I haven’t written publicly about my life in Israel since I moved here. The truth is I’m scared to face the inevitable backlash that follows any time you write anything about this country. Many of my Jewish friends and family will call me a self-hating Jew (at the very least, often the names get much worse). I’ll field angry phone calls from friends and relatives, vicious diatribes on Facebook, and my mother will call me crying, telling me that I’ve brought shame to the family, almost regardless of what I write. Friends from divinity school will call me out for being unaware of my “White, Jewish, American privilege;” other readers will call me a Zionist, an Islamophobe, an Orientalist. This is the kind of universal dislike usually reserved for Yankees fans at a Red Sox game, or maybe vegans at a barbecue. Woohoo! Must be doing something right in my life!
What can I say? Maybe there’s truth in every accusation. Maybe I’m a self-hating privileged Zionist Orientalist, and all I can do is try to work those things out in my head the best that I can. But I’ve taken the easy way out. Instead of putting something out into the world about the contradictions of my life in Israel, I just stopped my pen, so paralyzed by an imagined backlash that I taped closed my mouth, tied fast my hands, and even stopped posting on Facebook! (any Millennial will understand the true seriousness of the latter act)
But yesterday, something happened to me that gave me a need to write, if only to let off steam. Yesterday I got kicked out of my favorite shawarma place in Israel, for any one of a thousand possible reasons, but most probably because I was ‘fraternizing with the staff’ in Arabic. I have been a regular at this restaurant since my first week in Jerusalem and I’ve been visiting once weekly–Sundays before class–as regularly as a devotee at her chosen shrine. I say salaam aleykum to Muhannad the grill-master, Jawad the laffa-maker (a type of bread-wrapping for shawarma), jokingly fend off marriage proposals, and relax like any regular at her favorite lunch place. The owner, a forbidding older Israeli man, always treated me with anger and aggression, but I figured this was just another example of Israel’s legendarily poor customer service, and I would laugh it off.
Yesterday, after my usual ritual of salaams over a lamb laffa, I asked the owner for a shot of tchina, and he just kicked me out, yelling: “Get out! No Tchina! Get out!” I stood there and asked him why, over and over again, and he just waved his hand and me and repeatedly yelled “No! No! Out!” Why was he so angry? I wondered, as I walked to class. Why did he kick me out? Because I asked for extra condiment? Or was it because he knew I was Jewish (from our previous conversations) and didn’t like the fact that I was joking and laughing in Arabic with his staff?
I honestly have no idea, and I probably will never know. But my guess is that anti-Arabic prejudice had a hand in his treatment of me, rather than any attempt to preserve his condiments. And I felt sick and humiliated and bitter. I’ve been so hopelessly naïve during my time in Israel—speaking Arabic with the Arabs, Hebrew with the Israelis, trying desperately to fit in with both of “my” people but just being an oblivious idiot on both sides of the divide. The Jewish girl who speaks Arabic. What a sad and pointless joke, what a ridiculous figure, trying to bridge bloody chasms with a big-toothed smile and a few badly accented greetings. I felt like such a fool.
When I told my class about it, every student had a similar story of both blatant and subtle discrimination. My class is an advanced Business Level English class taught to adult Palestinian and Israeli-Arab students. My students are well educated, usually middle-class Arab men and women, some visibly religious, others indistinguishable from your average Jerusalemite. They were sympathetic but amused–Noha, grinning with affection, told me “now you’re getting a taste of what we live every day” as she kissed me on both cheeks. Aha! A taste of Arab life! Is it humiliation spiced with Zaatar? Rifle butts sprinkled with Sumac? Barbed wire slicked with zeyt zeytoun? And after all, isn’t this what I came to Israel for? To finally be united with my real people, the Palestinians?
When I told Aseel, my Arabic professor at Al-Quds University about what happened, she just nodded her head. She told me that she is constantly amazed at the way she is treated by Israeli shopkeepers: “when I walk into a store with my baby stroller, I get searched with metal detectors and delayed. Nobody else–even if the store is full–just me. With my baby! Do they really think I’ve strapped a bomb to my stroller with my child in it?” Well actually, it’s quite possible that the Israeli national discourse supports just such an idea, but we won’t get into that now.
“Ok,” my friends will tell me. “You’re only seeing one side of the issue–you’re fraternizing with Arabs and you don’t see how bad it is for us Jews in Israel! We get rocks thrown at us when we walk into Arab neighborhoods! We get spit on! We’re constantly at risk of attack by these traitors who live in our own country! Of course the owner threw you out for speaking Arabic–you shouldn’t be speaking the enemy language in Jerusalem! We’re at war!”
And in a sense they are right. I don’t know what it is to look religiously Jewish in Israel, and to be at risk of attack because I don’t fit in in a given neighborhood. But have my Jewish friends given any thought to the fact that I do know, even if just a bit, what if feels like to be tarred with an Arab brush, and it feels frightening and humiliating, even in small doses? Have they ever thought what it must be like to be a hated minority population in a country constantly at war? Because all it would take is just a bit of empathy to realize that neither side has it easy, but the side with the machine guns and the barbed wire fences and the tanks probably has a better time of it overall.
When I get home and reflect on some of my days in Jerusalem, I find myself bitter, alone, and hungry. Bitter because I will never fit. I’m not Arab, as a colleague noted “no matter how well you speak Arabic or how many years you spend in the Middle East.” I’m Jewish, and in certain ways a ‘good’ Jew, in the sense that I read Torah and Talmud, know both biblical Hebrew and Aramaic, and spend my time immersed in the discussion of Jewish texts. But God forbid, I’m also an “Arab sympathizer” and an Israel criticizer, so I don’t belong in the fold, and no nice Jewish boy with his head screwed on straight will have me. Alone because I’m trying to walk a middle line between two people at war, and sometimes it feels like all I’m doing is exposing myself to bullets of criticism and ridicule. Hungry because I lost my favorite shawarma place, and Jerusalem is not exactly thick with great shammi food, surprisingly. What will I do for lunch next Sunday? It pains me to even think about it. On the bright side, my friend Omar said he’ll take me to a good Turkish shawarma place near Damascus Gate, so maybe I shouldn’t lose all hope just yet!
Image courtesy of the author.