Last week, following Leanne Gale’s report on Jerusalem Day racism in the Forward, I quoted from a number of blogposts by this young American who is working with Ir Amim in Jerusalem. At that time I read a blogpost from January 23, titled “This Harassment Is So Unnecessary” which contains a disturbing story reflected in my headline. I asked her if I could post the whole thing, and she generously agreed. Here it is:
Earlier this afternoon, I was riding the light rail through West Jerusalem. Next to me sat a Palestinian woman wearing a niqab, a head-covering that covers her entire face except for her eyes. Next to her was another Palestinian woman wearing a hijab. They were accompanied by a young child.
As we edged toward the Central Bus Station, a male Israeli security guard approached the woman in niqab and said, in Hebrew, “You’re getting off at the next stop.”
Confused, she pulled out her light-rail ticket, thinking that perhaps he wanted to scan it. Many Palestinian women in East Jerusalem do not speak Hebrew.
He responded in Hebrew, saying, “No, that doesn’t matter. You’re getting off at the next stop.”
“Can you speak in English?” she asked. “I don’t understand. Do you want my ID?”
Dutifully, she pulled out her ID, a piece of paper that declares her permanent residency status. (The vast, vast majority of Palestinian women in East Jerusalem are not citizens, but rather permanent residents.)
He grabbed her ID and held it above his head as ransom. “If you want this back, you will get off at the next stop.” Again, in Hebrew.
Trying to be “helpful,” an elderly Israeli woman said to her in broken English, “he wants you to get off.”
We arrived at the next stop. The two Palestinian women and the young Palestinian child exited the train. Two Palestinian men, unaffiliated with the women, followed behind. I was nowhere near my destination, but I disembarked as well. Whatever was going to happen, I wanted to be there.
I sat a ways away, across the light rail tracks, so as not to arouse suspicion. I watched as a group of male security guards surrounded the Palestinian women and child, speaking at them harshly in Hebrew. I watched as they began to feel the woman up and down, checking her for potential security threats. There was no female security guard available to conduct the humiliating search. I watched as the random Palestinian men approached the group, asking what the problem was, attempting to protect the women in some way, despite their own position of weakness.
In the end, the security guards returned the woman’s ID and left her alone to wait for the next train. The Palestinian men walked away. Israelis, tourists, and random passerbys continued on their way as if nothing had happened. I crossed the light rail tracks and approached the woman in the niqab.
“What was the problem?” I asked her in Arabic.
She looked at me in shock. That often happens when I speak Arabic.
“I’m Jewish, I just happen to speak a bit of Arabic. Are you okay?”
“Yes, yes I’m okay. It was just a security check, it’s okay.”
“Yes, it’s because I’m religious, I wear the niqab. I get stopped every time.” Then, she switched to almost flawless English. “I am only coming into the West of the city because I have a daughter with disabilities, and I come here to arrange aspects of her care. Otherwise, I would not come here. This harassment is so unnecessary.”
What are you supposed to say to that? I couldn’t give her advice or fix the problem; she is a Palestinian woman and she will be harassed by male Israeli soldiers, security guards, and police likely for the rest of her life.
“I’m sorry. I know that doesn’t help, but I’m Jewish and I’m sorry. I hope you have a good rest of your day.”
“Thank you, habibti, it’s okay, it’s not your fault.”
She was so calm, so powerful in her forceful conviction and relaxed demeanor. So often, we just assume that Muslim women in hijab or niqab must be submissive or meek. Not so.
With that, I walked off, too angry to re-board the light rail. I walked the rest of the way to my destination.
I wish I had snapped photos. I wish I had taken this woman’s information and asked around at Ir Amim* to see if there was something we could do to help. I wish I had turned to the security guard and defended this woman, in Hebrew, even before she was forced off the train. But I was too flustered, too intimidated.
That being said, I’m sure that the quick reflexes and impulses, unfortunately, will come. Two years ago, I would watch Palestinians get kicked off the light rail and not do so much as lift a finger. I had no idea what to do.
*Ir Amim is an Israeli organization that that seeks to render Jerusalem a more equitable and sustainable city for the Israelis and Palestinians who share it. I am currently interning at Ir Amim as a New Israel Fund-Shatil Social Justice Fellow.