We’re not always Better off Safe than Sorry

On Friday, I stepped off the light rail onto the road which divides East and West Jerusalem. For the most part, Arabs live in East Jerusalem, where Israel annexed the Palestinian population following the 1967 war and Jews live in West Jerusalem. I crossed the road into East Jerusalem for lunch. Fear simmered in my stomach as I approached the Palestinian market- there was not an Israeli in sight. I looked out of place- My worry was that I could be harassed or hurt for looking Israeli or Jewish. I’m not far removed from Israelis who walked through the streets of East Jerusalem and were stabbed for the crime of speaking Hebrew and being Jewish. My friend and I walked in silence and I considered turning back thinking, “better safe than sorry.”

I want you to be careful to suspend your judgement of me and Israelis as you read through an American lens. It’s easy to see this conflict as a racial conflict and I as sounding, well, a little racist with unfounded fears much like whites of America; Don’t go into that bad black neighborhood, you’ll get shot in North Philly, Blacks will kidnap you.

While racism can be part of the conflict too, One can not simplify the root of someone’s worldview in a simple character attack of Racism from Israelis or Antisemitism from Palestinians. Generational trauma for both sides of expallation, terror attacks, imprisonment, death and so much more informs the views of the Palestinians and Israelis. These days to an extent, Israel proper stays divided because the Arabs and the Jews live with the attitude ‘better safe than sorry.’ Better that I don’t go to the Arab area so I don’t get hurt, Better that I don’t go to the Jewish area so I don’t get hurt. However, With a healthy dose of caution, I couldn’t let fear stifle my adventurous spirit.

I was only 25 minutes walk from where I live but It brought back fond memories of my stay in Egypt. The smells of spices wafted from spit shawarma and coal grilled kebabs. Women in hijabs and burkas bought items from the fruit sellers who conversed in the animated Palestinian dialect of Arabic. At the resteraunt, I employed the tiny bit of Arabic I knew from the show Fauda to greet the cashier; “salaam alekum, keifhallak” (Hello, peace be with you what’s up). When he asked me how many shawarmas I wanted I said “Wahad” (one). He was curt, but in an Israeli way, much like the Jewish Israeli Shawarma vendors across town.

My nerves calmed as my friend and I ate our shawarma on a stoop watching the people go by. Attune to what was going on inside our heads and outside in the world, We spoke In low voices about fear and division, how much we should let fear rule us versus rejecting it. Given the amazing Shawarma I would have missed out on, I’m glad I stepped out of my comfort zone!

I’ve inherited the caution of Jewish Israelis and to an extent it is good for my protection. The reality is, I would be harassed and at risk of violence if I walked through neighborhoods in East Jerusalem. My roommate walked through the East Jerusalem Neighborhood of At- Tur by accident earlier this year and little kids jeered them, tried to steal their bags, and adults stared and said “Welcome to Palestine, not Israel”. At the same time, I want to believe that the vast majority of people in the world are good actors. And If I let fear dictate my life by making “better safe than sorry” decisions to avoid danger, I’ll only see half the world. That would be the true tragedy.

Wandering Jews: Traveling with a Name Like That

My friend and I spent Saturday in the Israel museum which has vast collection of art and archaeological antiquities from around the world. Her parents are Israeli and she speaks fluent Hebrew despite having spent most of her childhood in the United States. We share a love of travel and have a world perspective; Every artifact we saw in the museum brought back memories of travel for each of us. An interior of a synagogue which was originally in Asia had a floor covered in sand which reminded me of a synagogue I visited in Italy where sand was also used to dampen the sounds of prayer, helping the Jewish community to keep a low profile. A display of menorahs from around the globe reminded her of her fathers family, who immigrated to Israel from elsewhere in the middle east. When we got to the Egyptian galleries, I reminisced about my adventures in Egypt. She said sadly that Egypt is a place she may never see. She explained that her name is a Hebrew word, which makes her a target for Anti Israel or Anti Jewish Harassment or violence particularly in the Arab world. She told me that as a kid her parents would tell her before getting on a plane to a foreign place not to utter a word in Hebrew, or talk about Israel for the entire trip. She didn’t understand why until she got older.

I feel safety in the fact that people don’t know that I am Jewish because of my name. Benjamin is a biblical name for Christians and Jews and Newman is British Anglo Saxon in origin. When I travel abroad, I employ a three step rule when talking with strangers; you need to ask three layers deep for me to reveal my Judaism. While I do believe that most people, especially those in the service industry are accepting, guarding myself is how I stay safe and have the best experience.

When I’ve chosen to share my Judaism with people during travel, I’ve learned a lot. My experience in Egypt was great; After a few days with our guide, who was an Arab Muslim we opened up conversations about our Judaism and trips to Israel, comparing our traditions with with Islam, ancient Egyptian traditions, and learning about geopolitics. In Vietnam, when my dad shared that we were Jewish, our flamboyant guide Li exclaimed with fascination “ohhhh you are ‘Jewit’, so you must teach your kids about money.” He wasn’t wrong. Kayaking through lake superior off of the great swath of homogeneic Anglo Christian America that is upper Michigan, my guide passed the 3 question test and when I said I was Jewish, to my surprise she said she was Jewish also. We talked about Zionism, Israel and the democrats, what it’s like being a Jew in an Isolated outpost.

When I have chosen to share my Jewish identity while traveling, I have been grateful for the conversations and insights I have gained. I am also grateful for my ability to conceal my Identity, a privilege that my friend and many others like her do not have.