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.

Where is Dani Cohen?- Settlers, Chabadniks, and Me During the Most Tense Weekend in Hebron

The Chabad of Kiryat Arba. From left to right; Yitzy Zlota, David Munchnik, Me, Jono Levit

I’m in love with this Netflix show called Fauda about an Israeli Jewish team that goes undercover as Arabs in order to fight terror operations in the West Bank. So, This past weekend I went undercover as a religious Jew in order to understand prayer and settlement operations in the West Bank. 

For the torah portion of Chaya Sara (the life of the Matriarch Sara), many religious Jews make a pilgrimage to the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron to pray next to her burial site. The complicated thing; Hebron is a Palestinian city, and the Tomb of the Patriarchs is a Mosque… How then are Israeli Jews to gain safe access to accommodations and prayer? For the past 24 hours I lived inside the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with settlers, Palestinans, and religious Jews learning so much in a series of eye opening experiences and conversations. 

There were two types of groups at large who attended; Israeli Ideological settlers and very Religious Chabad people. The term settler means an Israeli citizen who chooses to live over the green line in the disputed territories within a settlement for reasons ranging from Ideology, cheap housing, country feel, and more. The settlers who went to Hebron are extremely religious, driven by their belief in settling the area of the Jewish historical heartland. What many refer to as the ‘disputed territories’ or the ‘West Bank’ they would call “Judea and Samaria.” Right wing hippies? Yes, only in Israel. Ideological settlers are extremely right wing but without fail dress in khakis with flowing white shirts, loose side curls, and hiking books. 

On Friday, my friends and I took an armored bus to Hebron and went to the Chabad house where we were staying in a settlement adjacent to the city called Kiryat Arba. Again, complicated; Hebron is a city that is divided into two sections; one controlled by the Palestinian authority, called H1 and one section under Israeli military control called H2. No Israelis are allowed in Palestinian Hebron as it is under the area A designation. Under IDF control, Area H2 encompasses surrounding Arab neighborhoods and protects the historic Jewish quarter and tomb for access by the Jews. We left Kiryat Arba to walk to the tomb and to hopefully connect with Rabbi Dani Cohen who was head of the Chabad of Hebron and supposedly had our meal tickets for the Chabad tent. His instruction “come to the Chabad house, ask anyone in the neighborhood where it is,” would prove to be completely unhelpful- but we’ll save that bit for later.

We followed the crowd of Jews and were greeted by a huge IDF presence; soldiers in green at every corner and armored vehicles roamed the streets. We descended into the valley towards the Jewish quarter of Hebron, snaking through crumbling ruins of islamic sandstone structure straight out of a movie. We entered into a tent city set up by travellers which had taken over the green in front of the tomb… call it the Jewish Woodstock. After a failed attempt at entering the Chabad tent (Different than the Chabad House), we winded through the alleys of Hebron to find Rabbi Dani Cohen. While according to his voice message, ‘everybody knows who I am,’ in reality only a few knew who he was, and no one who knew who he was could tell us where he was. We walked in circles until we reached the unassuming door of the Chabad House and knocked… once, twice, three times… no answer. At this point, we began considering what a Shabbas fast would be like. In a last effort, we hauled all the way back to the tomb and tried to get in, hoping that inside we would meet the famous Rabbi Dani Cohen who everybody knows but was nowhere to be found. Through a stroke of luck, we bumped into his right hand man, Mordechai and he said that he could help us get in to the Chabad meal if we met him by the kitchen in 45 minutes. As we sat in the outdoors air, I observed some curiosities. The store signage in the neighborhood was all in Arabic, but the Palestinians were hardly anywhere to be found. Perhaps the Israelis told them to stay indoors, but I am not sure what went on to make it so. I caught the gaze of a little Palestinian girl who watched with curiosity from the window of an upstairs apartment. I saw the soldier stationed on the corner raise his radio as three Palestinian men walked by with gascans filled with liquid. The soldier 100 meters down the line would stop them. A Palestinian woman with her children had to transit the area and was escorted by a soldier. I got the impression that the soldier was protecting them from the potential of a settler riot; It had happened before.

Mordechai was a man of his word and went inside the tent, saying to wait only a few minutes for him to bring us the tickets from Dani Cohen. After a long time of waiting, we lost hope that Mordechai was coming back and told the guard that we were guests of the famous Rabbi Dani Cohen who understood and let us in. We searched for the two bearded men who could help us get food, and found one, a mortified Mordechai who went beet red when he realized he had forgotten four kids out in the cold. He led us to the second bearded man, the infamous Rabbi Dani Cohen who chided us saying ‘I thought you’d never show up’ and then joyfully ushered us to a seat at a table with a family. The family lived in Beit-El, an Orthodox settlement in the foothills of Jerusalem. The young man of 22 explained to me that he voted for the far right wing parties; Zehut and Otzma Yehudit. Among many policy positions, they seek the annexation of the West Bank and no Palestinian state. To him, Bibi Netanyahu is a fake right winger; a populist who has leftist voting patterns. He explained himself as a victim of the Israeli government who has neglected the religious population of the country, doesn’t not do enough to encourage a Jewish Presence in Judea and Samaria, panders to the Arabs, and takes a soft hand to the Palestinians. I had spoken with my first right wing ideological settler. After filling our bellies with food, we went to the Chabad house and slept. 

I woke up before my friends and took a stroll around Kiryat Arba, practicing my wobbly hebrew on passersbys who asked for directions; apparently I looked like I knew where I was going. At the end of the settlement, the golden dome of a mosque breached over the barbed wire of the wall, a crescent moon glinting in the morning sun. I recalled having been woken up earlier by the call to prayer at 5 am, hearing the intersecting rise and fall of multiple Imams. The beauty of the call to prayer will never get old. We went back down through the narrow passages into the Jewish quarter and entered the Machpelah- Tomb of the Patriarchs. While it’s religiosly significant to the Jews, it’s not a synagogue; Inside the Herod-Era walls is a mosque created by the Muslim conqueror Salahadin. The contrast was fascinating; Jews davened below arabic inscriptions and patterns. Perhaps most interesting is that each Matriarch and Patriarch had a memorial stone which was shrouded in velvet with an Arabic inscription. In this mosque, the settlers greivances lived and breathed; Muslim conquerors took our land and built over the tombs of our forefathers and the origional synagogue, ascribing their own meaning to what was origionally ours. We come to get it back today. 

My friends and I relaxed for a few minutes on a creaky abandoned rooftop until a soldier ushered for us to get down; Jews and Arabs often exchange rocks to the head there, something everyone would like to avoid. On the way to lunch we passed a large color printed sign supported by the Jewish community of Hebron that said “Palestine Never Existed, and Never Will.” Yes, Arab Palestine never existed, but to put up a sign saying it never will exist is surely a way to make friends with the local Palestinian population! Instead of waiting for hopeless Mortified Mordechai to help us get into the Chabad tent, we shoved our way in and found the famous Rabbi Dani Cohen who said we could sit at the VIP table. We were sooned joined by a young guy who called himself DJ Israel and shared ‘l’chaim’ with us and we turned merrier through the three bottles of Russian vodka, laughing about how we finessed eating in the VIP section. We posed a Jewish law question to a local rabbi, and while he said he didn’t know the specific Halacha (Jewish Law) in that situation, he could tell us about the Halacha of killing Arabs. In his statement, I was reminded of a lecture I heard in India about how radicalism is one of the four evils that perverts the purity of religion. For him to say that Jews should be able to live in Hebron is not radical. Radicalism comes when he implied the Jews should be able to live in Hebron and there is a religious justification to kill local Arabs. 

DJ Israel and his Chabadnik brother became our tour guides who took us to the top of the Hebron Jewish quarter. Midway, we had to squeeze past an area where Arabs had been throwing stones over the wall at Jews passing by. Up the hill we stopped to talk to a Palestinian man who lived on the street; Immediately a crowd of Israelis crushed around and I knew that the situation could escalate to violence by a man with a kippa who began angrily shouting. By this point I didn’t know the Palestinian man was freinds with DJ israel and his brother. I would learn that a Jew had thrown smashed the Palestinian man’s window with a rock and he said angrily that he would kill the next person to do so. Soldiers came up the way and ushered the instigatory crowd to disperse and the Palestinian family darted inside. We finally reached the top of the hill, where the sounds of Palestinian Hebron echoed. A telling moment took place that I will never forget. The Palestinain kids playing soccer in Palestinian Hebron accidentally kicked a ball over the fence. No one from the Israeli side went to throw it back to them. No one from the Palestinian side called for it. I should have thrown it back, but I chose my own safety, fearful of disrupting the people on my own side. Such is the nature of separation. As we descended a different way, I caught word that the Palestinian media had shown up. There are numerous reports of settlers who threw stones at Palestinian houses resulting in injuries to 5-12 people, one a child. The soldiers were there as much to protect the Palestinians from the radical elements within the 20,000 weekend guests. As we left the town, my I said my goodbyes to the pop pop pop of gunfire. From where or why I do not know. 

I walk away very unsettled with a lot to think about. I’m confused about many things and am trying to guide myself to a better understanding by reading articles on law and what is happening.