The Self-Hating Jew/The Islamophobe

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.

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10 thoughts on “The Self-Hating Jew/The Islamophobe

  1. Keep on writing. Keep on praying. Keep on with the bearing of hatred and fear. What a true post you have written. ‘Is it humiliation spiced with Zaatar?’ beautiful metaphor. In the valley between the Old City and out hotel we found a pomegranate wrapped in razor wire. It has been my image of Jerusalem ‘built as a city at enmity with itself’ – I forget who I should attribute that misquote to.

    Don’t let the objectification of the enemy work in you. Read those psalms. They cry out for us to recognize that the enemy is an image we have of the other inside ourselves. We can chose to not hold the enemy in enmity. Lord how many are my enemies says David in Psalm 3 – but he is able to lie down and awaken. This is the first use of awaken in the Psalms. The last is in Psalm 139. Being in this power of God is not for the fainthearted. By all means be mute at times (Psalm 62) אך אל אלוהם דומִיה נפשִׁי (I almost got that right typing it) but don’t lose faith. There must be a nice Jewish boy for you. Then you can write a love song like Psalm 45 – your tongue can be a stylus scribbling impetuously לשוני עט סופר מהיר.

    I write from 1/3 of the way around the world in hope. When we were in Israel in 2010, my wife and I innocently walked down into the Hinnon valley and around the Old City by the lower roads going through the Arabic areas then up through the Kidron valley. It was the day after an incident that we had not heard about and all the roads up the valley to the mount of Olives were empty. We did not see the children behind us picking up stones, but my wife turned around and glimpsed a mother restraining a 5 or 6 year old from taking aim at us. We were naive and fearless. We continue to hold you and your country and the divisions in our hearts.

    We loved the Armenian Tavern in the Old City – but I will hope that you can be reconciled to the angry owner. O God, write repentance on his heart.

    1. Dear Bob,

      I thank you so much for your beautiful words, full of compassion and hope! I will keep my head up, and we will work together for a more just and kind future. Inshallah.

      Ilona

  2. Wonderfully written. Your family should be crying tears of joy and pride for your beautiful spirit and enormous heart.

    1. Dear Chaya,

      I’m very blessed! I was treated very well in Qatar. Not only was I open about my Jewishness–I was the first ever Jewish woman to lecture on Judaism at Qatar University in Doha! It was a fascinating experience, and I wish more Jews were open to that kind of communication.

      All the best,

      Ilona

  3. Dear Wilfredo,

    Thank you so much for your kind words of encouragement. إن شاء الله خير. (God willing all will be well)

    Ilona

  4. Dear Ilona Gerbakher,
    I am happy to have found you here on this website.

    I have been looking for a way to contact you.

    But, first let me say that as a Jew I shopped for years in Arab markets for my catering business. First in Paris as a student, then Brooklyn then Columbus, Ohio. It is interesting that in the US there are Arab stores that carry Israeli products and others who don’t. I shopped in both. No matter what I placed on the plates of my catering customers was always feted with praise by even the most religiously and halachic restricted of them ate from those markets. ( Of course the ingredients had to be scrupulously kosher). I introduced them to many tastes. Not one person ever sought me out to find out where I got these items. katafi pastry, brightly tasting mint, sweet and sour yellow raisins,mulberries,apricots, raw almonds,sumac, I could go on. There is not an opening. NONE.
    I honor your interest in at least trying to make a bridge across. There are times you will succeed and other times not. As humans we are so easily conditioned . That is the tragedy that comes from all this fear and programming.
    We Jews are always at our best as teachers and we aren’t doing such a good job these days I think.

    I wont bore you with more chat. Our website is: http://laurenstacyberdy.com/Garum.html. I want to send you garum to taste!
    Yes, I read your paper and at the end you wish you could taste some.
    and now you can

    Our garum is lab tested.
    We are looking for funds to get the good ship garum up and running.
    Please let us know if we can gift you with a few drams?
    Ms. Lauren Stacy Berdy

  5. Never mind! Never mind the darkness. A single candle can remove all the darkness in a room and every one can find a space for him/herself. In Turkey, we are experiencing the similar prejudice no matter which sex, which religion, which ethnicity or nationality. This is the problem of this age. By the way Middle East is experiencing this problem at dense. Never mind and keep on keeping on.

  6. Bonjour Ilona

    Merci Beaucoup pour ce textes sur cette difficulté d’être ! Je suis depuis vos longs commentaires sur des sujets qui me touchent particulièrement et qui me semble plus que d actualité. Vos recherches ne sont pas en vains car aujourd’hui en Israel il est question d apprendre les deux langues parfaitement pur à réussir a se comprendre au de la des conflits et afin de pouvoir donner des réponses aux nombreuses questions qui nous hantent- juifs & arabes” malgré les nombreux tabous qui assombrissent nos points de vue – nous avons besoin de briser la glace de sortir du cercle infernal de la peur.

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