MAXWELL:  The streets of Israel

2/18/1996 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


I’m a stranger in this land, here on a brief trip, and, needless to say, my provincial American brain swims with new information, novel sights and sounds, and unique social, historical, cultural, philosophical and political perspectives from representative Jews and Palestinians of different factions.

I am here with eight other American journalists from different ethnic groups, along with Arthur Berger, director of public relations of the American Jewish Committee, and already I have been disabused of many stereotypes of both Palestinians and Israeli Jews. During my time here, I also have felt profound disappointment and doubt.

As a short-term visitor, I dare not pretend to understand the blood and land conflicts that have plagued this region for many centuries. So what I write here is an informal travelogue, a series of loosely related personal snapshots of a land that I always considered special and have wanted to visit.

When my colleagues and I walked the streets of Tel Aviv, where Saddam Hussein aimed his Scud missiles during the Gulf War, I vicariously relived the fear of the people. This beautiful city on the Mediterranean Sea no longer was a faraway place on a television screen, where gun-toting, bomb-throwing terrorists roamed the streets.

I could have been in many American cities. The shops sell the same items and wares, the banks, service stations and other businesses do what their American counterparts do. Lovers stroll arm and arm, teenage girls wear tight, sexy pants, boys admire the girls, pizza deliverers dart in and out of traffic, taxi and bus drivers honk their horns, workers rush home after a hard day’s work, mothers grab their children from day care.

Was anything remarkable about my two days in Tel Aviv? Yes, I was struck by the city’s remarkable ordinariness.

Life goes on as it does in my St. Petersburg neighborhood. Well, not quite. And herein, for me, lies the difference between my daily experience in Israel and that in the United States.

As an American black male, I have trained myself to expect and to cope with rudeness, insults and various other slights. On American streets and in American businesses, I rarely relax, for the eye of suspicion follows me. In Israel, however, I have been relaxed most of the time, no matter where I am.

Here in Israel, I am aware of my blackness, too. At the same time, though, I know that Israeli society at large, unlike that of the U.S., is not inimical to my existence. At street corners in Jerusalem, for example, women do not hug their purses to their chests or give me battleship-size berth as I walk upon them. Some give me quizzical eye contact, of course, but none, as women do in the U.S., act as if they want to cross the street simply because of my color. Moreover, no car door locks slam as I approach.

Of the 30 or more shops I entered, only one person, a self-important antique dealer in Old Jaffa, gave me the American-nigger treatment. A Likud leader who spoke to our group cautioned me that, although Israelis love the idea of immigration, they dislike individual immigrants. I was momentarily deflated.

Even so, I still felt at ease and comforted by the sight of thousands of Jews from Morocco, Yemen, Ethiopia, Russia, Ukraine, America, Britain, Tunisia, Iraq, India and other places from around the globe. For the first time in my life, especially in Jerusalem, where skin colors ranged from the fairest of fair to the blackest of black, I felt like I belonged to one large international family.

A mere feeling, I know, because when our bus took us to meet with a group of Palestinian journalists at the American Colony Hotel, we saw many Israeli soldiers interrogating Palestinians at various checkpoints. One of the journalists who spoke with us was late because she had been stopped at a checkpoint. Obviously, she was furious and still stinging from the humiliation. Watching and listening to her, I realized again that this part of the world, home to some of the earth’s most brilliant minds, is deeply contradictory and tumultuous.

Earlier in the week, as our bus descended from the Golan Heights, where we had lunch with Israeli Army officers, down to the Sea of Galilee, we could see the borders of Jordan, Syria, Israel and Lebanon. We traveled to the West Bank and had coffee in the home of a Palestinian leader. We toured the occupied territories and ate with the militant mayor of a Jewish settlement. All the while, we saw mere barbed wired fences separating one group from the other, where the Palestinian flag flies a few yards from the Israeli flag. In some places, roadside signs warn of land mines.

Yet with such near proximity, these neighbors remain deadly enemies. How is it possible? A naive question, for sure. After five days here, I see faces where before I saw only silhouettes on CNN. Now, I see the faces of Israelis and those of Palestinians. I see faces of the children on both sides and wonder what will happen to them.

Are they, like all of their kin before them, condemned to spill one another’s blood forever? I will not dwell on this disturbing reality. In a few hours, we will greet the Sabbath at the Western Wall.