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October 19, 2015 6:40 am

Paranoia and Profiling in Jerusalem

avatar by Paul Gross

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Palestinian youth throwing stones at Israeli forces (illustration)

Palestinian youth throwing stones at Israeli forces. Illustrative photo: Dave Bender.

Racial profiling is controversial. Since 9/11, security officials at airports across the world have been more suspicious of passengers if they are obviously Muslim. This is, on the face of it, unfair discrimination. Of the hundreds of thousands of Muslims traveling by air each day, even the most paranoid (or racist) among us would have to concede that this suspicion will almost always be unwarranted.

The principle behind the profiling is this: most Muslims are not terrorists; but most terrorists today are Muslim. If we are talking about the kind of terrorist looking to perpetrate a mass casualty attack, that logic is unarguable.

In the last couple of weeks, the entire Jewish population of my city Jerusalem has become — with grim vindication, guilty reluctance, or both — a racial profiler.

Last Tuesday morning, two Arabs boarded a bus in the neighborhood of Armon Hanatziv, five minutes from where I live. One carried a gun, the other a knife. Two passengers were killed before the terrorists were overpowered. This of course followed a number of seemingly random attacks by young Arabs with knives (and by “young,” I mean mainly teenagers). Israeli Jews, civilians and soldiers, men and women, young and old have been stabbed — a few, fatally.

Leaving work that day, I deliberated whether to catch a bus home as normal, or whether to walk the 40 minutes to my flat or take a taxi. I felt apprehensive, but also angry at the thought of changing my routine because of these young fanatics and the criminals inciting them. So I got on the bus, and noticed three things straight away: two-thirds of the seats were empty (it’s usually standing-room only by the time I get on); I had instinctively scanned every passenger, looking for an Arab face; and everyone glanced at me as I got on to check my own ethnicity.

Since then, as I walk the streets of the city, I do so without earphones; I have to stay alert — and music or the latest podcast are too distracting. I look behind me every few minutes and try to be aware of who’s in my vicinity.

This weekend, as I walked with my daughter to the park, I saw a young Arab boy walking towards us. He couldn’t have been more than 13 years old. Two weeks earlier, it would have been inconceivable that I could think of this boy as any kind of threat or danger. But among the horrific incidents of the past week was the stabbing of a Jewish thirteen-year old by an Arab boy of the same age. (The assailant, Ahmed Manasra, is now best known for being pronounced dead by Mahmoud Abbas, who accused Israeli police of “executing” him in yet another inflammatory slander from the man we keep being told is our best hope for peace. Abbas had to retract the claim after Israel released a video of the boy being treated in a Jerusalem hospital for his gunshot wounds.)

As the boy got closer, I stopped and tried to see what was in the translucent plastic bag he was holding. I relaxed a little as I saw there was only a jar of coffee inside, but I tensed again when he threw me a defiant glare as he walked past. Right now in Jerusalem, every Jew feels like a potential target and every Arab feels like a victimized suspect.

I’ve always been a believer in the principle of Jewish-Arab co-existence in Israel. I’ve supported organizations and individuals that work for that cause. I’ve called out irresponsible or racist rhetoric by right-wing Israeli politicians and rabbis. I’ve condemned Arab members of Knesset and those community leaders who support Palestinian terrorism and incite antisemitism. Even now, I know there are many many Arabs in Israel who just want to do well in life, and it’s no coincidence that poll after poll shows very little interest among Arab Israelis in emigrating to a Palestinian state if (which at this juncture seems more realistic than “when”) one is established.

But right now, in Jerusalem, every Jew suspects every Arab of harboring homicidal intentions. Our simple logic is that of the airport security guards: Not every Arab wants to stab me, but pretty much anyone that wants to stab me is an Arab. It’s unfair and it’s a disaster for relations between the two peoples, but it will save lives. In the current reality, with a Palestinian leadership unwilling to even sit down to negotiate, perhaps that’s the best we can hope for.

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