21 June 2011
Race in Israel
The first one was a young woman serving in the Israeli Defense Forces. She and another female soldier were at the Western Wall in their uniforms with their rifles in their hands, trigger-ready. I'm actually used to seeing armed soldiers everywhere in Israel, even and particularly at the holy places. And the truth is I've seen fewer on this trip than before. Armed soldiers inside the Kotel plaza, where people pray and not just outside at the entrances bolstering security have always bothered me. Some of the female soldiers pray at the wall with their guns. Others take photos with their guns at the wall. It's always hard to see. But this woman was a black woman. And when I saw her I felt both kinship and dissonance. She could a have been Mizrahi, an indigenous black Jew; she could have been Beta Yisrael, an Ethiopian Jew. She could have been the adopted child of American Jews who made aliyah (moved to Israel). I don't know her story. I just know that she is black like me and not black like me. Both of us passed through the womb of Mother Africa and we each found ourselves in different contexts. I though about her military service (so different from mine as a chaplain - I was never armed) and how much of it might be protecting settlements and clashing with Palestinians. I wondered what it was like to be a black Israeli with a brown face on that side of the line. I wondered how the Arabs saw her. And I wondered if it was like some inner city folk's experience black police officers, "black and blue, more blue than black." I didn't speak to her because I didn't know what to say. But I have not forgotten her.
Last night we were in the mother of all traffic jams. A big SUV came at us in what was left of the now single lane we were in going the other way as a result of all the cars parked on both sides of the road. It had Mad Max styled grills all over the windows. Our driver told us that Israeli settlers in Silwan, an Arab neighborhood in East Jerusalem were in so many violent clashes with the Arab Israeli citizens into whose neighborhood they had encroached that they had to armor their cars. As the man got out of his car to try to make us back up the street so that he could get through, our diver rolled up the windows and locked the doors, saying he's probably armed. He was. He was also black, and quite handsome with cornrows. And he was furious with us. Our driver refused to move. He got his car around us only because his mirrors were higher than ours, passing with inches to spare. I have never imagined the face of the Israeli occupation was a black face like mine and I was deeply troubled. I still am.
The folk who I've met here are all sympathetic to the Palestinians and Israeli Arabs. And all socially and politically moderate to some degree. They are from the US, UK, Scotland, Australia and New Zealand. They all have colonial histories. And they're all white, with the exception of myself, a Korean graduate student and an African American graduate student. I'd love to talk to someone who knows this place inside and out about race here, but it troubles me that so many of the experts to whom I have access are white, American or European or even progressive Jews and Israelis.
I am haunted by images of the occupation as black on black crime, to borrow a phrase from my own context, and it disturbs me deeply.