Segregation in the Holy Land

Today, as I was leaving, I wished the pharmacist Shabbat shalom. She looked at me funnily. I wasn’t sure why, but she might have meant, “I’m Arab, that’s not my holiday.” I am indiscriminate in my Shabbat Shalom wishes. I knew perfectly well that she was Arab, but I also knew she would not be working tomorrow like everyone else. It was only after I had left the building that I remembered that today is Ramadan, and it would have been nicer and more appropriate to wish her a Ramadan Kareem.

One of the aspects I’ve often liked in Israel is the ubiquity of well-wishes on holidays. It’s good and pleasant to hear hag sameach, happy holiday, out of the mouths of store keepers and customers as holidays approach, or a simple Shabbat shalom on leaving work on Thursdays. It’s damn comfy – as if everyone around you belongs to an extended family.

I teach soldiers now and, because we are all Jewish, there is easy banter about keeping kosher or discussions of aliyah – there is a common assumption that despite our political or ethnic differences, we are all citizens in the same place – our feet are, as it were, rooted in the same soil. We belong together.

I also teach English to three Hasidim who live in the Wischnitz (pronounded Vishnitz) neighborhood in Bnei Brak. They are a father and his two sons, and they own a hotel in that crowded, religious city. One day after talking with the older son, I realized from the tone in his voice how reassuring it was to live in a closed community that ran its affairs exactly as you did. It was as if there was a happy concordance between his pulse and the pulses of those around him. Moreover, he could regard the hotel as a form of service to the community.

It was only on leaving my local clinic today that I fully realized that I, too, live in a similarly segregated society or, to be more exact, that I, too, live in a sequestered community.

It’s important to make clear that Israel is not segregated in the manner of the American South. There are no separate drinking places, public bathrooms, or bus seats. In public places, Jews and Arabs mingle; and, as an article in Haaretz this week pointed out, Israeli Arabs are one of the significant successes of the country. They are educated: they are doctors, lawyers, judges, parliamentarians, and even ministers. But still, a specific type of segregation characterizes Israeli daily life. Jews and Arabs live in separate communities, go to separate schools (until university), read separate newspapers, and ever since cable TV, watch different stations. There are several Arabic Jewish schools under the same auspices but these are private, and the Israeli government has refused to subsidize them.

The proof of the pudding, as it were, can be found in one of Sayed Kashua’s recent columns in Haaretz, for it is only the minority that feels the oppression of segregation. He writes:

Being a Palestinian Arab in Jerusalem was an inseparable part of my consciousness. I had to be aware that I was an Arab when I drove my children to school, when I drove to work, when I chose my words in writing, and every time I walked in the street. The politics in Israel determined the degree of caution to take in certain circumstances, the place of residence, the children’s educational system, the safe places for going out, the use of the language, and the careful way in which you greeted your neighbors. (“Musaf Haaretz,” 10 March 2017)

What I especially felt that morning was not the segregation in Israeli society or my lack of consideration toward the Arab pharmacist, whose holiday I had ignored, but my similarity with Southerners who had been raised in the balmy haven of segregation. I felt I could understand their fright at Obama’s vision of America. It was not just Obama’s color that was so outrageous but his constant emphasis on the marvelous diversity of the new America. What he thought as a golden promise, which he physically represented, was also a threat to the feeling of security of many. That their sense of invulnerability had rested on the false premises of bigotry, prejudice, and an unacknowledged violence was what I had, in my liberal mind, always understood – what I realized now was how comforting, how damned “nice” it was to live in a sheltered cove – how it gave someone a feeling of belonging to a greater whole, even if that sense of security was based on a falsehood and, often, on an out-and-out lie.


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