way, Muslim nor are they Palestinian.” was that someone/a group of people that would commit such a horrific crime cannot even be considered Muslim/Palestinian.

  7. Thank you for sharing this inspiring story. It is wrong to hate an entire religion, region, people because of the actions of a few that don’t truly represent anything but evil. Thank you for explaining that if you open your hearts and mind and try to see things from a different light, walk in another’s shoes if you will, the world will not seem as dark as it does. These are things that we are always trying to show at the Muslim Public Affairs Council and a main theme at our Young Leaders Summits ( http://summits.mpac.org ) We try to encourage our future leaders to represent the community as true leaders should.

  8. Vittorio Arrigoni was just naive and stupid, like many westerners about islam. Since I live in Malaysia, I know. Even your bestest of friends can be muslim, but if it suits their religion, its your head. Islam teaches that to hate a kafir is a right that any muslim must have. Nowadays muslims try to potray it like its a benign religion that respects all other faiths. We all know thats a whole lot of hogwash. But some morons are just that. Messrs Arrigoni is proof.

  9. All religions have their bad people, their bad moments, their bad interpretations of teachings. People do not need to make the choice to act bad. It is an individual choice. I am glad that you awakened!

  10. Hi,

    I agree with most of what people said. One must not base its judgement of a nation on the actions committed by a small radical part of it. But the issue with the Palestinians, and that’s why in a way they are truly unlucky, is that the small group of crazy radical persons have been their leaders. From Mohammed Amin al-Husseini, who has a good friend of Hitler, and a supporter – even maybe a designer – of the Final Solution, to Mahmud Abbas, that negates the Jewish history of the region , incites to terrorism against Jews and Israelis on the Palestinian Authority TV, without forgetting Yasser Arafat that designed a countless number of terrorist attacks against Israeli civilians and Hamas and its genocidal ideology, their leaders have been the worst kind of humans. Considering that most Palestinians admire them, and even today vote for them, it is a real problem. Of course it is not because Palestinian are by nature bad people. It is because what we call today Palestinians are a very young nation with people coming from different Arab countries. Palestinians are the Arabs that were in the region after the fall of the Ottoman Empire and did not become citizen of a country. So they do not have a common educative history and all the education they have is the hatred against Israel and Jews they got from their leaders. It is sad to say it but hatred against Israel is one of the basis of Palestinian identity. And this hatred has been fueled by Israeli actions. That is in my opinion, the deep-rooted reasons of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and it will be very difficult to reverse this hatred, although the internet and globalization will eventually be a solution.

  11. MoLawn, despite some imperfections in our Muslim society, they (and Islam) are not as you put it. I know, I am Malaysian, and Muslim too.

  12. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) defines a Palestine refugee as a person “whose normal place of residence was Palestine between June 1946 and May 1948, who lost both their homes and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict”.[5] The descendants of the original Palestine refugees in the male line “are also eligible for registration.”[5] UNRWA aids all “those living in its area of operations who meet this definition, who are registered with the Agency and who need assistance”[5] and those who first became refugees as a result of the Six-Day War, regardless whether they reside in areas designated as Palestine refugee camps or in other permanent communities. A Palestine refugee camp is “a plot of land placed at the disposal of UNRWA by the host government to accommodate Palestine refugees and to set up facilities to cater to their needs”.[5] Today, 58 UNRWA recognised refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon, the Syrian Arab Republic, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank habor only “one-third of the registered Palestine refugees, more than 1.4 million.”[5] The UNRWA definition does not cover final status.[5][16] In many cases UNHCR provides support for the children of Palestine refugees too.
    Registered descendants of UNRWA Palestine refugees are, like “Nansen passport” and “Certificate of Eligibility” holders (the documents issued those displaced by World War II) and UNHCR refugees [17] are inherited the same UNRWA Palestine refugee status as their male parent.
    Based on the UNRWA definition, the number of original Palestine refugees has declined from 711,000 in 1950 to an estimated 30 to 50,000 in 2012. According to Bogumil Terminski from the University of Geneva the original Palestinian diaspora is about 65,000. An estimated 5 million Palestine refugees are registered in total in 2012. In 2012 the number of registered descendants of male parents of the original Palestine refugees, based on the UNRWA registration requirements, are an estimated 4,950,000.