By Miles Howe
Eight years ago I dropped out of school and went to Israel to experience the magic of the Jewish homeland, my Jewish homeland. Things didn’t progress as smoothly as I expected. I got kicked out of my Kibbutz and wound up working as a dishwasher and a line cook in an upscale restaurant in Tel Aviv. But I was young and adaptable.
I lived in a hostel filled mainly with South African men who were doing the same thing as I was, which, as far as I could figure it out, generally consisted of trying to stay away from home for as long as we could, and perhaps finding some meaning to life at the bottom of a glass of Maccabee beer.
Now and again there was a crackdown on migrant labourers, and immigration would catch somebody and send them home. If they had a bottom bunk then it was up for grabs. But this didn’t happen all that often, mostly because Tel Aviv was a city that needed its under-the-table workers as much as we needed it. Aside from the hazy feeling that at any moment a couple of uniformed guards would sneak up on me and whisk me off the street, it was all pretty relaxed.
In the kitchen I worked with a Palestinian refugee named Azi. Azi’s family was originally from Ramallah, but had been sent packing to Jordan in some kind of resettlement scheme. Azi had made his way back into Israel with a Jordanian passport, and was sending the bulk of his scant wages back to his mother in Amman.
Some weeks I worked at that kitchen for seventy hours, mostly because I didn’t have anything else to do. I had also gone flat broke in Eilat a little while earlier, and hanging around on the street corner waiting for a crew boss to point at me and take me off to God knows where made me happy to have a steady job, never mind if it was scrubbing dishes for a few shekels an hour.
I’d usually arrive before lunch, serve up the lunch specials, and sneak some food for myself when Luba, the mean old, Russian cook, turned her back. Then Luba would go home and I would get all the dips and salads and cheese plates and bowls of mixed nuts and olives ready for the evening rush. Then I’d clean the kitchen. I’d be there until three in the morning, rushing against the order ticker that all night long never stopped coughing out little receipts with Hebrew writing. I worked like a dog. But Azi was always there when I showed up in the afternoon, and he never left before I did.
The only common language we shared was Hebrew, which for me was fairly limited. But we knew when we were hungry, or angry, or tired, or thirsty, or angry and tired and thirsty all at the same time. Whenever we saw each other we’d say “Good morning, slut!”, or “Goodnight, slut!” I think mostly we just liked the way the Hebrew word for slut, ‘Sharmootah’, rolled off the tongue. Most importantly though, we knew we were friends.
I taught Azi English while we sautéed goose liver, or shelled tiger shrimp, or crumbled walnuts onto thick slices of feta cheese. He was a quick study, and soon he was yelling at the stray cats in the back alley in his deep voice and thick Arabic accent:
“Hello cat. I am hungry. I want to eat you.”
One night Azi’s landlord kicked him out of his apartment. There’s not really much you can do about it when you’re not even supposed to be in the country, so Azi was out on the streets. After work I took Azi back to my hostel.
“He can stay one night.” Said the haggard looking South African working the night shift behind the desk.
“What are you talking about?”
“He’s an Arab!” He hissed in my ear. “There are no Arabs allowed in this hostel!”
The next morning, in a great flurry of righteous protest, Azi and I moved out and found a new hostel down the street.
Not long after, swamped with work one night, the bartender poked his beastly shaved head through the kitchen window.
“Miles! We need more red wine from the basement! Go get a case! Yalla! Yalla!”
“Rega! Rega! I can’t go right now! Send Azi!”
“Azi doesn’t leave the kitchen. You go now!”
“I don’t understand.”
“Azi’s an Arab. People don’t eat here if they know an Arab makes their food.”
Five days later I was on a ferry in the Mediterranean, bound for home.
I didn’t learn the lessons I thought I would in Israel. I was naïve, and expected the red carpet to be rolled out for me just because I was Jewish. Instead I was left with even more questions about my role as a Jew in the world, and about the state of Israel. Answers have been less forthcoming lately, but I’m now living with one false pretence less. For that I have Israel to thank.
I can’t help but compare the racism I witnessed with my own eyes, and the inherent racism that seems to be imbedded within the founding laws of the state of Israel, with other evil periods in human existence; South African Apartheid, segregation in the American south, the treatment of Jews in 1930s Germany.
As a Jew, and more so as a human being, I am torn. The only answer that I sense to be true is that the elimination of the systemic identification of people along markers of race, ethnicity, or what have you, is one of the first and foremost steps that must be taken if we are ever to have peace. Israel is does not stand alone in this endeavour, and is not any more or less at fault than the rest. But for a country whose very existence was meant to ideologically signify a homeland for a people who had so long been the victim of racism and hatred, the racism that carries on within it’s very borders is simply wrong.