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Seeing Israel with Different Eyes--Jewish and Arab

This article was first published in the Jewish Bulletin of Northern California and is reprinted with permission. Visit www.JewishSF.com.

Jerusalem, July 7 -- It wasn't just the suicide bombings that made me apprehensive about my first trip to Israel this month.

A Saudi visa on my passport, the result of a 1999 trip to meet my father's family, worried me as well. In addition, a co-worker who had lived in Israel said I should expect some harassment or strange looks. Although I was raised Jewish, I am half Arab and resemble my father's side of the family.

Israel let me in without a hassle, and because of my dark skin and curly dark hair, most people thought I was Israeli. If my Hebrew were better, I would have fooled everyone, including myself. But I also look Arab. A man on my trip said I could go either way.

And as it turns out, that mattered.

I saw Israel through different eyes from those of the other 13 Jewish journalists who joined me on a weeklong tour sponsored by the Israel Ministry of Tourism, El Al Israel Airlines and the Dan Hotels. Certainly, I was not the only one in our group who was nervous amid almost daily reports of hostilities and carnage. The morning after I agreed to go on the trip, I woke up after dreaming I had died in Israel.

My husband, who didn't want me to go, was even more anxious. He had a recurring dream of me getting blown up. The night before I left, we told each other everything we wanted to say before we died. But with the reassurance of my co-workers, who had all been to Israel umpteen times, and from trip organizers, I believed the only trouble I might encounter would be the result of my appearance--and my Saudi visa.

And after so many years of imagining what Israel was really like, of seeing pictures and hearing stories, I needed to see Israel for myself. I needed to feel it.

While I felt safe riding in the mini-tour bus on the crowded highways and walking through the Old City of Jerusalem, the possibility that I could get blown up at any random second always lingered in the back of my mind.

Like the Israelis, I just became more aware of my surroundings. But like the Arabs, I felt somewhat like an outsider, fearing that because of my looks I could be perceived as a terrorist. Others I met along the way shared their feelings about safety and Arab-Israeli relations, which helped me understand the situation around me.

"Hopefully all you have to worry about is bad falafel," said Danny, a tourist from Edmonton, Alberta, whom I met poolside at the posh King David Hotel. Danny, who is Jewish, was part of a solidarity mission made up of Christians and Jews. He and his brother, Hal, took one of my colleagues and me to their nephew's house in Jerusalem as the sun was setting on Shabbat. He wanted to give us a picture of how the locals are living.

Jay, the nephew, is a doctor in a Jerusalem clinic. He shares a three-bedroom apartment with a roof that looks out onto Gilo and the West Bank. Sometimes from that vantage point four stories high he can see gunfire in the distance, and hear the sound of guns and fighting.

Nothing happened while we were there, eating chocolate ruggelach and drinking tea. His roommate, also a doctor, said that like most Jerusalemites, he doesn't go out very often anymore. He doesn't go to Ben Yehuda Street on Saturday nights to party. Instead, he frequents the local Blockbuster Video and says it's hard to find good movies left on the shelf.

Jay works with Arab doctors and medical technicians at the clinic every day. He's friends with them. His relationships have not changed, he says, since the intifada erupted 21 months ago. Not too long ago, he said, an Arab doctor offered him a ride home. His friend's stereotypical rundown car was loaded down with family members dressed in kaffiyehs and head scarves, speaking Arabic a mile a minute.

Others watching Jay get into the car told him he was crazy, that he shouldn't go. But the two were friends, and Jay got in the car, arriving safely at home.

Despite the camaraderie Jay shares with his Arab co-workers, some things have changed. Though he and his roommates carry on with their daily lives, they are aware of who is walking next to them, who is standing next to them as they wait at a crosswalk. They start conversations with strangers to get a grasp on their accents. They are suspicious of everyone who looks like a teenage or twentysomething Arab.

They weren't suspicious of me. They didn't know I was half Arab.

It wasn't just in Jerusalem that I was aware of the divisions I was feeling within myself. As we drove through the Negev, I saw Bedouin villages and shepherds dotting either side of the desert highway. I was saddened to find that bigwigs in Negev cities, such as the mayor of Beersheva and the president of Ben-Gurion University, want these tribal people to establish roots in cities, forever altering their nomadic way of life. Such a move would virtually extinguish an ancient people, dissolving them in a melting pot.

I saw Arabs, Israeli Arabs, whose faces were expressionless and their eyes empty. They were ghosts, serving as busboys and bellhops and maitre d's in the five-star hotels and fancy restaurants we visited. I saw hollowness in their eyes and indifference in their actions. They were like second-class citizens, but a step above Palestinians.

"They need to work too," many people would tell me when I'd react in disbelief that all these employees were Arabs.

I'd walk by them, take a glass of wine off the tray they were holding, and I'd want to speak to them. I wanted to know what life was like for them.

I thought because of the way I looked and with the little Arabic I know, I could easily talk with one of the workers along the way. But something held me back. I looked at them from a distance and wondered about their lives. I felt closed off from them. I felt that they were there to do a job. To serve. Not to talk. And I, too, was tongue-tied.

Of all the talking heads the trip sponsors set up for us, none were Arabs. Though no one else on the trip seemed to care, I felt cheated. I felt like I was only getting half the picture.

I paid close attention to Israelis and the Americans I was traveling with when they would mention the word "Arab." I tried to pick up on their intonations; I tried to figure out if there was a heightened sense of racism. But I didn't find any. Arabs and Jews are different. They coexist but live separately. It's a strange dichotomy that is reminiscent of the black-white tensions that exist in the United States today. It exists. But it is subtle.

I felt it at the Western Wall. I felt it all, the thousands of years of struggles, war and conflict. Of racial and religious oppression and tension. I felt the ridiculousness of it all flood through my half-Arab, half-Jewish veins as I placed my hand on the massive stone wall. I looked up and the wall seemed to reach the sky and I wondered if this conflict could ever end.

I slipped a prayer I scribbled on a scrap of paper into the cracks of the wall, hoping for compassion, tolerance and humanity. Tears welled up inside me and I realized there is no answer. There are ebbs and flows, but there will never be true peace in this land.

"Peace here is about truth, shar

The Jewish Sabbath, from sunset on Friday to nightfall on Saturday. A language of West Semitic origins, culturally considered to be the language of the Jewish people. Ancient or Classical Hebrew is the language of Jewish prayer or study. Modern Hebrew was developed in the late-19th and early 20th centuries as a revival language; today it is spoken by most Israelis.
Shoshana Hebshi-Holt

Shoshana Hebshi-Holt is a writer and editor living in San Francisco.

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