I don’t know how many times I’ve criticized Israel, yet here I am reaping its benefits: I really don’t have to learn its language, I don’t have to fill out any immigration papers, and like parts of America, I get preferential treatment because of the color of my skin. If a car full of Palestinian Arabs tried to go through the same checkpoint that a few German internationals and I passed through the other day on the way here, they would be promptly turned around, at the very least.
Now sitting here in a relatively affluent-looking shopping plaza in the Jewish quarter of western Jerusalem, in Israel proper, I feel somewhat at home. English is being spoken, hippies are playing acoustic guitar across the walkway, and a mute beggar with a dent in the back of his head is going from table to table communicating through the jingle-jangle of his change cup. The only difference between here and home is the Hebrew lettering on some of the storefronts and the occasional Israeli Defence Forces soldier (all looking in their early twenties) sauntering by in olive green fatigues. Still, I’m guessing that many more tourists – many of them fellow Americans -- are on this city block than in all of Ramallah.
In Palestine the barrier of both culture and language is noticeably thicker. Surely, I didn’t do enough homework regarding the Arabic language, but even if I did, I would have been completely unprepared for the Palestinian dialect. Palestinians are also familiar with English, but theirs is limited and less openly spoken. Not knowing the language of a place can put one in a terribly compromising position which can turn even the most extroverted, confident person into a bumbling, self-loathing fool.
This dichotomy reminds me of my first unaccompanied trip overseas, to Barcelona a few years ago. I was supposed to meet a group of friends at the Sants Train Station, but when their train finally arrived, they didn’t. There was no way for me to get a hold of them. Hours passed, hours during which I realized my Spanish was totally inadequate for real world conversation. It was getting dark. Finally in a panic I followed a group of Americans onto the subway to a very touristy part of town, each side of the street lined with the signs of American icons like KFC, Subway, and McDonalds. At home I would sneer at (but still hypocritically indulge in) corporate food, the symbol of a diseased mentality, a broken food system. But here I welcomed the neon signs with open arms, pieces of home. I was safe from the vast black gulf of the unknown, an unknown which loses its adventurous, exciting quality when you are alone for the first time in a foreign country, at night.
Walking through the streets of Ramallah, I am hardly social with the Palestinians I came here to help. I make eye contact, nod, wave, say “marhaba,” and they do the same, but I hope they say no more than that. The embarrassment of moving into an Arab city yet knowing only ten words of Arabic is massive. Stupid American. The feeling is similar to being at an office in which I’ve neglected to learn the name of somebody I’ve worked with for six months, and so I simply scurry out the door of the break room so to avoid any discussion that would reveal my dirty little secret, which the coworker already knows. In Ramallah it is the same coward’s conundrum, having to choose between displaying ignorance or arrogance, of initiating a doomed conversation, or not talking to somebody at all.
This is the familiar dilemma of the Western leftist, a person ideologically conditioned to sympathize with the poor, dirty, and oppressed, but socially conditioned to and emotionally attached to familiar middle-class customs and surroundings.