Dalai lama 224.88 JP.
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
The trumpet music that played outside the straw cottage that I call home came as a complete surprise as I carried my washing back from the river. Could it be, I asked myself as my evil stepmother hid the magic lamp in the drawer next to the talking mice and the glass slipper. It be. Two rows of the king's guards lined up outside my window and with their final toot, rolled open the papyrus invitation to the king's ball. As expected in every fairy tale, I put my delicate palm to my forehead and naturally fainted back onto a pink cloud.
Okay, so it wasn't quite like that. But let me tell you, an e-mail from the Hashemite royal court in Jordan inviting me to attend the fourth Petra Conference of Nobel Laureates had the same effect. Considering the fact that the closest my blood has been to blue was last winter when the heating broke down, being referred to as "his majesty's guest" was all that was needed to place me and my ego in the modern version of 1001 Nights.
The Petra conference has been taking place at the home of one of the world's breathtaking wonders for four years. The yearly summit that brings some 40 Nobel Prize laureates into the Middle East is the fruit of cooperation between Jewish author, Holocaust survivor and human rights activist Elie Wiesel and King Abdullah II. Walking into the room, it was very hard to miss the likes of the Dalai Lama, President Shimon Peres, Arab League chief Amr Moussa, Queen Rania and many more.
The main goal of the conference was creating a better, more advanced Middle East. Thus, many of the region's educational, scientific and environmental issues were discussed.
And then there were us. Like me, 49 youths from all countries of the region were invited to basically sit with their mouths open in awe as the conference was evolving around them. Our group consisted of children of Egyptian diplomats, relatives of the Jordanian court, Palestinian activists, Israeli Arabs and Druse students, a Saudi engineer, a Moroccan media expert, a Lebanese environmentalist and many more. Our small Hebrew-speaking group was a strange minority within this rare collective.
The Palestinian delegation alongside some of the Egyptians, Lebanese, Syrian and Saudis, for instance, made a pact on the first day to refrain from any sort of communication with us Jewish Israelis. Assaf Wahrafart from Herzliya was left with his hand unshaken when he attempted an introduction to a Saudi participant. The peak of the conference for him, as he later told me, was not the photo op with the Dalai Lama or dining with Elie Wiesel. Assaf was taken by one conversation with a girl who found herself in a two-hour taxi ride with Israelis on both sides.
"The conversation became political very fast and I heard her speaking in deep pain about how the land of Israel was wrongfully taken by the Jewish power after World War II. Lots of the words she used were familiar to me, from Palestinian propaganda, and her bottom line was that there is no place for a solution or an understanding between Israel and the Arab world, because Israel does not have a right to exist. Though I'm not sure if I have changed any opinions she had. Later that evening, while she and I were dancing at the same nightclub, she pulled me over and said, 'Assaf, perhaps just for tonight, let's forget where we both come from.' For me, that wasn't the optimal solution, but I did understand that for the time being it's a huge step forward."
Time and time again, the laureates referred from the podium to our group as the promise of the region's future. As such a promise, I decided to make sure to shake at least one hand of every laureate who came my way. I figured there is nothing like good old Israeli hutzpa to make sure royalty and excellence never forget me.
My first stop was the Dalai Lama. I must admit that while reading his autobiography, Freedom in Exile, a few years ago, this great man changed my views about the possibility that profound belief, political leadership and ungraspable modesty may actually meet in the form of one admirable leader of a nation.
As you may expect, as I spotted the poor enlightened man enjoying a rare moment of peace, it was definitely his last, at least for the time being. I placed myself on the seat next to him and told him stories of how he had touched my life. All the while, the Dalai Lama - with a very deep and kind gaze - looked into my eyes and held my palm in both of his warm hands. The last thing I told him was how I believed that if more world leaders would act as he does, the world would be a different place. As a response, he stretched his neck back as he often does, let out a great laugh and answered, "If more world leaders were like me, the world wouldn't exist!"
I don't know if it was the strange serenity that he projects or simply the realization that I had spoken to the Dalai Lama, but for some time after this meeting, my hands were shaking.
Later that day, King Abdullah had set time aside to meet with the youth. In a small side room of the MÃ¶venpick Hotel, chairs were set in three rows, and a representative of each country was asked to speak on behalf of his or her delegation. Surprisingly enough, I had been chosen to represent our Israeli contingent. I picked my words carefully, and respectfully spoke about the perplexity of the experience for the Israeli delegation with the different members of so many hostile countries. Though we do not expect the representatives of our neighboring countries to agree with Israel's actions, the unwillingness to start communication is a great discouragement, I said.
As I returned to Israel and left behind the memories of a luxurious week as his majesty's guest, with friends in so many countries that I am not even permitted to enter, I went on to guide a birthright trip for American youth who take part in the StandWithUs pro-Israel advocacy organization. Summing up the trip after lookouts on the Lebanese and Syrian borders and taking a silent oath on the Bible as the sun rose on top of Masada, I found I had a new understanding of our war-stricken region. The map doesn't lie. We are but one tiny Jewish state the size of New Jersey, surrounded by Arab countries who wish we weren't here. But looking down on Syria from the summit of the Golan Heights, could there be any hope but peace for our region?
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