I had been chased around Tel Aviv and Jerusalem for the last few weeks getting gleeked on by the entire Felix family. Gleeking isn't a serious offense and it is often laughed off but for how silly this annoyance, spitting is no laughing matter.
I've had it in my head that during these nine months of traveling, I will probably be disrespected in one way or another. We are getting into some heavy topics and have already been involved in some pretty intense discussions regarding religion, war, peace and progressive thinking and I can only assume that this sort of tension can bring out violence, harsh words and the occasionally spitting. In many cultures spitting is a means to degrade another, and I've heard stories of such action in developing countries.
I DID NOT, however, think in a million years that I would be spat on by a religious Jew in Israel.
I have been taught that the Jewish community is an incredibly peaceful and accepting group. I mean really. My boyfriend is Jewish and his amazing parents were kind enough to pay for my ticket to Israel, welcome me into their family, and give me the opportunity to travel to a place I never imagined I would see. So, there I stood, in Israel, "The Holy Land." In the home to many walks of life and numerous sects of religions and I, an outsider, was pushed into extreme discomfort and unreasonable judgment.
Levi and I had attended the Sheikh Jarrah protest against the occupation of this small neighborhood in East Jerusalem. The protest was insane; thirty people were arrested right in front of my face, thrown into paddy wagons and incarcerated overnight. However it wasn't until after the protest that the real madness began.
The sun set. It was not only Shabbat but also coincidentally the last night of Chanukah. In any other neighborhood within the old holy city, you would feel the excitement of the holiday radiate through each window of every house. Most of the protesters had left the chilly little street, heading back to their own families and friends to enjoy the final night of lights and delicious latkes. Levi, Omar (a new friend) and myself remained chatting with some of the organizers of the protest. There were approximately six police officers and a few press hounds still lingering around the scene waiting for any last arrests or exciting events. The kind Palestinian families were running around with trays of delicious hot tea for those of us starting to freeze as dusk hovered at the horizon of the black night sky.
We were getting ready to leave when suddenly four furry hats walked into the high-walled fence of the half-occupied duplex. The protesters smiled and accepted them graciously and we followed suit. I stood surprised. Levi explained to me that there are many Hasidic Jews who do not believe in a "Jewish State" or "modern Zionism," so they tend to side with these now displaced residents and come by frequently to show their solidarity in front of the other settlers and on looking press. The scene was serene and despite the 30 arrests, the protest seemed to be a success.
Things quickly changed. Within a few minutes, the courtyard of this duplex was filled with Sephardic males with tall black hats, wide neckties, and fancy black suits ranging anywhere from eight to 50 years of age. This crowd seemed less accepted by all and their appearance was one filled with much more arrogance. There were the "settlers." They gathered around the Menorah to light the last candle and do their final night of blessings and prayers on this holiday Shabbat. Holiness however, seemed to be left at home with their wives.
The candle lighting ceremony started out fairly genuine but as the numbers grew, it became anything but beautiful. The Jewish presence quickly began to feed off of the discomfort of the Muslim families who shared the courtyard, the men's voices became more condescending, singing louder and slightly more arrogant, directing their song not towards G-d or their newly lit menorah, but directly at the Palestinian woman and children cramped quietly near their tent. Feeling uncomfortable myself, I stepped out of the mix of soldiers, families and black hats. I stood quietly near the entryway to this courtyard.
The tension was quickly escalating. The Muslim men, in a peaceful response to their pride being crushed, laid out their mats and began their evening prayer. The soldiers swiftly shifted their positions from hanging around outside the gate to building a human barricade in between the two groups. The boastful song from the settler's side now drowned out the quiet, humming chants from the Islamic prayer. Remaining photographers from the protest crowded around to grab some unimaginable pictures of this melting pot of beliefs and traditions. As their prayers came to a close, the black hats and thick ties started pushing spitefully out the front gate and spilling onto the street outside. The party was far from over as there were now close to 60 Shabbat-praising men and boys dancing in big circles out in front on the pavement. The spectacle of disgusting, boastful behavior from such a seemingly pious, peaceful group was more than I could bear so I walked to the edge of the property to wait under a streetlight until Levi was ready to leave. I've seen religious men dance before and this was anything but spiritual.
Just as I thought things were finally settling down, I saw pure hatred engulf the tiny bit of holiness that I hoped was still before me. Out in the streets the young boys were now spitting on the ground towards the feet of the Muslim men. It was a hideous sight. Typically, children cannot be completely blamed for their actions or beliefs. As is often the case in hatred, these young boys received praise through jolly high fives from their teen brothers and older men for each and every act of defiance they showed. With each spit spat, another hug and high-five. I was mortified.
A young man around 20 years of age was on his way out of the gate to join the crowd when he turned around to face an elderly Palestinian woman behind him. Her shouting and pointing toward the exit was met with an aggressive grab and fist from this young man. I couldn't believe my eyes. A police officer ran over to peel the man's hands off her clothing and arms, his disappointment high with his Jewish brother. The man became completely hostile, pushing the police officer and woman aside to join the dancing in the street. The woman stood visibly shaken.
Emotions flared back and forth across a clear line separating these opposing sides and finally after that young man grabbed the old woman, the soldiers started moving the black hats back down the street and out of the newly occupied area. I was still standing under my streetlight of safety as lines of Hasidic and Sephardic men and boys started to flee the scene. Still boisterous and high on adrenaline, a man came barreling by me and spit a gigantic loogie at me. I turned away in shock and disbelief; I ran my hand over my freshly saturated hair. As my gaze returned to the crowd, two young boys no older than ten, raced by me not 20 feet behind their father. Each one looked me in the eyes, shouted words in Hebrew, and spit on me just as their father had.
My shock quickly turned into rage and disappointment. My face turned red as I yelled after them, "You have NO idea what you are doing!?!" "Is this what you teach your children?!" "SHAME ON YOU!!" The words barley squeaked out of my mouth in high-pitched yells. How could they? I was so angry I could hardly see straight. Omar grabbed me and explained that because of the side of the street I was standing on, the soldiers would arrest me if I started making a scene. They were there to merely "keep the peace;" to make sure nothing bad happened to the settlers. They would intervene if there were violent acts toward the Palestinians but only because they had to; they would not go out of their way to defend, but instead gladly remove anyone who was loudly objecting the majority.
I didn't want to be deported on my second week in Israel nor were these people worth it for me; I had to get out of there. Levi grabbed my hand, led me down the street and we walked out of the commotion. Tears filled my eyes; I felt powerless and enraged. I am still enraged; enraged at these men, the system, and even at myself for any prejudgments on how this situation could have gone down.
I have to be honest: based on stories that I had heard and with the given heat of the conflict, I wrongly expected to be spat on or to have rocks thrown at me by Palestinians or Arabs, not Israelis or Jews. I expected to feel unsafe but not because of the threat of the police. With each bit of saliva that hit my head, I realized that my own beliefs were being shattered and probably for good.
That night we had arrangements for a Shabbat dinner at one of Levi's childhood friend's house. The last thing I wanted to do was to spend this Friday night around a table full of religious Jews, black hats and songs that I now associated with intolerance and hatred. Levi felt horrible for what had happened and didn't want me to feel more uncomfortable than I had already felt. We debated going to this dinner for a while and after some serious contemplation, I looked at him with very scared eyes and said, "I want to go. There might be something tonight that can change my mind about what happened today and how I currently feel about this community."
An hour later, I anxiously joined Levi's friends at the Shabbat table. Singing filled the room and the pounding wasn't inside my chest anymore, it was on the table surrounded in smiles and new friends. These people were different; incredibly accommodating and representative of everything that I understood Jews to be. They were progressive and open-minded, kind, welcoming and above all, very religious. Earlier I had begun to hate Israel, but this new group counteracted that of the black-hat-fat-ties that I had left on that street in East Jerusalem.
Weeks after this event I'm still shaking in frustration and disbelief yet walking around the Kotel filled with black hats doesn't ignite that same rage. I know that not all people are the same, not every Sephardic man is going to spit on me and most would be appalled at the treatment I received. Thanks to many of the beautiful religious people I spent time with in Israel both Muslim and Jew, I can look back on my experience and say that extremist behavior never solves problems -- it only stokes the fire.
Some people cannot separate the difference between one man and another, and many assume that only "certain types of people act in certain ways." But I have learned that it is not any specific people that breed intolerance or hatred, but situation and emotion. Jews, Muslims, Israelis, Arabs, Atheists, and Christians alike...we are all SAME SAME BUT DIFFERENT.
Brooke Dean is an activist and global volunteer, blogger and co-founder of ThisIsTheWorldWeLiveIn.com
In an effort to uncover humanity's most pressing dilemmas, Brooke Dean and Levi Felix are traveling the world to meet those individuals and organizations who are addressing these problems and documenting how their activism is making a difference. Their objective of This Is The World We Live In is to seek global activists and connect them with individuals who want to help, in turn creating an online community to share ideas, discuss solutions and unite people who have the common goal of transforming our world. Spanning topics from freedom of speech to border control; environmentalism to education, Brooke will be covering a variety of local, regional and world issues. This blog is that of their adventure and of those who they meet along their way.
Follow her journey at ThisIsTheWorldWeLiveIn.com as they travel the world and uncover stories of hope for positive change.