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Scenes from a guided tour

1.

Hotel manager in Tiberias: Two members of the group you’re guiding had to move to another room last night. It’s because of all the noise the cousins made in the pool.

Me: Why do you find it necessary to point out that those were “cousins” [Hebrew code word for Palestinians]?

Manager: What do you want me to say? “Arabs?”

Me: Why don’t you just say “some people”?

Manager: But they’re Arabs; it’s their identity.

Me: Being human is also part of their identity.

Manager: To you they’re human. Anyway, the couple that moved will either have to move back to their room before you leave this morning, or to a larger room on this floor.

Me: They’re Jewish.

Manager: What?

Me: They’re Jewish, you forgot to mention that, it’s part of their indentity.

Manager (smiling): Forget Jewish, just say “human.”

Me: To you they’re human.

2.

On a break in the tour, I am walking down Queen Helene Street in West Jerusalem. Ahead of me walks an elderly Palestinian woman in a long, traditional, embroidered dress. She holds a heavy sack in her hands, while balancing on her head, without any manual support, an equally large parcel.

It’s been a long time since I witnessed such a balancing feat. As a child growing up in Jerusalem, the sight was more common. We kindergarten kids would stand by the fence surrounding the playground, looking out to a path that led to the Palestinian neighborhood of Shu’afat. Whenever such a lady passed, we sang to her:

Arabi’a kushkushi’a
Yesh la tachat
Shel gavi’a

Which can be loosely translated from the Hebrew as:

Silly Arab woman
She’s got an ass
Like a wine glass.

I remember singing this at home one day. My parents became extremely angry. I didn’t understand. Why would they be angry? At kindergarten everyone sang this and it was fine. Later in life, I forgot the song. It only came back me when reading Richard Wright’s “Black Boy,” a well-known memoir of growing up African-American in the American south. At one point,Wright tells of how he and his friends used to harass the town’s only Jewish resident with an anti-Semitic ditty.

At first I was in shock. How, I thought, could I continue reading a book by someone who did that? Then it came back to me.

Arabi’a kushkushi’a…

Now it comes back once more. I find myself humming it while walking behind this lady.

Yesh la tachat
Shel gavi’a.

She turns to a young woman who walks up the street, asking her in Arabic how far is it to Damascus Gate. The young woman, who appeared Arab from a distance, turns out to be a Jewish girl, wearing a long skirt typical of the religious Zionist movement. Her choice is to ignore the lady. She walks on as if nobody was there, much less a grandma with heavy bags on a scorching day.

Proud of my shaky Arabic, I walk over to the lady and tell her that Damascus Gate is close: only a five-minute walk. She thanks me profusely, and I head onwards, with “Arabi’a kushkushi’a” playing in my head. Then it hits me that I’m an idiot. I head back and offer to carry one of her bags. She hands me the sack, keeping the other bag on her head. Some prejudice is difficult to get rid of, and instinctively I experience the sack as being filthy.

The lady now walks by my side. She tells me of her late husband. “He was killed by the Jews, 25 years ago, in Bethlehem.” I tell her that I am a Jew. She doesn’t seem fazed. Both her hands being free, she pulls out of her wallet photos of her eight daughters and two sons. One of the sons left for the Ukraine as a medical student, graduated there, and hasn’t visited since.

I tell her of my own family, of my two sisters and of my parents. “My father works on television. My mother is a…” Damn. how do you say “artist” in Arabic? I tell her that I grew up in Jerusalem, that I remember seeing women balancing loads the way she does, and that I think it’s cool. I say nothing of “Arabia Kushkushi’a”. Maybe she can figure out that I, like the girl who ignored her, came from that, but that something in this life forced me to take a bit of her load into my arms.

3.

Bar owner at Tiberias: Sorry for all the cleaning up going on. We stayed closed for three days [during the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr]. The city was full of cousins, you know.

Me: (leaving)

4.

The tours are dual-narrative ones. Along with me, a Palestinian guide accompanies each group, and many different speakers meet with them. Days dedicated to the environs of Bethlehem typically begin with meeting a representative of the settler community, in the town of Efrat.

This time, we arrive at the home of a new Efrat speaker. Twenty-one-year-old R. is a guide at a local educational center, who teaches Israelis of the region history from a settler perspective. Before we even get through the door, she steps over to me and asks: “Would you mind if I joined you for the rest of the day?”

The rest of the day, she knows, includes a visit to the Aida refugee camp and to central Bethlehem. According to Israeli law, any Israeli citizen who enters central Bethlehem is committing a criminal act. She knows that too. I don’t mind having her along and neither does the Palestinian guide, Ibrahim. We bring it up with the group at the end of her talk. By now they are so in love with her, regardless of whether they agree or disagree with the paradigm she presents, that they wouldn’t mind having her along for the entire tour. Then her mother asks if she can join too.

The following hours present a very different experience for mother and daughter. R. has never been to Bethlehem, which is situated only two miles north of her hometown. She does not know what currency is used there. For her, this is a learning experience. For her mother, it is a nostalgic one. Prior to the first Intifada, settlers from Efrat and the nearby communities known as “Gush Etzion” frequented Bethlehem and were habitually in contact with Palestinians. She is amazed by how the city grew and by all the nice cars.

We arrive at Aida just as the local imam prepares the faithful for the Friday prayer. His sermon is broadcast throughout the camp on loudspeakers. It sounds wrathful. The imam is yelling. R. and her mother are standing in the camp’s slum-like environment, at the base of the separation wall. It is decorated with portraits of Palestinian militants and martyrs, some holding guns. One IDF watchtower was scorched by burning tires. It is chipped at the base, nearly taken apart.

They are here without fear or hate. They are listening to Ibrahim, as he tells of the refugees’ plight. They are both doing something enormous, at least to my heart. The sermon ends as do the explanations. We hurry on, so that the two can make it home in time for Shabbat.

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  • COMMENTS

    1. sh

      This is how it is, all the time, wherever you go, whether the tour is guided or not. Thanks, Yuval, for portraying it so effectively.

      Reply to Comment
    2. ayla

      ditto sh. your israel/palestine, yuval, is the only one i read that rings true to me, based on my everyday experiences of this place. Thank you for your heart, and your poetry.
      *
      on a completely surface level, it must be noted: when has anyone ever gotten in trouble here for making noise in a pool? I used to swim laps in Mashabe Sade and *beg* the so-called lifeguard to stop the kids from pummeling me with foreign objects and from swimming right in front of me in the so-called lap area and from screaming. And when i tried to talk, american-nicely to the parents, you’d think i’d dishonored their child. I’m not much of a pool-hoppper, but i’ve heard like stories from swimmers everywhere, including from tourists in hotels who can’t believe the pool etiquette, so to speak, of local families, who, too, have tried to complain to management based on the safety of their own children and have been told, What to do? Those cousins must have been mighty noisy…

      Reply to Comment
    3. XYZ

      The endless litany of supposed Israeli racism. Do you want to see REAL racism? DO you see what is going on in Muslim Arab Egypt? Burning down 40 churches in one day, mass emigration of Coptic Christians. How about the Lebanese civil war? Tens of thousands of dead in a war between Christians and Muslims. Let’s look at the ethnic slaughter in Syria and Iraq. There is REAL, vicious racism, in our neighboring Arab Muslim countries. That is not sayin the MILD racism we have in Israel shouldn’t be worked on but it is VITAL to keep a healthy perspective on the real nature of our surroundings.

      Reply to Comment
      • Julie

        XYZ – It’s all real racism, whether in word or in deed. In America, no one ever says that the Civil Rights movement wasn’t about “real” racism since slavery, like the Civil War, ended in 1865. (The Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, didn’t cover all of the US, and didn’t go into effect in rebel-controlled areas until the end of the Civil War.)

        Reply to Comment
      • In order to stop singing offensive ditties, help a woman with a heavy load to carry her bags, or to visit Bethlehem as a resident of Efrat, it is necessary to give up a few things. One of them is defensiveness. After all, you can’t really help someone or listen to them properly if you see them as an accusation on legs that you have to mentally fend off.

        Even though this piece deals with racism, ‘how racist all these people are’ is hardly the theme. It’s about people who saw that something wasn’t right in their situation and tried (in the end, even the hotel manager appeared to try) to get the better of themselves.

        Such people exist in Egypt and Syria too – such as the Egyptian Muslim men who went out to guard churches from attack, despite not having any weapons except their presence – but the fact that their actions take far more bravery than a visit to Aida from Efrat doesn’t negate the importance of what the settler woman and her mother wanted to do. If you try to downplay the racism experienced by Palestinians as ‘mild’ (how many more people have to be dead or homeless before the classification is upgraded to ‘moderate’?) you end up unwittingly downplaying people’s sincerity in responding to it too. I know precious few settlers – heck, precious few non-activist Israelis – who would do what those two did. It’s not a little thing.

        You seem to see this as an article vilifying your society, I see it as an article about people’s attempts – however imperfect and faltering – to be kind in a situation that is anything but.

        Reply to Comment
      • Danny

        Way to compare your country to Egypt and Syria. And here I was thinking that Israel was a “light unto the nations” and “the most moral country in the world”, etc, etc.

        Wouldn’t you prefer to have your country compared to those that consistently make the top of the lists of the most liked and admired countries in the world?

        Reply to Comment
      • Religious conflict does not have to have a racist overlay. The Reformation and Counter-Reformation were not inherently racist, although overlays such as “Italian Catholic” would appear. So XYZ’s examples are not all about racism by any means. Rather, they are about the consequences of religious exclusivity. Which of course is foreign to his world view.

        Reply to Comment
    4. Joel

      I welcome Yuval’s reflecting on Israeli racism. Why shouldn’t he shine light on a dark corner?

      In fairness, Yuval should also search around for local Arab racism against Jews.

      I wonder if that might be too dangerous for Yuval and 972Mag?

      Reply to Comment
      • sh

        That has nothing to do with Yuval. It would be for a Palestinian to do and for a Palestinian blog to post. But societal ills will be for later, when they no longer have to contend with other more basic priorities like keeping their families and themselves safely away from the violence and the pressure too many of them are subjected to without the advantage of anything resembling the rule of law.

        Reply to Comment
        • Joel

          @sh

          It sounds like you’ve found two convenient excuses not to investigate Arab racism against Jews.

          Good for you!

          Reply to Comment
          • sh

            Valid rather than convenient. a) You can’t be fair when a situation is intrinsically unfair. And b) only in Israel does shining a light on your own garbage oblige you to also shine a light on other people’s and then wait for them to clean theirs up before you clean up yours.

            Reply to Comment
        • Tzutzik

          @Sh

          You are just being dishonest. Racism is racism whether practicesed by Jew, Arab or anyone else. Racism is wrong.

          So saying that Arab racism has nothing to do with Yuval is dishonest. Or at best sticking one’s head in the sand.

          And making excuses for Arab racism, as you do, is also dishonest. Unless of course you also accept excuses by some Jews for Jewish racism against Arabs.

          Personally, I am against racism, period. Whether practiced by Jews or Arabs. How about you, Sh?

          Reply to Comment
    5. rsgengland

      This is a phenomena that occurs in every country every day, all day.
      Is it racism?
      Is it just the natural way most normal people struggle to find the right words to describe a difficult subject?
      Humans, no matter how settled and civilized, are still tribal by nature.
      Therefore we all have our little code words to describe any one outside of our little worlds.
      Possibly it is the writers own internal racist conflicts, that create the need to write about non stories/incidents such as this.

      Reply to Comment
      • Just yesterday someone I like used the phrase “trailer trash” just because of someone’s first name. One of those little “code words.” I find these words acts as bars on consideration and access; they say “think no further of these.” Their accumulated effect can be life altering. By the way, I lived in a trailer for several years.

        Reply to Comment
    6. Danny

      Israeli propensity to look down upon our “cousins” and make fun of them is natural and instinctive for most Israelis. It is the rotten fruit of hatred for everything Middle Eastern that was planted by the old, Ashkenazi guard during the early years of the state.

      Many of today’s unabashed racists hardly bat an eyelash at the irony that a mere 50 years ago, their own grandparents were sprayed with DDT as they disembarked from the boats that brought them over from their Middle Eastern homes.

      Reply to Comment
      • Y-Man

        Great comment, man.

        Reply to Comment
      • Vadim

        You do realize that Ashkenazi Jews were also sprayed, right?

        How about 150 years of conflict? Is that not a reason enough for tensions and generalizations? What about the French jokes about the British or Belgians, or British jokes about the French? Were those planted by the “Ashkenazi guard” as well?

        Reply to Comment
    7. Fantastic article & comment thread. It’s nice to see XYZ’s habitual, reflexive tu quoque argument (“you, too!”) go over like a lead balloon. The consequence of the tu quoque argument is to say, it’s anti-Semitic to criticise us until you have addressed and corrected every comparable instance in every other country in the world. But how would a court react if a burglar said, it’s unfair to try me until you’ve caught, tried and convicted every other burglar in the world?

      Reply to Comment
      • Tzutzik

        There is no excuse for racism period.

        That means that it is equally right to talk and condemn about Arab racism against Jews. Not just racism by Jews against Arabs, right Rowan?

        Reply to Comment
        • Yeah, it’s equally ‘right’ in terms of abstract morality, but in the real world, it is nothing but an obvious diversionary dodge to stop anyone doing anything about any particular thing. I mean, spokespeople for all the Arab countries, or whichever other countries you may care to talk about from north Korea to Zimbabwe, could all say exactly the same thing, viz, it’s unfair to focus on us when there are so many other equally culpable countries you could deal with first. To end with a really patronising comparison which I am sure you will loathe: suppose I was a teacher at a primary school (I don’t know what you call them there), and I was trying to cope with a whole classroom full of rowdy children, and the first child I grabbed said “But miss, what about fred & jimmy, they’re letting mice loose under the desks,” and I then grab fred & jimmy and they say “but miss, what about cedric the spiv, look at him, he’s drawing dirty pictures on the wall with crayon,” and so on, I would just say, to hell with this, I shall start with whichever one I please, and work my way through them in my own arbitrary order, otherwise I shall never make any headway at all.

          Reply to Comment
      • Marcos

        Nice try Rowan. I read XYZ’s comments and my take-away was not congruent to yours. XYZ’s message is that while racism in Israel needs to be remedied, one should be mindful to put it into perspective of other events in the region which have much greater impact on the well-being of people.

        Reply to Comment
        • Tzutzik

          @Marcos

          I agree with you totally but Rowan is twisting things in even a worse way than you describe. In fact, he and people like him have the following agenda:

          They want to describe Israel and Israelis as uniquely racist. Why? Because they want to demonise and delegitimise Israel. In order to succeed with that agenda, they need to make it verboten for anyone to talk about equal racism by Palestinian Arabs against Jews and Israelis.

          @Rowan
          If you really are against racism then you should not hesitate to condemn all racists whether the racists are Jews or Arabs. I condemn BOTH! How about you?

          Reply to Comment
          • Yeah, but that’s abstract morality again. I take an interest in Jewish culture because it attracts me, situationally, and I generally feel that I understand where everybody is coming from. This was certainly not an easy accomplishment; I still can’t read hebrew (and I don’t think I shall ever be able to write it, even when I have learned to ‘read’ it, because of the verbs). There are a number of wrinkles in the Jewish cultural landscape that are far from obvious, and most non-Jews never quite fathom any of these, because Jews in general are not exactly eager to explain the inner workings. I respond to Jewish culture in various ways, because it attracts me. That may not sound like the case to you, but it’s true.

            Reply to Comment
          • Tzutzik

            “There are a number of wrinkles in the Jewish cultural landscape that are far from obvious, and most non-Jews never quite fathom any of these, because Jews in general are not exactly eager to explain the inner workings”

            Now who is being abstract Rowan? You are being very vague and non specific. What is it that we are not willing to explain exactly?

            Oh and by the way, stop describing us as a monolithic people who all think the same way. There is nothing mysterious about us. Everything is out in the open warts and all. If anything, we are more willing to argue in the open, amongst ourselves as well as with outsiders, than most other people. Personally, I find that trait in us tiresome and even stupid. We tend to be our own worst enemy. We tend to load pistols with bullets and hand the pistols to those who hate us so that they can shoot us with our own weapons. Well, at least some of us tend to do that. Those who want to feel superior in an abstrct way (to borrow your expression). But of course, like with most people, there is no uniform opinion. Many of us hate that sort of self destructive thinking. Go figure …

            Reply to Comment
    8. Ged Byrne

      Amazed and moved by this story/stories. It’s a positive feeling I get for a long term real solution to the problems of the region.

      Shalom. Salaam. Pax.

      Reply to Comment
    9. Emily Hammond

      Dear Yuval,
      Excellent piece with its abbreviated, terse sections that allow readers to draw their own conclusions. You always write with exceptional and queasy honesty that encourages one to examine one’s own learned and sometimes unexamined behaviors. When I was in my young teens, for instance, we commonly called Hispanic people ‘beaners.’ When I tell persons from that same area this memory, they are often extremely uncomfortable as the term was common. Thank you.

      Reply to Comment
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