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Hitchhiking is a loaded gun

Like guns in America, hitching in Israel is here to stay -- what's needed are measures that reduce risk

When I moved from Modiin to Mitzpe Yericho, a small village halfway between Jerusalem and the Dead Sea, we didn’t command much respect from the bus company. Our only bus turned a 40 minute car ride into a nearly two hour tour of the West Bank. To make matters worse, we were considered one of the “shtachim lite,” so our route wasn’t given the same subsidies as other villages where waiting for a ride held a more tangible risk of harm. This meant any trips via public transportation took a heavy toll both financially and emotionally.

Due to a well-timed maternity leave (doesn’t everybody schedule these things with the transportation system?) I stayed home from my office in Jerusalem for about four months after we moved. But on my first day back, I looked at the bus schedule, and weighed getting up at 6am against the extra hour of sleep I’d earn by heading off to the “tremping” tree and taking my chances. And thus a hitchhiker was born.

Leaving the village was safe and easy. Cars coming inside the gate had already been vetted by the security guards. Of course, there was the possibility that your volunteer chauffeur would turn out to be a quiet serial killer who no one suspected until the neighborhood stray found proto-Soylent Green in the compost pile. But thanks to the large number of people who needed a ride, there were only a handful of times when I was ever left alone with the driver.

On the return trip, however, the situation was more precarious. After the nightmare resulting from the construction of the Light Rail, our village established two new spots for picking up hitchhikers heading back home from Jerusalem. The first was located on the border of Ramot Eshkol and Ma’alot Dafna near Ammunition Hill. And the second was at the last bus stop out of town, right in front of the turnoff into East Jerusalem.

Unsurprisingly, there were few people willing to wait at the second stop, especially late at night after the bus service had stopped completely. The residents complained, and eventually the second station was dropped. And yet, even after the community showed itself capable of resolving security issues when they were willing to face them, I continued to see people making decisions that, to an admittedly “American” eye, were gratuitously reckless.

Our village was home to a residential boy’s highschool, and the students would frequently hitchhike back home, just like the three boys who were kidnapped in Gush Etzion. However, since the school did not interact much with the community, it was highly unlikely that students knew exactly who lived in the village and who didn’t. I would see the boys (and yes, sometimes village residents also) approach strangers that had just pulled over to take care of something before getting on the highway. What would have happened if there had been a kidnapper in one of those cars? Thank G-d we didn’t find out. But this signaled to me that we had become resigned to taking too many risks while looking for a ride. A friend of mine told me that Israel’s hitchhiking culture reminded him of how many Americans feel about gun ownership. It’s just entrenched, and people are really passionate about protecting it.

July 1, 2001 was the date on which Michigan relaxed its guidelines for issuing a gun permit. I remember this day quite clearly, because I happened to walk into a suburban Detroit courthouse, only to be surprised by a line that stretched around the building. However, when I told the clerk why I was there, I was sent to a separate queue with just a handful of people ahead of me.

Noting this, one of the men in the interminable gun permit line asked me what I was waiting to do.

“Oh, just consecrating the death of my marriage,” I noted gloomily.

And without a hint of irony (or tact), he replied, “Damn, you’re lucky!”

Did I feel entirely comfortable knowing this Mensa candidate was going to walk out with a license to carry a weapon? Not completely. But I do believe that gun ownership is a right granted to American citizens. That being said, this does not preclude taking steps to make guns safer.

For example, there is now fingerprint scan technology that can limit who can fire a weapon. Why would even the most fervent gun rights proponent be against this? It’s like shooting your deer and eating it, too! Would it stop all gun shootings? No. But it would lower the risk in a way that is manageable. And don’t we have a responsibility to try and reduce risk when it takes minimal effort?

Similarly, do we need to ban hitchhiking? Not at all. Car space is severely underutilized, and to avoid congestion, we should be encouraging more people to pick up riders, not just in the outlying areas, but also in the major cities. We can stop simply repeating how we’ll never give up hitching, and start creating systems to register and verify drivers and riders using the phones, tablets, and laptops that are carried by almost every person I ever saw taking part in today’s hitchhiking economy.

It saddens me when hitchhiking advocates are adamant that the current system is fine, except for those evil terrorists. Yes, I should be able to hitchhike anywhere and feel safe. But there are bad people in the world (not all of them Arab) and we should accept that as a reality. Admitting that there is a problem is the first step towards finding an answer, and it’s time to take avoidable risk out of finding a way home.

About the Author
Malynnda Littky made aliyah to Israel with her family in 2007 from Oak Park, Michigan. Her recent stay in Paris, enjoying both medical tourism and her new status as the trophy wife of a research economist, has renewed her love for Israel, despite arriving just in time to enjoy several weeks of lockdown.
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