I am standing in line to deal with some technicality at the Arnona tax office in the Jerusalem municipality. It is hot out (although not Tel Aviv-hot). It is a severely long line. People are grumbling.
As I do – as many here do – I semi-consciously begin to categorize everyone standing in line by ethnicity, language, religion and religiousness. Next to me: A young man in a black t-shirt and a blue baseball cap pulled down low on his forehead, standing with a blind woman in a black hijab: Palestinian Muslims (probably fasting). Behind me, a short black woman with a black bandana on her head, speaking in American-accented English into her ear-buds: Not sure if Jewish or not-Jewish. Not Muslim. Behind her, a bulky young man with light brown hair and his blond-haired mother speaking Russian: Russian Jewish. Et cetera.
The guard – bearded, but with a ponytail and without a kippah – emerges to set up one of those stretchy barriers ubiquitous in airports and banks and other places where human beings are supposed to stand in long lines.
“Everyone get in line, next to the wall,” he says, his voice military-style deep and authoritative.
A young man is walking by, speaking on his phone in Arabic, his muscled arm flexed at a 90 degree angle under a tight t-shirt. He either does not hear the guard, or choose not to listen to him right away. The guard addresses him directly:
“You: I said get in line by the wall.”
“I’m talking on the phone, ” the young man shoots back in accented but clear Hebrew, his voice its own kind of deep.
“I don’t care,” the guard growls, “Get in line. You’re blocking the walkway.”
The young man turns around, and continues to walk. Slowly.
“What, do you not understand Hebrew?” The guard says. It is clear from the conversation that proceeded that the young man understands Hebrew. The ethnic/national/lingual/political undertones just became overtones. My ears prick up.
The young man shrugs and continues to walk toward the back of the line, slowly, and the guard goes back inside. The story stops there. At least, at first.
I look back, and see that the young man, still on his phone, is now half-in, half-out of the line. An older man with a big beard and a long, pinstriped jacket (Subconscious: Haredi, for sure. Lithuanian? I try to remember) has arrived, and is standing behind-ish the young Palestinian man. The Russian-speaking son turns to the young Palestinian man:
“Get behind him, in the line,” he says, gesturing to the elderly Haredi man.
Dynamics of age, of masculinity, of who is lower and higher on the social stepladder, and maybe the Russian-speaking man feels emboldened by the guard’s earlier singling-out of the Palestinian man, or maybe he feels solidarity with the guard, insulted on his behalf. Or maybe not. Who knows.
The young Palestinian man replies: “I was here right after you.”
Another man – also Haredi, but young, and from a different stream, wearing just a white shirt and black pans, and with dark skin and only wisps of a beard – joins in, addressing the Palestinian man: “What do you care, one person more or less? Get behind him.”
“But I was here,” says the Palestinian, his voice rising.
“Stop making a scene,” the young Haredi says.
At this point, I join in. Right or wrong, I am not a passive observer, scribbling in my notebook, a neutral journalist-blogger loathe to interfere with the unfolding drama. I am a character in this story.
“He was here first,” I say.
Many pairs of eyes fall on me (Pale skin, bearded, no kip, Hebrew with just a twinge of something foreign).
“He was here first,” I repeat, “Let him get in his spot in line.”
My statement does not come from a place of trying to arbitrate a person-to-person conflict. It is deeply, wholly political, just like the rest of them. I’m thinking: Occupation. I’m thinking: Meters from here, young Palestinians have been beaten almost to death. I’m thinking: If I were in a line and were being singled out probably-but-not-definitely-but-still-probably because I was a Jew, would I want a stranger to intervene on my side?
The Russian-speaking man grumbles something about how the Palestinian man should go take my spot then. It is a fair and strong challenge to my intervention. I am busy and harried and self-interested, just like everyone else. I grit my teeth and decide I will give up my spot, if it comes down to it (self-righteousness dressed as selflessness?). But the Palestinian man takes his spot in line, after the Russian mother and son, and before the two Haredi men. Everyone falls silent again.
“He was here first,” a woman with bleached-blond hair and grey pants next to me mutters (Mizrahi. My brain is still categorizing, even at the tail-end of the mini-drama).
Inside the building, the young Palestinian ends up in a different line, behind me.
“They were all telling me to get back in the line, but I was there,” he says to me, in Hebrew.
“Shufit,” I say in Arabic, “I saw.”
His eyes widen in a way that has become very familiar to me.
“Arabi?” He asks if I am an Arab.
“Jewish, but I speak Arabic.”
We talk a bit more about what happened in line, and exchange a few more pleasantries, formalities, say goodbye.
I do not succeed in getting what I had hoped to get done in the Arnona office, for reasons that strike me as wholly unpolitical.
Welcome back to Jerusalem.