I was standing at the Central Bus Station in Jerusalem, after a long day. This day included getting dragged out of the World Zionist Congress with another 15 or so Jews for passing out flyers and chanting “Diaspora Jews say end the occupation!” and then spending that afternoon on a political tour around the outskirts of East Jerusalem to the see makeshift checkpoints that have been erected around almost every Palestinian neighborhood in “United Jerusalem.” These things were done with folks from the Center for Jewish Nonviolence, and they are interesting, crucial stories, and ones that I want to tell, soon, but they are not the story that I am going to tell right now. I bring these details, rather, just as backdrop for what happened next.
I was standing at the Central Bus Station, tired, drained, sad. I reached for my cellphone to check Twitter or put on a Podcast, and then decided against it. There had been a stabbing here at the Central Bus Station last week, 15 minutes after Kayla and I left, and I’d promised my mom that I wouldn’t used my cellphone while I was out on the streets. Anyway, its better to just be silent sometimes. Through the non-cellphoned silence, I overhead a soldier standing next to me, a handsome, tall Ethiopian-Israeli, talking into his cellphone:
“Smolani,” He said, “Leftist.”
He said in in that way that the word is said around this city these days, with a dragged out “s,” “sssmolani.” This word is a deeply derogatory word in this city, these days, especially in public. I looked up, and caught his eye for a moment.
Then, I heard the word swell up behind me — sssmolani! — and whirled around to see a squat Haredi man in a rumpled black suit talking to a secular-looking older woman. I didn’t think that the solider had been talking about me, but now I was thrown off. I checked my shirt, to see if I’d accidentally left some marking on me, and even peeked at my bag, to see if someone had stuck some sort of pin on it. But no. Clean. Maybe it’s just my long beard and wooden earring and no kippah? Or maybe I sssmell like a leftist?
My confusion dissipated as I looked across the train tracks to a crowd gathering around the actual Smolani in question. Not thinking too hard, I went over there. I saw a big guy, around 5’’10, but with huge, muscular shoulders, and a thick, sturdy chest bulging under a tight gray T-shirt. He was yelling in Hebrew, his voice deep and raised. Nearby was a dark-skinned man in a red shirt, with crinkly big brown eyes and wearing a confused half-smile. They were surrounded by armed police officers, and a small and growing crowd. It took me a second to bring the scene into focus:
The gray-shirted guy was yelling at the police officers. He turned around and put his hands on the Light Rail’s “Central Bus Station” sign and said:
“Check me, too. Come on, check me too!”
“Get out of here,” one of the police officers said, and grabbed his shoulder.
“You’re just checking him because he’s an Arab!” The gray-shirted guy yelled.
“Sssmolani!” a member of the crowd jeered.
I wondered, at this point, if I should get out my phone and start filming. I quickly realized that no, I shouldn’t. I am and will never be a Reporter in this place. I am too much part of this, all of this.
I asked the Palestinian guy, in Arabic, if he’s alright. He said, yes, fine, and that he just wanted his ID card back.
One of the police officers told the Palestinian guy to follow him, and the gray-shirted Israeli followed, still yelling:
“What is wrong with you? You stop him just because he’s an Arab?! Check me also! Check me also!”
His voice was deep and intimidating. Despite all of my ideologies, I feel impressed and excited watching him. And also scared for him. For both of the hims. The police checked the Palestinian guy, with the gray-shirted guy and me watching next to him, until another police officer called to his colleague;
“Shahrerr oto.” Let him go.
The Palestinian guy was released, and the police officer turned to the gray-shirted guy. “You’re detained.”
“Whatever,” says the gray-shirted guy. “This is absurd.”
He was so confident. I am guessing – I do not know, how could I know, but I am guessing – that he was some elite army unit. How else was he so goddam confident around these men with huge guns and short tempers?
Back at the train platform, a crowd had gathered.
A small guy – a shrimpy guy, with a wispy mustache – approaches the guy in the gray-shirt and said, “You’d better get the fuck out of here. I’m going to fuck you up.”
“I’m not going anywhere,” said the guy in gray, and puffed his chest forward.
“I should stab you, you Leftist!”
“Come on,” said the guy in gray, “Stab me.”
Should I film? No. I stepped between them, “Cool it, guys.”
“You too, you stinking leftist who gets fucked in the ass,” said the shrimpy guy to me, “I’ll fuck you up.”
A crowd began to gather, and two young girls, both of them dressed religiously, one with light skin, one with dark skin, started to yell.
“Leftists! Get out of here! I hope that you’re stabbed!”
A note on skin color and age – this shrimpy guy and many of the others gathered around the group were darker skinned and younger than than me and the gray-shirted guy, and lighter-skinned than the Arab guy, who was the oldest member of the group. Is this a good detail to include? I’m not sure. It felt awful, though: the probably-(I’ll speak for myself)-Ashkenazi Leftists facing off against the probably-Mizrahi Rightists, with the Palestinian guy standing quietly off to the side, watching.
“You’re supporting terrorists,” said one of the girls, “You leftists are encouraging the terrorists. How can you even think about helping him?” She jabbed her finger toward the Palestinian man, as if he was a bag of trash.
An older woman – also light-skinned probably-Ashkenazi and visibly secular God help us ugh… I can get why these guys don’t like Leftists…- intervened, and said to the young girls, “You should be ashamed, talking like this.”
“You should be ashamed,” one of the girls, probably 13 or 14, said, her tone loud and confident. How is everyone so Goddam confident? “Helping Arabs while they are stabbing us on the streets.”
“No one here is supporting stabbings,” the older woman said.
At this point, the Palestinian man left, quietly.
In the meantime, another young guy approached the gray-shirt guy. A bunch of police were around by this point, and it didn’t feel really unsafe anymore, just ugly. Let it be said that, in my experience, the police in Jerusalem often do a good job of maintaining their monopoly on violence, not letting Jewish Rightists get too far, at least when Leftist Jews are around. Probably even sometimes when we’re not. The mob that I saw a few weeks ago would have, I think, genuinely hurt or maybe even killed any Arabs they found, if it weren’t for the police. The same police who were blatantly racially profiling Arabs on the streets, and who shot to the young woman in Afula and who arrest young boys in the middle of the night and and and and and and. Anyway. I decided to film.
My phone died eight seconds in, which was probably some sort of sign saying, like, be here now, or, paint a picture with your words later, or, charge your battery more often you twerp.
Anyway, these were the eight seconds:
The guy in the yellow shirt says:
“You son of whore, Arabs should stab you.”
The guy in the gray shirt points at him and asks:
“This is the Jews?”
The young girls say:
The yellow shirted guy says:
“Bro, wait, wait until they stab you, you don’t —.”
And then the film cuts off.
After that, the police separated everyone. The gray-shirted guy walked off alone. I walked after him.
“This is an insane country,” he said. We both laughed wryly.
“I was in America,” he continued, “And yeah, there’s some racism there, but they don’t just stop people on the streets because of how they look.”
I told him that I didn’t really agree with his analysis of America, but still, yeah, fucking insane what’s happening here.
“Are you active in any political frameworks?” I asked.
“No, and I don’t want to be,” he says, “I just want to live in a normal country.”