My experiences with security in Israel have not always been fun. I’ve been racially profiled as an Arab. Just last week on a trip up North, an American friend and I got pulled over at night by cops in Karmiel who interrogated me about my smoking habits (I have none) while perusing a bunch of data about me on a computer. I’ve gotten ridiculed by security guards for being American. I’ve gotten patted down many times, sometimes a little heavier than might be needed. And I find it stressful and a constant reminder of the state of warfare in this region to have to get checked at every bus station, every mall, every public place. It feels invasive and as an American who didn’t grow up here, it just feels overwhelming and harassing.
In the back of my head, I always knew there’s a reason for all of it. Perhaps some of the excesses like racial profiling aren’t necessary, but that there were real genuine security reasons for this heavy duty security surrounding me. I grew up reading the news about terrorism here and visiting the country itself. So as much as I didn’t like it, I learned to adapt and accept it. And to empathize with the low-income guards digging through my bags.
Today, I learned to love Israeli security guards and even the police. As a broadly left-wing person, I’m not generally a fan of police nor of state interference in my life. And sometimes maybe it can save your life.
I was at Beit Ariela, the main library in Tel Aviv. I specifically go there because it’s one of the quietest, most peaceful places in the city. In a place where people scream just to say “hello”, Beit Ariela is a tranquil island. A place where the tiniest whisper will get you American-style death glares. Where it’s clean and you can really focus and block out the noise and stress.
Today that changed.
Getting ready to take a work call from the States, I headed towards the exit. Only to find it blocked off. The entire square in front of my building was filled with police tape, a cop car, and police officers.
In a state of shock, I asked the librarian what was going on. She said a phrase, later confirmed to me by an Israeli friend: “chafetz chashud”. A suspicious object. She tried to explain it to me in broken English because- thank God- I didn’t know the phrase. Let’s just say you don’t learn that in Hebrew class as a 13 year old in the U.S.
The building was under lock down. Nobody could enter or exit. I felt suffocated. I started to pray, not knowing what else to do. Oddly, the Israelis around me were fairly unphased. One woman even complained saying she just needed to get to an appointment. I was scared shitless. I couldn’t help but think back to when I heard an air raid siren go off a week after I moved into my apartment. Life here can go from normal to scary in the course of seconds.
Not knowing what to do, I did perhaps the most Israeli thing of all, and just moved forward as I could. I called my colleague in the U.S., told her what was going on, and then in the lobby of the library just had my business call.
Midway through the call, we were told all was clear and I took the brave step of going outside. Brave because as well as these things can be cleared, you never know if there’s a second package waiting for you somewhere. It’s a common terror technique to plant multiple objects or suicide bombers near each other. So you get the maximum effect of piling one attack upon the clean-up of another.
Shivering inside and trying to stay functional on the outside, I walked across the street to Sarona Market while talking to my colleague. I then recalled how when an Israeli friend living in D.C. visited me, she told me there was a terror attack there just two years ago. Right in front of the Max Brenner store where I was supposed to meet a friend.
While I would never let it actually turn me into a hateful person, I finally understood why some Israelis hate Palestinians. When you have the fear of death struck into your heart, when you wonder if it’s going to be your final moments, when every car or backpack or bus becomes a potential threat, how are you supposed to be empathic towards others? I imagine many Israelis, like me, know that it sucks to be a Palestinian. Occupied by Israeli troops, neglected and discriminated against by other Arab countries, impoverished, and governed by a corrupt Palestinian Authority- it must be hard to even breathe.
And I think most Israelis are just tired of it all. What other people on the planet- even the most oppressed- slap on a belt of explosives and jump into a crowd of civilians? Obviously most Palestinians don’t. And more than a few do. More than 40% of Palestinians support suicide bombings- more than any other Muslim country. Until the past couple of years when terrorists started spreading to Western countries and other Muslim countries, I can’t think of another culture where this phenomenon happens so prominently. I could be wrong. I just can’t think of anything off hand.
Palestinian leaders have a culture of celebrating violence. I’m familiar with the danger of cherry picking examples and that every NGO will have its slant, but here are some examples. I wouldn’t remotely suggest that you couldn’t find incitement (or violence) on the Israeli side, just that it almost never ends with someone strapping a belt on, screaming Allahu Akbar, and exploding in a crowd of innocent people.
I suppose my point is this: I’m one of the most peace-oriented, fluently Arabic-speaking Israelis you’re going to find. And if today is any indication, if I continue to experience the fear that is Palestinian terrorism, you’re going to find me changing my politics bit by bit. Resisting at first, and then wondering what we’re supposed to do. I hope we can find another way and I also deserve the right to live. Like my Palestinian neighbors.
I hope I can manage to keep my heart open to the peace-loving Palestinians who just want to live side-by-side with me and make this place the best region in the world. And it’s going to be hard if I’m scared to live my life for fear of being burst into pieces. And to what degree can each of us, Palestinian or Israeli, influence the situation? All it takes is a few seriously ill people to sink the ship and ultimately we can’t control what everyone will do on either side.
In conclusion, I’m glad I’m alive. I hate being searched invasively day-in and day-out and I’m sure Palestinians hate it too in the West Bank. I hope for the day when we can live like we’re in Minnesota, lie in the grass, have a picnic, and pretend all this killing was just a bad dream.
In the meantime, I’d like to thank the brave security guards and police officers who kept me safe today. I’m not endorsing state policies nor am I saying the police are perfect. I’m saying that I find it a miracle that these people can go home after neutralizing a suspicious object and feed their kids, read them a story, and tuck them in to bed. I am in awe of your courage and your willingness to put your life on the line so I and other Israelis- both Jewish and Arab- can live to see another day.
After I decided to head into the market to meet my friend, I looked at the security guard. I gently handed him my bag, looked him in the face, and said: “todah rabah chaver, sheyihyeh lecha yom tov.” Thank you my friend, may you have a good day.
A good day indeed. Because he’s going home to his family. And I’m alive writing this blog to you tonight.