I was privileged to speak at the second annual Jerusalem Summit held at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, Israel, on November 27-30, 2004. This was an extraordinary experience for me.

As an American of Arab origin, born and raised in Egypt and Gaza, just being there was a giant step and breaking an Arab taboo to never deal with Israel. The Arab governments that make up the Arab League forbid their subjects from ever visiting, doing business or interacting with Israel or Israelis. Israel has been the "Forbidden Nation" to Muslim and Christian Arabs ever since its creation; even the peace treaty with Egypt did not end the ban for Egyptians.

Because of that boycott, Muslims and Arabs have no idea what Israel or the Jewish people are really like. That boycott also succeeded in spreading lies, misinformation and hatred towards Israel. Having never seen Israelis, Arabs then believed anything about them. Israel is not perfect, but it is time for Arabs to lift that ban and start down the road of reconciliation to normalizing their relationship with that tiny neighboring country. That would be a gesture of good will, if only Arabs were serious about wanting peace with Israel.

An anecdote will illustrate how deep this prohibition runs. Before departing the USA for Tel Aviv, I was asked by several Christian and Muslim-American Arabs, "Are we allowed to visit Israel?" I answered that American citizens, regardless of origin, do not even need a visa and are welcome to visit there. My friends were stunned. Many Americans of Arab Christian origin are still in a self-imposed psychological boycott of Israel, preventing them from fulfilling their dream of visiting the Holy Land. In their minds, they are still forbidden by their tyrants back in their former countries and at home.

I was happy to visit Israel and I encourage all good people, Arabs included, to visit. Israelis are very welcoming and happy to receive tourists. Israel is a country that combines the charm of both East and West. I felt as safe as anywhere. As I mentioned, Israel is not perfect and has its problems and challenges like, or a little more than, other nations. However, I believe that visiting that country, and particularly Jerusalem, is a life-changing experience that will alter many of the misconceptions about Israel being spread around these days.

Let me tell you about my visit.

I chose to travel by El Al in order to have the complete Israel experience. Understandably, security was very thorough; I was politely and extensively searched.

Ben-Gurion airport is one of the most beautiful airports I have ever seen. I was amazed at how beautiful the coastal city on the Mediterranean, Tel Aviv, really is. The drive to Jerusalem, towards the eastern side of the country, took us approximately a half-hour. As our taxi approached the city, I had goose bumps reading the sign that said "Jerusalem." This is a city the oppressed Arab Christian minorities are prohibited from visiting by their own governments.

The trip to Israel put into perspective many facts I already knew, but never personally experienced. I physically felt how small Israel is and how its size impacts its security needs. I also noticed that most Israelis are Middle Eastern Jews, who originally lived in Arab countries and who had been forced or harassed to leave. You can tell a lot about a society by the status of its women; I found Israeli women to be very interesting. On the whole, women in Israel have high self-confidence. They are trusted and respected by their government to perform many duties in the military and security arms, and they perform them admirably.

I visited the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, one of the holiest sites in all of Christianity. I noticed that today the city population is mostly Muslim. As I passed through the small door of the church, I observed a small office to the left. Inside the office, visible from the outside, was a picture of Yasser Arafat. I understand that most of the Christian population of Bethlehem started to leave after the Oslo Agreement of 1993 and when the PLO later took over. Many Christians are afraid that the great old Churches there will end up as museums for tourists. When I saw the Holy Land of Christians and Jews having such a heavy Muslim population surrounding the Church of the Nativity, I could not help but wonder, how many Christians and Jews are allowed in Mecca and Medina? (The answer, of course, is zero.)

To go to Bethlehem from Jerusalem and back, I went through a checkpoint. Both times, the Arab taxi driver and I were never harassed and were treated professionally by the Israeli soldiers.

I met several Israeli Arab citizens during my visit, and none complained to me about any horrors of discrimination, bad treatment or their wish to leave Israel. To the contrary, more than one Israeli Arab told me that when they visited neighboring Arab countries, they were disappointed and were happy to return to Israel. One said Israel is not perfect, but that he would rather live there than, for instance, Egypt. Some complained that when they visited Egypt they were sometimes mistreated because they had Israeli passports, and were accused by some Egyptians of being Zionists even though they were Muslim.

One young Arab then added: "Can you imagine how they would treat us if we were Jews?"

The Jerusalem Summit event was a great success. I was happy to meet Muslims and Arabs who spoke in support of peace with Israel. Among the themes were "New Ideas from the Old City" and humanitarian solutions to the Arab-Israeli conflict. I was happy that my speech,0 posted on the summit website, was well received by the diverse audience, including Arabs and Muslims.

I had a tour of Hadassah Hospital and saw the equal treatment given to Arab patients, who were grateful for the excellent treatment they were getting at the hospital by Jewish doctors and nurses. I ended my visit with an Israeli friend who took me to an Arab pastry shop. The place was busy with both Muslim and Jewish customers who got along fine. I loved it and felt there was hope for peace, for a while at least.

Israel is a beautiful country and a great nation that is living, succeeding and thriving in spite of the surrounding sea of hostility, hate and terror from its neighbors. It is not a perfect nation, but Israel is doing its best to rise to the level of its humanitarian ideals.

I can think of few countries in history that have received more ingratitude, abuse, hostility and challenges from its neighbors than Israel. I do not think peace will come easily or soon. I know that Israelis want peace desperately, and I wish all Arabs could see and understand the humanity of Israel for what it is - a demonstration of faith, courage and goodwill.

After my visit, I am even more committed to supporting Israel.