Arab Like Me: Rachel Dolezal and My Anxious Jewish Mask

Am I the Jewish Rachel Dolezal?

I was sitting in my East Jerusalem apartment in a Moroccan djellaba, Abdel Halim Hafez warbling from the stereo, sipping mint tea and reading a New Yorker article about this bizarre white woman who decided to become black one day. And at first I was shocked and bemused—what, the lady gets a fake tan and a perm and all of a sudden she’s Toni Morrison? But then something in her story started to tickle my problematic Jewish/Arab identity bone, and I started to wonder, am I the Jewish Dolezal?

That is to say, am I a Jewish woman who has appropriated Arab culture, language, and identity in order to further her professional and personal life? And am I enacting this appropriation in Israel, in order to comfortably (and safely) move between the Jewish world and the Arab world which exist, hatefully and painfully, side by side in this country?

Jelani Cobb of the New Yorker explains that Dolezal’s masquerade of blackness “finally points out the obvious: the emperor [of racial identity] is naked.” The dynamics of racial identity (particularly African American racial identity in America) are tense and painful, and not directly applicable to the way that ethnicity and religion divides people in Israel. And yet, in some ways the Israeli situation is even more complicated—Jews and Arabs in Israel are almost indistinguishable from one another, both physically and ‘racially.’ Even their religions are much more similar than either side feels comfortable admitting.

Case in point: my dear friend Huda Abu-Zeid, a Palestinian ex-hijabi from Beit Hanina, looks like my long lost little sister. With the hijab on, she got harassed, spit at, taken aside for extra security questioning, death-stared on the light rail—in other words, she looked like a Palestinian, and she got treated like one. But as soon as she took off her sparkly white hijab and took out her low-cut shirts, she looked like any other eighteen-year old Israeli girl, and Israelis started speaking to her in Hebrew, smiling with her as though she was a beloved member of the tribe. I was there with her every step of the way, a witness to both the evil glares and the flirting, furtive smiles of eighteen-year old Israeli army boys.

My own ethnically ambiguous features often make it difficult to categorize me as Jew or Arab. When I need to, I can throw on either mask. At Ben Gurion airport, notorious for its discriminatory treatment of non-Jews and Arabs, I played the American Jewish princess card to the hilt: “Like, oh my God! Of course I went to synagogue! I like, love it. It is THE BEST. Gooooooo Judaism!” (It frightens me that I have acquaintances who actually talk like that, but I digress) At Damascus Gate, where relations between Jews and Arabs are especially tense and often break out into violence, I put on my Moroccan mask and walk around speaking Darija, (the Moroccan dialect of Arabic) salaaming left and right and smiling modestly at the shopkeepers, who then proceed to give me their best prices as “my honored Moroccan guest.”

My ability to put on an Arab mask has given me access to corners of Israel/Palestine that Jews don’t normally see. For example, did you know that Mein Kampf is sold proudly in the Arab bookstores of Jerusalem’s Old City? I found out one day, when a search for a volume of poetry took me into the warrens of several old-city bookstores, where copies of Mein Kampf sat–invisible but malignant– in an ancient Jewish stronghold.

One day I went spice shopping at a small shop near the Austrian Hospice and struck up a conversation with the vendor in Arabic, asking him if any Moroccans lived in the Moroccan quarter of the old city. He told me “No. The Jewish [sic] killed them all. They are murderers.” I bought my cardamom without argument, smiled, wished him Allah ubarik fik (God bless you) and left. Another day an elderly woman from a village just north of Jerusalem came into the city looking to pray at Al-Aqsa for her daughter’s health. She asked me to guide her to the mosque, since I looked like a “God-fearing Muslim girl.” I complied, holding her hand and discussing the wonders of Morocco, struggling to make out the broken fusha (standard Arabic) that whistled through her chipped front teeth.

If I am asked my religion, I always respond that I am Jewish, but usually the question goes unasked, my identity is assumed, and I sail along on the gentle waters of Arab camaraderie. My foreign friends know that they can enter East Jerusalem safely by my side, and they clamor to go shopping with me, because they know I’ll get them the ‘Arab price:’ half of what the tourists pay, a third of what the Israelis pay. Even my Israeli friends, many of whom fear Arabs with a hatred admingled by fascination and desire, will walk to Sheikh Jarrah or Wadi Joz (Arab neighborhoods in Jerusalem) with me because “you will protect us with your Arabic.”

In Israel, I am a Jewish face wearing a disposable Arab mask. When I need to, I play the part of the good Arab girl, the concerned Moroccan tourist, the cultivated Arab intellectual. And where my Arab mask cannot protect me—at a checkpoint, at the airport, near an army boy with a big black gun—I put on my Jewish mask, which is just as much an act as any other part of my identity. Cobb writes that Rachel Dolezal’s passing as black was distinctive, because instead of benefiting from the profitability of a white person acting black (in the model of an Eminem or an Iggy Azalea), Dolezal “shouldered the inglorious, frustrating parts of [African American] identity.” In Israel, I feel like I am living within Dolezal’s complex, uncomfortable legacy. I am a method actor in a tragedy, benefiting from the mutual hatred of both sides, changing faces as my role demands.

As I finished reading Jelani’s article, I felt like I was coming out of a trance. I looked down at my purple and gold djellaba, my mint leaves limp in the cup, and I couldn’t help but shudder in uncomfortable empathy. I understand, perhaps more than most people, what it is to feel more at home in the “other” than in your own skin. I know what it is to crave the kiss of a strange tongue upon your tongue, a different music in your ear, a new people and culture to love and belong to. And I think there is something both deeply problematic and deeply beautiful in Rachel’s attempt to take the final step, cross the line, become the beloved other—to make the mask fit the face. I struggle with that craving all the time in Israel. Alone in my room, door closed, sun streaming through my windows, I struggle to understand who I am when my identity demands neither pretense nor performance—a Jew wearing an Arab mask, and a Jew wearing a Jewish mask.

I’m not sure how to answer these questions, but I know that I have to start somewhere. That even if my attempts at understanding and negotiating these conflicted identities are flawed and fragile, they are a beginning.

Image courtesy of the author.

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2 thoughts on “Arab Like Me: Rachel Dolezal and My Anxious Jewish Mask

  1. Salam Ilona, Really interesting to read your taught reflexions and consideration you have in this chaotic world where lack of communication and understandings is surrender by the Warlords -I wish to share more about your deep ‘connaissances” and culture of the Middle East world where the ” jew” is an Aline and an Arab ” an enemy” .

  2. Mein Kampf is sold proudly in the Arab bookstores of Jerusalem’s Old City as well as in the whole arab world since 2011 NYC Twin Tower –

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