Rattling the Cage: Segregation blues

Let's face it - what we have in this country is not 'separate but equal.'

By LARRY DERFNER
January 27, 2010 21:40
4 minute read.
Larry Derfner

larry derfner 58. (photo credit: d)

I spent the day in Nazareth recently, doing a story about Israeli Arabs in hi-tech, and when I got in the car with the (Jewish) photographer to leave, I said to him, "Isn't it a relief to talk to Arabs as regular people?" He smiled in agreement.

I had the same feeling when I was doing a story on B'Tselem, the anti-occupation NGO in Jerusalem, and found myself making coffee in the kitchen next to an Arab woman who was getting a glass from the cupboard or something. We were together for about a minute, I don't remember any conversation, any particular notice we took of each other. It was only afterward that I felt this revelation: For a minute, I wasn't living in a segregated country. For a minute, the sharing of space with an Arab, as equals, was unremarkable.

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This is a vision of life in this country as most Jews and Arabs, I think, wish it could be - and it's so amazingly rare. We cross paths, but usually on opposite sides of a counter or standing next to each other in line. With few exceptions, we live in segregated neighborhoods, our kids go to segregated public schools, they play in segregated parks.

Nearly 25 years ago, not long after I moved to Israel, I rented an apartment in the Kababir neighborhood of Haifa, right on the informal border between the Jewish section and Arab section. The building had two Arab families along with about 10 Jewish families. I'd see one of the Jews talking with one of the Arabs in front of the building, griping about the plumbing, about the noise - the things neighbors talk about. I got to know one of the Arab families, and once they invited me in to their apartment.

It's only in the decades since then that I've realized how rare an experience that was for an Israeli Jew. Before moving to Modi'in, I lived in three different apartments in Jerusalem, two in Tel Aviv and one other in Haifa, but that year in Kababir was the only time I've had any Arabs neighbors. In Modi'in, a city of 70,000, the only Arabs I've seen are illegal Palestinian construction workers sneaking into town or under arrest at the police station.

IN 20-plus years as a journalist here, I've interviewed hundreds of Arabs, but only had one as a colleague. I've never had an Arab friend or even an acquaintance. I can't recall a party or any purely social, nonprofessional setting I've been in where an Arab was present.

I know there are quite a few Israeli Jews who do have considerable contact with Arabs, who get to know them through work - especially if they work in a hospital - but the great majority of Israeli Jews, unless I'm badly mistaken, have exactly no Arabs in their circle of friends, coworkers and acquaintances.

Isn't this wonderful? I feel like I left Los Angeles, went back in time and moved to Mississippi.

And let's face it - what we've got in this country is not separate but equal. We Jews are the privileged ones; the Arabs are the supplicants. They're knocking on our door; we're not knocking on theirs.

This, finally, is why it was such a relief to be talking with Arab hi-tech people in Nazareth, to be puttering around a kitchen next to an Arab NGO employee in Jerusalem. The equality and ease we had, as fleeting as it was, relieved me of my guilt - my guilt at being in a superior position to Arabs in this country, simply because I'm a Jew.

Ah yes, Jewish liberal guilt. I know - I can't stand it, either. In fact, one of the most vivid memories I have of my first days in Israel are of a field trip to the Knesset, of standing outside in the snow and thinking, "Thank God I don't have to be a liberal anymore. Here my people are the underdogs, I don't have to feel guilty or apologize to anyone." Little did I know.


Things are in sad shape when it's such a rare thrill to be in the same room with an Arab and not have the walls crack from the tension, for the words, "Arab... Jew... Arab... Jew..." not to be running through your head. I don't have the patience for this. I really don't want to set aside a day to take an Arab to lunch. I don't want to have to join a goddamn encounter group for my kids to play one game of soccer with Arab kids.

I'm really not such a big liberal. I don't need Israel to be the rainbow nation, and I don't expect it to be. I actually want it to go on being a Jewish state. I'm just tired of it being a Jewish Mississippi.


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