On Saturday mornings in Jerusalem, there are really only two sounds to hear — silence and prayer. As I walked up the paved road of the Goldstein Youth Village to catch my 8am taxi to Tel Aviv, I heard a mixture of those sounds. Silence surrounded me, yet my head was with filled with prayer, a prayer that reflected the words of my mother the night before. “Edie,” she said pleadingly, “please don’t take a taxi cab in Israel. Your aunt will pick you up.”
I couldn’t help myself. With each step I got closer to getting on the taxi, and with each step I got more nervous, reassuring myself “Edie, there are no suicide bombings on taxi cabs. Edie, no one wants anything from a 17 year old American tourist.” I reached the entrance to the gate and saw a bright white Mercedes cab rounding the corner. I took that cliche deep breath, stepped in, and mustered up all of my courage to respond to his warm smile with a “Good morning” in shaky Hebrew. Freckly, red-haired, terrible at English, my cab driver popped in a Beyonce CD, apologized for the rattling air conditioning, and sped out of the Holy City.
He started telling me his story — his father was born in Jerusalem, he was born in Jerusalem — the more he talked, the more I relaxed. As far as I could tell, having spent 4 weeks visiting, he was just another laid back cute Jewish Jerusalemite. Feeling brave, I asked him a question that our faculty on The Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel had been pushing us to ask — “As a secular Jew, how do you feel about the rapid growth of the Ultra-Orthodox Jewish population here in Israel?'” He took one hand off the wheel, looked at me, and smiling said in broken English, “See, you think that I am Jewish, just because I talk with a Hebrew accent.”
Immediately I tensed up and grasped my legs in close to me. I turned away, so that he wouldn’t see my face turning red. I asked him where he was from. “Ah, Jerusalem, I told you!” I looked at him once again, questioning myself, “Is he Russian? He doesn’t look Arab.”
I asked again this time, where he was from, and his response told me that he sensed my fear. His voice lowered, soft and reassuring, he answered — “Don’t worry, girl. I am an Arab. But don’t be afraid of me. My wife is a Jew.”
Upon hearing those words, I let out a huge sigh. “He’s married to a Jew,” I thought, “he can’t be dangerous.” I sat still for a minute, feeling a sense of total relief, but soon a sinking disappointment in my stomach settled in.
Had I, the self-professed open-minded, politically liberal, social activist community leader really experienced a panic attack when confronted, face-to-face, with an Arab in Jerusalem? With this sinking disappointment came a rising embarrassment, and I tried to cover up my insecurities by asking the driver about his marriage. He answered truthfully when he told me that his family doesn’t recognize her as his wife because she is a Jew, and her family doesn’t speak to her because she married an Arab. They want to have children, but they don’t want their child to grow up around such hatred and intolerance. At that moment, I realized profoundly that my reaction to the driver’s ethnicity was a direct expression of the very intolerance, which I had professed throughout my entire life to condemn explicitly.
Over the next few weeks that I spent in Israel, and even more clearly now that I am back in America, I realized that this chance encounter with my own ingrained prejudices and irrational fears has given me the opportunity to look inside myself and others and search for the root and solution to this hatred. My trip to Israel and this particular experience has inspired me to help find and erase these fears within others and myself. I hope to rectify the many misconceptions and prejudices that still run rampant in the Jewish and Islamic communities, and in all communities and all religions all over the world.
Edie Joseph of Newberry, Florida won Honorable Mention for this essay.
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