This isn’t their land

Photo by Erik Steward via Flickr

Some of my more rigid Israeli friends say that unless you’ve lived in the country, “you don’t get it,” and can’t have any opinions about Israel. That’s absurd, but there’s still nothing like first hand experience.

The summer after my sophomore year of high school I was in Israel with two good school friends of mine.

We needed to catch a train at Ben-Guiron airport and figured a taxi was the way to go. All the taxi drivers outside the Jerusalem Regency were Arab, and we hoped that might make for interesting conversation on our way to the airport.

The driver was 27 or so and his new Mercedes cab smelled like sweet hookah. My friend Elijah sat shotgun and chatted with him. Our driver, whose name I can’t recall, mentioned he had recently been on vacation in America. To our surprise it turned out he had visited Bryce and Zion national parks with a pit-stop in Las Vegas–exactly where our grade had gone on our trip sophomore year.

The driver was taking the cab at a good clip down the highway, laughing with us and teaching us Arabic slang. As we rolled up to the security checkpoint outside Ben-Gurion, he expertly maneuvered into the lane with the shortest line and a guard was quickly at the driver’s window. “?מאיפו אתא בא”–Where are you coming from?–the guard demanded. “Jerusalem,” the driver told him, handing over his ID. The guard made some gestures and sent our cab off toward the curb next to a small police station.

At the driver’s suggestion we dug our passports out, and Elijah, who had lived in Israel and held dual-citizenship, was overcome with frustration and popped out of the car and into the cool Israeli night. Marching across several lanes of checkpoint traffic waving his passport, he accosted the nearest guard: “We, are A-mer-i-cans and we have a train to catch!”

Oy. But to my friend Max and my surprise the guard marched briskly over, popped the trunk, and, confirming the bags were ours, told us we could go.

The driver’s good spirits were gone as he flipped through CD’s Elijah had brought in the car and picking intense techno, he blasted it through the Mercedes’ impressive sound system as we accelerated back onto the freeway.

“Fuck them,” he muttered to Elijah in some Hebrew-Arabic slang.

Our driver did not bear the look of someone who understood delays like that as the price of keeping Israel safe. We let him keep the CD.

But, of course, it’s not the 20-something Arab who is supposed to understand those delays. It’s never the Arabs at all, really. They’re the collateral damage. We, my friends and I, we’re the ones who are supposed to “get it.”

And we did, sort of. We felt safe and comfortable in Israel, as Jews in the Jewish homeland should. But how did the Arabs feel, I wondered, as I watched our driver vanish into the stream of traffic exiting the airport.

Playing backgammon in Jerusalem. Photo by Corey Jackson via Flickr.

It’s easy to explain the Israeli Arab away as a non-entity. A problem to be dealt with. “They don’t support the state”; “they’re anti-Semitic”; “this isn’t their country”; “Palestinians aren’t a real people”; etc.

This explaining away is necessary for good people to stand behind the racial profiling and systematic discrimination, specifically in security issues, against Arabs in Israel.

All the profiling done at Ben-Gurion and elsewhere in Israel is done to keep the Jewish people safe. I like that goal. But I’d be hard pressed to look our taxi driver in the eye and tell him that we’re sorry he was delayed, but that’s just the price he pays for being born in our country. The country where a Jew’s American passport is worth more than an Arab’s Israeli ID card. But that’s what he’s being told–that’s what was underlying his “Fuck them,” remark.

Israel may provide a higher quality life, for all its citizens, than elsewhere in the Middle East. But this is still our land, it isn’t theirs.

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About the Author
Arno Rosenfeld is a San Francisco native attending the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. He is trying to make sense of Israel in all its beauty and imperfection.