The Art of Building Barriers
I met a German man whose been living in Spain while on my tour in Jordan, his name is Jense. He was driving up North from Eilat the next day. Since I needed to head all the way north to Tel Aviv I decided to ride with him as far as he goes and then take the bus from there. He is writing a travel guide for Israel so he told me he would be stopping at some sites along the way. The first stop was the Red Sea at the border of Egypt. Although there was a huge parking lot and construction, the view was still amazing in the early morning light. We took a road that goes north up Israel along the border with Egypt. The entire way there is a very impressive fence between Egypt and Israel, in some places there are even two or three layers of fences, despite the two countries having “peaceful relations.” Jense told me the fencing barriers go all the way along the border until the Mediterranean Sea even though most of the border is barren desert; he then added: “They say good neighbors build good fences!”
He told me he has been to the other borders of Israel and the barriers are all very strong. Electrical fences, military every few miles, even in parts of the desert I cannot imagine anyone surviving in and then attempting to scale a tall electrical fence and go head to head with military. We talked about Israel’s ability to build barriers between them and others as if it’s an art. He then made a point that was both funny and scary: “I recommend Trump to come here to make a study.” In that moment we both realized that Trump’s wall would be similar to the wall Israel has created between itself and the West Bank as well it’s borders with the surrounding countries. Jense had been to the fence separating the U.S. from Mexico and said it already seemed very secure. He added that the natural barriers alone, like the desert between Israel and Egypt, should be enough to keep people from crossing illegally. It makes one think: if someone can survive walking through the desert for days without dying of exhaustion, dehydration or weather related causes, then somehow get over multiple barriers such as electrical fences or walls–don’t they deserve to stay? Aren’t they one of the most resilient, strong, and steadfast human beings on the planet?
Barriers are not just fences or walls, they are also identity cards, policies, security checks & checkpoints, location, access to highways, passports. In all of these ways Israel has made barriers against Palestinians almost like a seamless art form. We passed a couple of checkpoints on our way and was not harassed. We drove through the beautiful, vast barren desert seeing valleys and magnificent natural formations such as the Ammonite Wall and Mizpe Ramon Valley. Upon arriving in Mizpe, we had lunch and then parted ways: I got on the bus and Jense continued his site checks for his travel guide.
I Always Find Ethiopians: Racism or Miscommunication?
There are many Ethiopians and other Africans in Israel. They speak Hebrew and seem integrated into society even though they usually travel in groups of two or more. Once I got to Beer Sheva I had to transfer to a different bus to Tel Aviv. On this bus many Black people got on, some Ethiopians for sure and others I’m unsure of their origin. The events I will recall are all based on my interpretations, observations, and what I inferred from being a witness since I do not speak or understand Hebrew and no one was translating for me.
There was first an issue with an Ethiopian woman talking on her phone in Amharic and either missing the stop or not realizing the bus doesn’t stop at a particular place. The bus driver began yelling at her, they had an exchange in Hebrew and then she got off the bus. An Israeli woman seemed like she tried to intervene but he yelled at her too. After this Ethiopian woman exited the bus the bus driver was still angry and yelling in Hebrew. The only words that sounded familiar to me were “Afro,” “telephono” and “Ethiopi.” Next an old Ethiopian couple got on the bus and sat in the very front. The bus driver immediately said something to them using the word “telephono” multiple times. They had a yelling exchange that went on until the bus driver pulled over, stopped the bus, refused to drive and made a call. He kept pointing to the door as if to tell them to get off. The Ethiopian lady, who seemed to believe she had a strong case, just kept saying: “No, no, no,” and shaking her head. A while later the bus driver returned to the bus said a few things to the couple, pointed to the back of the bus a few times and than began driving again. The Ethiopian couple looks at me, I give them a perplexed smile and shrug.
Now I’m thinking everything is solved. At the next stop about four East African looking boys get on the bus. There’s some issues with payment and an old Israeli man trying to get on the bus yelling at them, but finally they get on and go all the way to the back. The old Israeli man leans over, way too close to me and says something in Hebrew. He seems like a creep but I just smile and lean the opposite direction. A few minutes later something happens, I still have no idea what it could have been because I could not see the boys or hear them, but the bus driver starts yelling at them and they yell back. The bus driver then pulls over, stops the bus, and rushes to the back of the bus screaming at these boys. He makes them get up as if he’s looking for something. At this point I think he’s going to kick everyone who looks Black off the bus since he seems to have had a hard day with Black people.
The bus driver returns to the front of the bus yelling. He looks at me, and I was so ready to pull the American card if he were to ask me anything. I felt confused for not understanding, but also a bit sad I couldn’t offer any practical sort of solidarity with the Habeshas after all that had happened already and my relationships with Ethiopians more generally. After the bus begins again the old Israeli man reaches over and grabs a handful of my dreads saying something in Hebrew and smiling. At this moment, after all the drama, I try my very best to stay composed so there’s no more issues with Black people on the bus. I pull my hair out of his hands and say very calmly: “Don’t touch my hair, I don’t speak Hebrew or Arabic, please do not talk to me,” he looks confused–as if I affronted him. He turns to the Ethiopian couple and another woman as if pleading with them to translate. Everyone ignores him, we all turn forward. Finally, we made it to Tel Aviv.
Positivity is an Illusion
I have had a fantastic trip in spite of a few disruptions and complications. I planned to be with one community this trip, instead ended up spending time in five different places all over the country and seeing different angles of the Israel-Palestine situation. As I reflect I remember when I asked Manar if she was happy here (in Palestine. She laughed a bit then said it’s not about happiness or freedom, it’s that she still has a purpose that can only be fulfilled in the West Bank. I asked Alice if she likes living in Jerusalem; she lamented that there are so many good things there, yet people focus too much on their differences rather than similarities. Both women are exceptionally positive, warm, and somehow joyful yet I doubt they’d categorize themselves that way.
Positivity, just like hope, is a mind set. It’s an illusion you create around yourself. It’s an illusion because, like hope, there may be no concrete evidence of why you should be positive. Furthermore, everything around you can be negative, limiting, and violent and yet you are always smiling. A Palestinian told me that some people don’t realize so many bad things have happened to her because she is always smiling. This positive illusion that one creates around themselves does not ignore the negative things happening or deny that happiness could be achieved elsewhere. Instead, it acts like shield of sanity and hope despite the external realities, which may seem opposite.
A few things I’ve learned during my short time in Israel/Palestine: 1) Humans in certain regions get used to violent occurrences more quickly than they realize; 2) People want peace in practice, not just something talked about theoretically by governments and aid organizations; 3) Being in a bubble is a privilege that many people in the world do not have; 4) Diversity does not mean equality, justice, harmony or anything else; 5) Sometimes being in solidarity with people who are struggling against injustice is dangerous and will cause you delays–to say the least–when dealing with government authorities or institutions. These lessons are not new or groundbreaking, but they are grounding. Even in a conflict as volatile, historical, violent, complex, and problematic as this one these lessons remain salient. I believe these lessons apply to other conflicts in the world.
I do not actually believe world peace is attainable. What I believe is that peace is a project. If we spend our lifetime striving for peace, resisting oppression, evaporating borders then the world will gradually get better. The project of peace, in my opinion, is the purpose of human existence since we have created a world which is not conducive to humane behavior.
At World Unwrapped we look for, acknowledge, and attempt to support positivity, intercultural urbanism, productive critique, and communities who believe in true inclusive equality. Along the way we find so much more: stories, resistance, historical legacies, human potential. My Israel Series explored this a little bit and could do so for many more months. I could write so much more on everything I’ve experienced.
Everywhere in the world people are fighting for the right to live, have access to mobility, express their culture, define their own identity, and love without limits. Who are we to deny other people this right?