My Word: Not-so-easy riders

Jews – no matter what papers they are carrying – cannot travel on a Palestinian-owned bus to Nablus, or Shechem as it’s been known in Hebrew ever since the Bible put it on the map.

November 19, 2011 22:10
Palestinian activists in front of Egged bus

Palestinians activists try to get bus to J'lem 311. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)


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‘Wow! They have stolen our idea, ”declared my favorite 10-year-old as he watched the news reports of the tent protests in New York. But, of course, there were obvious differences. For a start, only in Israel did the protests include top-name performances, whose venue and details were announced by the public broadcasting service while the state-owned transport companies provided extra buses to take the concert goers-cum-demonstrators safely to the site.

The other obvious difference was the name: If Israel had dared to include the word “occupy” in the title of any protest, the United Nations would probably still be too busy debating our perceived belligerency to discuss the ongoing massacre in Syria or what lies behind Iran’s nuclear program.

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If the devil lies in the details, it is details like that which drive me mad. Talk of tougher sanctions on the Islamic Republic sounds positive, but what will it take for the UN to actually rescind Iran’s membership? What kind of irreplaceable contribution do Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Bashar Assad have to make to UNESCO, alongside the would-be Palestinian state, for example? The answer, my friend, lies blowing in an ill wind.

When Gaddafi’s Libya was finally removed from the UN’s Human Rights Committee, my first response was not “What took them so long?” but “What was it doing there in the first place?” Still, Iran might have a role to play in the onceaugust world body. According to a Reuters report from October 1, Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei rejected the Palestinians’ UN statehood bid, saying any deal that accepted the existence of Israel would leave a “cancerous tumor” forever threatening the security of the Middle East.

It’s strange how things like that work.

ONE OF THE most curious stories last week was the “peace bus,” in which six Palestinian activists tried to revive memories of the American “freedom riders” of the 1960s’ civil rights movement (aided, of course, by those indispensable accessories of the world in 2011: live footage on YouTube and Facebook petitions.) I’m sure some goodhearted (even bleeding-hearted) souls were taken for a ride with the latest protest. The six demonstrators were followed by a crowd of some 50 journalists, so that even if they had a bad trip, they can say they achieved their publicity-seeking goals.

Shouting unimaginative slogans about apartheid, the protesters pointed out that they cannot travel freely from Ramallah to Jerusalem without the correct permits, or an Israeli-identity card.

Jews, of course – no matter what papers they are carrying – cannot travel on a Palestinian-owned bus to Nablus, or Shechem as it’s been known in Hebrew ever since the Bible put it on the map.

That, apparently, is not considered discrimination.

Strangely, it was my frequent bus journeys as a student at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem that led me to learn Arabic. When I travelled North to spend Shabbat with my family, I often discovered that by the time I approached my hometown in Galilee I was the only Jew on the bus. I found it uncomfortable not understanding the conversations going on around me and determined to learn at least enough to get the gist of what was being said.

A couple of basic courses in spoken Arabic were enough to help me discover what I probably should have realized all along: that most of my fellow travelers were having ordinary conversations about ordinary topics – wages, kids and the bus service itself – the same sorts of concerns that fuelled the social justice protests this summer, come to think of it.

My basic Arabic has helped me in all sorts of situations.

I have chatted in Arabic to the woman who shared a hospital room with me (and greeted doctors who treated me, too); I have conversed with other visitors (and staff) at museums and the zoo; and just a week ago, I used it to help an Arabic-speaking toddler who had become separated from her family in a shopping mall. Apartheid was never this good.

Bus passengers face all sorts of problems in Israel – not least of them the need of heightened awareness of security. Passengers – Jews and Arabs alike – automatically scan the seats for suspicious objects.

The bus bombings that accompanied the peace process did not discriminate in their victims.

The “Israel is an apartheid state” slogans annoy me more than long lines at security checks at the entrance to malls, hospitals, cinemas and bus and train stations – all places that have been targeted by those seeking anything but peace.

Last week, we received another reminder of how blithely the accusations are thrown around, regardless of the facts on the ground. Israel cannot be proud of having a president found guilty of the worst type of sexual assault, but it helps prove the principle that all men (and women) are equal before the law.

And the judges who found Moshe Katsav guilty should be able to throw charges of apartheid-policy out of court with ease: The three-judge panel who initially tried Katsav and found him guilty and the panel of three Supreme Court justices who rejected his appeal, in both incidences, comprised a Christian-Arab man and two Jewish women. In what other country in the region would a member of a minority community and two women be in a position to hand down a verdict on the president, and a similar panel be able to maintain it? And yet Israel is constantly being charged, and found guilty, of apartheid.

We are an “occupying” force overwhelmingly occupied with how to defend ourselves against suicide bombings and rocket fire.

No other country would be expected to quietly accept missile attacks on one million of its citizens in times of war, let alone what passes for peace. Where else would hospitals, schools and kindergartens be fighting for budgets for missile-proof shelters? No wonder people are confused about the driving force behind the so-called peace protests. The “flotilla,” the “flightilla” and now the “bus-illa” – one wonders where it will end.

It’s doubtful that they are putting us on the road to peace and justice.

The writer is editor of The International Jerusalem Post.

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