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March 2017
On the Road
Driving beyond the Green Line prompts a look in the mirror.

The bus stop at Gilo Junction in Jerusalem, where the highway launches itself southward into the "Territories," is a trampiada, or hitchhiking station. It is generally crowded with travelers, most of them waiting not for a bus but for a lift to Gush Etzion, the bloc of Jewish settlements on the capital's southern flanks, or beyond, to Kiryat Arba and the settlements in the southern Judean hills. Many drivers, myself included, consider it a civic duty to offer a lift.

As a general rule, Jews don't hitchhike on open roads in the Territories. But in the rural farm country past Kiryat Arba, Jewish hitchhikers, most commonly teenagers off to visit friends or traveling between home and school, often try to "catch a tramp," as they say here, directly in front of the small settlements that punctuate the highway - Carmel, Maon, Sussya (with its ruins of an ancient Jewish town), and finally, all the way back at the Green Line, Beit Yattir.

To these hitchhikers one feels a special obligation as the young of one's tribe - not only to help them get where they are going but also to get them off a highway that runs through the Territories.

Driving down to Beit Yattir from Jerusalem the other day, I stopped by automatic habit for a young fellow in a red shirt in front of Sussya, four kilometers from home. He turned out, however, to be an Arab - he'd been working in the settlement, he explained - and two other Arabs I hadn't noticed sitting a small distance away were waiting with him.

When I realized my mistake, I refused them a lift, even to the next intersection, two kilometers away. Since there was no way I would not be passing that intersection, my reason was pretty obviously personal: They were Arabs.

As I drove on alone, I felt extremely uncomfortable with myself. Not wanting three unknown Arabs riding with me seemed reasonable, and yet, by refusing them face to face, I felt that I had violated some inner boundary of my best American self. Is this what Israel had done to me - forced me to make choices purely on the basis of ethnicity, compelled me to face myself as a racist, plain and simple?

Still, I knew that, driving in America, I would never even think of picking up hitchhiking strangers, white, black or indifferent, on an open road. In America, I mused, turning toward Beit Yattir at the intersection to which I had refused the three Arab workers a ride, the situation is much less complex and therefore more deceptive. In America, where one knows not to trust anyone, a good citizen like myself is simply spared the need to discriminate.

Published in the Jerusalem Report, September 13, 1999.

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