Jerusalem encounter: racism seeps into my yard

I’d stepped into the alley to grab a few sage leaves for my tea. In my West Jerusalem neighborhood, the alley is more like a massive, shared garden. Branches loaded with plums, pomegranate, berries, apricots, oranges, lemons and olives bend over fences. Sage and rosemary are everywhere. When I first moved into the neighborhood, I used to ask permission to take fruit and herbs and olives. After some surprised yeses and after noticing others just plucking as they passed, I realized it’s a bit like a kibbutz.

The same goes for the people. An elderly neighbor watches my landlords’ children a few afternoons a week. My apartment, a mother-in-law suite, is owned by a wealthy, white-collar couple. Both the husband and wife work.

It was one of these afternoons when I ducked into the alley, barefoot. By the time I’d gotten back, sage in hand, the rusted gate had been closed. The elderly neighbor saw me reaching between the bars for the key, which is always in the lock, and scolded me for not having shut the gate for the 30 seconds I’d been in the alley. “You know,” she added, “there are a lot of Arabs wandering around here.”

It’s true. There are a lot of Palestinians in our neighborhood. Arab children attend the school for the deaf just a street away from my apartment. Palestinian women teach there. There are some Arab day laborers—either citizens of the state, East Jerusalemites, or West Bankers with or without permits—working on various construction projects. And I’ve noticed some Palestinian families that seem to live in the area.

“Excuse me?” I asked the neighbor, giving her a chance to redeem herself by not repeating her comment.

Instead, she insisted that I’d better lock up, even if I was headed into the alley just for a minute, because of “all the Arabs wandering around the neighborhood.”

As though a Jew couldn’t be a thief? As though all Palestinians are?

I pointed at the woman. “You can’t talk like that. That’s racist.”

She didn’t answer me. I went on to my apartment downstairs, feeling guilty that I’d spoken so sharply to an elder. But just because she’s older doesn’t mean she isn’t responsible for her behavior.

A few days later, she was in the yard, hanging laundry, as I went out. I started to say hello but she ignored me, put the half-full basket down, and went inside, slamming the door behind her.

And then my landlord came to me. She’s one of those Peace Now types. For Independence Day, she and her husband hung a blue and white banner from their porch. The word Shalom stood between the blue bars where the Star of David goes.

“I heard you had some sort of argument with our neighbor…?”

I was shocked that the woman had complained to my landlord. After all, wasn’t she ashamed of what she said?

“I wouldn’t call it an argument,” I said, and I recounted what had happened. My landlord smiled, chuckled and told me to leave it. There’s no changing the old woman now.

I was disturbed by our conversation, by my landlord’s tendency to forgive such comments and to laugh them off. The big moral and human rights issues like the nakba and the refugees and the occupation and the settlements and the institutionalized discrimination and the racism towards all non-Jews are built on and feed off of and are reinforced by all these the little comments, millions of little remarks made in an off-hand way. Remarks that no one confronts, that people smile and laugh away.

But I didn’t say all this to my landlord. I didn’t want to fight with her and I didn’t want to find myself booted from the place when my lease is up. So I nodded, forced a smile, and went on my way.

As I walked away, I realized that I’d just given my landlord a pass and, in a way, this let our neighbor off the hook, too. And I realized I’d given up on my role in Israeli society, however small.  Change, I realized, will only come from the outside.