A failed test brings shame to a peacenik

October 20, 2005|By HELEN SCHARY MOTRO

KFAR SHMARIYAHU, Israel -- Over time I have learned to drive to a few locations in Jerusalem, but I am never sure when I start out if I will reach my destination without getting lost, circling, poring over maps and asking person after person for directions. I have succeeded in mastering the twists and turns of Tel Aviv, but driving into the hodgepodge of Jerusalem is as daunting as facing the illogic of Boston's one-way streets after the comforting geometric symmetry of Manhattan.

In the door pocket of my car, I have one road atlas of Israel, one map of the streets of Tel Aviv, one map of the Galilee and no fewer than five of Jerusalem. I'm always apprehensive of taking the wrong road and winding up where I might be perceived as an unwelcome intruder.

One day, my apprehensions were borne out in a way I couldn't have predicted. All my life I have seen myself as a civil libertarian, a liberal, a peacenik - in sum, a democrat. But my behavior proved me no better than a hypocrite.

I had driven to Jerusalem to attend an evening meeting but was delayed in traffic. Night had fallen and I was late. An outsider, I was frightened of crossing the invisible borders of the "unified" city into intifada territory, where, with my poor mastery of direction, I believed I might be an easy target.

I recalled advice given to me by a fellow American, also based in Tel Aviv: When in doubt in Jerusalem, leave your car in the guest parking lot at the old Hilton Hotel at the city's periphery and hop into a taxi.

With relief, that's what I did. Opening the rear door, I slid into the first of the taxis lined up waiting to collect passengers at the hotel entrance. I was starting to relax when, through his accent, the driver revealed his nationality. "Blease," he repeated my destination back to me, "Hillel Street." In the mouth of a native Arabic speaker, the English P becomes a B.

I froze, managed to mumble, "I forgot something!" then fled the cab. Half-panicking, I accosted the astounded hotel doorman and pleaded with him, "Get me another taxi." I groped for words. "I want a driver with, with" - I searched for a euphemism. Finally I blurted it straight out: "Find me an Israeli driver."

Even as I stammered the words, I felt waves of shame rising.

I was ushered into the next taxi in line, obligingly driven by a Jew. I kept my eyes focused on the ground, but I felt the dark stare of the Arab as he stood idle beside his idling cab. Humiliation aside, he must have hated me for his lost fare. But however he judged me, it could be no harsher than my own verdict on myself.

My years of so-called convictions hadn't proved strong enough to hold up a feather when it came to reality. I was too chicken to take a 10-minute drive in a registered taxi through Jewish West Jerusalem with an Arab driver at 8 p.m. And I was only going from the Hilton to Hillel Street - not from Jenin to Ramallah in the West Bank.

They say a liberal is a bigot who hasn't been mugged, but my anxiety anticipated the un-thrown stone. Unassisted, I put the dagger in the driver's hand. By my blatant action and blunt words in those brief seconds, I did more damage to the cause of Arab-Israeli co-existence than I could ever counterbalance by a lifetime of dues to the Association for Civil Rights.

It's no justification protesting that it was the prudent thing to do or an excusable overreaction, that "you never know" or that I have a responsibility to my family as well as my ideals. For when I heard that driver speak and saw his dark eyes in the rear-view mirror, I was light-years away from any convictions. When push came to shove, I was handed the opportunity to show where I stood, and I did. I failed the taxi test.

And I am doubly damned. For I know that, presented with the same test, I might again refuse the ride, again feel relief as I got out. I can no longer whitewash my true colors. I too am a casualty of the Israeli occupation and the intifada it caused, and for that I ask the driver's pardon. I used to just be waiting for peace. Since that abortive ride, I am also waiting for my conscience to give me peace.

Helen Schary Motro, who teaches at the Tel Aviv University Faculty of Law, is author of Maneuvering Between the Headlines: An American Lives through the Intifada, from which this article was excerpted.

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