The argument that broke out in the Knesset on Wednesday between Minister of Culture and Sport Miri Regev and Arab MK Hanin Zoabi (Joint List) was my fault.
Zoabi and Regev made quite a scene, yelling at each other in the hallowed halls where Israeli politics are played out earlier this week when Zoabi was critical of the government and the army. Regev, a former Brigadier-general in the Israel Defense Forces, fired from the hip, calling Zoabi a “traitor” and a stain on Israeli democracy.”
But to fully understand the motivations behind this dispute, you need to know the back story. It all began 15 years ago when I got my yearly call-up to do miluim (IDF reserve duty). I showed up late at the designated meeting point since I don’t drive. The only ray of light in leaving my family for reserve duty is was seeing my once-a-year, dressed-in-green friends, and I had already missed the precious last minutes of civilian-ship that would have been spent drinking coffee and catching up on what each of us had done in the past 11 months. I was all set to board the bus when Avi, my officer, tapped me on the shoulder.
“We need you for something special,” he said.
Without offering an explanation, he led me to an armored transport which was already half-full with a few of the younger, more combat-ready guys. Through the small window made of thick bulletproof glass I was treated to my blurry first sight of a part of Ramallah very few Jews get to see. The truck drove through a heavily guarded gate into a compound with 20-foot-tall concrete walls. This was the DCO, an army checkpoint that was half IDF and half Palestinian policemen, two camps separated by a chain-link fence. Until I stepped off the truck, I had no idea such a place existed. After I got out of the truck, I still wasn’t sure that what I was seeing was real. There I was, just a few meters away from a Palestinian in uniform, armed with a Kalashnikov. I smiled and waved. He didn’t.
Avi gave me a strained smile and told me to relax. I found his advice difficult to follow. I was a 35-year-old Jersey boy with three weeks of basic training. If anything popped, there was no way I was mentally or physically equipped to cope.
But it quickly became clear why Avi had picked me. I had two assets that made me invaluable: I was a medic, which fulfilled the personnel requirements, and my fluent English made me a fine frontman for dealing with the steady stream of diplomats who filed through our checkpoint on their way to speak to former Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat, the “king of Ramallah.” The routine of mind-numbing shifts at the gate put my fear on the back burner. The two snipers and belt-fed machine gun covering my back gave me a false sense of invincibility, though deep down inside, I knew that I was in a very strange and dangerous place.
Every day, I was faced by a wide variety of media people, foreign diplomats, and UN employees. I was supposed to check their ID and, if it was acceptable, send them through into Arafat’s domain. One hundred yards further down, our Palestinian counterparts did the same. With minimal Hebrew and no Arabic, I was challenged by the crazy display of identification cards that I pretended to understand. Each foreign NGO had its own version, and not all were legitimate. One day, a long Mercedes sedan with Jordanian plates stopped at my gate and a suave young Arab in a silk suit handed me a hand-tooled leather passport. I was sure that my incompetence was going to start an international incident but the young man, certainly the son of some desert sheikh, was very patient and polite.
The huge black armored SUVs the Americans drove came equipped with little drawers so they could slide out their passports without opening the vacuum-sealed door. The UN personnel had laminated blue cards that looked like badly faked library cards. The Ukrainian diplomats drove a beat up old Subaru wagon and were probably the friendliest diplomats to pass through my checkpoint, laughing as they drove in.
One day, a white car drove up with Israeli plates. A woman handed me an unfamiliar ID card. I asked her in Hebrew where she was from.
“Jerusalem,” she answered in English, obviously picking up on my heavy accent.
I looked at the card but I couldn’t make it out. I looked back at the woman and asked in Hebrew, “So you are Israeli?”
Her smile became very strained and she looked like she was struggling to hold back her anger, though I had no idea what she could be angry about.
“No,” she answered in English. “I am from Jerusalem.”
This exchange of questions and answers was repeated dozens of times with very little variation and I was no closer to understanding her. After about 10 minutes, Avi arrived and took over, waving the angry woman through.
Avi started laughing and slapped me on the back hard.
“That was the funniest thing I have ever seen,” he told me. “All the guys were watching.”
I blushed hard, not feeling so good about looking like a fool in front of the other soldiers.
“What was so funny?” I asked.
He gaped for a moment before breaking out in raucous laughter.
“You really don’t know, do you?” he said, forcing himself to calm down.”That was Hanin Zoabi. The biggest insult you can throw at her is to call her an Israeli, and you just kept saying it to her face, over and over.”
Perhaps it is way too late but I would like to apologize.
I am sorry, Miss Zoabi, I had no idea. I certainly did not mean to insult you. For me, calling someone Israeli has always been the highest praise. Perhaps I should have known better, understood that personal identity is fluid and highly subjective. So many people today accept a Palestinian nation that suddenly appeared even without any historic precedent or demographic basis.
The claims to Palestinian statehood don’t match up with any mainstream historical narrative but for the sake of being friendly, I am willing to stop calling you an Israeli.
But, Miss Zoabi, there is something I will not apologize for.
If you are inside Jerusalem, you are inside Israel, forever and for always, no matter what it says on that silly little card the UN gave you.