Innocent Bystander

From the moment my plane touched down at Ben Gurion and I felt the blaze of the Middle East sun for the first time, I knew I was at the onset of 30 days I would never forget. My memories of Israel are indeed great ones – the cosmopolitan intrigue of Tel Aviv, the rolling hillsides of Jerusalem, the majestic seascape of Haifa. But within the broader mental pictures are smaller, and in a way, more meaningful moments – the lights of Emek Refaim Street dimming at Sabbath, crowded public buses careening down narrow streets with reckless abandon, the cleansing sting of the Dead Sea. If the whole equals the sum of its parts, my 30 days of fragmented experiences piece together to form something remarkable.

But, there is an outlier, a flaw in the picture. Perhaps “fragmented” is an appropriate descriptor of it all.

Traveling independently, with my own funds and free of scheduling obligations, I ventured where Birthright would never take me: the West Bank. Standing at a bus stop, the bricks of the Old City hovering on the horizon and a deadly heat radiating off the highway pavement, I boarded a minibus that 20 minutes later had me face to face with the wall – yes, that wall – on the edge of Bethlehem. Disembarking the vehicle and walking (tentatively) toward the massive structure, complete with rusted barbed wire and ominous towers, I passed through the series of indoor turnstiles and ramps that landed me in a queue line. I knew these places existed, and equally knew the vitriol-strapped arguments surrounding them: security fence, separation barrier, land grab, open-air prison. Call it what you will because in this moment, standing in the stark reality of a hot-button issue, I’m not thinking about semantics.

Letting my eyes wander, I immediately take notice of several faded posters tacked to the walls – posters produced by a travel organization advertising tourism in Israel. The pictures are familiar – a beach with the Tel Aviv skyline in the backdrop, an eagle-eye view of Jerusalem highlighted by the Dome of the Rock, blissful vacationers thwarting gravity in the Dead Sea. Nothing I can argue with, seeing as so far I have loved all of these things. Who wouldn’t?

The obvious issue here is we are not in the lobby of the King David Hotel. We are in a checkpoint, and while I find it somewhat humorous, some undoubtedly find it infuriating.

Looking past the shoulders of those ahead of me, I see what looks like an airport customs station – an agent sitting behind glass with a computer, having the passers-by flash their passports or IDs, then sending them through. I feel nervous, but with a glance at my passport, I am reminded of an important distinction: I’m American, I’m Jewish, and I’m in Israel. There is nothing to worry about.

But I’m not in Israel. Not here, not in this line.

As we inch forward, I notice other Western tourists and I, perhaps arrogantly, assume that up until now, they were unaware they would have to cross into Palestinian territory to see their Christian holy sites. Or at least, even if they did know beforehand, they were not expecting the military presence.

The line continues to progress and I get a better look at the guard sitting behind the glass. He looks to be about my age, maybe a little younger, and if he wasn’t wearing an IDF uniform I would probably guess he was actually Arab. He looks kind enough – wide eyes, bright smile, making quaint jokes with people, tourists and Palestinians alike. I’m starting to feel more at ease.

Now it’s time for the woman directly ahead of me to pass through. I estimate she is middle-aged, maybe in her forties, and is returning from a day of work in Jerusalem. Her shoulders are slightly hunched forward, weight shifting back and forth from one leg to the other, dark under her eyes, exhausted, like she has been awake for 24-hours straight and worked every minute of it. The daily grind of passing in and out of this checkpoint seems like the last thing she can tolerate.

The young soldier motions to see her ID. She reaches into her purse and pulls out a small plastic card and presses it on the glass, her eyes sending a signal of, “How do you not recognize me by now?” Before he has given her the go-ahead, she starts to put the card away when he bluntly snaps something at her in Hebrew. She freezes and looks at him perplexed, uttering a timid question back. He returns with the same harsh tone, pointing at a finger-scanner in front of her. She looks down at it, pauses, then looks back at him and says something, this time with annoyance. Without blinking, he repeats himself in a raised voice, pointing sharply to the finger scanner. My Hebrew is not advanced enough to understand the conversation, but I know what is happening.

Defying his orders, she doesn’t move. He stares coldly at her, daring her to delay even another minute. After a tense moment, she glances at me, her tired eyes meeting mine. I look back at her, frozen, unsure of what to do as I watch her embarrassment.

She breaks eye contact with me, looks down to the finger scanner and with a quiet sigh, presses her thumb on it. The machine makes a beeping noise and the soldier is satisfied. Shooting him one last glare, she passes through the final turnstile and to the other side.

Now it’s my turn. I hold up my passport, he sees the letters “USA” printed loudly next to my picture, and gives me a cheerful thumbs-up, complete with a Cheshire cat grin, followed by a heavily-accented, “Have fun!”

30 days in another world and the most vivid memory is that of a woman, old enough to be my mother, looking back at me, the tourist, the outsider, the hapless voyeur, witnessing a brief but palpable moment of humiliation as I pass freely into her country.

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