Jew, Muslim find friendship through understanding

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Sammy Nabulsi, left, tells his friend Noah Ballard over coffee that he will never be anything but pro-Palestinian. The two met because of a profile Ballard wrote about Nabulsi in the Daily Nebraskan, and their friendship has grown even as they’ve debated about Middle Eastern politics.

Story and video by Michael Todd, NewsNetNebraska

It was a match made mostly on page seven. With 3,310 words, Noah Ballard, college newspaper journalist and aspiring novelist, wrote the story of Sammy Nabulsi, campus leader and law student-to-be.

In doing so, he sparked a long-lasting and respectful friendship between himself, a Jew, and Nabulsi, a Muslim. But while the Daily Nebraskan started it all, their story goes back a bit further than that; religious roots stretch for hundreds of years, and political implications involving one of the world’s most intractable conflicts pervade. Their friendship, says Nabulsi, is “a microcosm of what should happen over there (in the Middle East).” That includes the occasional friendly knock on one another.

“I always thought Sammy was kind of an ass because he would just prance around in his little suits,” Ballard said jokingly.

“Most people do,” Nabulsi said. “I do dress up and I enjoy dressing up, but unfortunately I get so caught up in everyday work that I go from meeting to meeting to meeting and look like I’m in business mode. And so, unless it’s a close friend and they’ve come to know me, I probably do come off as an ass.”

This kind of back-and-forth is common in the pair’s conversations over coffee, talks that sometimes lead to debates about their opposing viewpoints on Israel and Palestine. Ballard said he hopes one day to be a part of Nabulsi’s presidential cabinet — as Nabulsi hopes to get into politics — so the conversations can prove worthwhile. Ballard, an imaginative arts editor with one so-far unpublished novel already under his belt, thinks that pipe dream might not be so out of reach. Nabulsi, the former Residence Hall Association president, has lofty goals.

Each is a foil for the other. Both are seniors at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Ballard represents the abstract English major asking, “Well, what about the emotions behind it, man?” and Nabulsi stands in opposition as the business-minded political science and economics major.

Ballard grew up in New Jersey, and Nabulsi spent part of his early life on the East Coast, too, with a few years spent in Omaha and Saudi Arabia as well. While their backgrounds seem to read more like bitter rivals than close friends, both Ballard’s and Nabulsi’s parents sought to instill a sense of acceptance for all religious and cultural creeds.

For Nabulsi’s side, both his father’s and his mother’s parents were refugees from Palestine, relocating in Lebanon and Saudi Arabia respectively. His father fled Lebanon when Israel attacked in the mid-1970s, and his mother moved from Saudi Arabia in the late-’70s to Omaha. Although his family has not related many stories of their interactions in the Middle East, Nabulsi’s parents have told a few anecdotes that have helped to pique his interest in international affairs.

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Sammy Nabulsi, left, poses for a family photo. Nabulsi said it’s Arab culture that gives him more pride for his family rather than his Islamic faith, and paying back his father is his highest aspiration for the future. Photo courtesy of Sammy Nabulsi.

Nabulsi cited one in particular as the most important and what was a major reason for his father’s emigration. Although Nabulsi’s father could not remember evidence apart from his own father’s retelling, the story goes like this. While in Palestine, Nabulsi’s grandfather was on board a bus, and the bus was full of Palestinians who were crossing through checkpoints to go to work on what was considered the Israeli side.

“And a couple of Israeli defense forces came onto the bus, and they just shot everyone,” Nabulsi said. “My grandpa, although he didn’t die in that accident, he was shot 23 times in the leg.”

Before Nabulsi’s father left Lebanon, his sister was killed, and a couple of his siblings were injured. Despite their personal history and the larger conflict, Nabulsi said his parents harbor no negative sentiment toward Jewish people. He said it was always important when he was growing up for them to clarify it’s not the Jews who are at war with Arabs, it’s the nation of Israel.

Ballard’s family has also encouraged tolerance. As Ballard was growing up, his father was racially and religiously tolerant because he had lived in Turkey while working in the Peace Corps. His mother’s grandparents emigrated from Central Europe in the 1920s, and Ballard had been living in the diverse community of Lawrenceville, N.J., until moving to Lincoln. Both Ballard and Nabulsi agreed East Coast colleges, in their view, are more accepting of intercultural communication than what they’ve experienced in Nebraska.

“I think over there, because the schools are a little more prestigious — because they’re in the company of Ivy League schools — a lot of that intercultural communication is emphasized,” Nabulsi said. “Here at UNL, one problem that I have is that I find UNL extremely segregated. You walk into the Gaughan Center, and everyone is split up.”

Jean Cahan, professor of philosophy and history as well as the director of the Harris Center for Judaic Studies, had a different opinion of UNL, saying its campus is unusually peaceful. She said there’s a lot more tension especially in the University of California system and elsewhere in the East. Despite this, she praised higher education on the whole because it teaches one to reserve judgment.

“One sees that there are usually excellent arguments on many sides of an issue, and philosophy allows one to look at the quality and structure of arguments, and in the course of doing that, one is forced to suspend one’s prejudices and conclusions,” Cahan said. “It’s often a painful process because we don’t like to walk around without a sense of having certain convictions, but it’s an important process.”

Nabulsi said in the context of his friendship with Ballard, they make sure to understand each other’s differences and find ways to mutually benefit from the same situation. Ballard said the debates are healthy when he can bring his opinions to the table and Nabulsi can bring his, and each can recognize the other’s as equally valid.

In the larger conflict, Ballard said civil discourse between the two sides is essential so each understands exactly what the other is trying to gain.

“But that’s obviously not going to happen because their opinions are based in this religion and this culture that I don’t think Sammy and I subscribe to,” Ballard said, “so it would be very difficult for them to have that kind of conversation.”

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Sammy Nabulsi poses for a photo alongside his feature article in the Daily Nebraskan written by Noah Ballard, who he has since become friends with. Calling Ballard his first true Jewish friend, Nabulsi, a Muslim, has found a new perspective on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, though his opinion on it has not changed. Graphic courtesy of the Daily Nebraskan.

But as Nabulsi ended his feature in the Daily Nebraskan — “I believe I can mend that relationship; maybe that’s a bold statement” — he is confident about his potential role in easing Middle Eastern tensions. Perhaps through Ballard, whom he calls his first true Jewish friend, he can learn how to better relate to a culture so traditionally against his own. And if anything, because of his friend, he can also lay claim to perhaps the second-longest article on any one student in the history of UNL’s 140-year-old newspaper (behind a feature in the 1970s on student Danny Ladely, who now directs the Ross Theater).

“That article is symbolic and permanent, and it’s there as the start of our friendship, but secondly, it goes to show that Muslims and Jewish people get along,” Nabulsi said. “That ideological standpoint is there saying that, look, they can have a conversation, they can talk about one another, they can admire one another. Why can’t everyone be like this?”

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