You may recall that the drive from Jerusalem to my home in Judea involves driving past a number of Palestinian villages. A section of the road coming from the other direction goes directly through one of the villages.
Now, for the most part, this area of Judea is pretty quiet. Some of the storefronts along the roads of this village display signs in Hebrew alongside the Arabic, and it’s because there is a lot of commercial interaction between the Israelis and the Palestinians around here. A majority of the construction workers who build the homes in our town come from that area, and the contractors get a lot of their building material from Bethlehem and Hebron. Palestinians are employed alongside Israelis at local businesses and farms, with equal pay and benefits. Our local supermarket is an oasis of coexistence, where Israelis and Palestinians shop side by side; it is Israeli owned, but most of the employees are Christian Palestinians from the local villages. The guy at the cheese counter gives out Arabic lessons as he wishes a “Gutt Shabbos” (“good Sabbath” in Yiddish) to the American-Israeli settler. It’s a whole different Middle East than the one on the news.
Sometimes, however, especially during periods of general heightened tensions, there are problems. Problems in the form of rock or Molotov cocktail attacks on Israeli cars, for the most part. It generally comes from the teenagers and kids. The hour or so between noon and one o’clock in the afternoon becomes notorious in these periods for rock attacks, because that’s when the kids are walking up the sides of the street to get home, restless after a day of sitting around in school. On one such occasion, a couple years ago, a teenager threw a rock at me. It made contact with the windshield, cracking it on a direct path to my face. Mere minutes beforehand, I had stopped for one of his neighbors shepherding his sheep across the road. I had waved at him, and he had waved back.
We live in such a paradoxical place.
At the time, I felt so helpless. They’re just kids, what are you going to do, run them over? Threaten them? On the other hand, rocks thrown at cars have killed Israelis on numerous occasions; it’s nothing to sneeze at. So I started thinking about creative ways to make myself a less obvious or desirable target. One idea I had was to keep an extra scarf in the glove compartment, and wrap it around my face like a hijab when driving through.
I entertained the idea of finding someone to write a message in Arabic to hang in the window, like “Hi there! Please don’t throw rocks at me!” 😛 Or maybe finding a way to inscribe the letters TV, or UN, on the car.
The hijab idea made me kind of uncomfortable–you know I have a thing about honesty on principle–and the others seemed fairly impractical. But then I had an idea that was so simple, it was almost ridiculous.
Maybe when driving past the villagers, I could wave hello to them.
I figured that it could “humanize” me, appealing to the better nature of a potential attacker and making him think twice about throwing a rock at my car; and even if not, at least it could confuse him long enough for me to drive past before he realizes that yes, that woman did just wave hello to him, and no, he doesn’t actually know her, and yes, she is Jewish.
But as I contemplated trying it out, every time I had an opportunity to initiate a friendly gesture, I found myself paralyzed with fear. What if I needlessly draw attention to myself? What if that makes me more of an inviting target? What if it makes them think I’m mocking them? I think on a deeper level, I was afraid because waving is reaching out to them; it’s making myself vulnerable, and even if their rejection did not come in the form of violence, it felt like taking some level of risk. A wave hello means, “I acknowledge you, you are a person, I respect your right to be here,” and though I certainly believe these things about my Palestinian neighbors… you know. It’s complicated.
So… a couple months ago I was driving home and realized that I was going to be driving through the village at a time when school was letting out. I thought to myself, this time I have to try it. But I was still scared. And as I drove up and saw a group of teenage boys–the most likely demographic for would-be terrorists–walking up the road, and felt my stomach clench, I thought, am I really going to have the guts to do it this time?
And then, out of the blue, something happened that had never happened to me before.
One of the teenage boys raised his hand, completely unprovoked–and waved at me.
Delighted, I waved back with a big smile, and then proceeded to wave at every single person I saw on the way down the hill. I got some waves, some smiles, some nods, and a few blank stares. But it felt amazing. That village has become a completely different place for me since that day.
And now when I’m driving along these roads, sometimes I’ll catch someone’s eye and feel paralyzed by fear. But sometimes, I’ll lift my hand and give a wave… and I’d say three out of five times, when I do that, they wave back.
A few friendly gestures are not going to solve the Arab-Israeli conflict or bring peace to the Middle East. But the only thing that will bring peace is for both societies to learn to acknowledge each other’s humanity. The Talmud teaches, “Who is respected? He who respects others.” (Ethics of the Fathers 4:1) And I’d like to think that maybe someday, a wave of my hand might start to change the way somebody thinks about Jews or Israelis.
Well, in the meantime, I’ll settle for preventing cracks in my windshield.