Israel’s Civil Rights Crisis: A Firsthand Account
Reading about recent Palestinian attempts to couch their cause in the same language as the American civil rights movement of the 1960s, I am reminded of a truly upsetting incident that happened to me last July. I had been traipsing around the Old City since early morning. Even at four, with the light that radiant honey-gold you find shimmering on the stones only in Jerusalem, the sun was hammering on my head. In my five days in Israel, I had walked or ridden a bus wherever I wanted to go. But the nice young man at the tourist booth had told me the Israel Museum would be open late, and I decided to take a taxi; I had only nine days in the country, and this way I could cram two days of sightseeing into one.
I left the Jewish Quarter. A taxi crested the hill behind me; I raised my arm to hail it, but the driver zoomed past. Another taxi. A third. No one seemed willing to stop. Finally, a cab pulled over. “Where you want to go?” the driver asked. He was a man my age, by which I mean his fifties. Dignified, I thought. Distinguished. In my early twenties, I was kidnapped and mugged by a pair of fake cabbies in London, so I am extraordinarily careful about which cars I do—or don’t—get into. But the markings on this taxi seemed identical to the markings on every other taxi in Jerusalem, and the driver struck me as a trustworthy man. We settled on the fare—everyone had warned me that cabbies in Jerusalem will rip you off, but the guy at the tourist booth had clued me in exactly how much to pay—so off we went.
Unfortunately, we didn’t get far. We were driving a narrow one-way street when the car ahead of us stopped and a bearded older man in the white shirt, black trousers, and fringed tsitsit that mark an ultra-Orthodox Jew got out the passenger side. I waited for the car to pull away; when it didn’t, I waited for the driver of my cab to honk. Israelis honk merely because they like the sound of their own horns, so I was surprised to see my driver sitting ramrod straight, staring blankly out the windshield.
“What’s the matter?” I asked. He shook his head. I turned and saw another taxi pull up behind us, and two cars behind that. The silence was eerie. And then, suddenly, we were surrounded by angry men gesticulating at the driver, banging on the windshield, shouting what seemed to be curses in Hebrew. The man who had gotten out of the car in front began banging on my window, motioning me to get out. “What is it?” I kept repeating. “Someone tell me, in English.”
By now, there must have been a dozen men—and a few women—gathered around our cab, yelling, banging on our windows, motioning me to get out. “Is this a union thing?” I asked my driver. “Is that it?” But he sat rigidly, ignoring our attackers, ignoring me. I rolled down my window an inch or two and demanded that someone tell me what was going on. Rather than answer, the man with the beard—although really, all the men except my driver had beards—jammed in his arm, jerked up the handle on my door, grabbed me by my wrist, and pulled me out.
I don’t want to exaggerate my fear. These were my own people. For all I knew, they were protecting me from some very real danger. But I reflexively distrust anyone who yanks me from a cab, refuses to let me go, and begins dragging me toward his car.
“Listen,” I said, “someone tell me right now what this is about.”
Disdainfully, one of the women hissed: “He’s an Arab. He’ll cheat you. We don’t want our women driving in cars with their men.”
I wish I could say I admonished my co-religionists with a speech worthy of Martin Luther King. But the best I could come up with was: “That’s disgusting!” I yanked away my wrist, climbed back in my cab, rolled up my window, locked the door, and told the driver, “I’m so, so sorry. I didn’t understand. I’m not going anywhere. I’ll sit here as long as it takes. I’m from America. All I want is for everyone to get along.”
As an American, of course, I hoped for a happy ending. The driver would break down and sob with gratitude at my heroic display of solidarity, and somehow this would lead to Netanyahu and the Palestinians making peace. In reality, he remained staring impassively out his windshield at the men who had resumed pounding on the glass and cursing him. “I don’t say anything to them,” he said. “I say nothing to you. You must do as you wish.”
After another ten or fifteen minutes, the mob gave up and left. “You still want to go to the museum?” my driver asked.
“If you’ll take me there,” I said.
He nodded and drove me the few miles in silence. At the gate, a guard inspected our trunk for bombs and let us in. I paid my driver the amount we had agreed upon—I wish I could say I doubled it as a tip—and, still shaking with anger, I went inside to view the magnificent cultural displays of a nation whose policies I spend most of my time back in Ann Arbor trying to defend against students and colleagues who barely acknowledge its right to exist.
I understand those who dismiss the actions of the Palestinian “Freedom Riders” as bearing no relation to the challenges to segregation enacted by civil rights activists—many of them Jewish—who brought down Jim Crow in the American South. And yet, the heart of the civil rights movement in America was the demand that no citizen have his or her dignity trampled or liberty impaired because of race, country of origin, sexual preference, or religion. In what way was my driver a threat to anyone’s security? In what way was my experience not analogous to that of a white woman pulled from a taxi in Mississippi or Alabama by a mob of Klansmen intent on preventing her from riding alone in a car driven by one of “their men”?
Hardliners will find it easy to pillory my opinions. This was my first trip to Israel. I’m an American—what do I know? But the incident speaks for itself. There are issues of security and defense, and then there are issues of basic human dignity. No matter whether the Palestinians on that bus have the right to call themselves “Freedom Riders,” Israel is eventually going to need to commit itself to the same sort of civil rights movement that Americans struggled through in the past—and are still struggling through today.
Happily, that movement has already started. Nearly every Israeli to whom I told this story was outraged. The woman from whom I was renting my room demanded to know why I hadn’t reported the incident to the police. “If you had given them the license of the car in front of you,” she said, “they would have found the guy and arrested him.” I was heartsick to realize it had never occurred to me to report my attackers because their ugly, unembarrassed hooliganism—in broad daylight, no less—already had convinced me that the city had been hijacked by the anti-democratic right to such an extent that only a naïve, first-time American tourist would even care.
Eileen Pollack is the author of the new novel Breaking and Entering.
Image from palestinesolidarityproject.org
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