The Overly Honest Storekeeper’s Son
I recently had an encounter that both deeply saddened me but also caused me to really think about the reality of the situation we find ourselves in following the Gaza war, as well as more recent daily violence and tensions.
I was walking into the little store just under my apartment to grab some groceries right after the war ended. As is often the case, there are several Palestinian employees there but the store is Jewish owned. The storekeeper’s son was managing that day and had been speaking to one of the workers.
This is the dialogue that ensued in Hebrew, with the Palestinian employee standing right there:
Storekeeper’s son: “Marhaban. Ah, that’s the second time I’ve done that.”
Me, thinking of the irony of having just begun my first day at a new job where I am surrounded by Arabic and then being greeted in Arabic in a Jewish supermarket: “What? Greeted someone in Arabic?”
Storekeeper’s Son: “Yes, after speaking in Arabic with my employees. My mind didn’t make the switch.”
Me: “That’s fine. I think it’s great, though, that you can speak Arabic with your employees. I wish more Israelis knew Arabic and hope my own kids grow up with both Hebrew and Arabic”
Storekeeper’s Son: “Well, we wouldn’t need to know Arabic if we just got rid of them.”
Me, thinking and hoping I had heard wrong: “What? I’m sorry, what did you mean?”
Storekeeper’s Son: “It would be better if they weren’t here. Send them to Jordan, let a war take care of all of them once and for all…I don’t care how. It would just be better.”
Me: “I don’t agree at all and I am quite sure that your employee here doesn’t agree with you! I hope we can all live together, with equal rights and in peace eventually.”
The Palestinian employee just stood there, unflinching, causing me to hope he didn’t understand Hebrew.
Storekeeper’s Son: “I don’t care what he (the Palestinian employee) or you think at all. I would like to get rid of them.”
I left the store sickened but trying to reassure myself that this conversation was an exception. Surely, there are not very many with such extreme views, right?
However, when I began to think about it, I realized that there are probably a great number of people, both Israeli and Palestinian, that may not vocalize it but wish the “other” would just disappear. It would be easier, less complicated. Why work and work for peace and make sacrifices for it? In some ways, the storekeeper’s son was simply being more honest than many others.
An Israeli politician, Avigdor Lieberman, even recently spoke about “paying” all citizens of Israel who call themselves Palestinian to relocate. Likely, he would prefer to force the whole population, but at least by “paying them” he thinks they should be somewhat thankful and it seems a humane, watered down version of the same mentality as the storekeeper’s son.
What bothered me even more was that when I relayed this conversation to several Israelis who share my faith, they all made justifications for his horrific statements. Maybe he had experienced something horrible in the army or perhaps he had just had an argument with the worker or he likely had been a victim of some sort. Rather than calling out injustice, even those who are supposed to be a light were simply finding reasons why a Jewish Israeli would make such statements, trying to keep the moral high ground as the Jewish people.
There was one unexpected positive outcome that occurred following the incident. The next day, as I was leaving my apartment building, the Palestinian employee was seated outside and greeted me in Hebrew. I responded by greeting him in Arabic. He then started telling me, in perfect Hebrew, about his family and we discovered that his wife is due to have a baby at nearly the same time as I am. In addition, ever since then, whenever he sees that I am about to enter the building and carrying many things, he chastises me since I’m pregnant and runs to help carry everything up the three flights of stairs to the apartment door. He has never thanked me but I now know he understood. And I guess the simple act of denouncing the horrible statements made by his employer made more of a difference than I could have ever realized.
The whole situation left me wondering a few things: Why is it so easy to justify the actions or words of our own community while we would never create such justifications if the same words were coming from “the other?” Why the never ending effort to maintain moral superiority?
If such a small situation can impact one single person, then how much more does it speak when we take public stands for peace or justice?