I visited Israel three times as a program participant between the years 1992 and 2000, and twice independently with family.
Each time, there were outright rules and admonitions from tour guides, concerned locals, or experienced travelers to Israel (“Don’t drive to Jerusalem via Jericho.”); and unspoken or whispered advice (“You’re young. You’re blonde. Stay out of Arab villages and east Jerusalem.”)
The message received? “Sure, Israel is a lot safer than she often looks on t.v., but there is a real danger here nonetheless, and that danger is Arab.”
Twice during my earlier travels to Israel, I found myself alone with Arabs and frightened. Once deservedly – an Arab cab driver picked me up near the Kotel in Jerusalem and made me ride in the front seat with him and more than once on the way to my destination caressed my knee. Funny enough, I was less worried about being raped than I was of the idea of being dragged to east Jerusalem.
The second time was when I ended up lost on my way driving alone from Tel Aviv to Tiberias, and found myself in Nazareth. All it took for hysteria to set in was the sight of a billboard in Arabic promoting a fruit drink endorsed by Yasser Arafat. I quickly pulled into a parking lot and hid in my car trembling while I consulted the map. Thankfully, no one tried to make me drink the Arafat fruit punch.
When we made Aliyah, I arrived to Israel carrying the “Arabs are scary” baggage still.
In fact, it was only after we decided to live on Hannaton that I realized that Kfar Manda, the next big town over, was an Arab town, and that essentially, we were surrounded by Arab villages (some Muslim, some Druze — all Israeli). Once I found out, outwardly I felt proud, in the same way a white girl living in Harlem might. But inwardly, especially when I heard a rumor that Manda houses an active terrorist cell, I felt that same sense of discomfort. “Arabs are scary.” Whether or not the terrorist cell rumor has any truth to it, I still don’t know. But so far my comfort level extends only to getting gas at the station just outside of town (because it’s on my way home from work), but not heading into the town center alone for a shwarma or some vegetables.
I’m fully aware that my fear of Arabs is directly related to my ignorance and to lack of personal experience. That it has nothing to do with personal human interaction, and everything to do with stories spread by fearful people. Some of these stories are true, of course; but some are exaggerated. And, none of the stories belong to me.
In fact, all of my interactions with Arabs since I’ve moved to Israel have not only been benign, but a few have even been memorable examples of human kindness.
For instance, there’s a Middle Eastern restaurant my in-laws frequent: of all the restaurants we’ve been to Israel, it’s the one where the kitchen staff is the most sensitive to my kids’ food allergies. And just yesterday, I was driving home from a business meeting in Tel Aviv when I realized something was terribly wrong with my car. I ignored the noise for a good ten minutes, long enough to get off the beach highway and pull over to the shoulder. It didn’t take long to understand that the piece hanging off the front side of my car was not necessarily going to stop the car from running, but certainly was not going to allow me to get home safely if it kept dragging. I made it to the nearest gas station, one near an Arab Village, where two Arab attendants fixed my car temporarily. They didn’t hesitate when I asked them to help me and they didn’t ask for payment.
If I had followed the “Rules for American Jewish Girls Travelling in Israel,” I would have never made it home. The Arab-run gas station was the only one around for miles.
I can’t hold myself up as the picture of co-existence or tolerance just because I live in the lower Galilee and ask for help from handy, young Arab guys. But I have realized in the short time that I have lived here that my understanding of the situation between Jews and Arabs in Israel is transforming from one informed by stories to one informed by experience — and we all know that it’s real, live interaction between people that is the miraculous cure to both real and imagined conflict.
And my real, live Jewish interaction with real, live Arabs makes us all one teeny tiny step closer to peace.
This originally appeared on Jan. 25, 2012 as “Israeli in Progress” on the Jerusalem Post. Jen Maidenberg is a writer, editor, activist and former assistant editor at the Arizona Jewish Post. Visit her website at http://jenmaidenberg.com/.