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My Palestinian Elijah

On the Arab bus passenger who protected him and taught him that, like fingers, people are all different

My work for peace in Jerusalem brought me last week to Sheikh Jarah, in East Jerusalem, on the Palestinian side of the city. I checked Google Maps for the bus routes from my apartment in West Jerusalem to my destination; the site showed two buses that would get me there.

When I arrived at the bus station, the numbers of the buses I was looking for were not listed there. I asked the people around me, including a Palestinian man, if they knew about the buses I was told to take. No one knew. Confused, I checked Google Maps again; yes, I was standing at the right station.

Soon, an old minibus arrived; it bore the number of the first bus Google told me to take. The bus was very old and dirty, the signs were in Arabic, and all of the passengers were Palestinian. Only then did I remember the words of one of my teachers, who told me about the “shadow buses.” In Jerusalem we have two bus systems: one for Israelis, and another – the “shadow buses” – for Palestinians. Of course, the buses for Palestinians are not even mentioned at bus stops on the Israeli side of town.

I was confused; what should I do? Should I, obviously an Israeli Jew, take the bus and put my faith in the Palestinian passengers? On one hand, I thought of the Jewish teaching about preserving my own life. On the other hand, I remembered a phrase from the Talmud: Shlichei mitzvah ‘einam nizokim  – “No injury shall befall the messengers of good deeds.” With those words in my mind, I decided to board the bus.

The Palestinian driver looked at me in bewilderment, and when I sat down the two young Palestinian men behind me recognized me as an Israeli. I smiled at them; they smiled back. In my years working in conflict resolution I have learned that a good way to defuse conflict is to invite the other side to take responsibility for you, to show them your fragility, and to open up the channel of kindness in them. I turned to the two men, and asked in English if they could help me to get to where I was going.

They answered me in broken Hebrew. Instinctively, I pretended that I did not understand Hebrew. So they explained that they don’t speak English, and then they asked the Palestinian man I had spoken to at the bus stop if he could help translate. He, of course, knew that I spoke Hebrew, since a moment before I had asked him in Hebrew for directions. Nonetheless he answered, in English, that he would help me.

The lady next to me was watching a Facebook clip of a Hamas shooting in Gaza. For a moment I was scared; does she belong to Hamas? Then I remembered how many times I, and so many people around me, have watched clips on the bus and train, just to pass the time. It has become almost normal to watch violent events on our devices in public.

At one point during the ride we were stuck in traffic in a tunnel, in total darkness for nearly thirty minutes. From the voices of the police outside the bus I knew that another violent attack had just happened.

In that moment, shaking with fear, I began to recite Tehilim (psalms) to myself, the Hasidic melodies from my past pounding in my chest. I reminded myself that Gandhi, MLK, Jesus and so many other people have been murdered for their missions. But then I remembered that, unlike them, I have done almost nothing for peace; my death would not be worth so much.

At Damascus Gate, I left the bus with the Palestinian man who had translated for me. Once we were off the bus, he spoke to me, quite harshly, in Hebrew. He told me I was crazy, majnoon, to take a Palestinian bus these days. He taught me an Arabic proverb: “All of our fingers are different, and so are people.” Especially during these troubling days, it was statistically likely that one of the passengers could see me as an easy target. When I began to explain that I am a peace leader, he stopped me. “And where exactly is this written on your face?” I was silent. Then he said gently, “We all need to pray to Allah to give us mercy and love.” I answered: “Amen!”

As we boarded a second “shadow bus,” he told me, in all seriousness, to speak to him in English, and stay next to him. On the second bus, I smiled through the haze of the driver’s cigarette smoke at the old men on the bus, moved by their painful and beautiful faces, filled with life and wisdom. Meanwhile, my Palestinian companion stood next to me for the whole ride, alert and looking out for my safety.

I arrived at the office of the peace organization with which I work. Now, I said to myself, it is my turn to do something for Salaam, for Shalom, for Peace.

My Hasidic mother, when she heard of my experience, told me it was the Prophet Elijah who was sent to save me. To me, he was one of so many Palestinians who pray for peace, but who also take actions for peace in daily life. These are the ones we will never hear about on the local news. I knew that the Palestinian man who had stood by my side to protect me, would continue to work and pray that Allah — whose name is Salaam — will return to live among us all.

About the Author
Dr. Yakir Englander is working to create Jewish and Israeli leadership in the US. Originally from the ultra-Orthodox community of Israel, the Viznitz Hasidic dynasty, Englander earned a Ph.D. from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem in Jewish philosophy and gender studies. He is a Fulbright scholar and was a visiting professor of Religion at Northwestern and Rutgers universities and Harvard Divinity School. In addition, he was a Shalom Hartman scholar in Jerusalem. Englander served as the Jerusalem director of Kids4Peace and later as the vice president of the organization.
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