Reflections of a Birminghamian living in Israel

By Shaina Shealy

Special to Southern Jewish Life

On Sunday, July 6, four days after the bodies of Eyal, Gilad and Naftali were found outside of Jerusalem, I attended my first course of the summer semester at Hebrew University, where I’m completing a Masters Degree in Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies. The course covers inter-communal relations in Jerusalem, a topic that regularly puzzles, fascinates and angers me.

In the first 20 minutes of class, my classmates and I introduced ourselves with our names and a comparison between our hometowns and Jerusalem.

“My name is Jia-li, and I come from the Szechwan province, where it is hot in the summers like it is now in Jerusalem.”

“My name is Roberto, and I come from San Juan, which is a walled city resembling Jerusalem.”

“My name is Jackie, and I come from Boston, where historic architecture is all around like it is in Jerusalem.”

I was the last person in the room to share.

“My name is Shaina…”

My voice was unexpectedly shaky.

“I grew up in Birmingham, a city known for its history of racism and hate crimes. Today, systemic racism and segregation in the public sphere in Birmingham exist. I did not interact with African Americans other than grocery-store clerks, maintenance workers, house cleaners and ‘nannies’ until I was in high school. I joined dialogue groups and workshops to talk about race, and made black friends who were afraid to come to parties at my house because they did not want to be stopped by the police in an all-white neighborhood. I ventured to neighborhoods that I was told not to go to. I became comfortable with the discomfort of being in a place where I am different and comfortable with the discomfort of being in a place where everyone is just like me.”

I was almost in tears at the end. I did not have to explain how my hometown was similar to Jerusalem.

Two weeks ago, I moved from an apartment in Nachlaot to a Palestinian neighborhood. Nachlaot is in West Jerusalem. Its residents wear high-waisted jeans picked from the racks of trendy vintage stores, American Apparel leggings (the kind of thing to stock up on when moving to Israel from the U.S.) and old leather backpacks. They are hip Jewish-Israeli artists, students and young professionals.

I moved to a Palestinian neighborhood to practice my Arabic and experience a different space of the city. My new apartment is a 15-minute walk from my old one and it feels like it’s in a separate country. Even the pavement on the streets is different.

The day that the boys’ bodies were found in Hebron, I was in the library until evening, multitasking between writing final papers and reading the news. When I got to my apartment, I squeezed through barricades of soldiers to reach my front door. I found my roommates packing overnight bags. Neither of them — a Palestinian-American and a Dane — felt safe staying in the apartment. We shared updates from our Facebook newsfeeds and the op-eds we had read. I listened to the Palestinian-American’s accounts of the situation in Gaza and Hebron. We left the apartment and headed in different directions — I walked back to Nachlaot, my old neighborhood.

Ten minutes later, I was on Jaffo Street in the city center. A mob of pre-teens emerged from an alley shouting “death to Arabs,” followed by police on horses. Young girls wearing Israeli flags laid down in front of the horses while the teens ran in the streets with sticks in their hands, cheering and shouting like they were at a football game. I started crying. I followed the mob, and watched them surround two small Arab boys against the wall of a shop. The police were gone. The boys sprinted away as fast as they could. The mob cheered.

I arrived at my friend’s house in Nachlaot and plopped down on his leather couch next to others just like me. They had gathered to comfort one another in face of the day’s painful news. The conversation vacillated between things like the health benefits of sprouted grains and how only a society of animals could celebrate something so brutal as the murder of children. I was too shaken to say anything. My 15-minute walk from neighborhood to neighborhood illuminated the separateness of the multiple realities being lived by Jerusalem’s inhabitants. These realities are divided by vast gaps, but have been built right on top of each other.

The next day, the body of Muhammed Abu Khadier was found. Another tragedy. In spite of warnings from friends, family and Israeli security, I went to Muhammed Abu Khadier’s mourning tent in Shuafat, a 15-minute walk from my university’s campus. I thought about the 15 minutes it took for me to get from Mountain Brook to Ensley — going there was the only way to bridge the gap.

Visiting Muhammed Abu Khadier’s family was sad and uncomfortable and important.

The severity of the conflict has escalated. People in Jerusalem are scared; people in Tel Aviv are scared; people in Gaza are scared; I am scared. What does this violence mean for the future of the families around me? These days have been a painful time for Jews and for Palestinians.

Today, a Muslim-American friend asked if I wanted to meet up for dinner in a place that feels mutually safe. I laughed to myself.
I responded over text message, “LOL yes!”

And then, “Sorry, not funny… just feeling confused about where that place is supposed to be.”

I am embarrassed to admit this: when I walk the streets of Jerusalem my heart remembers driving around Birmingham. It remembers being conflicted, torn and confused about where I’m supposed to be. It remembers the dialogue groups I participated in in high school — Anytown Alabama, Heritage Panel and PEACE Birmingham — that positioned me to see individuals beyond their homophobia or evangelical conviction that I was eternally dammed.

In Birmingham, I learned that trying to bridge gaps can curb violence and fear; I learned how to speak and think in I instead of we and they; I learned that no one has exclusive ownership of the truth. Is it naive to think that teaching our children to communicate — to think — could make the world more livable?

I thank you all for sending your prayers — please, continue to do so. But more importantly, let’s talk.