David Breakstone
Reflections on Israel and the Jewish world

Training with Arab fanatics in an “apartheid” regime

The other day I found myself standing face-to-face with three young Arabs wielding butcher knives. It was late on a cold afternoon as a December darkness descended upon Jerusalem. I had just pulled my car into the parking lot of the local commercial center as the radio broadcast the news of yet another terrorist stabbing less than a 20-minute drive away. Absorbed in this latest bulletin, I took a few steps into the bright lights of the supermarket and there they were. One of them I recognized instantly and without hesitation did exactly what I knew my wife would want me to under the circumstances. “What have you got this week for a good cholent?” I ask Ahmed. “All the kids are coming for Shabbat.” He rummages behind the glass partition for the perfect piece of meat and holds it up for my approval. “Great. I’ll take two kilo,” I tell him. He weighs it, wraps it and hands it to me with a smile and wishes for a Shabbat Shalom.

I don’t know how or when it happened, but our Arab neighbors seem to have all but monopolized the kosher meat counters in the Holy City. They also seem to constitute a majority of our pharmacists. Nation-wide the percentage stands at 35%, far disproportionate to the 20% of the population they hail from, but in Jerusalem there appear to be many more. No surprise then that the next day I enter a drugstore to fill a prescription and again find myself standing in front of three Arabs in white jackets, two of them women.

Of course, the fact that my food and medicine is being handed to me by Arab countrymen (and women) doesn’t mean that there aren’t zealots among them. I recently joined a rather upscale health club only to discover that I am training regularly alongside a group of Arab fanatics — fanatic about their health, that is. They are there when I arrive and still going when I leave and it is impossible not to envy the results of their hard work and discipline.

To those who might retort that their exercising only serves to make them more formidable adversaries I have a rejoinder of my own.

A few weeks ago my wife, temporarily blinded by the setting sun, inadvertently ran a roadblock hastily placed near where she works. Other than the trauma of being stopped at gunpoint by IDF soldiers who had laid the spiked barrier at dusk across a street she navigates daily, the only real damage were two ruined tires that needed to be replaced before she could drive on. The neighborhood where all of this transpired was at the foot of Mt. Scopus, on the seam between east and west Jerusalem. A rather unsettling situation to find oneself, particularly given the rash of indiscriminate violence that the checkpoint had been set up in response to. Ironically, it was the Arab passers-by, not the Jewish ones, who came to her rescue, managing to bring help from a nearby garage.
Not that she was particularly surprised. A veteran librarian at Hebrew University’s schools of education and social work, she has for decades been interacting daily with dedicated and idealistic young Arabs who constitute a sizeable proportion of the student body.

More from our daily life. A ridiculous squabble with one of our neighbors — both of us Jewish — landed us in the Jerusalem Magistrates Court a few weeks ago. Correct. The judge hearing our case was an Arab.

Just before that we were blessed with the birth of a new grandson. Being our ninth, we already took for granted the presence of Arab mothers alongside our own children, being tended to by Arab doctors and being delivered by Arab midwives. Nor were we surprised to learn of an organization called Midwives for Peace set up to create dialog and understanding between Israelis and Palestinians based on the commonality of hope engendered by bringing new life into the world.

I don’t share these experiences to underplay the horror of the sustained wave of terror we have been experiencing for almost three months now, but rather to make three points.

1. Whatever take one might have of Government policy regarding the Arab sector or the pursuit of peace, it is utter and absolute nonsense to suggest that Israel is anywhere in the vicinity of approximating anything even remotely resembling apartheid. To suggest otherwise (with 13 duly elected Arabs serving in the 120-member Knesset!) is to do a gross injustice not only to the Zionist enterprise, but to the genuine suffering of millions who have lived under the cruel and deliberate repression of real apartheid regimes elsewhere.

2. Arabs and Jews don’t all hate one another. Certainly many on both sides of the divide would prefer that the other disappear, but I am confident that the majority of both of our peoples are reconciled to the fact that neither of us is going to leave and would be ready to make far-reaching compromises for a sustainable peace.

3. There is more co-existence in Israel than one is exposed to in the media. In addition to the examples brought above, Arab and Jew eat alongside one another in the restaurants of Mammilla just outside the Old City walls, enjoy the same outdoor recreational area of the Haas Promenade in Talpiot, and share space in the dorms, classrooms, and hallways of our universities.

But neither am I naïve. Just a few days after purchasing the meat for my cholent, three Palestinians from Jenin were apprehended in Afula carrying 23-cm butcher knives, undoubtedly similar to the one used by Ahmed. I know very well that had it been them that I’d come face to face with that cold winter afternoon, they’d have had no problem making cholent out of me. But in the midst of this unconscionable bestiality we face daily, it is essential that we hold fast to our humanity, resolutely uphold the legal rights and civil liberties of all, and proudly proclaim to the world who we are.

About the Author
Dr. David Breakstone is presently engaged in establishing the Yitzhak Navon Center for a Shared Society. He previously served as deputy chair of the Jewish Agency executive and the World Zionist Organization and was the conceptual architect and founding director of the Herzl Museum and Educational center in Jerusalem.
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