Jogging through an Arab village: losing my innocence

What happens when you are so deeply shocked to the core, that you fail to grasp everything occurring around you? When the realization of how close you came to injury or death finally dawns – and you wander about aimlessly in empty alleyways as a shell of your former self? When your existence blurs with survival, and the residual injections of adrenalin – produced in the heat of danger – begin to wear off? As you finally make it to safety, take a deep breath, and holding your sweaty head in your trembling hands, look up into the heavens with a gush of horror and excitement. Perhaps it was curiosity? Perhaps a desire to seek out a passing thrill or danger? With hindsight, it was probably naivety bordering on blatant ignorance.

The run began as any other: a friend and I together on a light jog taking a winding path outside the kibbutz – past pastoral fields and rolling hills, with the Carmel foothills gently bequeathing a long shadow across the fertile valley. A couple of kilometers south of the Kibbutz lies an Arab village, that I regarded with curiosity from the moment my eyes met its distinct mosque and box-shaped houses. Many of the Kibbutznikim regard the village with dismissal or they simply ignore it. High crime rates, nationalism and political factors have almost severed the connection between the Arab town and the Kibbutz. “Lock your doors as night” we were told from the get go – as there is a very really risk of theft from our southern neighbours. “When I was your age, I used to go to that village often and fraternize with the locals, but today there is nothing there. Nothing” another veteran Kibbutz member mentioned to me. But still, curiousity had me ensnared, and I was constantly itching to go the one place that I could not (or should not). The Arab town that I could see from the road had become the apple tree in the garden of Eden, and I was Adam.

I often wonder why I have this innate desire to explore and meet the unknown: the stranger, the ones seen and not heard – the Arab in a Jewish society. True that as Palestinian nationalism and Muslim incitement take hold in Israel’s Arab localities, the Jewish and Arab populations move farther apart. However I always had this constant urge to reach out and understand, to talk to and to empathize, with those who are considered marginalized, oppressed or simply ‘different’ – and the media certainly typecasts the Arabs here as such. Or perhaps it was simply the novelty of meeting someone outside my national bubble.

As we continued southward, we chanced upon the entrance to the village – which was in fact an unintended consequence of our exploratory habits and the long, slow jogs we take as preparation for the IDF. Already the idiosyncratic Arab architecture, the smell of open sewerage and the loose garbage prepared us for a momentary trip backward along the socio-economic scale. Ok, so the Arabs here are underprivileged, they live in a tribal mentality, and every house has a satellite dish pointed toward Qatar. But – there is a large Israeli flag waving at the entrance to the village, and Hebrew writing beneath the advertisements in Arabic. “This village must be “Sababa” (cool in Israeli slang), so Yalla (lets go in slang)” I motioned to my friend as we tentatively scaled the potholes and unused construction materials.

Moving ever deeper into the heart of the village, we began passing the residents who apparently viewed us as threatening, or with surprise. Immediately, a group of youth from the school yard poured into the street, and gathered around the spectacle of two white, skinny, Jews aimlessly jogging through – waving “Ahalan wa-Sahalan” like idiots and handing out friendly nods to the pensive and eerily quiet locals. At this point I realised that this was not the best idea in the world. But the thought still lingered in my mind: We are all human. We are made of the same flesh and blood. The parochialisms that seperate us are merely nebulous political slogans heard in the media – and that hold no bearing in the real world. Peace is possible. Jew and Arab – coexistence as the subtle gesture of passing through a friendly village.

But alas it was not to be. Up until now, the Israeli-Arab conflict existed as a faraway history channel/newspaper fantasy that I visited occasionally when reading inflamed talkbacks on online op-eds. As we continued running, teenagers began gathering beside the steps of the houses – whispering and staring with suspicion. Then suddenly – a moment that I will not forget – a lone rock flew past my head and landed on the pavement beside me. We continued running – pretending to ignore or not to notice – or rather not to believe. “We are friendly. We understand you. We are cousins” I thought to myself as I watched the growing crowd. There could be no way that this tacit mantra of mine could shatter so quickly. But shatter it did, as the second stone came flying past with increased accuracy and intensity. And then the third – and the fourth.

I glanced at the opposite sidewalk momentarily to see a group of kids selecting stones the ground, whilst another stood by – a large rock already in his hand – in preparation for us to jog past. And then it came: the sucker-punch. The blow that placed a large dent on my very being and sent a shiver down my spine. “Al Yahud!” (“The Jew!” in Arabic) the boy shouted in a high pitched macho voice his finger pointed at us in defiance – a brazen gesture as subtle as the kiss of death, marking us for kill as if we weren’t conspicuous enough already. For a split second, we locked eyes – nothing longer than what it takes for a fly to pat its wings, or for pebble to cast a ripple across a calm lake. And what I saw had me perplexed: I saw a burning hatred in his eyes that I could not fathom. At this moment, my perception of ‘the stranger’ shattered for eternity, as I, a survivor of my own sheer ignorance and stupidity, write these shock-tainted words. My adrenalin gland immediately secreted its precious juice, and like a stalked gazelle with black bulbousy eyes noticing the lion erupting from the bushes – my survival instincts kicked into action and I began sprinting together with my jogging partner down the fateful street. The sudden increase in speed meant that the rock narrowly missed its target – us, and flew past like a dragonfly in slow motion.

All I was concerned with at this point was survival – getting out of the village alive. We quickly took a right and ran downhill toward the swamps, swerving around a bend to ensure that we weren’t be followed, or that the growing mob wouldn’t spot us helplessly searching for an exit. Continuing along a stream, we managed to pass the final houses toward the village outskirts and the beach – a refuge in the cool blue waters of the Mediterranean. We both stared at each other – excited and shocked at the same time – at the realization of how close we came. None of the adults bothered to stop the kids throwing rocks – perhaps they too were willing to participate in the spectacle. The boy’s high pitched battle cry “Al-Yahud!” echoed in my mind as I buried my hand into my hands and caught my breath. A wry ‘Welcome to the middle east’ cynically scrawled across the sky.

Why do we need a Jewish state? Because when we are defenseless or unarmed, we go like sheep to the gas chambers. When we are armed and united, we are in control of our destiny – and not subject to the will of others. This is perhaps my most blatant firsthand experience of anti-semitism – or rather ‘hatred of the Israeli’ – where Israel always represents the Jew. These were the first few thoughts going through my mind as we both made it to safety. I don’t hate the Arabs. I don’t feel any enmity towards them. I understand that most of them, just like us, only want to live their life – a source of income, a house, a wife, kids and a car. Politics and national divides doesn’t concern the everyman. So why aren’t my feelings reciprocated by the other side? The Arabs in this village are Israeli citizens. We’re not talking about Jenin or Ramallah here. We’re talking about an Israeli Arab town. The parents of the teenagers who missed their chance at hitting a Jew all vote in Israeli elections. They are all entitled to an Israeli passport, with the right to travel abroad. They have access to Israeli healthcare and can travel the length of the country freely. So why is there such animosity toward us simmering beneath the surface?

It is very easy for me to forgive the kids who threw rocks as just ‘kids’ – because they don’t know any better (despite the fact that a rock from a Kid can kill, just like a rock from an adult). The kids can’t tell right from wrong. But I cannot forgive their society that incites and blames Jews for all their problems. I cannot forgive their parents – or the bystanders on those streets that quietly supported our near-lynch. It is true that there is a a passive, unconscious discrimination against Arabs in Israeli society – in the sense that they have bleaker job prospects, or that they are subject to the media’s utmost scrutiny. But this is not tantamount to hatred or anything similar – and hatred is exactly what they felt toward me as I passed through the village.

As I write these words now –  and as the shock, excitement, revulsion and terror slowly seep back into my adrenalin gland – I am left with one overall feeling: sadness. Sadness that I have lost my innocence, and that I have become awakened to such a world. A world outside the cosy confines of the Melbourne bubble, outside the confines of Jewish Israel – where tribalism, honour killings and unchecked violence are the modes of day to day life. A culture that engenders hatred in children, and strikes fear into the weak and elderly. I am sad that my hopes for peace here one day, have diminished, and have been replaced by skepticism and pessimism. For in a land that consumes its inhabitants, and in a world where you have to fight to survive – learning the lesson that as Jew, I will always be hated and hunted has never been more important.


2 thoughts on “Jogging through an Arab village: losing my innocence

  1. Great piece. Same thing happened to me sitting on a seawall in Akko in 2007. I felt the first rock whistle through my hair. I was shocked and disappointed, but like you, still don’t harbour any animosity.

    By the way, your mum put me onto your blog at LimmudOzFest this weekend.

    Keep up the fine writing!

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