Things You Can Say, Things You Cannot

The anti-boycott law passed Monday night. Much has been said about what the American administration — blind as always to Middle East realities — tagged “an internal issue.” Let me just add that my readers should remember, from now on, that there are things I am not allowed to say. For example, I expressed my support for the boycott on settlements products several times in the past; I am not allowed to do it anymore. I am not saying I could say whatever I wanted to before now: self-censorship is almost inevitable for critical writers living in Israel. But now you’ve got an official confirmation from the Israeli parliament: Israelis are not allowed to speak out their mind freely. The “only democracy in the Middle East” openly joins the “democracies” around it — when some of these “democracies” try to become democracies. We lag behind. Or better: we are moving backwards. Very rapidly.

The law might be overruled by Israel’s Supreme Court, but this will only spur the fascist coalition to curb the court as it has been eager to for years. Meanwhile, Gush Shalom — which initiated the boycott on settlements products many years ago — removed the list of those products from its Web site. “We cannot afford to publish the list anymore,” they say. The much more mainstream Peace Now, on the other hand, which never endorsed the boycott before (too “controversial”), now recognizes the outrage on the Left and tries to capitalize on it. 

What is Gush Shalom afraid of? One revealing aspect of the new law is the way it is to be imposed. The State of Israel will not indict anyone for calling for a boycott —  that wouldn’t look good abroad. Instead, anyone who feels offended because of a boycott call can sue the one who called for it, and in court —  that’s the law — the plaintiff does not have to prove the damage caused to him.

In other words, every Israeli producer based in the occupied territories can sue anyone calling for a boycott. If I call to boycott all settlements products — I am not saying I do, I say “if” — each and every Israeli firm based in the occupied territories can sue me, and there are hundreds of such firms. So not only do they operate on stolen Palestinian land, not only do they enjoy generous state benefits from my tax money (that’s why they moved to the territories in the first place) — now they can sue me and take my money too for calling for a boycott (if I ever do). What started as a dispossession of the Palestinians now moves to the dispossession of any Israeli who dares oppose that dispossession. What started as enslaving the Palestinians may end in enslaving their supporters within Israel.

This may be an innovation, but using the settlers themselves to promote the occupation is a typical old Israeli strategy. The state relegates some of its more embarrassing functions to the settlers. It’s not always the Israeli state that steals Palestinian land and water. It’s not always Israeli soldiers who harass Palestinian men, women, children, and cattle, who throw stones at them, burn their fields, cut down their trees, rob their olives, and sell the oil. Sometimes it is the state or its soldiers, but ever more often it is the settlers, the so-called civilians, backed covertly (or overtly) by the state. The settlers do the dirty work that the state would rather not do. The state gives them the tools — money, guns, legislation, turning a blind eye, impunity — while the settlers do the work. It’s the typical function of a militia in a fascist regime: so far it has terrorized the Palestinians, now it gets a legal license to terrorize its Israeli opponents. Remember it next time you hear Shimon Peres speak about “the extremists on both sides.” The Israeli extremist has a government behind him. 

Racism at the Bottom

Returning to Israel from abroad is always a crucial moment. I always wonder how long will it take before I sigh and say to myself, “Oh, yes, I am in Israel.” Last year, it was when I took the early train from the airport — 5 a.m., confused after a night flight, hesitating for a second whether it was the right train. Suddenly, a young man in uniform yelled at me: “Move on, get inside! Don’t you see we’re already late?!” Oh yes, I am in Israel. I had just spent two weeks in Ethiopia, and no one, young or old, black or white, dared yell at me.

This time, perhaps unconsciously traumatized by that return, perhaps simply because of the backward train service from the airport late at night, I decided to take a taxi home. I took my seat next to an elderly driver, who was polite enough to help me with the luggage. He started driving, took a glimpse at a bystander on the airport’s pavement, and all of a sudden burst out in a series of curses, four-letter words of all kinds, too horrifying even to repeat, extremely rich on the backdrop of his poor Hebrew. I was shocked. I turned my head backward: the innocent bystander was a Muslim, bearded and neatly dressed in a white gown. He was just standing there, perhaps waiting for a taxi.

The driver noticed my shock and immediately began to apologize. Putting his hand on my knee he swore he didn’t mean it. He didn’t mean to offend me or to curse me, just that f*cking dirty lousy Arab standing there; they should not be allowed to be there at all!

I considered getting out, but I was too tired. So I asked the driver whether he knew that man, and what the man had done to him. He said he didn’t know that individual Arab, but all Arabs were the same, so to hell with them.

I told him I was just coming back from Antwerp and no taxi driver there would even dream of speaking that way of the local Jews, who (being mostly Orthodox) also grow beards and dress differently.

He explained that Arabs were liars: he took another Arab to Kfar Saba the other day, and as they arrived, the passenger asked him to continue to nearby Qalqilyah, just a few minutes away.

Wasn’t the driver happy to earn a couple of cents more? Not at all; he does not go to Qalqilyah. It’s in the West Bank. He refused. “We don’t do the Territories.” Too dangerous. A few stories on notorious Palestinian car thieves followed.

I asked the driver what he would do if I asked him to take me to  Ariel or Tapuach, illegal Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

“You are most welcome, my friend,” said the driver. “I’d be happy to take you there.”

“So it’s not that you don’t do the Territories; you do the Jewish settlements in the Territories, but you don’t do Arab places, right?”

“We do go to Arab places,” he said. “I can take you to Um-el-Fahm or Nazareth [inside Israel proper] — but not to the Territories. And that dirty Palestinian should have told me from the beginning that he wanted to Qalqilyah.”

“But if he had told you the truth, you would have refused to take him, right?”

The driver admitted that this was true.

“So what would you do in his place? What would you do if you had to get home to Qalqilyah, where no trains and no buses go?”

The driver finally conceded he had no solution for the Palestinian guy, whose only sin was having his domicile in Qalqilyah.

I returned to the other Arab, the bystander: What did he do to the driver? The driver now quoted something I said earlier: “You cannot generalize, every person is different.” And “Please do not misunderstand me, sir; I am not a bad person.”

He then told me he had emigrated 21 years ago from Tashkent, Uzbekistan. Where 90 percent of the population is Muslim, I now add. He goes back every year to visit old friends.

I don’t think the taxi driver is a bad person. He is just a symptom. He has learned from experience that in the Israel of 2011 it’s legitimate to send a person to hell with a backpack full of dirty words just because he is Arab. Or better: that it’s legitimate to share with your passenger a backpack full of dirty words against an innocent Arab, provided your passenger looks Jewish. He didn’t want to be rude with me: on the contrary, it was his way of being friendly, of appealing to our common denominator: hatred toward Arabs.

Historians speak of anti-Semitism in pre-Nazi Germany as a common system of beliefs and utterances shared by the average (non-Jewish) person as normal, acceptable, respectable, even obvious facts of life. Everybody hated Jews, just like everybody hates cockroaches — what’s the big deal? The taxi driver reflects the Israeli mainstream nowadays. With such a government and such a public atmosphere, the old taxi driver is the last person I can blame.

Author: Ran HaCohen

Dr. Ran HaCohen was born in the Netherlands in 1964 and grew up in Israel. He has a B.A. in computer science, an M.A. in comparative literature, and a Ph.D. in Jewish studies. He is a university teacher in Israel. He also works as a literary translator (from German, English, and Dutch). HaCohen's work has been published widely in Israel. "Letter From Israel" appears occasionally at