Thursday morning: I wake up and check the news this morning to see what happened last night and then head to the doctor’s in north Tel Aviv. I’m 24 weeks pregnant — yes, with a Jewish-Palestinian baby. My physician in Florida, where we live now, has advised me to keep up with my medical care in Israel even though I’ll only be here for six weeks to freshen up my research for the book I’ve just sold.
I’m a few minutes late to my appointment . When the doctor’s door opens, the woman who is scheduled after me steps right on in. She shuts the door in my face. I check the list next to the door and announce the time of my appointment aloud.
“So, it’s your turn,” the other women who are waiting say. They urge me to knock and assert myself.
I knock and the patient who just entered opens the door. “I’m sorry,” I begin, “but I had the 8:40 appointment.”
She shrugs, smiles. “But you were late.” And the door slams shut in my face again.
“Israelim,” Israelis, one of the women smirks.
When the door opens again and the patient emerges, I’m quick to make my way into the doctor’s office. We talk for a few minutes about what tests I’ve already had in the States, their results, and how I’m feeling. At my American doctor’s insistence, I’ve brought my medical records with me. I offer them to the doctor. He says they’re not necessary and then he sends me on my way to get checked for gestational diabetes.
As I’m leaving, there’s a commotion in the lobby. A Filipino man has followed an elderly Israeli couple into the building.
“They hit my car!” he shouts in English.
No one responds.
“You hit my car!” he tries again to the couple.
The clerk — a Palestinian citizen of the state I spoke to on my way in — goes about his business. Another elderly couple puzzles over a piece of paper.
“You hit my car and you’re angry with me?” his voice indignant.
I step onto the sidewalk just as the Filipino man is heading towards parallel parking.
“Look,” he says, pointing. “I was there, they pulled in and hit me, and then they got out, didn’t apologize, and yelled at me.”
“Israelim,” I say.
“Look at how much room they took!” he continues, pointing to the couples’ vehicle, which was, indeed, taking up two spaces. “And they hit me!”
The worst part, he tells me again, is that when they got out of their car, they started shouting at and blaming him rather than apologizing.
I think of Israelis’ reactions to the events of this week — their inability to reflect on what has brought Palestinians to this point. I think of Israelis’ unwillingness to understand the stabbings as violent responses to the violent occupation that began in 1948 for some and 1967 for others, depending on who you ask.
I think of what’s happening, specifically, in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, where Israel has taken most of the land and resources and is constantly expropriating more. Where there isn’t enough land and houses for normal population growth, where Palestinians are forced to build “illegally” because the Israeli government refuses to grant them the necessary permits. Where one might have to then pay for the demolition of their own home.
Where the economy has been crushed by the occupation; where there is no freedom of movement; where the lack of freedom of movement further suffocates the economy, feeding only the sense of desperation.
Where there is no hope. No hope for anything — a decent job, a good income, a normal life. Where there is little trust in the PA or politicians or negotiations that wrought the current reality, Oslo, or the negotiations that are resurrected from time to time just maintain an unbearable status quo.
I think of the place my former students live, the place where they left home every morning for school, uncertain that they would make it through the checkpoints and arrive, let alone on time. The place where a student might find that a friend hasn’t made it — maybe his classmate has been taken to administrative detention. Or maybe he has been shot. Who knows? One’s fate is just as uncertain as the roads in the territories.
The stabbings are screams of frustration, rage, despair, hopelessness. They’re the screams of people who are lost, who have no leadership and see nothing on the horizon. I think of the Israelis’ inabilities to hear these screams; I think of how they hear no one’s voices but their own.
Next to me, the Filipino man is still going on about his car.
He’s looking for consolation, which he won’t get from the elderly couple. I simply repeat back to him what he’s already said to me. “Israelis don’t take responsibility for their actions,” I say. “Instead, they get angry and blame others.”
He shakes his head and cradles his face in his hands as he stands on the sidewalk, looking at the damage done to his vehicle.
Later that day, when I arrive back at the city center, I notice a pile of old hand-painted tiles on the sidewalk near my apartment. They’ve been placed there, neatly stacked one on top of the other, by the Palestinian workers doing the renovation in the building next to mine.
I pick a tile up, brush the dust off, and examine it. I contemplate taking it back to Florida to join the other pre-state tiles I collected in both Tel Aviv and Bethlehem — souvenirs from a time when things were different, from a time when the land wasn’t divided. Remnants from a time when there was still such a thing as Palestinian Jews.
One of the workers joins me on the sidewalk. “Something interesting to you here, miss?” he asks.
“These,” I say. “Are they garbage?”
“Yes, that’s why they’re here.”
As we’re talking, another stabbing is taking place. This time, it’s in Tel Aviv.
“It’s a pity,” I say, “to throw these things away.”
“Death,” he says. “That’s what’s really a pity.”
I leave the tiles and head into my building. Upstairs, I call Mohammad. It’s morning his time and he greets me with a sunny “sabah al-kheir.”
“Sabah al-noor,” I respond as I check the news and update him on all that has happened today, including the Tel Aviv stabbing, which is breaking news on my Twitter feed.
Usually, it’s the other way around — Mohammad checking the news and giving me the toll of Palestinian deaths and Palestinian injuries. On several occasions, he’s told me that a person was killed in “cold blood” and I have had the odd experience of hearing myself arguing with him.
“But they were stabbing people,” I protest. “They weren’t exactly killed in ‘cold blood.’ It’s not like the police walked up to them randomly on the street and executed them for no reason.”
Of course I think that the police should find other means to stop an attack. Of course, the suspect should be arrested and not killed. Of course, their family home shouldn’t be demolished.
And, of course, I’m not defending the police’s actions. I’m just explaining the mainstream Israeli mentality, I tell Mohammad. It doesn’t mean that I agree with it or condone it.
I try to steer the conversation with my husband back to safe ground—international law. “Civilians aren’t supposed to be targets,” I say.
“Settlers aren’t civilians.”
“Not everyone who has been stabbed is a settler,” I answer. “Just because someone is on the other side of the Green Line at the moment of an attack doesn’t mean they’re a settler. Remember when I lived in Kiryat Yovel and I took Arabic in East Jerusalem? What if I was still doing that and someone stabbed me on my way to class? I don’t think they’re stopping people and asking them whether or not they’re settlers before they stab them.”
“Everyone there is a settler,” Mohammad answers. “Tel Aviv is a settlement.”
I realize I’m not getting anywhere.
“Okay, first of all, the international community recognizes Tel Aviv and everything else inside the Green Line. Second, let’s say Tel Aviv is a settlement — settlers are still civilians. And according to international law, civilians aren’t legitimate targets anywhere. Not in Israel, not in the West Bank, not in Gaza.”
“After we have our rights, we’ll follow international law,” Mohammad answers.
“Really? So this is okay to you? It’s fine to go around stabbing random civilians?”
“No, of course not,” he says, adding that he doesn’t consider me or other Israelis who live inside the Green Line settlers. “I’m just telling you how a lot of Palestinians see things.”
I point out that we’re engaging in exactly the type of conversation that the Israelis want us to — in arguing about the violence, we’ve both lost sight of the context that has given rise to the stabbings in the first place: the occupation, the settlements, the Palestinian refugees, the discrimination Palestinian citizens of the state face inside Israel. And we agree about all of these issues: the occupation must end, settlements must be either dismantled or opened to Palestinian residents, Palestinian refugees have a right to return, and Palestinian citizens of Israel must have full equality.
We also agree that no one deserves to be killed, whether by gunshot or knife.
Today, when I tell Mohammad about the stabbing in Tel Aviv, we don’t argue at all.
“Nowhere is safe,” I say. I sit at my computer, staring at the news, hand on my belly. Our daughter kicks so hard that my stomach moves.
Mohammad jokes that I should wear a headscarf so that I won’t be a target for a stabbing. But, he adds, that could mark me for a shooting.
We can’t figure out which of the two is better right now.
We also talk strategy: should I stay away from crowds? Or are crowds actually better protection?
We can’t figure that out, either.
So I decide to go about my life. Sort of. I was planning a trip to Bethlehem this weekend. I count my friends there as among my closest — we considered naming our daughter after one of them — and I’d also hoped to visit my landlady. Chances are I’d be fine in Bethlehem. It’s the drive out there that worries me. Even in a yellow plate car, an attack by a settler seems as likely as being hit by a shebab-thrown stone.
I message “Leila” on Viber, telling her I’m not sure about coming to visit after all.
“Don’t” she answers.
She calls. “Mya, you’re pregnant. The soldiers, the tear gas, the stones. You can’t.”
I tell her that I’m frustrated — last summer, I was stuck in the West Bank during the war and unable to give a proper goodbye to friends and places on the other side of the Green Line. And because my move to America was hasty, I didn’t process that I was leaving this land. Now, I’m back and I understand that while I’m here, I’m also gone. I have both the energy and the time to say my goodbyes. But I feel stuck in Tel Aviv, unable again to visit my loved ones on the “other side.”
We talk about the current situation and draw the same inarticulate, crudely phrased conclusion: fuck the Israeli government, the PA, all of the useless Israeli political parties and the Palestinian ones, too. Fuck the violent settlers and the shebab who are stabbing civilians and the police who shoot the shebab and fuck the soldiers, too, who are killing boys who are armed with nothing but rocks.
It’s all wrong. And it’s wrong that we can spend the weekend together neither in the land that is hers nor in the country the Israeli government and international community claim to be mine.
Still, regardless of what’s happening around us, we end the conversation the same way Mohammad and I end every call:
“I love you.”
“I love you, too.”
Friday: I decide to attend an anti-occupation protest. On the way there, I indulge myself in a naïve fantasy that it will be massive. I arrive to find a handful of people; the numbers grow to about 150.
The slogans are nice, though. They’re catchy and, in Hebrew, most of them rhyme. The protesters chant things like: “No, no, to escalation, we don’t want another war,” “Jews and Arabs refuse to be enemies,” and “We can’t build peace on the bodies of children.”
But they’re just words. And though I’m not surprised that only 150 people are here, I’m upset by the Israeli public’s seeming apathy.
Still, I stay until the end of the protest. When it’s over, I pick up some groceries at the shuk, and then head back toward my apartment.
The corner where the protest was held just an hour before is empty, it looks like nothing ever happened here. As I pass, I catch a line from two men’s conversation, “You know, leftists aren’t really Jews,” one tells the other.
In the evening, a friend texts me to ask what I’m up to.
“Trying to write,” I answer, “but mostly checking the news.”
“Stop,” he says. “You’ll drive yourself crazy.”
I go to bed.
Saturday morning: Seven dead in Gaza; three rockets fired from the Strip; a stabbing in Jerusalem.
As I sit hunched over my computer, alternating between Ynet, Ma’an, and my Twitter feed, I realize that I haven’t driven myself crazy. But I’ve fallen behind on everything. I make a mental list:
On Wednesday, I was supposed to speak with a lawyer who represents a Sudanese refugee. But I was so preoccupied with my brother-in-law making it in from the territories safely to visit me in Tel Aviv that the interview slipped my mind. This is the first time in nearly a decade of working as a journalist that I’ve stood someone up. Granted, we didn’t have a firm appointment. It was a casual thing — I was supposed to drop by his office sometime in the late afternoon. But, still.
My brother-in-law has a permit. And I insist to my husband that the police aren’t just shooting random Palestinians in cold blood. But if I really believe that, why did I spend Wednesday afternoon concerned that something would happen?
I worried because, at the end of the day, my brother-in-law is a young Arab man. And according to the body count, he’s more vulnerable than anyone right now.
I jot down a note to call the lawyer and I start composing a profuse apology in my head. No excuses—the lawyer and I have enough of a rapport that I can tell him exactly what happened: I was worried to distraction.
And there’s the Sudanese refugee, who is now in Ethiopia, whom I’m supposed to call.
And there’s the interview I need to finish transcribing — a Darfuri’s horrible account of torture in the Sinai, his discussion of what he has faced in Israel since arriving here. I sit at computer, put on my headphones, try to get started, but find myself checking the news instead. Another stabbing, another Palestinian shot to death. Senselessly. When an Israeli stabs Palestinians, the police can manage to detain him without using lethal force. The same protocol can and should be used for Palestinian suspects, as well.
I can’t concentrate. I go out for a walk. I decide to make use of the time away from my desk — I head toward a book store that is open on Saturdays to pick up a collection of academic essays about African refugees. I vow to come straight back my apartment and get down to work when I return.
I navigate the streets without thinking. After all, I lived here for years. But as I pass not one but two apartments I lived in — places that hold so many memories — I’m surprised that I feel nothing. No pangs of nostalgia. I walk by cafes where I sat with this or that beloved friend; I see street corners where I had a conversation with so-and-so as we were on our way to such-and-such. And though I remember it all well, the images that come to mind feel like someone else’s. The memories don’t feel like mine anymore.
I look at the crumbling buildings, the cracks in their sagging faces filled with grey spackle. The sidewalks are littered with dog shit and the streets smell of cat piss. The neglected animals — starving and mangy — mill about.
What did I ever see in this city in the first place? I wonder. Why did I stay for so long?
I pass one full cafe after another. I remember how, once upon a time, I loved sitting in Tel Aviv’s cafes myself. Today, I find myself mentally counting the people sitting there in the sun, chatting over their coffee, beer, or wine. They can spend hours sitting out here on a Saturday, I think, but they couldn’t be bothered to spend an hour at the protest yesterday. If all these people crowded into cafes today, on Shabbat, had come yesterday, maybe something would change here.
But change is exactly what Israelis don’t want. The status quo suits them. Right now, they think they can have security — that is, quiet — without peace. At some point they will have to understand that’s impossible.
When I arrive at the bookstore, I discover that they have sold out of the title I’ve come for. I wander about, reading synopses on back covers, trying out the first page or two of several different novels, skimming through some poems.
As I flip through the books, I remember the days when I cared so much about improving my Hebrew — I went everywhere with a notebook and, anytime I encountered a new word, I jotted it down. I read online, I read the newspaper, I read books with my notebook next to me; I watched Israeli TV with Hebrew subtitles, my notebook in one hand, a pen in the other. I wanted to speak more fluidly, too, I wanted to get rid of my American accent.
I remember the days that I argued that Hebrew wasn’t Israel’s alone, that those in the diaspora needed to own the language. That all Jews— regardless of political affiliation — could participate in a Hebrew culture. I remember the days of hoarding Hebrew books; I remember hiding them in my apartment in Bethlehem, packing them up, shipping them to Florida.
I want to feel that way again. I want to buy a book. I pick up title after title, trying to let something grab me.
I leave the store empty-handed.