An Israeli Arab Woman at the Playground

Before she knew I was an Arab, she had no problem letting me to keep an eye on her kid, but afterwards she whispered to the Jewish woman sitting nearby 'there is an Arab woman next to you.'

A child in a ball pit in central Israel.
Daniel Tchetchik

She approached the bench I was sitting on at the mall playground. She was a Jewish woman in her early 40s, wearing a lilac-toned head covering, with a crown of a delicate lavender flower. She was with two dark-skinned, beautiful girls. When she reached the bench she asked me with a smile if she could sit next to me. I smiled back and answered that of course she could, while making room for her.

She asked me if I could keep an eye on her baby while she washed the milk bottle at the fountain a few meters away. I answered in the affirmative. She disappeared for two minutes. Meanwhile, the baby started crying, and I gave him the pacifier attached to his overalls. When she returned, she didn’t stop thanking me for watching over her baby.

While thanking me, my twins came up to me to ask permission to play with the other children in the playground. The moment she heard me speaking Arabic her she looked stunned. She froze in place for a few moments. When she regained her composure, she slid to the edge of the bench, so that half her body was in the air. The moment I lifted my bag to take out a water bottle and give my son a drink, she leapt up as fast as a cheetah, pushed the baby carriage, bent over and whispered to the Jewish woman sitting on the adjacent bench, “Watch the purses, there is an Arab woman next to you.” The woman gazed at me with a look of astonishment. She was probably surprised to see an Arab woman with loose hair and leggings rather than a head covering and a jalabiya.

Meanwhile, I heard the laughter of my two children, who were enjoying playing with the children of the two women. None of them understood the other’s language, and still you could see how much fun they were having together. In my mind, the images of the religious woman with the beautiful head covering fleeing and the astounded look on the face of the other woman juxtaposed with the cries of joy emanating from the playground, and it was hard to tell if they came from my children or theirs. The scene made me wonder: If these little children, devoid of bitterness and fear, can play together, what would happen if they were to grow up unencumbered, without anyone polluting their thoughts with racist incitement? Would they not continue to feel the same mutual trust in each other and enjoy each other’s company as adults?

Who is responsible for planting the seeds of enmity and racism and baseless hatred? Whose interests are served? Why are there some among us who try to obscure reality and the need to live together? If our children want to grow up and play together, who are we to deprive them of this possibility? What will happen if I educate my children to dress up on Purim, and the woman on the bench takes her children to Arab towns to eat kanafeh on Ramadan evenings and to join in the celebrations of Arab friends? Would it hurt my Arab identity or her Jewish identity?

The woman on the bench next to me did not take her eyes off me. It seemed as though she was reading my thoughts and, through her glances, wished to send me a message — that she agrees with me and that she believes that the possibility of living together lies just across the fence, which others built between me and her, between my children and her children. And all that is needed is for one brave person to breach the fence and destroy it.

The writer, who holds an M.A. in English, is an Arabic teacher in Tel Aviv.