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Sailing on a wave of racism: A nautical tale

When a pleasant tour of the Sea of Galilee turns into a display of potentially deadly racism, life becomes even more complicated for an Israeli representative.

Peter Brueghel The Elder’s “Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee” (Wikimedia Commons)

It was a gorgeous day to be on the water, and the water itself was gorgeous. The Sea of Galilee, stroked by springtime winds, overlooked by mountains with names as beautiful as the slopes themselves: Arbel, Golan, Jabel Ash-Sheikh, Mt. Canaan.

Our group was made up mostly of American tourists. There were two Israelis, myself being one, and one Palestinian. This tour of the Holy Land is given by Mejdi, which offers dual narrative tours of the entire country. I accompany the group in the role of the Israeli, which means I must let go of much of my critical bias and reflect diverse viewpoints, including that of both the Israeli mainstream and of the Right. It’s an acquired skill, but it’s doable (especially in this kind weather), in a landscape I identify with peaceful kibbutzim and delicate Hebrew poetry. With so many things that are beautiful about the Israeli identity.

So we stepped off the dock of Kibbutz Ginosar and on board the King David, a boat that carries tourists and pilgrims on pleasure trips over the fabled Sea of Galilee. We have had a fine morning, wandering through the ancient remains at Tel-Dan and Banias, exploring Capernaum and enjoying St. Peter’s fish at a waterfront restaurant. We spoke of Syria and Lebanon, of the wars of recent decades, of the bomb shelters in Qiryat Shmona, of Tel-Chai and the tale of early Zionism in the region. Now was time to catch the breeze and enjoy a place of great beauty and spirit.

The wind’s caress turned rougher. The lake was choppier than I have ever seen it. The King David, designed to resemble the boats of first century fishermen, was big and steady, but other vessels suffered. Soon we saw two heads bobbing over the water, about half a cable to starboard. Closer to us, the lake’s ripples cradled a vacant jet ski. Clearly the two, who appeared to be wearing life vests, fell off their jet ski, were swept away, and needed our help, but we didn’t halt. Not at first.

“Stoooooop!!!” yelled a crew member at the stern. The captain, at the tiller, remains motionless. The crew member (one of three), yelled again, and again, and the others joined in, until finally the boat’s motor was killed. We all prepared to approach the men and rescue them, but the captain reversed only a few yards and stopped. When I stepped over to inquire, he pointed to nearby windsurfers who swept by us and said. “They’ll pick them up.”

“Why don’t we pick them up?” I asked, “don’t worry, no one in our group minds the delay.”

“We may hit them if we come too close.”

“Okay, so let’s not get too close and throw them a rescue wheel. Have we any on board?”

“No,” replied the captain.

“Really? Well, they are far from the shore and far from the jet ski. We are a million times more equipped to carry them to safety than the windsurfers, and the wind is blowing Westward, so we don’t risk being taken too far in their direction. Maybe we could…”

“Don’t tell me about winds and directions,” the captain started the motor again, “I’ve been on the water for many years and I know what I’m doing. Here, look, the windsurfers are picking them up.”

They did.

I explained to the group what the captain had said. All the while I could hear behind be the crew members conversing bitterly with the captain. “People die this way,” one of them said.

It took no longer than five minutes for the captain to feel assured enough to boast about abandoning the castaways. “I know those Arabs,” he told me. “They come to Tiberias, have beers, rent jet skis and there they go.”

Stepping over to one of the crew members, I asked him whether the ship carried rescue wheels. He said it does. He did not look me in the eyes. He clearly felt very uncomfortable.

My own sense of discomfort only developed later, while strolling through Tiberias in the evening. The captain assumed that the men overboard were Palestinian citizens of Israel. That was enough for him to wash his hands of their fate. The crew members were uniformly unhappy about the decision, but could no nothing in the face of hierarchy. What did the men in the water see, as they waved to us for help? They saw us moving away, all of us.

This was a lot to stomach. Was I in fact party to their abandonment? Were the tourists? Were the crew members? Comparisons to the “larger boat” (the State of Israel itself), and its own captain’s decisions, inevitably formed in my mind. Then came the big question: how do I go back to being the group’s Israeli chaperon the following day? Do I keep this story a secret? Do I calmly discuss the ideology that might lead to such behavior? Do I make comparisons with attitudes prevalent in other lands, in different times, towards my own people?

When morning came and we boarded the bus to Nazareth, I ended up divulging the story in full, openly discussing my discomfort. I explained that I do not regard the captain’s decision as congruent with Jewish values (I did not mention a rabbinical decree, issued by Maimonides, stating that a drowning Gentile may not be saved on the Sabbath, the day on which we sailed aboard the King David), but added with a sigh that it is becoming more and more normative in today’s Israel.

A wise member of the group remarked that such behavior is not exclusive to Israel. She said she could picture a Californian boatman giving a similer treatment to people he might perceive to be Latinos. For what it’s worth, I believe her, but what is it worth? Around us, Nazareth’s suburbs came into view: modest Palestinian neighborhoods, mosques and churches. Above them, on a high hilltop, loomed the residential towers of Nazareth Illit: the Zionist addition to Nazareth’s metropolis. Nazareth Illit’s mayor recently launched an outspoken campaign against Palestinian-Israelis who move into the town. He’s a captain indeed, one who was voted in by his city’s passengers. Traveling below Nazareth Illit’s high ground, I felt a bit as though I am drowning, without much of a life vest, and with the weight of the darkest moments in my own people’s history chained to my ankle like a rock.

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    1. XYZ

      Just to clarify a point that is ambiguous: Yuval refers to the people overboard as being “Palestinian citizens of Israel”. I presume that since the article is about “racism”, then he means that they are Israeli Arabs and not Palestinian Jews. Palestine is the name of a geographical region which the Arabs use and which Jews call “Eretz Israel”, Thus, everyone living there, Jews, Arabs, Druze, Muslims, Christians, Alawites can all be considered “Palestinians”. In addition, there is a geopolitical entity called the “Palestinian Authority” and most people, when they used the term “Palestinian” are referring to someone with citizenship in this entity, and they are overwhelingly Arab, although I believe there are Jews with Palestinian citizenship, like Daniel Barenboim. Thus, “Palestinian” unsed in this context, can NOT be a “citizen of Israel” since they are citizens of a different geopolitical entity.

      Reply to Comment
      • Haifawi

        People call themselves what they want to call themselves. There were neither “Palestinians” nor “Israelis” before 1948, but there sure as hell are now.

        Reply to Comment
        • XYZ

          There most certainly WERE “Palestinians” befoe 1948….that is what the Jews of the county called themselves and what others called them. The Arabs rejected the term “Palestinians” saying that the British and French divisions of the old Ottoman Empire were illegitimate and that British Palestine was not valid and did not apply to them. The Arabs after World War I wanted Palestine attached to Syria, which would be a much bigger, richer and more powerful country than Palestine and Transjordan by themselves.

          Reply to Comment
      • XYZ, out of this entire article about that situation on the lake, is this the issue that you see as most important, most worthy of comment? A boat captain was happy to leave a group of men at risk in the water because he believed them to be Arabs, and for you the really crucial issue is the fact Yuval used a name for them that ruffles your feathers the wrong way?

        Reply to Comment
        • XYZ

          I’ll tell you why this issue sets me off.
          Some time ago, someone wrote a comment here saying that calling Israeli Arabs by the term “Arabs” is very offensive. I certainly can’t understand why, since the Palestinian Constitution starts out saying the Palestinians are an intergral part of the Arab world, and Egypt calls itself “The Arab Republic of Egypt”.

          Well, calling Israeli Arabs “Palestinian Israelis” is offensive to me as a Jew, because as I wrote above, I am Palestinian Jew and restricting the term to Arabs is denying my connection with the land the Arabs call Palestine and which Jews call Eretz Israel. I am seeing an increasing tendency among “progressives” adopt Prof Sand’s view that thete is no Jewish people, Jews have no rights in the country, and the increasing use here at 972 of the term “settlers” referring to Jews living WITHIN pre-67 Israel, implying Jews are interlopers everywhere in the country.

          Reply to Comment
          • NIZ

            XYZ, you can’t see beyond your nose can you? Did you read the article? Your such a lovely creature and how you hate us 🙂

            Yuval, a really beautiful article. The metaphor is nice. I feel similarly about Lebanon sometimes.

            Aaron, it seems you haven’t drunk from Canaan’s water enough to understand. give it a couple of years. What is being compared here is not 1- Refusing to aid Arabs in water and 2- preserving the Jewish nature of a city. What is being compared is the underlying racism that connects the two. To understand this metaphor, maybe you need a little empathy. But…empathy as well threatens the secu(gh)ity of the state of Israel.

            Reply to Comment
          • Out of all the thousands of comments that have been left on this site, there are bound to be a few that get on your nerves. It’s problematic when you let one such comment affect you to the point where you read an article about a dangerous incident – and your immediate reaction is to get annoyed over Yuval’s language and to take it as a personal slight. It is not very proportionate. Yuval hasn’t denied your peoplehood and I doubt he would do so. It is important to be reflective and to look at the past experiences that might be influencing your response to someone, in order to be sure that you are actually responding to what they write and not to what you feel and remember.

            Reply to Comment
          • Haifawi

            Unless you can prove your family had residence here in the 1800s, you’re an interloper. (As am I). The only Jewish non-interlopers are the really old Yishuv. There’s no magic Jewish dust that gives us all title to be here.

            Reply to Comment
        • rsgengland

          The captain actually did not leave the two persons in the water at risk.
          He remained in close proximity until the two were rescued by others [who were most likely Jewish Israelis].
          Whether the captain was right or wrong, is an enormous discussion of its own.
          My issue with an article like this, as I have mentioned before, is its overt political tone for an incident that is not political.
          In another publication, and with less emotive text, this article would be about racism.
          But this is a political blog, widely read outside of Israel, often by those with ill-will against the State of Israel, so whatever is included within it has a far more wide raging effect and influence.
          Racism exists in copious quantity everywhere, especially in Israels neighborhood, and attempts should be made to reduce it by education, rather than by politicizing it.

          Reply to Comment
      • Noevil9

        Are you trying to get into a Maze of definitions so you avoid the core message of Yuval ? If you are ,its not working and second,it’s very telling about you and the ones who see Israel and Israelis can do no wrong. That is the real problem with Israel and its survival. Thaks Yuval, hope this will serve to be a wake up call for people to question . I almost feel that most Israelis are so emersed in this norm of racism against the Palestinans and Arabs, that they don’t even see it as unethical and racist. And the ones who do, don’t give a dame. In the long run there unavoidable damage to societies like that. History showed us few not too far back.

        Reply to Comment
    2. Danny

      Racism of this kind is usually the staple of uneducated, ignorant people – which this captain sounds like. There are ignoramuses everywhere, but for some reason Israel seems to have them in a higher concentration to that of other countries I’ve lived in.

      Reply to Comment
    3. directrob

      You watched a criminal act, did you report the captain?

      Reply to Comment
      • John Turnbull

        Thanks directrob. I had the same reaction.

        I wasn’t sure how Israeli treats the law, but everywhere else in the world that I know about, the captain’s decision to render assistance is not a matter of taste.

        Reply to Comment
    4. Aaron Gross

      One: A captain refusing to aid Arabs in the water who are in need of help.

      Two: A mayor who wants to preserve the Jewish character of his city.

      To compare these two items morally is to fail to make the most basic moral distinctions. Whatever you think about the two items in themselves, comparing them like that is a sign of moral stupidity.

      Reply to Comment
      • Declaring his intention to protect the ‘Jewish character’ of Nazareth Illit, the mayor has written: “This trend which started as an innocent belief in coexistence was and still is a great threat to the very existence of Jewish settlement in the Galilee…No more closing of the eyes, no more taking advantage of the law that allows every citizen to live where he wishes. It is time to guard the home!”

        So for this man, a law that enables citizens to live where they like (which surely falls under the basic democratic principle of freedom of association) is really some kind of privilege that is getting abused by Arabs, and in order ‘to guard the home’, there must be places where they don’t live. He’s arguing for segregation. You may feel that this is on a lower moral plane than leaving men at risk in the water, but arguably a political climate where it’s possible to advocate publicly for segregation without losing your office is what makes boat captains feel confident enough not only to abandon people in the water, but afterwards to be quite open about the reason why.

        Reply to Comment
        • Aaron Gross

          You wrote, “You may feel that this is on a lower moral plane than leaving men at risk in the water.”

          And you don’t? You think that trying to prevent people from moving into a city is on the same “moral plane” as leaving men in the water at risk of drowning? I won’t argue with you if you answer “yes”; I’m just curious if that’s what you really believe.

          By the way, the captain did not openly say that he left them because they were Arabs. He didn’t even imply it in his words. Ben Ami wrote that the captain “boast[ed] about abandoning the castaways,” but in the words quoted immediately following he did no such thing. (Maybe he did boast about it, but if so his boasting wasn’t quoted in the article.)

          Reply to Comment
          • If we are talking in terms of a strict hierarchy, then of course not. First-degree murder is held to be worse than second-degree murder, which is worse than armed robbery, which is worse than mugging. But just because these crimes are not equal in and of themselves doesn’t mean that they can’t be interrelated (e.g. through context), and where these connections exist, the analysis given by Yuval is on the mark. Again, in a place where it’s acceptable for someone to publicly campaign to live in an area free of Arabs, it’s hardly surprising to find other guys who are prepared to leave some Arabs at risk of not living at all (and no doubt the captain didn’t see it that way – he had his justifications about the wind-surfers, in the same way that every abusive IDF soldier in the Territories has his self-justifications). The problem is more pervasive than the decision of one boat captain, and I think that was Yuval’s point.

            As for the captain’s motivation, ‘I know those Arabs…’ seems to be a clear enough indicator.

            Reply to Comment
          • “in a place where it’s acceptable for someone to publicly campaign to live in an area free of Arabs, it’s hardly surprising to find other guys who are prepared to leave some Arabs at risk of not living at all”

            I think Vicky correct. Politics trumps life risk. Essentially, XYZ, above, exhibited this as well. Note that by focusing on XYZ’s irritation we forget that there was risk to life at all. I am certain this happens all the time in Israeli law as applied.

            Reply to Comment
          • Oriol2

            Dear Aaron,
            The captain simply acted on a personal basis, and probably against the Israeli law. As many people have noted, denying rescue is a crime in most countries. As such, it is an individual action that at least theoretically should be prosecuted.
            The mayor of Nazareth Illit is neither a racist boor not a freak, but an elected official that should uphold the law, and he acts with the authority provided to him by the state. To try to enact measures -legislation, decrees or otherwise- that limit the freedom of residence of a citizen in his/her own state belongs -even if in a much milder form- to the Nürnberg laws, Jim Crow, and Apartheid categories. And I suspect you know it.
            I am not going to judge who is a worse person, the captain or the mayor, and actually I don’t care. But the sheer fact that an elected official, in a supposedly democratic country, announces that he will try to make some areas of that country off-limits for residence on a racial/ethnic/religious basis is a much graver fact in itself.

            Reply to Comment
    5. Dave Boxthorn

      Of course one reason that Ben-Ami might not report the captains is that he’s making all this up.

      Of course if he’s not making this up and he’s not reporting the captain then isn’t he acting immorally?

      Would Mejdi hire an anti-Palestinian captain? I doubt it.

      Reply to Comment
    6. Dear Dave. To the best of my knowledge there is only one company operating these boats, and you don’t get to choose the captain.

      I doubt very much that you live in this country. If you did, you wouldn’t have assumed that I am “making this up”. You would know this to be the epidemic that it is. The prevalence of such behavior is part of the reason that I chose to share this, and felt little rush to report the captain (though others have urged me to, and I think I will do so as soon as the weekend is over). The problem is not so much this one captain. The problem is a national one.

      Reply to Comment
    7. Yaron

      A lot of Jews don’t like Arabs and some have the power to act this out, like this captain. Others refuse them jobs or a house.
      Some of my friends say: Israel is the only state that helps its enemy. They have a point. You cannot hide from the fact that the absence of war is not the same as peace and that there is no more enemy and that there are no people inside Israel that sympathize with this enemy. Writing these kind of stories without mentioning this, is taking the picture out of the context.

      Reply to Comment
    8. XYZ

      The endless refrain we hear here at 972 which keeps saying “look how racist these Israeli Jews” is not giving an accurate picture of the situation because the Arab community, through its officially elected representatives does a good job frightening the Jewish population with their incendiary speeches, particularly those of Zoabi and the BALAD party which complete negate Israel and Zionism and threaten our very existence here Is that likely to lead to good relations between the groups? DO they expect that this attitude will? I don’t see how those complaining about “racism” can overlook this factor, but I have come to understand the “progressive” tendency to compartmentize their thinking, focusing on one thing will completely ignoring other, vital factors….such as telling us how Abbas is a “peace partner” and how he is dying for an agreement while totally ignoring the fratricidal slaughter and tinceasing extremism in the neighboring countries.

      Reply to Comment
      • Hilary Rost

        Oh XYZ you do not understand do you what you say? I am a Christian married to a Jewish Holocaust survivor, let me tell you a story told years ago by a Jewish Rabbi. “There was a man who fell among thieves and was stripped and injured. Along came a priest of the temple (maybe one of your ancestors XYZ?) but when he saw the man as it was the Sabbath, he walked by on the other side. However, eventually a Samaritan, a man of an inferior and despised race, came along and he took the man back to an Inn and paid for him to be looked after. (Perhaps the windsurfers were descendants of that man)

        Of course the meaning of that parable, as that Jewish Rabbi said two thousand years ago, is that we are “members one of another” – common humanity knows no racial differences, if we believe that man was made in God’s image.

        Reply to Comment
        • XYZ

          You don’t even see the irony in what you said…..we have had the message of “that rabbi” rammed down our throats for 2000 years using all sorts of coercion including inquisitions, pogroms, blood libels and finally the Holocaust you say your husband had to endure. Why don’t you go preach to the Arabs who claim also to view “that rabbi” as a prophet to learn a little tolerance since they have largely succeeded in driving the Jews, Christians and other minorites out of their countries?

          Reply to Comment
        • The Trespasser

          >However, eventually a Samaritan, a man of an inferior and despised race…

          In your church they did not tell you that Samaritans were more than happy to move to the Jewish state, away from their Arab neighbours, did they?

          Reply to Comment
      • XYZ, do you honestly feel that Yuval is writing ‘look how racist these Israeli Jews are’? In this article he mentions his affinity with ‘so many things that are beautiful about the Israeli identity’, and he was troubled about giving his group this information about the captain’s behaviour. In his travelogues he has always managed to present people with very different views from his own (ideologically motivated settlers, Egyptian soldiers) in quite a gentle thoughtful light. Looking at all of this, do you think he’s out to demonise people?

        You evidently feel threatened sometimes, especially over how others react to your political stance and religious faith. I can understand those fears, but there is a risk that they dominate your thinking to the point where you’re unable to react to even to obviously harmful things in the way that you otherwise would. A boat captain leaves men at risk on the water, a mayor wants Jewish-only communities, and your responses are constrained by these personal concerns. It’s important to get beyond them. However, this doesn’t mean that the concerns don’t matter or that you have to abandon the things that you value. Quite the opposite – you could use those things to help you. Often when I’m angry or upset with someone or they have antagonised me or I just don’t understand them, I pray for God to show me what is best about them. This habit was formed by familiarity with my own tradition’s devotional literature, customs, etc. The result is that when I face hostility (real or perceived), I turn to my own tradition for help in understanding those people and getting along with them better. You could use your own Jewish religious knowledge to do something similar. Take the nationalism, for example. Political Zionism is obviously very important to you (I remember you once describing your discovery of it as ‘heady’) but there are enough Jewish philosophical and theological resources to give you an empathetic insight into anti-nationalist points of view – even if you don’t agree with them, even if you don’t embrace them – and to allow you to realise that people who take these positions are not necessarily motivated by prejudice towards you. Doing this people can foster a better understanding of each other and reaffirm their own heritage and values all at the same time.

        Often we glorify compromise in the peace movement, when this is not what is practically the most useful. In his book ‘A Prophetic Peace’, written from a religiously observant Jewish perspective, Alick Isaacs talks about ‘radical difference’ as actually being a more stable basis for a just peace than compromise. I think you might find it an interesting read.

        Reply to Comment
        • XYZ

          To be honest with you, I don’t relate to the particular incident Yuval is mentioning here, nor do I relate to his personal views on whether he thinks Israel is an incorrigibly racist society or not. The cumulative effect of the articles here at 972 is to more or less demonize Israel and to convince its readers that Israel is not fit for company among supposedly “civilized” nations. Yuval, whatever his motives, is contributing to this demonization.
          Every day, in the West Bank, emergency services provided by people referred here to as “settlers” rescue Arabs from accidents and medical emergencies. Would any of the regular contributors here talk about that and say “see how even settlers are NOT racists and are willing to help Arabs”? Of course not. That is not on the agenda of sites like this.

          Reply to Comment
          • Are you saying Palestinians in the West Bank are not entitled to emergency services because they are Palestinians and Israeli emergency services are doing them a favor?

            Reply to Comment
    9. Captain Colin Smith

      I’m not surprised, given the visceral hatred of Arabs by Jews. International maritime law requires that aMaster (Captain) render assistance to anyone in distress. There is a fine and jail term for not doing so. But since Israel ignores most other international laws, especially that to do with piracy and sovereignty, as evidenced by the murderous attack on the “Mavi Marmara” in international waters followed by the execution in cold blood of 9 Turkish citizens and a US citizen. If ever I’m in a position to render aid to a Zim Line sip I might just have my radio turned down. The global community is increasingly angered by Israeli arrogance, cruelty and barbarism.

      Reply to Comment
      • rsgengland

        The Jews do not hate the Arabs; in fact it is the Arabs who hate the Jews, that is after ‘Ethnically Cleansing’ virtually the entire Jewish population that existed for millennia in the Middle East/North Africa.
        Under International Law, the blockade of Gaza is LEGAL, and therefore it is LEGAL to stop anyone trying to breach that blockade, as the two parties are in a ‘State of War’ [Hamas and Israel].
        The persons killed on the Mavi Marmara were not executed or killed in cold blood, as they were killed after attempting to assault and resist the Israeli soldiers.
        Study some Law and get some facts, before posting such incendiary comments, that have no basis in fact.

        Reply to Comment
      • Vadim

        I think the captain’s behavior is despicable and disgusting. To refrain from helping a person who may be drowning is horrible and illegal.

        But I think you have more in common with that captain than you think. You generalize and claim Jews hate Arabs, you make the Jews somehow collectively responsible for this captain’s behavior and you say that you would consider not aiding a ZIM ship just because you disagree with a country’s policy.

        Tell me, would you consider refraining from helping a Syrian ship? A Chinese ship? An Iranian ship? ? I know I wouldn’t.

        Is Israel’s “arrogance, cruelty and barbarism” really worse than theirs?
        It’s not really about Israel, is it? If Israel would have not been populated by Jews, you wouldn’t care a bit about what’s going on here…

        Reply to Comment
    10. Jeff Warner

      The American tourist who asserted that a California boat captain would refuse to rescue Mexicans based on racial grounds was wrong. If such a thing happened, it would be one-in-a-million.
      It is true there is discrimination against Mexicans in California, but it would never occur in a life-or-death situation, and is rapidly dissapating.
      I would rather be a Mexican in California than a Palestinian in Israel. The big difference is that in California society in general is fighting discrimination against Mexicans whereas, based on what I read, discrimination against Palestinians in Israel is growing.

      Reply to Comment
      • XYZ

        Since when have the Mexicans made it their proclaimed goal to eradicate the United States? Another example of compartmentalization…refusal to look at what is happening and instead focusing on anecdotal stories.

        Reply to Comment
      • The Trespasser

        > The big difference is that in California society in general is fighting discrimination against Mexicans whereas, based on what I read, discrimination against Palestinians in Israel is growing.

        The big difference is that Mexicans never exploded themselves in buses full with Californians and are not vowing to massacre every single one of them and wipe California off the map.

        Reply to Comment
    11. Vadim

      I don’t agree with you but I wanted to commend you on saying “based on what I read”. I do not wish to imply that you are wrong, it’s just that too few people these days admit they don’t know everything, that they might be wrong, or that the things they read may not be complete (or even truthful).

      Luckily, Israel is not as awful as 972 articles make it seem to be, and unfortunately it is not great as some other sites portray it.

      Reply to Comment
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