Shira Pasternak Be'eri
Living and loving in Jerusalem

For the sin I have committed by race-based fear

It should have been a simple taxi ride.

In the midst of the war in Gaza, I needed to get to a mid-morning medical appointment. Though time was tight, I didn’t want to trouble my son for a ride. Busy on the computer, he and his friends were enjoying their summer vacation, despite the dings from their phones that punctuated the hours, alerting them to the rockets raining down on other parts of the country.

Thankfully, my son had introduced me to GetTaxi, an Israeli app that  enables you to order a cab through your smartphone. Just enter your address, your destination, and push a button, and a GPS system locates the taxis in your area, offers your trip to anyone available, and closes the deal with the first driver to accept.

Standing at the curb, I watched as the program scanned my neighborhood and locked in my ride. The taxi would arrive in three minutes. Running late, I smiled with relief.

But then I saw the driver’s name, usually an advantage of the system. My blood ran cold. It was an Arab name.

What should I do?

Some three weeks after the murders of Gil-Ad, Naftali, Eyal, and Mohammed, tensions were running high between Jews and Arabs in Jerusalem. Just days before, I had received an e-mail warning that an Arab taxi driver with a gun had tried to kidnap a woman in the German Colony, not far from where I live. The same cautionary tale had appeared repeatedly in my Facebook feed for days.

The admonitions about personal safety fell on receptive ears, since many years ago I was attacked by an Arab man who left me battered and bruised in my Jerusalem home. It took years until I could take taxis alone, because that involves being in close quarters with an unfamiliar man. It is still not easy for me, especially when the driver is an Arab. That’s what trauma does to you.

So here I am, in the midst of a war, with racially motivated attacks by both Jews and Arabs disrupting the routine of life in the Holy City, and three minutes in which to decide whether to get into a cab with an Arab driver.

I phone my husband. No answer. I burst into a cold sweat. He is no doubt in a meeting. The app says I have two and a half minutes. I send a text.

Ordered taxi from GetTaxi. On its way. Arab driver. If anything happens to me, his name is XXX XXXX.

Two minutes to go. The cab is getting closer. What should I do? Cancel the cab, pull my son away from his friends, and tell him he has to drive me? Conquer my fear and get in the taxi nonetheless?

I text again, in the hope that if I disappear, the message will enable the police to find me.

His license number is XXXXXXX. I’m only writing this because an Arab taxi driver tried to kidnap a woman at gunpoint on Emek Refaim this week.

I’m terrified, but do not want to give in to the fear. How can I deprive someone of their livelihood through no fault of their own? And what does it mean about the possibility of co-existence if I won’t get into a cab just because the driver is an Arab?

A minute and a half left.

I would cancel the ride but I will be late for my appointment. And I can’t stand the fact that I’m being motivated by fear.

One minute. Perhaps I should let the taxi arrive, give the driver some money for his time, and say that I’m terribly sorry but I have to cancel. But how could I look him in the eye knowing that I’m cancelling just because of his nationality?

Half a minute to go. The taxi is just a block and a half away. “Don’t do unto others…” falls by the wayside. I press the cancel button. The app warns me that if I do this often, I will be blocked from using the service, but I don’t care. I finalize the request and run into my apartment.

I cancelled. I couldn’t take the anxiety. I’m really unhappy with myself for having done this.

And that’s when my phone starts ringing. Repeatedly. From an unfamiliar number. Horrified, I realize that when you book a cab through GetTaxi, the driver not only has your address but your phone number too. You can’t simply slip away anonymously. I ignore the call. What could I possibly say?

Instead, I pick up my land line and call an ordinary taxi company, one that has always sent Jewish drivers. I hear the dispatcher’s familiar “six, seven minutes” and know it will be ten. When the cab arrives, the Hebrew news is on the radio. We ride without speaking, as I mentally beat myself up for giving in to my fear.

Several hours later, I receive a Hebrew SMS.

May God give you what you deserve. For playing with people’s livelihood. How disgusting.

There is no question who it is from. It’s from the same number that called me repeatedly after I cancelled the taxi.

I’m terrified. There’s now an Arab man with a grudge who has my phone number and knows where I live. A friend recommends that I file a police report because the text message was threatening. I choose to see it as an expression of frustration rather than a threat. In the climate of fear, perhaps I was not the only passenger that day who cancelled upon seeing the driver’s name. Maybe that is why he was available.

It takes many days until I start feeling safe again. In the meantime, I try to assuage my guilt. I contemplate convoluted ways of making reparation. I consider texting an apology to the number that is still on my phone. But fear is a wall in the way.

Eventually I push the episode aside. But as the High Holidays approach, and I review my behavior toward others during the past year, the memory again surfaces. Questions of power and powerlessness, aggressors and victims, morality and self-preservation concern me, both on a personal and national level.

So this Yom Kippur, while engaged in my personal soul-searching, I will remember the day I stiffed a cab driver for no reason other than the fact that he was Other. I will remember how the events of the summer led me to deprive someone of his livelihood. I will think of the things, big and small, that we do as individuals and as nations when we act under the influence of trauma.

For the sin we have committed by acting callously.
For the sin we have committed by passing judgment.
For the sin we have committed by groundless hatred.
For the sin I have committed by race-based fear.

There’s actually a coda to this story, which may make you think about it differently. Once you’ve come to your conclusion about whether my actions were appropriate or an apology was in order, look for my comment that begins “Two and a half weeks after this piece was written” below or read the follow-up post “Texting across the Arab-Jewish divide.”

About the Author
Shira Pasternak Be'eri is a Jerusalem-based editor and translator who works as the coordinator of the Mandel Foundation–Israel's websites. She is married to Leonard (aka Eliezer) and is the proud mom of three fine young men and two daughters-in-law, and is the happy grandma of one. Born and raised in New York, she has been living in Israel since 1982. And yes, she is Velvel Pasternak's daughter.
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