Wednesday, March 01, 2006

freedom to move

I met Jihad a few months ago on the bus from Afula to Jerusalem. About an hour passed before he actually told me his name, and when he did introduce himself, it was with a disclaimer: his name meant closeness to god, he said, and did not necessarily indicate holy war.

I could see why he had a hard time telling people.

He asked me whether I liked Jerusalem or the north better. I told him I liked the mountains and open space of the north but loved the energy of Jerusalem, and asked him which he preferred.

"The north," he told me. "I can't walk two steps in Jerusalem without be stopped for an identity check."


It's like we live in different countries, reflected in terms of both north-south and Arab-Jew. I've noticed it before, but it's not something that affects me on a daily basis. Jihad notices it all the time. When he was telling me about his family, he mentioned it: "I don't know how you" - meaning, Jews, maybe West - can always live so far away from your parents and siblings;" and he mentioned it when talking about his mother's food: "We always have bread with our meals, not like you." Jihad was studying special education at Hebrew University and told me he liked being Israeli, liked speaking Hebrew, but that he really didn't see too much in common between Arabs and Jews. He told me he wasn't a suicide bomber. I hadn't asked.

The division he stated as matter of fact and experience I don't think occurs as easily to Jewish Israelis. Despite the fears of the intifada or of terrorist threats, Israel is one of the easiest countries to move around in. Buses go just about everywhere, and hitchhiking is a well-accepted way of life. The checkpoints heading from the West Bank into Israel are a breeze for Jews, and essentially non-existent from Israel into the West Bank.

For the most part, Arabs with valid Israeli ID cards are still as open targets for security checks as illegal Palestinians. Imagine how shitty it must feel to be treated as a maybe criminal everywhere you go in the country you were born and raised in. Leaving aside for now the terrible infrastructure Arab communities are subject to and the degradation of their school systems, Arab-Israeli citizens are profiled in much the same way as black Americans - danger indicated by appearance and accent.

When I talk about a difference between Jews and Arabs traveling around, I don't mean that there is any sort of legal limit imposed, but a cultural stigma. Everybody can take buses and hitch rides, and Arabs and Jews are nominally equally to do everything in a citizen's right under the law, but when it comes down to it, there is something that hangs in the air that really separates Arabs from the Jews into some misconceived notion of dangerous and safe.

In Jerusalem, especially, the security guards strolling around are wont to look anyone in the eye to make sure they're not terrorists, but Arabs get extra special scrutiny. And most people I know without wanting or meaning to tenses up when an arab (could-be terrorist?) gets on a bus. All I really have to get worked up about during security checks is the way guards force me to open up my stuffed backpacks even when they know damn well I have nothing dangerous inside. In the north, things are a bit different. At the the Afula bus station, for example, where a good 40 percent of passangers are Arab, there are hardly any security checks at all. Just a guy who looks you up and down and sends you on your way. In Jerusalem, the lines outside the bus station extend till the road, always very crowded and nerve racking. It's not that there haven't been terror attacks in Afula - there have. And to be quite honest, I've always thought those lines at the bus station would make a much better terror target than inside.

Feeling free to move around as I please is not hard to do in Israel. This past weekend I went on a camping trip up north with some friends and felt freer than I have in months. It was like my summer officially began and I officially returned to my metaphysical home of wandering. We tickled the northern countryside with either our feet in the hills or our finger pointed downward, inviting a ride. Both were successful, both exhilharating.

Hitchhiking. A culture as passe in North America as most other personal freedoms are becoming there. I've definitely hitched rides in Canada and the States, but usually with a nagging feeling in the back of my mind remembering that nice man giving me a ride could easily be a serial killer/rapist/any other possible horrible criminal I could possibly imagine. A couple winters ago, my friends and I hitched from Quebec City to Montreal on New Year's eve armed with kitchen forks as weapons. The cae that picked us up only 5 minutes after we set out on the road (hey, for better or worse, it's easy for women to get rides) turned out to belong to two young guys who were heading west to bring ecstasy back with them to sell at a party. The kitchen forks turned out to be priceless heirlooms apparently having once belonged to a premier of Quebec, my friend's great grand-father.

In Israel, hithching is second nature, and illegal only to IDF soldiers (government property). In the West Bank, it's incredibly easy to hitch a ride. My theory is that because the roads there are open to both Palestinian and Jewish cars simultaneously (a fact I found really surprising - I don't know why, but I expected there to be much more division there) Jews are really keen on picking up other Jews as quickly as possible to avoid any sort of dangerous situations.

It's just as easy in the rest of Israel, though it sometimes takes longer. I see it as a reflection of the easy and free lifestyle Israelis thrive on. Hitching is called tremping (from the word tramp), reminiscent of the early 20th century American migrant workers for whom public transportation meant illegally hopping freight trains and public housing meant sleeping on the roads. It's indicative of the culture of the western dream to be able to go and do wherever and however you want.

It's a dream everybody wants. Nobody wants to feel stifled and repressed, especially not in the place they call home. Without even getting into the experience of Palestinians over the last five years (I'm qualified only to say what I've read, and the point of this post is not to compare suffering, just to describe experiences I know) I can say Jews were truly scared shitless to go to pizza stores, hop on buses or even to walk down the street. The fear of death was imminent, expected - it was only a matter of time. But they still went out. They still rode buses, and approached their fear with humor. Life did not stop for those who kept living. Nobody stayed bottled up in their house - that would have been surrendering to fear, surrendering to death.

How ironic that in a country racked with domestic war and constant security checks, it is easier to travel than in the land of the free and the home of the brave.

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