Friday, August 31, 2012

It's Complicated


Last night at the grocery checkout, after having unloaded a lot of canned goods, I asked the bagger, in Hebrew, to please not make the bags too heavy. In English, with a heavy Israeli accent, the cashier said to him, "Don't put too many in one bag."

Realizing the bagger spoke English, we began to chat. He quickly informed me that he doesn't speak Hebrew.

"How long have you been here?" I asked.

"I've been back seven months. But I was born here."

"You were born here and you don't speak Hebrew?"

"I'm Arab," he told me.

Sometimes, our cousins look so much like us, I can't tell them apart. This young man was clean shaven, wearing a tee-shirt, baseball cap and a wedding ring. And he spoke nearly perfect American English. It was a terribly novel experience because, as a result of the language barrier, it's so rare for me to have any kind of conversation with a stranger in Israel.

Here are some of the thoughts that were racing through my mind as we chatted:
  • He seems like a nice enough guy.
  • If all the Arabs were more like him, it would be so much easier to get along with them.
  • It's so much easier for Arabs and Jews to get along in Western countries other than Israel.
  • How long will he be here before he gets radicalized and wants to kill my people?
  • I should be extra nice to him because I'm representing all Jews, especially religious Jews.
  • I wonder how he feels working for a Jewish employer.
  • I wonder how he feels about Jews in general.
  • I wonder how he feels about Israel.
  • I wish I could invite him for a meal and a longer schmooze.
  • I'm glad he doesn't like it here. Maybe he'll leave and take a few million of his family members with him.
He asked where we were from, how long we had been here and how we liked it. He seemed surprised to hear that we were happy here.

"Everyone else I talk to thinks it sucks here," he informed me. "I got married and came back because the rest of the family is here. But it sucks here."

"Maybe it's different if you're Jewish," I dared to venture.

Saying that seemed a little risky. But he started it by identifying as an Arab.

For Jews having a hard time getting used to Israel, I have a whole pep talk in my pocket. But I didn't want to say anything encouraging to him. Despite the fact that it was Thursday night, I couldn't wish him a Shabbat Shalom. So I just thanked him for his help and walked away.

Later that night, at the airport waiting for our daughter to return from a trip the the US, I saw an Arab couple also waiting for a loved one to arrive. And I started to think about how most American Jews have no idea how, in Israel, Jews and Arabs occupy the same public spaces - buses, malls, hospital rooms, grocery stores, airports, etc. For the most part, we live and worship separately, but we shop, heal and travel together.

My husband has an expression about life in Israel.

"Lo pashut," he often says. It means, "It's not simple."


11 comments:

Yocheved said...

You're right -- its not simple. Unless the Arab is wearing some sort of distinctive headgear, I can rarely tell, either. During my first years here I'd usually go to the shuk on Friday mornings. I'd buy what I wanted, then invariably wish the vendor a Shabbat shalom -- because everybody wishes everybody else that, here in Israel. One time I had a more experienced friend with me. 'Don't you realize that he's an Arab?' she said. No kidding? No, I hadn't realized it. Jewish and Arab vendors are all mixed up -- how would I know? Nobody every said anything about it -- in fact, I wouldn't be surprised if some of the Arabs didn't, at times, wish me a peaceful Sabbath right back. So you're right. It's complicated. The whole blessed thing is complicated. (Shabbat shalom!)

Rachel said...

We don't really occupy the same spaces in Israel. Our neighborhoods are not mixed. We do not socialize together. We are all wary of one another. Maybe amongst the chilonim it is different, but I do not know because I do not experience
it. The builders here all look Arab to me. The gardener is Arab -- and a very sweet man. But I have to wonder: what are they thinking when they see me? Do they hate me? Do they resent me? I see beautiful Muslim women everywhere, some who wear pants with their head coverings, others who wear long robes. I wonder what they think when they see me? I smile at them on buses. I help them on the street when they need assistance, with packages, a baby, navigating traffic, whatever. I help Jewish women too. But still, there is huge gap -- in culture, in language, in belief -- and I always wonder. I hate the distance. I lived here in 1977. Things were different then. I remember walking through the Arab shuk - and talking to Arabs then. No longer. It is sad to me, because I wish it were different. I also worry -- about the future for all of our children.

Keren said...

it reminds me of what U.S. soldiers face today in Afghanistan. Will the man standing next to them suddenly pull out a weapon and try to kill them? in Viet Nam the shoe shine boy could have a booby trapped shoeshine box. How do you tell the good guys from the bad guys? Elan is right - lo pashut.

Yehudit said...

Definitely lo pashut. But I've been wishing Arabs "Shabbat shalom" for 11 years, and I've yet to have one tell me it's wrong in any way. I had it said to me by Arabs many times, before I ventured to offer that greeting myself. It's still th
eir "day off," so it's still a Sabbath for them.

I lean toward what Rachel said. I've yet to live in a mixed neighborhood, though I did live in Haifa for a year where the neighborhoods had sort of blurry lines in certain areas. I've lived with them and shopped with them and sometimes made small talk with them. And one part of me wants to befriend them and show them how much better the world is when we get along. And the other part of me is always afraid.

Lo pashut.

SaraK said...

I'm realizing that I encounter Arabs more and more, as well. I still experience a split second of anxiety when I get into a taxi with an Arab driver, but I have the same mixture of thoughts as you described.

And I'm sure I unknowingly wish Arabs Shabbat Shalom sometimes :)

Lisa said...

no question, it IS complicated. do you happen to know if this particular arab is muslim? is he secular? being a christian arab can definitely make one miserable here. being secular is essentially what the americans call "a moderate muslim,"
i.e., a non observant one. my "arab radar" is very acute, and with the exception of some arab university students, I am quickly able to distinguish an arab in the human landscape: the accent, and certain physical characteristics are obvious to me. we almost never (on principle) hire arabs to do any work or provide any services, but somehow we wound up ordering a window for our new roof (dormer) from an arab. and he was very sweet, more or less punctual, and gave a very reasonable price. he seemed used to working with jews, and had a very positive attitude, also understanding how jews relate to prices, payment (he did not wheedle for baksheesh, etc.) and dealt well with it all. I did notice that he had a very pleasant name (something like what the Israelis often do, naming for a tree, animal, etc.), instead of jihad, ahmad, etc. so I suspect that he came from a non extremist family as well.

Yocheved said...

Can I add one more 'formative' experience with Arabs? In Beersheba, we live among Arabs and Beduin in much closer proximity than some of you in other cities do -- I lived on an 'Arab' street for three years, which was interesting. But here's what happened: I was walking on the outskirts of town in the general direction of the shuk. It was a very long walk from my home, but I saw a well-traveled shortcut over some gravely terrain that cut a good hunk off the distance, so I started in, only to slip on the loose gravel and land soundly on my bum. I sort of sat there, wondering what had happened, then looked up to see a beautiful Beduin lady, fully covered, but holding out her hand to help me up. She asked me if I was okay, and made sure I was, before she rejoined her friends and walked off. There were all kinds of people around, she could easily have walked right by me, but she didn't. Needless to say, I learned a lot that day. Please Gd I will never forget her kindness.

Rachel said...

The comment about the diff between Christian Arabs and Muslim Arabs resonates with me -- when I was still living in Teaneck, NJ my family doctor was Dr. Basel Batarseh. He was a an Arab, a Jordanian, a Christian. I remember years ago, I was working for a Zionist youth organization when the shaliach for that year got sick. He'd had a flu that would not go away and finally he called me in desperation, asking for a doctor to see. I called Dr. Batarseh and arranged for the shaliach to be seen and also made sure of the financial arrangements. The shaliach saw Dr. Batarseh and within 24 hours of taking the meds he was given he was feeling MUCH better. When he returned to work a few days later he came to me and said, "I can't believe you sent me to an Arab!" I was a bit shocked- after all, I was living in the States where we tend toward more universal acceptance (at least back then, not now), and I asked him, "But he cured you, right?".

Devra said...

We DO occupy many of the same spaces. Living out here in Har Hevron, I share the road, the bus stops/hitching spots and the Rami Levy (big local supermarket) with Arabs of all kinds--citizens of the Palestinian Authority and Israeli citizens. And when we were in the hospital with Chayim Zvi, they were as concerned about my kid as they were about their own. Sadly, I cannot say it was mutual. On an one-to-one basis, I think we CAN live together. I believe that their leadership will not let this blossom. I also believe that a two-state solution will not work, so unless we do learn to coexist, there will also be hatred and violence. Furthermore, I believe that as things stand now, we could coexist under Jewish leadership, but Arab leadership would not tolerate Jewish citizens. And you should have invited him out for coffee! Sarah Shapiro had a great article somewhere years ago (all my books are packed away. I cannot look for it) about sitting with Arab women in a coffee shop in Jerusalem. She asks the hard questions and I think it's a good thing. (Not that I'd have the nerve to do it.)

Karen said...

On the plane back to Israel I sat across the aisle from a Muslim woman about my age in full headgear etc. I had smiled at her and she smiled back when we sat down, but that was it. But when her halal meal didn't arrive and the crew didn't exactly jump around looking for it, I of course piped up that this wasn't acceptable, because I love sticking my nose in where it doesn't belong, becuase I DID desperately want to talk to her, and because the way she was being treated was just wrong -- we Jews get the same treatment and I assume it's worse for them because they're seen as terrorists on top of just being weird, clannish, etc.

Anyway, she and I basically made world peace on the way home. (It's a 12 hour flight, why not?) She has been living in South Carolina for many years, has Jewish customers, so it was a lot easier to strike up a conversation with her than with a Palestinian who's always lived here. I do believe that most of them want to live in peace with us because it's in their interest, they know that life here is much better than in other countries, and that both economies need each other. I agree with Gidon that their leadership doesn't want that to happen, but I really do think that Facebook will bring moshiach in this way. Every positive interaction is a plus, and eventually I believe that they will achieve democracy, and democracies don't wage aggressive wars.

In the meantime, we have to protect ourselves. But as we watch the Arabs stand at checkpoints for hours, I think it's important to feel their pain. Because the majority of them DON'T pose a threat, and the measures we have to take to survive here make their lives very difficult. And when we have an opportunity to interact, to see it as an opportunity to do a kiddush Hashem. Some of them will never like or accept us, just as many of us will never like or accept them, even if any threat of violence were to end tomorrow. All we can do is smile at everyone.

I'm a 'settler,' have been for 21 years (other than my forced break in the US) so please spare me any lectures about how naive I am. I will protect myself without apology, but that doesn't mean that I can't hope for a better tomorrow, and do whatever I'm able to do in order to bring that about.

Batya said...

I deal with Arabs all the time working at Yafiz, sha'ar binyamin, both staff (mostly Rami Levi) and lots of customers. Some of the Arabs have told me that coming to Yafiz and Rami Levi is like being in America. They miss it.