Thursday, October 7, 2010

Dangerous Areas

View from Hebrew University of East Jerusalem and the West Bank (including the wall)

View from Hebrew University of East Jerusalem and the West Bank (including the wall)

When I first moved to Israel I lived in the student dorms in Mount Scopus, at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. For those unfamiliar with the area, the Mount Scopus campus of Hebrew U is located in north-east Jerusalem. Therefore there are many Arab neighborhoods around the University.

The location never much mattered. However, soon many people began to think otherwise. The news was first announced to the overseas Undergraduates on a trip up north. They were told minimal news; only that 2 boys had been beaten up by Arabs near campus right near campus and student dorms. Rumors spread quickly. The next day there was a security meeting: I was sent e-mails about the emergency meeting and my roommate was even sent a text from the administration. Everyone was concerned.

So what happened? Two boys were walking to a nearby synogogue on Friday night. They looked Jewish- wore kippas. They were walking through the parking lot of a gas station when a group of young Arabs approached them. They were far outnumbered. In English they warned the boys that they could not pass, this wasn’t their place, and then they jumped on them, while they were talking. They hit one of the Jewish kids on the back of the head, and the other boy ran in the opposite direction. A large number of the Arab boys followed him, and the rest went after the other. The Jewish boy pulled out a pocket knife and the Arab boys ran away, he continued to run until he got to the security at the front of the student dorms. The other boy ran into the road, in front of a car and plead for help. They helped him, and the remaining boys ran off. However damage had been done, the one hit on the head was injured and spent some days in the hospital. All this happened only a few minute walk away from the front gates of the student dorms.

It was no wonder an emergency security meeting was adjourned. The University warned all the students (students from oversees who are Jewish, and non-Jewish) to be aware and careful walking through Arab neighborhoods- they were dangerous- as was obviously shown.

Sheikh Jarrah, an Arab (dangerous?) neighborhood near Hebrew University

Sheikh Jarrah, an Arab (dangerous?) neighborhood near Hebrew University

But what does it mean to say that this or that any area is dangerous? Are we saying that Arab areas are inherently dangerous because they are Arabs? Why is there no mention of Jewish areas? After the meeting they issued a warning to not walk through east Jerusalem- especially during Ramadan, when religious fervor is high.

Speaking with my fellow students from the Univesrity, I asked them how they felt: did they perceive Arab areas as dangerous? Did they feel the same about Jewish areas- like Haradi neighborhoods such as Mea Shearim? There was a clear consensus: as long as they followed the Jewish rules; dressing modestly or keeping the laws of Shabbat on Shabbat, they felt safe walking through Jewish areas. However, the same line of thought did not follow from Arab neighborhoods. My friend said she walked through East Jerusalem to get to the old city, and although dressed modestly, she still felt uncomfortable: receiving cat-calls and looks the entire walk.

So what am I supposed to take from all of this? Jews are good. Arabs are bad. Have we all become racists? We can all so easily brand areas? Or is there truth here? Talking about the situations to one of the boys who fell victim to the Arab boys, I asked him if he felt like a racist after the situation. He said he didn’t hate Arabs, although he hated those that beat him up. He, like everyone else I spoke to, agreed that Arab neighborhoods were dangerous, and he had no problem admitting it, despite my question of racism… he after all had found out the hard way of what it means for an area to be dangerous.

This kind of branding is common all over the world. Like Harlem in New York, or Jane in Finch in Toronto. Yet we don’t attribute fault to the residents, but the conditions of the residents: because they are poor, or immigrants with low education. But the tone in Israel is different. The areas are dangerous because they are Arabs, not because the Arab neighborhoods are poorer than the Jewish ones, or that they are treated differently in a Jewish state.

Just last week, me and my Israeli cousin were driving home from a hiking trip up north. On the drive home a car irrationally and incredibly fast tried to pass by a car lineup and cut through traffic. My cousin said that he must be an Arab. I asked why, and he said because the car was shitty and he was driving too fast and dangerously: only an Arab would do that. I asked him if he thought this characterization was a little racist. He responded no, and that after all he was only telling the truth.

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