The 15-person bus that I was traveling back on made it through the Israeli checkpoint without too much trouble. The soldiers gave me the usual hassle about my visa, this, my name, that, which languages I speak etc., etc., etc. They tested my American accent and I played their game. They participated in their side of the continuous political drama that is larger than all of us; I played the complicit counterpart. Although impervious to their bullying, I was discreetly aware of their own self-loathing. Even though it is all nothing but puppetry, still, in situations such as these, it is far too easy to become the enemy which we deplore. At the end of the day, we have a choice. But I digress.
In the past few months, my visceral sensitivity to the constant sight of living in a militarized state of affairs has softened along the edges. It's really not so bad. Somehow, in my constant confrontation with borders, barriers and checkpoints, the sight of automatic weapons has blurred into the scenery. I now see them as mere accessories. The puppets come equipped with their guns kind of like the way I always carry antibiotic hand soap and pepper spray. Perhaps the ironic thing is that my hand soap and pepper spray allow me to feel infinitely more secure. But again, I digress.
After we passed the checkpoint, tensions faded as always, and the driver turned the Arab music back on. I briefly chatted with a girl across the isle about her fake Gucci handbag. She was impressed with my Arabic. I was impressed with her bag. I was well on my way to making a new friend when the bus stopped to let off a few passengers. Generally speaking, the Arab bus is for Arabs. This is because Israeli buses often don't travel to Arab areas, and they also often fail to allow Arab folks on their buses in the first place. Meanwhile, all people are welcome to ride on the Arab buses, but the vast majority of Israeli's are horrified to take the so-called "risk" of doing so. When the bus came to a stop, a very large man came up running up beside it. With his fist, he banged the window to tell the driver to let him on. At first glance, it was obvious to me that he wasn't Arab. It was the size of a veritable elephant and clearly in bad health. He was breathing heavily and sweating profusely. For whatever reason, his presence on the bus immediately alarmed me. I looked around to see if the rest of the passengers were alarmed, too. I shot a quizzical look to my friend with the fake bag, which she mirrored in return. After a few minutes of fumbling with enough shekels to pay the driver, the man took the seat directly behind me.
And that's when it got a little crazy.
Now that I know a little bit of Hebrew, I now know when someone is swearing. From the seat behind me, the man started grumbling obscenities. Really nasty ones. If this wasn't bad enough, he started hitting the window with his index finger, pointing at people on the street and calling them Nazis. Then, in Hebrew, he announced to the bus that he was a Nazi. Then he started looking around and calling the women around him whores. It was really classy. Really. And yes, beyond disturbing.
Obviously, the guy was paranoid schizophrenic. The combination of his size, his dementia, and the raw feeling I had in my gut that he was just about ready to explode made me jump up and tell the driver that the guy was nuts and to let me off the bus. Whether or not Mr. Nazi Schizophrenic was about to go AWOL on a bus full of innocent people was beside point. Everything about him shook me. Everything about the situation told me that paying for a taxi ride home was an infinitely better choice than having to deal with the repercussion of not listening to my gut.
So I was let off on the street. By the time the driver stopped to let me off, the men on the bus were all standing in the isle around this crazy monster of a human being, in an effort to isolate the man and protect the women and children, if in the event that he became violent. The minute my feet were back on the street, I felt the weight of the moment disappear. But then, as the bus moved on without me, I looked back and was suddenly flooded with a sense of guilt for abandoning the Arab folks to deal with this crazy Jewish man. What if something did happen? The burden of proof in this society always falls on the Arabs, not the Jews. It is just like in certain parts of America, where, even today, a black man is always guilty, simply for being born black. If I stayed to be a witness for all of this, I would have been the only one able to defend the people on the bus. But instead, I jumped ship the very first moment I felt that flash of unease rip through me.
What have I done?, I thought. It's funny how stressful situations cause you to question the person you have become.
After all of the promises I have made to my friends and family not to be "too brave", I was suddenly left wondering about my integrity as a human being. When I think about the many times I have heard people in my intellectual and social circles wax on about how "all" Arabs are violent people by design.... how when you "give them money, they buy guns"...how you can tell that they "have no respect for life by the way that they treat their women and children as human shields"...or the fact that their fantastically corrupt political and religious leaders are a reflection of their nature by default...I have to say that my experience time and again speaks to the contrary. Despite the fact that I am the one who is officially "trained" in non-violent practice, I was the only one who got off the bus. Meanwhile, left to their own devices the men on the bus non-violently took their positions. They became non-aggressive interlocutors, and by engaging the man in conversation, they attempted to focus the static energy of the bus. Finally, they used their bodies as shields. In this state of emergency, they were prepared to sacrifice their own well-being for the sake of others, even if it meant incurring physical harm, or even a jail sentence, should things really get out of hand.
Me? I'm just not there. This is the very reason why I exclusively fail to attend wall protests with other internationals. Perhaps with my violent aversion to violence, I'm not so brave. That's all. On top of this, I have the constant, shrill ringing in my head of my mother's insistence come home and live happily ever after. In moments like these I may be royally under-impressed with myself, but whatever. Deep down, I realize that I can't swallow the ocean. I can't change the world. I'm here to do things, but small things. Maybe they are big small things. I'm not here to keep track. I just have nothing to prove. And I'm ok with that.
(And for the record, if this happened on an inner city bus in Washington, DC, I would have gotten off, too.)