A Definition of Oppression as Witnessed on a Sherut

On the “sherut,” the clunky, odd yellow transits that shuttle back and forth between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv (and elsewhere). It’s a trip it make often- I may have moved to Spring Hill, but I am a Jerusalemite at heart- so I probably ride between four and eight Jerusalem-Tel Aviv sheruts a week. The sheruts sit ten, and I’d say, by rough estimation, that at least half of the seats are generally filled by Palestinians and African refugees. I learn a lot on some of these rides, just by listening, when I’m not too busy bestowing upon my thumbs a healthy dose of future-arthritis (like now…), and am so grateful to know Arabic (in addition to the Palestinian passengers, many of the African refugees are from Sudan). Usually the interactions are congenial, sometimes tense, sometimes surprising, sometimes moving. I was caught off guard by what I heard this time, though: just after I boarded, two Palestinian men did as well. The driver, also a Palestinian, said something to them and, flustered or frustrated, they got off the sherut in a hurry. I thought that I had understood the words, but I wasn’t sure- they didn’t make sense to me. Why would he ask them that? And then, another Palestinian man came to board, and the driver asked him the same question: “Ma’ak tasreeh? Do you have a permit?” This man said, yes, yes I do, and produced his permit from the folds of his green, Palestinian Authority ID (which is actually issued by Israel: yet another way in which the Palestinian Authority has about as much authority as a series of City Halls). The ugliness of the moment hit me deep in my chest: on one hand, Israel controls all of the territory between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. On the other hand, free movement in this territory is granted only to some and denied to others (this brilliant info graphic breaks the classifications down in a way that is both concise and galling). With that, many of those denied freedom of movement are so desperate for work- a desperation also intrinsically correlated to the system of occupation and discrimination that rules here- that they enter “Israel proper” (scare quotes because there is no real border- it’s a border only for Palestinians) every day, risking arrest or execution. They have virtually no choice, but are forced to live with what I imagine is a heavy sense of fear or at least paranoia that they will be caught and fined or jailed or worse. And it is a variant of this fear that I imagine motivated the driver of this sherut, to check his passengers’ IDs. A psychological, practical and everpresent checkpoint of fear. And that is as clear a definition of oppression as I can think of on this gorgeous Friday afternoon.