Jokes are good. They make us laugh at the reality belittling the actual issues that one is facing on daily basis. At this point a witty pun usually follows and we get to forget about the issue in question while we get to move on with our lives. However, in the case of what I am about to say, the joke isn’t the first thing that comes to my mind and at the time when the incident happened, I certainly wasn’t laughing. I am not laughing now either, just to clarify the matter.
The situation that I was faced with transcends all social, political, economical and security levels even though, at that time, it should have existed on a purely social level. The international conflict, despite what the general assumption may be, unsurprisingly doesn’t exclude the regular interaction between individuals, who happen to meet on the street. This was so far the most troubling experience since my move to Israel. As both myself and a friend of mine sat down for a beer and a nargillah we were determined to soak up the atmosphere of the Festival of Purim in the social heart of Jerusalem, Yaffo Street. We had left home, all dressed up, raising more than one eye-brow and evoking either a gasp or a nervous laugh of some of the passers-by.
Not too long into our water pipe and beers two men approached the table and asked if they could join us. Without looking at them I said that of course, why not, the table was big and I didn’t anticipate any prolonged conversation with them. As it turned out I was mistaken; their intention was precisely to talk to us and one of them, notably more under the influence of whatever substance he decided to take that night, asked if he could take a picture with us. Coming from the place of living in Jerusalem where attacks have become pretty much a daily norm, had I processed certain details sooner, I would have probably refused. His Hebrew, with a very distinct accent, was very much not on the level that made any form of civilised communication impossible, but luckily I managed to speak with is friend, who looked much more in control of his actions. Upon having a closer look at them and hearing that they lived in Gilo, the red lights went off in my head, simply because Gilo may mean many things. It’s a Jewish neighbourhood overlooking a security fence and then – Beitlechem; for Christian pilgrims the place of the birth of Jesus Christ, for us – an Arab town which we do not venture into.
I continued enquiring about their names. The one that looked and could be easily taken for a Jewish Israeli spoke excellent Hebrew and said that he appreciated that we wanted to sit with them, considering the situation on the street caused by terrorist attacks. I’m not sure about wanting anything at that point because his intoxicated friend looked positively scary and his hands strangely gravitated towards us all the time. Quite seriously I expected a knife to appear at any stage. He introduced himself as Steve, which caused me to look at him incredulously and demand his actual name. Mustafa. I grabbed my beer and held on to the glass just in case.
Suddenly I noticed that all the men around who were directly or indirectly involved in the running of the business sat by the table right behind us and observed the situation, all tensed, ready to intervene. Sari, because that was what the name of the non-intoxicated man, said that he felt really ashamed for what his fellow people were doing to us. He said that he was taught at a Jewish Israeli school and spoke better Hebrew than he will ever speak Arabic. He studied at the Hebrew University and couldn’t imagine his life outside Israel.
My answer was a very simple one. I told him that I understand that it’s just a percentage of Arabs that roam the cities with cars and knives, but that is what is enough for many of us to lose our lives. Even that percentage oughtn’t exist. We drank our beers in silence, not finding words to say, understanding that sitting together and drinking shouldn’t be the issue of national security and yet it was. He soon apologised and scooped his overly affectionate friend from my friend’s laps and they left. The moment they took probably not more than ten steps, the other table moved in and started interrogating us about our identities and whereabouts. Upon confirming that we were Jewish the guys almost lost their breath.
“You know” they finished “we thought for a moment that you were Arab women. Jewish women wouldn’t sit with Arabs”. They kept asking why we allowed them to join us. Erm, the table was two-thirds empty. They asked to sit down. What did they mean exactly?
“You should have told them that you didn’t want them to sit with you”. Erm, at least one of them was Israeli. What right do I have to sit at the table over him? At that point one man blew up and asked if I was an Arab-lover. An Arab-what? It took me at least a minute to try and grasp the meaning of the term before I regrouped my arguments and yelled back at him that yes, I understand a situation, but if somehow the guys are in the city and aren’t carrying knives then what makes me more human than them? A man is a man, they wanted to have a beer – if it was a problem then they, the security of the bar, should have dealt with it.
Another man that turned out to be a police officer said that what he saw daily had made him very cautious and seeing two Arab men sitting with visibly uncomfortably-feeling girls only aroused his suspicion. “We were waiting for the smallest move and we would come, and protect you”.
All that time I was torn between the urge to explore the matter further and the need to translate every single word to my friend who wanted to know exactly what was happening, but what I realised at that point was that, essentially, we had a unique opportunity of experiencing the life outside our regular bubble. Even on such a micro-level, at one table, both men belonged to a group of people that essentially produce 100% of terrorism in Israel.
Within that couple of friends one was brought up with the Jews and one with the Arabs. One wanted to learn, develop, build this country as it is and enjoy his life. The other I very much doubt had the same intentions. One made us feel that it was fine to talk to him because, though different, we were on the same page and the other one made us feel so uncomfortable that we literally sat as close to one another as it was humanly possible avoiding his affectionate gestures. One was acquainted, it turned out, with people that I was acquainted with and the other one was simply an outsider. How does one put these two men into the same box and label them terrorists? How does one put these two men into the same box and label them “no threat”? How does one put an entire group of people into either of these boxes so the domestic and foreign policy of Israel can be less complicated?
One cannot. It’s just not possible. It’s easy, for the public eye living outside of Israel, to make comments about freeing Palestine, whatever that means, or expelling all Arabs from Israel, incorporating them into the Israeli society with no current boundaries and dropping all security concerns. Seriously, if someone has an actual idea how to do it, they should speak now. Because that night, for the first time, I was afraid of another human being and I wasn’t exactly sure if my krav maga skills would help if suddenly a 100 kg man threw himself on me. Living in Israel is a complicated business once you experience the border of safety and fear. I don’t believe anyone who hasn’t touched it should have anything to say about how Israel is managing its affairs.