Much has been written about the dangers of hitchhiking over the past few days. Some have suggested that those who hitchhike deliberately put themselves in harm’s way. It is indeed terrifying to imagine what a difference a safe ride home might have made in Israel this week.
But hitchhiking, for many, is the primary mode of transport, not as a protest or nationalist declaration but rather as a joyful necessity. As Jono Vernon-Powell, founding director of travel company Nomadic Thoughts said on the BBC’s Four Thought, “Certainly if you’re searching for a true travel utopia, hitching is, arguably, as close as you’ll get; bunking a ride with someone else, chugging along the same road in the spirit of friendship.”
Relying on Israel’s less than perfect bus services makes life very difficult for many, while the simple act of giving a lift can be life affirming. I have learned much from passengers and drivers during over a thousand hitchhiking journeys here in Israel.
From the mundane advice about a tear in my car’s upholstery, to how to understand the tricky segment in (Talmud tractate) Sanhendrin 110b, I have been to better doctors on the recommendation of hitchhikers, and my niece made a shidduch for me while hitching a lift (he did not turn out to be my husband).
Anyone who has ever stood at a bus stop soggy from rain or the boiling heat will be familiar with that feeling of profound relief when someone stops to take them closer to home. Picking up hitchhikers is a very simple form of equalizing opportunity. It is a way of spreading good karma, a way to thank those who organize the universe for that functioning car, which is not a given in Israel. At the same time it is the chance to do a little penance to the environment for adding to its depletion.
I can hear the shouts of the Israelis and English-speakers around the world. I can imagine the comments below bellowing accusations of naivety and irresponsibility.
In North America giving strangers a ride is considered fool-hardy at best. We have all seen those films. But Israel is not that country and it would be a terrible shame to fall into the fear and loathing of our more individualistic allies overseas.
In Israel this week people are hitchhiking less. We live surrounded by terror. We might wince at our victimhood and declare our strength, but when young people are violently snatched and our neighbors are shown celebrating, it is very hard not to be terrified. It only takes one, many say, but it is usually only those who have never hitchhiked, nor picked up a hitchhiker, who advise against it.
Of course I am not suggesting letting just anyone into your car, or that you enter just any car. Look at the person with whom you will share your journey and listen to your instincts. I trust my instincts and that most of my fellow compatriots want to spread good, not evil, in the world, even if too few in Israel’s neighboring areas are able to sing it loudly without fear.
Many see hitchhiking only as the reserve of the haredim (ultra-Orthodox) and settlers.
But surely in this age of social media, Atraf, Waze and Get Taxi, there must be a way to make hitchhiking not only safe but accessible to all who own a smartphone? Concurrently we need better public transport.
It is, in places, woefully inadequate. It is outrageous to suggest that people leave city centers if they can’t afford the rent there, yet leave those in “affordable” areas stranded with no efficient, affordable way to access their places of employment or broader family. If we are too scared to generously share our cars then it is for the government to generously use our taxes to create a reliable, safe bus network throughout Israel, so that men and women without cars can travel this country safely at times that are relevant to them, within allotted times that don’t waste too much of their day.
Far too many journeys take three, four, five times longer by bus than they do by car. Far be it from me to suggest that there is ever any government wastage of public funds, but my guess is that money could be found for some more buses.
You can know that a city has an effective, efficient public transport system if you see people in suits and office attire using it. In London, New York, Tokyo and Paris people earning six-figure salaries use it every day.
Here in Israel it is extremely rare. Anyone with a spare shekel prefers their car.
As Israel is pushed further towards the materialist, selfish vacuum that has engulfed much of the modern world, random acts of kindness become harder to commit and harder to find. There is a dissonance.
Few of us do not love a story about a poor man helping a stranded stranger. The poor man is always subsequently rewarded for his generosity of spirit and sharing the little he has. Yet in our real lives so many of us are utterly fearful of strangers, especially those who speak a different language. As we now rush, clutching our books of Psalms, to fill food bags for the army and hold placards up on social media, how many of us in reality would have driven straight past the young men? We need safe borders. We need a viable, affordable, efficient, relevant public transport system. It is a benevolent society that shares its wealth. As we beg for the return of three men who are strangers to most of us let us not become too fearful to offer this simplest kindness of giving lifts.
May Gil-Ad Shaer, Eyal Yifrah and Naftali Frankel return home soon, safely.
The author is a teacher and counselor in Jerusalem.
She is also co-founder/co-director of Kayama.