As Jerusalem braces itself for the annual observance of Jerusalem Day, I want to share a story that could only happen in Jerusalem. It happened to me this past week.
The story is prefaced by a dinner party of people of my parents’ generation in their 60s. One woman, of North Africa descent (Jewish) spoke about the problem of Arabs moving into the neighborhood (not Jerusalem – a different Israeli city). She recalled it happening in her neighborhood many years back, “One family moves in, then they bring another. Then they bring their whole village…and they really bring down the whole neighborhood.” On the one hand, this comment makes me feel uncomfortable as it sounds racist. Imagine a white person describing black families moving to his neighborhood in the United States. On the other hand, I thought later, perhaps she really means something else. Perhaps what she meant was that here we are, working so hard to building a Jewish state, trying to create an environment that is conducive to a Jewish lifestyle and society, a unique experience that can’t be found anywhere in the world. When the neighborhood becomes mostly Arab, then I risk losing that identity and I lose my sense of community. I could more identify with a statement that says: Yes, Arabs live here. I demand that they be treated equally – educational and economical opportunities. But let them live amongst themselves and Jews will leave amongst ourselves. If all of my neighbors were Arab, then perhaps Shabbat wouldn’t feel as much like Shabbat, as they do not share the holiday.
The next day – Here, the story begins — my parents visiting from the United States and I decided to go to a tourist attraction off of the beaten path in Jerusalem : the Rockefeller Archaeological Museum. My parents didn’t realize it was in East Jerusalem until we were well on our way in the taxi. The driver wanted me to make sure it was open. He advised, in Hebrew, “It is not safe for us in this part of town. They can throw rocks at us.” I demurred. He insisted that it happens a lot. He continued in English, for their benefit, “You should never go through Damascus Gate (to the Old City). It can be very dangerous if you go through the Flower Gate (to the Muslim Quarter).” I protested, saying that my husband had worked in East Jerusalem and was always fine. We had walked with our children through East Jerusalem and Damascus Gate. We’ve done the walk on the Old City Walls from Jaffa Gate over the Christian and Muslim Quarters ending at the Lion’s Gate, right next to the entrance for Muslims to the Dome of the Rock. All fine. The driver just shrugged.
Though we were skeptical at first, we thoroughly enjoyed our visit at the Museum. The history and the architecture of the building was interesting, and it houses some amazing artifacts that were found in Israel from different periods all the way back to the prehistoric time up to 200,000 years ago.
Back on the street, we had to get a taxi back. I couldn’t figure out how to work Get Taxi. Finally, at the big traffic circle, we flagged down a driver. He was a young Arab guy. Instead of following the wall of the Old City toward downtown, he drove in the direction of the heart of East Jerusalem. For those who haven’t been, East Jerusalem feels like another country from West Jerusalem – like you have entered an Arab Middle Eastern country. I asked how he was driving. He said furtively, “There is a lot of traffic along the Old City. This is better. Let me do my job in peace and quiet.” I mumbled something, and started to get a little nervous. I played it light. But also in this direction, we sat in heavy traffic. After awhile, I asked, “Can you please just help me to understand how we are going?” And he told me the route, which was familiar to me. He became impatient with the truck in front of us which apparently was causing the whole traffic jam. As he finally sped past it, he honked at it and made as if he was spitting on it. I started to get more nervous.
Then we crossed over the road and the traffic flowed. But then we got stopped at a traffic light. There weren’t any other cars coming from the other direction. He inched forward, and finally, shouting “Fucking Israeli traffic!” ran the red light. For all I knew, this was like saying “Allah Achbar!” and I told him that we wanted to get out now. He quite calmly pulled over, took our money, gave me a receipt, and even took a shekel less than the meter. I played it off to my parents, started talking about the Musrara neighborhood and the Russian Compound which we walked through on our way downtown.
As we walked past the downtown police station, a taxi pulled up slowly next to me. The driver called out to me (in Hebrew), “Excuse me!” It was our taxi. He called me over and said, “I really want to apologize for my behavior. I think I was quite agitated and it was not right. I am very sorry.” I was floored. I looked at him and said, “Really?”
He answered, “Yes, I had just gotten news that my mother is sick. I was very agitated. I am very sorry.”
I was still incredulous – I couldn’t believe this conversation was happening. I said, “I really appreciate that you wanted to tell me this.”
He said, “Yes, b’ezrat Hashem, she will be OK.”
I smiled and answered him, “Inshallah, she should only be healthy.”
He smiled, and sort of blew me a kiss (in an appreciative way, not offensive) and then drove off.
I do not support the reckless driving of any taxi driver. But people are people are people. The people who live in the city of Jerusalem – on the east and on the west – have families, celebrations and challenges. All I know is that a young Arab man cared enough about what I think about him to take responsibility for his actions and to explain himself.