Speaking Spanish in East Jerusalem—Impressions of an Outsider

November 3, 2004 It was just a brief conversation, less than half an hour. And while we talked, my eyes took in things that I had read about but never seen. I was an American businessman, a Jew, on a rare trip to Israel. Yet a chance meeting and a glimpse of desperation jarred me, intruded on my world, and now stays in my head as a disturbing memory I had not counted on.

It started as we crossed the Nablus Gate into East Jerusalem by car, and I immediately noticed that the streets and surrounding buildings are less well maintained than in West Jerusalem. As my driver and I pulled in front of the Jerusalem Hotel, we passed a gathering of about 100 Arab men and women in front of a concrete building whose façade was adorned with rough ironwork crowned by razor wire. The entrance was blocked by a revolving door that looked like a people shredder with fingers of rough metal. The men and women in line were sardined to each other—some of the women carried newborn babies wrapped in blankets—a low metal barrier was the only thing that separated the women from the men, and above their heads, a tin canopy that ran along the side of the sidewalk for about thirty feet protected them from the sun’s rays. I would later find out that this outdoor assembly awaited passage to the local branch of the Ministry of the Interior.

My rendezvous in East Jerusalem had been scheduled by my friend, Rabbi David Saperstein, who heads the Religious Action Center (RAC) of Reform Judaism in Washington, D.C., so that I could meet with two remarkable women: Anat Hoffman, Executive Director of the Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC) who served as a Jerusalem city council woman for fourteen years; and Lesley Sachs, Associate Director of the World Union for Progressive Judaism.

A former Israeli national swimming champion who graduated from UCLA, Anat is intimately familiar with the challenges facing the 200,000 Palestinian citizens of Jerusalem—as a member of the city council, Anat pushed relentlessly for the provision of adequate municipal services for these Israeli citizens, and she remains enjoined in that battle. Lesley is a powerful advocate of women’s rights in Israel, leading efforts to establish rape crisis centers and shelters for battered women across the country.

We met a few minutes before noon for lunch the Jerusalem Hotel, a charming fourteen- room guesthouse on Nablus road meticulously restored by the Saadeh family, who are Christian Arabs. The hotel was largely empty, and the outdoor garden restaurant bereft of luncheon guests. Anat immediately took me for a walk forty yards from the hotel to meet some Palestinians on the street.

Currently, 280,000 Arabs live in East Jerusalem out of a total

Jerusalem population of about 740,000. These East Jerusalem residents are not citizens of Israel but are technically only "Jerusalem residents." In practice, they are (by law) supposed to be accorded full rights and services. There are only two differences between them and Israeli citizens: they cannot vote for the Knesset, and they have a "laisser passe" rather than an Israeli passport.

The Ministry of the Interior looked to me like an abattoir, not a center for access to social services and hardly a place that someone would go to of their own free will. Frankly, I was shocked when Anat told me that the assemblage of veiled women with babies, young men in T-shirts, and older men in traditional Arab attire, all needed to enter the building to obtain various identification cards stamped and updated in order to access a menu of social services—such as medical care for newborn children.

Think of going to the DMV but having to get through a gauntlet to get in. The East Jerusalem branch of the Ministry of the Interior is only open from 8 AM to 12 Noon, and people start lining up at 4 AM, sleeping on the streets to keep their place in line. According to Anat, as an Israeli citizen, if you want to go to another branch of the Ministry to get your official business done you can do that, except if you live in East Jerusalem.

As I stood on the sidewalk about ten feet away from the small crowd, Anat approached a dozen people and asked them in Hebrew if anyone spoke English because she was with an American visitor who wanted to find out why they were waiting in line. Curious looks followed me, but nobody volunteered, and I immediately starting getting uncomfortable. Finally, an elderly gentleman who appeared to be in his late 60’s nodded and walked over to me with Anat.

In broken English, he said, “My daughter, she is inside. I am not waiting to go in”.

“Why is your daughter inside”?, Anat queried.

“The baby.”

“What about the baby? When was the baby born?”

“Six months”, he replied.

“Does the baby need identification?”, Anat pressed him for more.

Frustrated because he could not express himself, the man shocked me by saying, “Yes. . . . Hablan Espanol?”

“Si como no”, I spoke up enthusiastically. “Como es que usted habla Espanol?”

Equally surprised and delighted, the man proceeded to explain to me in flawless Spanish that,decades ago, he had lived in

Venezuela for fifteen years and that his daughter had been waiting for six months to get her newborn baby added to her identification card so that she would qualify for access to infant medical care at the local hospital. It had taken three months to get her initial appointment and another three months to actually get past the ominous revolving gate. He was waiting to take her back home after her appointment was concluded.

He talked about the dangers of waiting in line in front of the Interior Ministry. The man told me that “mala gente”, bad people, hoodlums, would habitually harass the people waiting in line and extort money from them for protection or else would beat them. He told me that the Israeli police would “look the other way” and not interfere. I looked across the street and down the block about forty yards at the local police station. I didn’t see any police.

I learned that all of the forms for the various requests from the Ministry were written only in Hebrew, with no Arabic translation. While most Arabs in Israel speak Hebrew of necessity, far fewer read Hebrew and many are illiterate. Conveniently located typists perch on cardboard boxes on the squalid street sidewalk across from the Ministry of the Interior ready to offer their services to those in need, for a small fee, of course.

The gentleman, whose face had brightened considerably throughout our conversation, told me that he had been a former shopkeeper but no longer had a business. He also invited Anat and me to visit his home in a nearby section of East Jerusalem, an offer that I politely declined as we returned to the hotel for lunch.

It was hard to believe that a Jew born in Puerto Rico would be having a friendly conversation in Spanish with a Palestinian in East Jerusalem at high noon during Ramadan. It was much easier to imagine that the Israeli authorities have systematically marginalized the Palestinian minority and restricted their access to basic social services, making the system of bureaucracy into a quagmire. I could see the loss of dignity in the faces of the Palestinians waiting to interact with the local government authorities, I could see their despair. And these are Israeli Arabs, not refugees!

As the son of a Holocaust survivor, it is easy for me to understand how the horrors of the Intifada have created fear and even callousness in the hearts of Israelis. But my own experience working and building personal relationships with Israelis tells me that Israelis are not inherently this way—clearly they are numbed from months of terrorist bombings and, at a very basic level, don’t know who to trust. When your baseline condition is reacting to acts of terror against innocent men, women, and children, it is hard to have a constructive frame of reference.

As an outsider with only a brief glimpse of life in Israel today, I have a different frame of reference and believe that the future for all Israelis can be brighter if the humane values at the core of Judaism guide interactions between Arabs and Jews.

The Ministry of the Interior could take two simple actions immediately and adopt one more ambitious but relatively simple change in its organization to materially improve the situation for the Arabs of East Jerusalem:

(1) Print forms in Hebrew and in Arabic (this is actually already required by law in Israel). (2) Assign the highest priority to the processing of newborn children in order to keep women with babies off the street and out of the line. They should do this for all offices regardless of their location.

The third change revolves around a change of outlook. The basic problem is that there is an office of the Interior Ministry for Arabs and offices for Jews, and that if things are really to improve, there have to be offices that serve both populations together. Anat pointed out to me that, in her experience, when services for Arabs and Jews are brought together, suddenly the problems that plagued the Arab sector are solved miraculously and overnight: e.g., the sewage system, and well-baby-care. Anat singles out the American Consulate as the best example of how one bureaucratic office can serve both populations effectively—and it is located just a few blocks away from the East Jerusalem Interior Ministry office.

In Anat’s words, “The minute Jews and Arabs have to wait on the same line, the line gets shorter. The minute Jews and Arabs have to be served in the same building, the water fountain begins to work, the restrooms have toilet paper, and the clerks’ facial muscles suddenly move into the smile position a whole lot more often than before.”

In my opinion the real solution requires a change of frame of reference– the Interior Ministry should divide Jerusalem into North and South, with offices serving both Jews and Arabs, rather than dividing Jerusalem into East and West. These are simple solutions and within reach.

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