I was walking home to Neve Tzedek on the seaside path between Jaffa and Tel Aviv, the same path where an Arab from the West Bank had stabbed an American tourist to death and injured 10 others. On the grass, a family that I’m assuming was Arab (the women wore hijabs) was having a barbeque that smelled delicious. I told them how good it smelled – maybe I rubbed my stomach or something goofy like that. And the family smiled and invited me over to join them. I declined but was moved by their offer.
Apparently, not all Arabs hate all Jews, I thought. I hoped they were thinking the same thing, only the other way around.
There was a tall rope-climbing structure in the park outside my Ulpan just a bit beyond the place where the stabbing had taken place, and every day after class I would climb to the top to get a gulp of Mediterranean air.
One day, an Arab girl, a teenager – 16, maybe 17, with a head covering and pants and eye makeup (it’s funny how you learn to notice and interpret people’s wardrobe) – climbed up to me and said, “Give me your shoes.”
“Where are your shoes?” I asked.
“I lost them on the beach. Give me your shoes.”
I knew she was messing with me. I could have – maybe should have – told her to go away. She could have easily hurt me, our being so high up on the climber.
But I had an idea that this encounter was bigger than just an old American lady getting bullied by a snotty teenager. In fact, a lot of my experience living in Israel feels like I’m part of a larger story, one where maybe I can make a difference. A very small one, but a difference nonetheless. In this case, I didn’t want to be another frightened and angry voice in the life of an Arab girl living in Israel – even if she did deserve a scolding.
“I need my shoes to walk home,” I answered.
“Give me your shoes.” She repeated.
I tried to buy my way out of the confrontation. “Tell you what,“ I said, “I’ll give you some money so you can buy your own shoes. I need mine.”
She took the bill, barely suppressing her snicker, and climbed down to her buddy to show it off. They laughed together.
And then she climbed back up to me and gave me my money back.
I like to think she gave it back because she had had her fun; she had tricked the dopey tourist. And since I had been considerate of her “shoe-lessness” (instead of yelling at her and calling the police) her own better angel emerged. Along with her sense of personal dignity. Deceive an American and make her hobble home barefoot? Now that’s fun! But she didn’t consider herself a thief.
Who knows if I’m right. But she did return my money. And I got to feel like I didn’t add another story of resentment to an already explosive collection. So I’m counting this as a win. A mighty small one, but a win nevertheless.
My friend told me that she was swimming at a beach along the same Jaffa-Tel Aviv path only days after the ceasefire. She heard swimmers on either side of her speaking Arabic. She felt afraid and looked around for someone who could help her should she need it.
She’s from Germany and remembered the ugly stuff that happened in Cologne on New Year’s Eve, 2015. She also commuted on an Israeli bus line that was bombed during the Second Intifada in the early 2000s. Her fear was understandable.
I’ve lived a safe and comfortable life. I think that’s why I’m not afraid to give a friendly wave to picnickers. And I have enough money to feel I can afford to indulge a silly teenage prank. I wonder how I would act if I had had a less fortunate background.
So I don’t judge my friend harshly for her fear, but I do think her reaction is one we’re all going to have to control if we’re going to live up to the promises we made to ourselves.
There are so many stories of people hurting each other. If only we could push them aside and judge people by how they treat us in that moment, anticipating their best selves will show up, not their worst.
And here’s where I feel like I’m straddling two worlds: I’ll bet my American friends think I’m virtue-signaling and being golden-rule-ish; and that my Israeli friends think I’m being reckless and flat-out foolish.
To my American friends, I would say, “You try keeping an open mind and generous heart when people get run-over, blown-up or stabbed on the street!”
And to my Israeli friends, I would say, “I realize I might get hurt, but I’ve decided to bank on what I believe is true: that a society that organizes as if there are only bad guys on the other side stifles whatever mutual goodwill there is.”
When I moved here, I wanted to join the team that adds to the goodwill part of the ledger – and I still do, more than ever. Even after the recent war.
So far, people have responded in kind. I’ll let you know if I find a reason to change my mind, but I’m optimistic.
P.S. For a blast of inspiration, I urge you to see Diana Lipton’s blog post, “You can’t make us hate each other”.