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“Everyday Racism”

September 14, 2009

I know this story to be true….because I have walked around Tel Aviv in a hijab (Muslim veil) and although Tel Aviv is more liberal than West Jerusalem, I know there are certain areas, streets, restaurants, cafes, where Muslims are NOT WELCOME. 

EVERYDAY RACISM
Arab and Jewish children go to the movies in Tel Aviv’s most central mall, August 2009
 
Orna Akad
 
 
Prologue: at the airport
I have been married to Fouad – originally from Jat [an Arab village in Israel] – for sixteen years now. We live in Tel Aviv and are lovingly raising our two children – Mai and Adam.
 
… And I tell you it all starts with the ‘little’ things. ‘Little things’… There, again I’ve fallen into the trap. How many times have we said this is ‘only’ a security check… None of the security guards know Arabic anyway… What the hell, we’ll hand them our ID, open our bag as they require, move aside at the airport, open our luggage in front of everyone… so that passers-by will see the bottle of olive oil Grandma Amina sends to her son Emad studying to become a doctor in Germany… How many times have we asked her not to send food, but she insists. “Just olive oil…” “Just a little bit. Here…” And along with the oil, she stuffs some olives, and cheese, and before you know it the whole suitcase is filled… “So the tastes will bring him back home”… That grandmother – it’s all her fault…
 
Now they’re taking the bottle of olive oil for a scan, unraveling the adhesive tape we carefully wound around the cap so the oil would not stain the clothes. Another hour of inspection… Never mind that, but later some twenty-year old girl will throw our clothes back into the suitcase and it will take us another hour to repack…
 
“Yes, ma’am, we packed everything ourselves, no, we have no weapons, not even a knife for personal use. We did not receive any package or letter to deliver and we know it’s all for our own safety, and for state security… And the state? Is it there for our own security? When my children were small, they asked, ‘Mommy, why does everyone have a blue sticker on their suitcase, and only we have a red one? Is it because we are special?” My daughter’s eyes opened wide. What could I tell them? Yes, we’re special, and let no one make you feel any different. This August I decided: Enough! No more!
 
Dizengoff  Center, August 2009
Do you realize that Dizengoff Center is the only mall in Tel Aviv that lets pets in – dogs, cats, freaks, even Arabs?
 
On August 3rd 2009, my four nieces from Jat stayed with us in our home at the center of Tel Aviv: 15-year old Maram, 16-year old Safa, 19-year old Lina, and 21-year old Islam. They came for a day of fun in Tel Aviv, to go shopping and see Harry Potter 6 currently showing at the Lev movie theater in the Dizengoff Center mall. The film was scheduled for 2 p.m.
 
At 1:30 p.m. Islam, Lina, Safa and Maram went out, accompanied by my children – their cousins – Mai and Adam, reaching the entry gate to Dizengoff Center mall from Tschernichovsky Street. Mai and her brother Adam meant to go in first, but as the security guard noticed they were in the company of their cousins, all dressed in their traditional Jilbab, he stopped them all and would not let them in.
 
My daughter Mai asked him: “What’s wrong?” The security guard asked to see the girls’ IDs. Islam and Lina handed theirs without any hesitation. He glanced at the IDs and asked where they were from. Islam explained that she is a student at Tel Aviv University and resides in Tel Aviv at present.
        I asked where you come from?
        Oh, I’m from Jat.
The guard took a moment, then said: “But it says your ID was issued in Hadera”.
        Well, there’s no office of the Ministry of the Interior in Jat. The nearest branch is in Hadera.
        Wait here. I need special confirmation from the Chief Security Officer to let you in.
Islam asked: “Why do I need special confirmation? I often come to the mall”. The security guard answered there were regulations which he must follow. Mai told him to hurry, he was holding them up, they came especially to see a film that was to start at 2 p.m.
 
At ten minutes to two the girls realized they were being held up too long and the security guard was doing nothing to obtain the chief officer’s permission or look into the matter, and just let them wait out in the heat for no special reason. They decided to take back their IDs and go, perhaps at another gate they would be permitted entry. When they got to the main entry gate (on Dizengoff Street) they were surprised to see the same security guard they had encountered before. They noticed he had followed them to the other gate. The girls returned to their uncle’s home – our home. When I heard their story, I said they should not miss the film just because of a security guard.
 
I went with them to the main gate and asked the guard why he was holding the girls up. He replied he had regulations and needed the Chief Security Officer’s permission. I told him I was responsible for the girls, they were my own nieces, and all they want is to see a film. At this point the guard stopped all entry into the Center and would not let anyone in except for a privileged few. A line formed and people did not understand why the security guard kept them waiting. One said: “Why not summon the police and have them arrested?”
Another said: “What’s your problem? They’re only girls… You’re blocking us out just on their account?”
Another woman added: “Girls? Our ‘cousins’ aren’t as innocent as you seem to think. Don’t you realize it’s for our own good? Our security… The Center has seen suicide attacks before.” She then looked at one of the girls: “No, sweetie, don’t take this personally. It’s so that we can all feel safe.”
One fellow said this was unadulterated racism, and that he will not be frequenting the Center ever again.
 
At some point the Chief Security Officer arrived and let the girls in, but the guard insisted that he had not heard him confirm this. At 2:30 p.m. the girls realized that they would no longer make it to the film.
 
In the evening we were contacted by the TV program “What’s happening?” on Channel 2. They’d heard of the ‘disturbance’ at the Dizengoff Center gate.
 
The next day, around 12 noon, Islam, Linda, Safa, Maram, Mai, Adam and I showed up again at the gate of the mall, this time with a film crew of Channel 2 to reconstruct the previous day’s events. All the security guards – from all the gates to the mall – were there to watch… The Chief Security Officer, police (“Here you may film, there you may not”). Passers-by entered the Center freely without undergoing any security checks whatsoever, as the entire security staff was busy crowding around us. Words flew between the film crew and the security guards who forbade them to film at the site, resulting in the arrival on the scene of the Center’s CEO – Eitan Goldman – escorted by more guards. He claimed in view of everyone present that in such a hot summer as this, girls who show up wrapped in warm attire arouse suspicion and must be checked. I asked him whether ultra-orthodox Jews in their heavy attire also arouse his suspicion. The CEO, feeling a bit defensive, looked around and said that we could sort things out in an air-conditioned room with a water-cooler, and he would even offer us a nice cup of coffee.
 
We decided to come in and listen, and most importantly: I thought the man was about to apologize and offer the girls tickets for the next showing of the film they had missed.
Things turned out differently, though. He opened the conversation in his room saying he has Arab friends and even asked the girls if they knew Ibrahim Watad, a very good friend of his from Jat. For years now they have been meeting “over a delicious plate of humus. He’s an excellent friend of mine”. He then added we should understand that their warm clothing in the August sun was “suspicious”. After all, it’s natural for a security guard to suspect that they might be hiding something under their garments.
 
“Let us not forget that Dizengoff Center suffered two terrorist attacks in the past, and it is of the utmost importance for me to protect you and your safety, that is why you must cooperate with the security guard”. The CEO proceeded to claim that Dizengoff Center is the only mall in Tel Aviv – he repeated the word only – that lets in pets: dogs, cats, freaks. He stopped for a moment and asked Lina: “Do you know what a freak is?” Lina nodded politely. “A freak is someone who has an earring here and another piercing there and his hair is weird… Besides, the Center lets in gays and lesbians, and minorities, and yes, yes, you’ll be surprised – even Arabs.”
Then he turned to the Chief Security Officer sitting next to him: “Hey, Amos, what’s the name of that Arab woman who cleans our restrooms? She is dressed exactly the way you are and every morning when she shows up for work she asks to be security-checked. And if she is required to show her ID she does so gladly, because she realizes it’s for her own good!” He added that everyone has their own version: “The security guard says you were rude to him and refused to hand him your IDs and that’s why he followed you.”
 
Islam said that even if she is somewhat rebellious, she would never make trouble in the presence of her sister Maram. She knew how badly her sister wanted to get to see the film, for ‘she had never in her life been to the movies’.
The CEO interrupted her and asked: “Anyone got a coin?”
We were silent.
“Come on, anyone got a coin? No matter which? Even 10 agorot is fine. Maybe you’ve got a coin on you, Amos?”
Amos, the Chief Security Officer, took a 5-shekel coin out of his pocket.
The CEO threw the coin on the table and asked each of us what we see. We were polite and answered. With a dramatic gesture he turned the coin over and said: “And here I turn the coin over and we see a totally different picture. Which means that every story has two sides.”
“The security guard claims the girls were rude to him and whoever is rude and acts suspiciously is treated according to regulations. A special permission from the Chief Security Officer is necessary to let him in. The girls refused to hand over their IDs and then the girl with the strapped shirt (my daughter Mai) collected their IDs.”
The girls were dazed by these lies and the CEO did not even try to listen to their version. He spoke of clear-cut regulations which should be followed. Finally I lost my patience and said: “Don’t you think the security guard took these regulations too far because the girls are Arabs? Why not admit it?” The CEO once again emphasized the Center was so special as a pluralistic site and said that Israel is a free country: “Here, in spite of everything that happened, even Channel 2 in this country let you express yourselves freely. What Arab country would let you do that?”
 
We left his office even more humiliated than we had been before we came.
We got out of there feeling suffocated and cold. This did not keep Etan Goldman from calling up Channel 2 and telling everyone about the heart-warming conversation he had had with the girls in his office.

*

So how did I put it? “Little things”. There is no such thing. These “little things” lead to questionable administrative detentions. These are the things that eventually bring about trigger-happy armed personnel and the murder of innocents, and all in the name of ‘state security’. There is no such thing as ‘present-absentee’/’absent-present’. We are all of us present. We all have faces and we do not want to remember, nor do we want to be constantly reminded that we do not really belong. Not really.
 
Orna Akad
Tel Aviv, August 2009

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