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Ambiguity on the Jerusalem train

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A ride on the central line of Jerusalem's new light-rail system.(Ahmad Gharabli/AFP/Getty Images).

A ride on the central line of Jerusalem’s new light-rail system.(Ahmad Gharabli/AFP/Getty Images).

I catch a Palestinian woman making googly eyes at an Israeli baby on the train in Jerusalem. She is at that age when a woman’s body aches with evolutionary desire to reproduce. The effort she expends to restrain herself from tickling the baby’s feet is palpable. The baby’s mother chats in Hebrew with two other Israeli mothers-with-strollers. She doesn’t notice her curly-haired baby exchanging a tender smile with the veiled woman.

Behind them stand a few Orthodox black hats, one wearing iPod earphones. My curiosity burns to know what he is listening to. Although it is the middle of a school day, a Palestinian boy with a schoolbag stands near the door. There is a gentle chime, and the train moves. Smooth. No jerking. A middle-aged Israeli wearing a puffy red winter jacket steadies herself on the metal post, her hand nearly touching that of a Palestinian who looks like a laborer heading to work.

I never take this train, though I’ve long been curious how two peoples, their separation enforced in virtually every other sphere, can share such an intimate area.

The physical space, already constrained, dissolves further as the train takes on passengers on its way to the city center of West Jerusalem. Inexplicably and irrationally, my heartbeat quickens.

“Please remember to take your personal belongings when you depart the train,” the recorded message plays in Hebrew. Then in Arabic. Then in English.

As far as I can tell, the rules that Jerusalem lives by don’t apply on the train. There isn’t a discernable Arab side or an Israeli side. There isn’t a nuanced fight for territory. But is it a neutral zone or a standoff? I can’t tell if these folks have acclimated to this moving, time-limited reality or if a flare-up is imminent.

Palestinians are used to being in spaces defined by others as “not for you,” but how do the Jews feel, I wonder, sealed in such close proximity to Palestinians, a proximity that every Israeli policy aims to prevent?

I don’t have the nerve to ask them. I don’t know what I’m afraid of.

I let my eyes wander to the scene passing by outside the window. As we travel west I notice the buildings get newer and taller. The streets get cleaner. There are bike racks and recycling bins on the sidewalk. There is a sidewalk! Every little while I see an old Arab building, a witness both to the fact that Palestinians were here and the fact that they are no longer here. With weeds growing from cracks in stones, these monuments are romantic in their steadfastness in the center of modernity. Other old Arab buildings, renovated and gentrified, host cafes with fancy signs in English. I imagine their shame.

Inside the train, it is quiet. The occasional sound of Hebrew, nasal and harsh sounding to my ears, seems to rise upon acceleration and fall as the train approaches a station. No one is speaking Arabic out loud, but the physical presence of the veiled women with large shopping bags and young men with dark eyes slouching against the door is unmistakable.

Most of the Palestinians get off at the central bus station.

“He-Haluts Station. Yafeh Nof Station. Mount Herzl Station,” the computer announces in due course. Then, “End of the line. Please exit.”

Somehow, I have missed my stop.

I cross the platform to wait for the train heading back in the direction I came from. I get into the train car with some young Jews, layered hair in degradations of blond. Tourists with water bottles sticking out of backpacks cram in with religious Jewish women donning black skirts below the knee, some sporting black flats, others wearing Addidas knock offs. There are a few soldiers, but no guns. Felt kippas. Knitted kippas. Rainbow kippas. More than one young person clutches a miniature prayer book, lips flying over the words of God.

Realizing this is my chance, I take a deep breath, gather my courage, and start at one end of the train car. “Do you speak English?” A middle-aged Israeli man shakes his head. A younger Israeli man shakes his head before I ask. I sit next to an Israeli man in his twenties. He is eager to talk about the train. I pull out my notebook. “People were angry at first,” he says, “but they got used to it.” “Angry at what?” I ask, surprised to find such easy disclosure. “The traffic, of course,” he clarifies. “Jaffa Street was blocked for so long during the construction. The shop owners said they lost customers.”

“And what about the Arabs?” I ask. “Are people angry because there are Arabs on the train?” (I hear myself avoid saying the word “Palestinian” in favor of the less threatening term, “Arab.”)

For a second he looks surprised by my question, but then he smiles. “Why would they be? Both Jews and Arabs ride bus #19 from the hospital.” (Proving what? I don’t know.) He goes on to say that unlike most Jews, he speaks Arabic. He likes being in a public place where he can hear Arabic.

“I don’t see any Jews talking to Arabs,” I note glancing around. “And the Arabs aren’t even talking to one another,” I point out.

“Well, nobody really talks to anyone on the train,” he admits. “But at least we hear the announcements in Arabic.” As if on cue, the chime rings and the computer voice announces the name of the station, first in Hebrew, then in Arabic.

A Palestinian woman is even more upbeat. “The first time I rode the train it was strange to be so close to Jews. There were some problems. Some Palestinian boys got beat up. But now it’s normal for us to ride together. One time a Jew stood up to give me a seat! There was a Palestinian boy there, and he didn’t get up, but the Jew did.”

I move further down the car and find an Israeli woman. I approach. I sense an invitation to sit next to her. Too late I realize that we were past the Jewish part of town, almost at the entrance to the Palestinian station of Shu’fat. After a few more stops in Palestinian neighborhoods, this train will reach the Israeli settlements that choke Jerusalem. This woman has to be traveling to the settlements. She is a settler. It takes all my nerve to sit next to her and ask her about her experience on the train.

“At the beginning, when it first started operating, the train was too crowded. Now it’s okay.”

“And you don’t mind riding with Arabs?”

“There are security guards at every station in the Arabic neighborhoods,” she says. (I had never noticed that.) “Besides, Arabs are happy to be able to ride to Damascus Gate,” she continues. They wouldn’t jeopardize that by doing something violent. And they are happy because now more Jews shop in Arab neighborhoods.” (I really don’t think that’s true, but I don’t say anything.)

“So you are completely comfortable?” I look around, reminding her that we are traveling through the heart of Palestinian Jerusalem.

“Well…” her voice drops, “…sometimes I do wonder if the little boys that get on the train and run up and down the cars are doing that because they are Arab and want to bother us, or just because they are little boys.”

(I confess. This question has also crossed my mind.)

I sit down at the end of the car to process what I’m learning. Next to me, a Palestinian woman with an unusually fat boy in a stroller reaches her hand across the car to tap an Israeli woman picking up her daughter from a stroller. “What’s her name?” the Palestinian woman asks in broken English. The Israeli woman answers with a mother’s proud smile. It is a French name, I think, but I don’t hear it. “Mine is Odai,” the Palestinian woman offers.


“Yes, Odai.”

Bon chance,” the woman says courteously in French.

I’m sitting down, but I feel off balance. Is she not an Israeli? Or is she a French Israeli? For some reason, I feel I must know. I must know who she is or I don’t know who I am.

The Palestinian woman gets up as her stop approaches. She walks out backwards, easing the stroller onto the platform. “Toda raba,” the Palestinian woman says to the (Israeli?) woman in Hebrew, though I don’t know why she is thankful.

I get off at the next stop and watch the silver capsule glide away. No one else seems to find it a bit notable. But I stand a long time trying to figure out what it means to me, to Israelis, to Palestinians, and to prospects for peace with justice. But I can only conclude one thing for sure even if I can’t quite grasp the implications. What I conclude from my foray into ambiguity is this: A stroller can be a powerful thing on the train in Jerusalem.

Nora Lester Murad

Nora Lester Murad, PhD, is an activist and writer living in Jerusalem, Palestine. She co-founded Dalia Association, Palestine's community foundation, and Aid Watch Palestine, a demand driven accountability initiative working in Gaza. She has published articles in The Guardian, Aljazeera, OpenDemocracy, Al-Adab, and has done public speaking all over the world on the topics of international aid, local philanthropy, and accountability to communities. She blogs at and can be reached at @NoraInPalestine.

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34 Responses

  1. Paldi5 on June 11, 2014, 1:13 pm

    Bloom where you are planted. :)

    • just on June 11, 2014, 6:06 pm


      Thanks so much for sharing your experience and thoughts with us.

      “What I conclude from my foray into ambiguity is this: A stroller can be a powerful thing on the train in Jerusalem.”


      • Woody Tanaka on June 11, 2014, 6:12 pm

        Powerful until you realize how many crazies control that nuclear-armed state would consider that stroller a weapon, if it contained an Arab baby and the number of such strollers outnumbered those containing Jewish babies.

  2. Walid on June 11, 2014, 1:24 pm

    Nora making it sound like a ride on the N Train to normalization.

    • homingpigeon on June 11, 2014, 4:17 pm

      I think she’s giving us hope for the one country solution.

      • Zach S on June 12, 2014, 9:31 am

        I think she’s showing you guys the true face of “apartheid” Israel.

    • Sycamores on June 11, 2014, 10:05 pm

      couldn’t help but i feel the same way myself

      one question that Nora could had ask the settler woman, with some poetic Licence bear with me.

      Nora: you are an intellingent woman.

      Settler woman: thank you, i think i can see where this is going…

      Nora: do you mind if i ask you a personal question?

      Settler woman: sure, go ahead.

      Nora: how do you feel about living on stolen land belonging to the Palestinians?

      Settler woman: we own the land it say so in the b…

      N: you really believe that?

      SW: well between us no. some say they do but beside the extremists i believe most use the Book to hide from their guilt.
      i moved to the settlement because house prices within the Green Line are very high for a large growing number of Israelis, espescially with the young.

      N: do you feel guilty?

      SW: yes and ashame, it’s one of the reasons why i don’t talk that much to the Palestinians on the bus. what am i to do i need a roof over my head..

      N: by taking it from the Palestinians..

      SW: and there lies the shame and the guilt.

  3. Palikari on June 11, 2014, 2:56 pm

    “Behind them stand a few Orthodox black hats, one wearing iPod earphones. My curiosity burns to know what he is listening to.”

    Haredim tend to listen the Torah, Hasidic or religious music.

    • Walid on June 12, 2014, 4:20 am

      “Haredim tend to listen the Torah, Hasidic or religious music.”

      God’s very own also cry when they shoot Palestinians.

      • Shmuel on June 12, 2014, 4:31 am

        God’s very own also cry when they shoot Palestinians.

        Haredim also tend not to shoot Palestinians (or anyone else, for that matter).

      • Walid on June 12, 2014, 5:40 am

        I get tripped up in the terminology of Haredi, Hasidic, Orthodox, ultra-Orthodox and so on and can’t distinguish differences.

        For the shooting part, I was thinking back to Cast Lead and the religious rabbis that encouraged the soldiers to take no prisoners or to cede one of inch of land in the Gaza campaign that was about to start in 2009. Or to the other rabbi that suggested to not take any Palestinian prisoners but to shoot them in their beds. I see those were not Haredim, but what were those rabbis?

      • Shmuel on June 12, 2014, 5:55 am

        I see those were not Haredim, but what were those rabbis?

        Generally speaking, those rabbis are classified as “national religious” (or even “national Haredi” in some cases, but that is not the same as the “black hats” Nora was referring to). An exception is the Haredi sub-sect of Lubavitch (since barred from military camps, I believe), who tend to urge others to shoot, without ever holding a gun themselves.

        These are, of course, all generalisations, and individuals are still individuals.

      • Walid on June 12, 2014, 8:47 am

        I know enough about Jews to not put all of them in the same basket, Shmuel. Worked with Jews a lot; it was generally a good experience.

  4. wondering jew on June 11, 2014, 5:49 pm

    “More than one young person clutches a miniature prayer book, lips flying over the words of God.” Most likely a miniature Psalms.

    Thanks for the positive feedback on the experience. What the interviewee meant about the #19 is that Jews and Arabs have been sharing public transportation “without incident” on the buses prior to the advent of the train. You should go to a Jerusalem hospital sometimes (only for a visit, may God keep you from disease), the mixing between Arabs (Palestinians) and Jews is par for the course.

    • Woody Tanaka on June 11, 2014, 6:03 pm

      “Thanks for the positive feedback on the experience.”

      What’s positive? Palestinians and Jews on the train together. BFD. Is this going to lead to a return of stolen Palestinian land? Is it going to get the Jewish squatters out of the West Bank? Is it going to give Palestinians voting rights in the government that controls their lives? Is it going to provide compensation to all the Palestinians wrongfully run out of their country? Is it going to eliminate the Apartheid Wall and the anti-Arab bigotry in the laws of Israel and the minds of its leaders and Jewish citizens? Is it going to return to life the boys murdered by the IOF terrorists, or any of the other thousands similarly murdered? Is it going to get those IOF terrorists back behind the green line? Is it going to un-ethnically cleanse Palestine?

      The only thing that is “par for the course” is the continued oppression of the Palestinians. Nothing else. There is nothing “positive” about that. Sure, I guess we can be glad that the Palestinians aren’t attacked and murdered as they are at risk of every minute of their lives, and I guess we can be glad that the Jews running the country have not decided to make access to the train a right that is only enjoyed by one ethno-religious group, as so many other things are in that barbaric state.

      But, really, that’s not “positive.” That’s an indictment of the culture and ideology of the people who run that state and their supporters that “we didn’t murder the Palestinians or force them to walk mile after mile” is considered a positive thing.

      • Walid on June 12, 2014, 8:58 am

        “… I guess we can be glad that the Jews running the country have not decided to make access to the train a right that is only enjoyed by one ethno-religious group, …”

        Initially when the project started about 12 year ago, it was in the plan to keep Palestinians off the tram, to have it completely bypass Palestinian part of the city and they went as far as changing the names of the stops from their Arabic names to ones of Zionist heroes. By the time the service began, with so much bad publicity against Israel and against Veolia for it, it was decided to allow Palestinian passengers on board and to skirt the Palestinian areas by staying in most part along the former green line before crossing into the squatter settlements. Now Israel needs a little excuse to go back to Plan A.

      • Zach S on June 12, 2014, 9:33 am

        Palestinians and Jews on the train together. BFD.

        Well, that wouldn’t happen if Israel were the “apartheid” that you guys claim it is. But don’t let that cognitive dissonance slow you down, Woody.

      • Xpat on June 12, 2014, 11:20 pm

        Zach S,
        Apartheid reigns in the West Bank. Jerusalem’s light rail is a step forward to bringing the two parts of the city together. However, it doesn’t change all the discrimination that is obvious if you just take a walk through East Jerusalem. Jerusalem is a microcosm of Israel’s massive financial, political and military investment in turning Israel-Palestine into one state. There will be some benefits in this emerging single state to Palestinians alongside the discrimination.
        Blacks in apartheid South Africa also got goodies, particularly in the big cities.

      • Zach S on June 13, 2014, 9:00 am

        Apartheid reigns in the West Bank.

        “The West Bank?” Just last week this website was demanding that the Rolling Stones not play in Tel Aviv because it was in “an apartheid state.”

        Keep moving those goalposts, guys. It’s not at all dishonest.

      • talknic on June 12, 2014, 11:28 pm

        Zach S //Palestinians and Jews on the train together//

        “Well, that wouldn’t happen if Israel were the “apartheid” that you guys claim it is.”

        Zach S points to a hole in the clouds and declares it a cloudless day.

  5. Hamishe_Sabz on June 11, 2014, 11:26 pm

    oh wait, are you saying that there is no separate areas for arabs and jews on public transportation ..and they mix together to do their own business..wowwwwww. (sarcasm)

    • Walid on June 12, 2014, 4:18 am

      There are separate Arab and Jewish bus routes that service their respective areas. According to Guardian article linked below, Arabs are seen on Jewish route busses but Jews are rarely seen on Arab route ones. Your sarcasm is misplaced; the list of apartheid issues separating Arabs and Jews is long so don’t get all excited about seeing Arabs and Jews on the tram.

  6. Walid on June 11, 2014, 11:50 pm

    “… the mixing between Arabs (Palestinians) and Jews is par for the course.”

    Does the conviviality on the #19 or the N tram offset in any way what the Jews are doing to the Palestinians in Jerusalem or elsewhere, Yonah?

    • wondering jew on June 12, 2014, 12:40 am


      I don’t think the purpose of this post is to make any such claim. I think the upshot of this post is “can’t we all just get along” and that has a value within itself although the political ramifications are entirely unpredictable.

      • Walid on June 12, 2014, 1:39 am

        “I don’t think the purpose of this post is to make any such claim. ”

        If you’re referring to Nora’s, I believe it was. She started off with this conclusion and walked up and down the tram looking to people willing to confirm it. Nothing dishonest about this although I think it’s misguided optimism and wishful thinking. She stopped short of writing a complimentary bouquet to Veolia about it. Nothing was said about the tram line not going through or servicing Palestinian areas or that it shuts down on Saturdays even to 37% of the city’s non-Jewish residents. The tram is there to solidify Israel’s claim to all of Jerusalem and to connect it to the illegal settlements. Nothing nice at all and the scarved woman’s yearning to tickle the Jewish infant’s feet will not take that ugliness away.

      • jon s on June 12, 2014, 2:38 am

        The writer describing her experience on the Jerusalem light rail, is clearly ambiguous. It’s true that as Walid points out ” the tram is there to solidify Israel’s claim to all of Jerusalem and to connect it to the illegal settlements.” But it’s also true that people living there need to get from place to place and the public transportation system needed to be upgraded. As to “not going through or servicing Palestinian areas” as Walid claims – maybe he should re-read the post . Or see here:

      • Walid on June 12, 2014, 4:10 am

        “As to “not going through or servicing Palestinian areas” as Walid claims – maybe he should re-read the post .”

        It services Palestinians, but only on the fringes of the 2 enclaves that abut the Jewish parts of the city on its way to the settlements. There is a separate bus service destined mostly for Palestinian use with its own bus terminal in West Jerusalem. A Guardian article from 2 months back about Jewish and Palestinian joint usage on the tram doesn’t make it sound as rosy as Nora’s piece.

        Jerusalem’s light railway: commuting with a rifle through the conflicted city
        What can a train ride tell you about a city? Quite a lot in Jerusalem, where the city’s new light railway trundles its way along the contentious green line and many holy sites.

        … Its route – a single line at present – takes passengers on a political and historical, as well as physical, journey. One end starts in the south-west of the city, close to Yad Vashem, Israel’s haunting national memorial to the Holocaust, a searing reminder of the need for a Jewish homeland. Also nearby are the Mount Herzl national civil and military cemeteries, the final resting place of many of Israel’s political leaders and soldiers. The area is rich in symbols of Israeli nationalism.

        The train heads north and east, passing through Kiryat Moshe, a Jewish area with a significant religious-nationalist community, over the stunning “bridge of strings”, designed by the Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava and resembling a giant harp soaring towards the sky.

        Soon it travels through the traditional commercial heart of Jerusalem, Jaffa Road, lined with historic stone buildings strung with electric cables and plastered with political and religious posters. British soldiers once frequented shady bars and hotels along the road during the three decades of the British mandate era, following the first world war. Later the area fell into decay. Now closed to vehicles to accommodate the rail tracks, Jaffa Road has seen a revival, with cafe tables spilling over the pedestrianised thoroughfare and global brand outlets opening next to tiny older shops selling yarmulkes, cheap suitcases and falafel.

        … The train skirts the main Jewish ultra-orthodox enclaves of the city, where stones are thrown at cars breaking the sabbath prohibition and women are instructed to wear modest dress (“closed blouse, with long sleeves, long skirt – no trousers, no tight-fitting clothes,” according to the text of wall posters), and up to French Hill, the site of the first post-1967 Jewish settlement across the green line and later, of numerous bus bombings carried out by Palestinian militants.

        From there, it passes through two big Palestinian neighbourhoods, Shuafat and Beit Hanina – poorer, bleaker and vastly underserviced compared to most of West Jerusalem – before ending at Pisgat Ze’ev, a modern toy-town settlement on the north-eastern edge of the city, home to around 50,000 Jews.

  7. JustJessetr on June 12, 2014, 1:17 am

    Is this essay a complaint in search of a problem? It sure sounds like the author is looking for one.

    Anyway, it’s great to see mixing of cultures in a pleasant everyday way. When I lived in Jerusalem back in the late 70’s, I saw scenes like this everyday on the #55 EGGED from Meveseret Zion, a town bordered on both sides by Arab towns, where Jews and Arabs shopped at each others’ markets. I freely walked (as a child) through the Arab towns and was never bothered, nor did I ever see any scuffles in my wanderings.

    • Walid on June 12, 2014, 4:12 am

      “Anyway, it’s great to see mixing of cultures in a pleasant everyday way. ”

      It will be more pleasant when the occupation and all the evil that it entails ends.

      • JustJessetr on June 12, 2014, 8:59 am

        Oh, Walid. Please don’t give into rhetoric. Your posts are one of the few I can stand to read on this site because you’re pro-Palestinian and you’ve shown lots of objectivity. Leave “evil” to the snarling ferrets here who have nothing useful to say.

      • jon s on June 12, 2014, 10:48 am

        Walid, You made a statement which was obviously incorrect (“not going through or servicing Palestinian areas”) and I don’t understand your need to belabor the point.
        In any case, thanks for the link to the piece from The Guardian, which is interesting in itself (and also disproves your statement). I see that the Guardian reporter writes approvingly of the Calatrava “Bridge of Strings”: I’ve come to the conclusion that people either hate it or love it, no-one’s indifferent.

      • Walid on June 12, 2014, 12:05 pm

        Agreed, jon s, it was inaccurate but not totally incorrect. The presence of the Palestinians on the tram demonstrated it. A few weeks back, there was a story about a scarved Palestinian on the tram on her way to a hospital on the east side that was asked to disembark and subsequently searched by a male train guard. Guess you and Nora don’t remember that incident. We are almost being asked to celebrate that Palestinians are allowed to use the tram.

  8. eljay on June 12, 2014, 9:22 am

    The train in this story is a place of equality for all of its riders. Israel should be a place of equality for all of its citizens (and immigrants, ex-pats and refugees).

    Instead – and quite unfortunately – Israel remains oppressive, colonialist, expansionist and supremacist “Jewish State”.

  9. StCuthbert on June 12, 2014, 9:39 am

    It must take immense amount of self control and courage for Palestinians to ride alongside oppressors and racist land thieves. I wish that we all could have such courage.

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