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The hit-and-run: Bearing witness

I didn't tell the cops what I saw because I'm Jewish, but because I'm human
Illustrative: A motorcycle after an accident. (Yehoshua Yosef/Flash90)
Illustrative: A motorcycle after an accident. (Yehoshua Yosef/Flash90)

As I inch forward behind the long line of cars, a little beige car just ahead of me suddenly swerves leftwards, into the lane of the oncoming traffic, to bypass the wait. At the exact same moment two motorcycles zip by me, and as they do I am jolted into awareness that, given their respective rates of travel, the car ahead of me will hit the motorcycles. I begin to honk and yell, trying to get the drivers’ attention, desperate to stop what I fear is coming.

And sure enough, they do collide, and now the first motorcycle and its rider are flying, skidding, spinning, sprawling on the street. The car seems to pause… then speeds up and screeches around the corner, while all the time I keep honking and shouting, as though this will stop the driver and make him realize what has just happened. But he is gone.

I pull over and run to the motorcyclist lying in the middle of the street. He is dazed, barely moving, and clearly in pain.

“Why didn’t he stop?” he asks me as I lean over to see if he is okay. “I don’t understand why he didn’t stop to see if I was okay? Why?” He seems more hurt and uncomprehending of the driver’s failure to stop and help him than of the accident itself.

Two police officers arrive. As one directs the rush-hour traffic around the motorcycle on the ground, I approach the other to report that I was witness to the accident. He records my details. Ambulances arrive. There seems nothing else I can do to help, so I head home.

The police call an hour later.

“Hello, this is Niv from the traffic police. You saw the incident today? Can you tell me what you saw?”

I explain.

“Okay, can I ask you to come down to the station and report what you saw? We need your full testimony.” Niv apologizes for the imposition, but “Please come. We think we have tracked down the driver and we are supposed to question him later. It will make a big difference in our ability to question him if we know what you saw happen. Truly…”

Niv is waiting at the front door of his office when I arrive. Though the hit-and-run incident had taken all of twenty or third seconds to unfold, it takes a good hour and a half to file the report, as Niv questions, examines and records every detail of the incident.

As he types in the last few sentences to his report, Niv turns to me: “I really can’t thank you enough for coming in and giving this report. It is not a given. Not everyone would stop to do this, and it makes a difference. It will help us get this person — this criminal!  For only a criminal does such a thing, not normal people, who just want to get home in peace and quiet. We would each want someone to do the same for us.”

As he turns back to the computer to finish up he adds: “It’s important that you did this – it’s important for Am Yisrael – the People of Israel! So really, thank you.”

As I drive home Niv’s words, and the intensity with which he said them, remain with me, mixing with my own emotions, still jumpy and raw from the accident. While watching Niv type up the last lines of our report I had tried to place exactly what it was that didn’t seem quite right. “But Niv,” I’d wanted to say to this kind, serious police officer, “when we say Am Yisrael it refers to the Jewish people. We are both Jewish, but what if I was Arab? Would you have said that to me? Probably not. Because Arab citizens are part of the State of Israel but that is not the same as the People of Israel. Even if my Jewish values influence my sense of responsibility, reporting a hit and run is first and foremost my civic duty as a citizen to help another citizen. But that’s the challenge we face in this country, isn’t it? I mean, what does it mean to be a Jewish and democratic state – a state that is a homeland and place of refuge for the Jewish people that also has a 20% Arab minority?”

But would I be able to explain this so Niv can understand what troubled me about this? Over the last few years I have become increasingly aware of how many things might make Arab citizens feel excluded in Israel. Many things that Jewish Israelis, as the majority, take as a given are rooted in being Jewish, but this signals to Arabs and others who are not Jewish that they are not really part of this place. Whatever mix of Jewish ethics and civic obligation might motivate Niv or myself, he had, with this casual and commonly used phrase Am Yisrael, turned a civic obligation into a Jewish obligation. But in working for the state police Niv’s job is to be concerned for the welfare not only of Am Yisrael but all of Israel’s citizens.

Yet this is not just Niv’s challenge. Israel’s approach to security seems to divide citizens, defending Jewish security first and foremost, while viewing all of Israel’s Arab citizens as a security threat in-waiting to the Jewish majority. The fact that Druze and Bedouin serve in the army does not fundamentally alter this. On the one hand the broader conflict and regional context is an obvious explanation. But the broad grouping of Israel’s Arab citizens, Palestinians from the Territories, and Arabs from the surrounding countries overly-simplifies and does a disservice to Israel’s own citizens and interests. It only ensures that the Arab minority feels alienated, and increases rather than decreases security risks.

I wanted to share with Niv that the one and only time, in all the countless times that I have been to the airport in Israel, I was ever stopped and closely examined at security was when I traveled with an Arab colleague. She was 19 years old, with impeccable Hebrew and we were travelling together to represent a coexistence project. Ever since the question has gnawed at me as to whether simply being Arab is considered reasonable grounds to be a potential security threat.

And to share with him that on my street in Abu Tor, one of many connecting Jewish West Jerusalem to Arab East Jerusalem, I see how police randomly stop Arabs, examine their papers, check their cars, probe. “Why don’t the police stop us?” my children once asked. At the time they were little and I simply explained that this is because they are children. But now they are old enough to understand that as Jews they will not be the ones randomly stopped and questioned at checkpoints. I sense their feelings that it counters a sense of basic fairness.

I want to ask him what he thinks about the incident a few years ago when a young man in an Arab town in Northern Israel pulled a knife on a police van; then dropped the knife, turned and ran; then the police shot him in the back, killing him. The Jewish public considered him a terrorist. The Arab public cried police brutality, arguing that the police would have refrained from lethal force if it had been a Jewish suspect.

Of course I understand the fears and security arguments explaining these and many other examples. But I find it increasingly difficult to simply excuse it all in the name of security anymore. The ease with which we, as Israeli Jews, allow security concerns to justify assumptions and trigger-quick reactions has started to feel too automatic, too systematic, too all-inclusive. By treating every Arab as a potential security threat, we wrong these citizens of Israel, the vast majority of whom intend no harm, and want only a normal life and normal treatment. In being indiscriminating we discriminate, and it seems neither just, nor wise. Where there is a will, there is a better way we can find to address security concerns without the indignities and harms which alienate and also cause greater security risks.

“So, nu, what do you think of all this?” I want to ask Niv, this kind and diligent police officer in front of me, in the conversation that I so wanted to have with him about these issues.

Ach! But what’s the point? Poor Niv! He’s just trying to do his job, keep the streets safe. I can’t place the whole burden of the conflict, Jewish-Arab relations, and social justice on his shoulders – what can he do about it? Others are responsible. Not him. Not me. This is not the time, place or person to ask. No, better to keep these troubled thoughts to myself. So I wait quietly as he writes the last lines of my testimony into his report.

He finishes. I drink my last sip of coffee and toss the empty cup. I thank Niv and we say goodbye.

I did my duty: I saw a hit and run, and I bore witness. I spoke up when I needed to.

And yet…. every day we witness a hit and run by the state against our fellow citizens. We must start to speak up.

About the Author
Rebecca Bardach oversees growth and strategy at Hand in Hand: the Center for Jewish-Arab Education in Israel. Prior to that she worked with international migration, conflict, relief and development efforts. She holds an MPA in Public Policy and International Development from NYU, and lives in Jerusalem.
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