This Israeli Summer, Some Palestinian Lives Matter

Sayed Kashua
Sayed Kashua
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Illustration Credit: Amos Biderman
Sayed Kashua
Sayed Kashua

Summertime, and there’s not much to write or report about, especially not in the mainstream press. I first heard the term “cucumber season” – as the “silly season,” aka “dog days of summer,” is called in Israel – when I was writing for the local Jerusalem weekly Kol Ha’ir. It took me a while to figure out that they weren’t talking about some Zionist agricultural event that the paper would have to cover extensively. There’s nothing to write and nothing to report, not when events become banal and trivial for the mainstream media. Like more land expropriation in East Jerusalem’s Jabel Mukaber neighborhood or authorization of another settlement that will help seal off Bethlehem and the neighboring villages, the murder of another Palestinian youth in Hebron is also not news.

As a cub reporter, I also heard the phrase “man bites dog,” referring to what’s new news and what’s old news. The killing of a Palestinian, the plundering of land and all the rest have long since become “dog bites man” stuff, part of the healthy routine and not worth reporting.

Along comes summer, and somehow the Olympics saves the situation of the mass-media journalists. But still, how much can you report about the Israeli delegation in Rio? On top of which, that’s sports, and you need something newsy, too.

I can just imagine the editorial meeting of a leading news outlet.

“I want to hear ideas, people, let’s go, where’s your creativity? Nu, bihyat, it’s bad enough that half the staff is at day camps and the rest are on vacation with their families.”

“Maybe we’ll do something on swimming pools and Arabs?” a young reporter ventures.

The editor can only nod his head in agreement. “Okay, so be it.”

It’s true that swimming-pools-and-Arabs are in the “dog bites man” category,” but in summertime the discrimination against Arabs in public pools is something readers will go for. It’s not the state budget, the situation at the airport, discrimination in the job market or other racial abuse: It’s discrimination in the swimming pool, a phenomenon with a racial history, like separation on buses and at recreational sites.

“Find some Arab,” the editor might say, “one with an accent who will present himself at a pool as an Arab. But not ‘Ahmed’ – that’s too Arab and could make a pool attendant in a Jewish city suspicious. Something authentic. ‘Munir,’ let’s say. There is such a name, right?”

So “Munir” calls the pool to ask if he can come for a swim, and is told by the attendant that he’s sorry, but the pool is only for local residents. Well, that’s something most Israelis will take with understanding, along the lines of, “What do you want from the attendant? It’s a city pool that serves the local taxpayers, the attendant is right.”

But journalists know who they’re dealing with, so to eliminate any doubt that loyal readers might harbor, the reporter herself phones the pool after Munir does, introduces herself in a pure accent as Ronit from another city, and asks if she can use the pool. The attendant who regularly answers the phone at the municipal pool extends a warm invitation.

These are the waning days of the pool-discrimination article. Next year such items will cease to be news even at the height of the cucumber or swimming season. What’s sad about a set-up piece about discrimination at swimming pools is the fact that those who reading such reports about Arabs in media outlets that are supposedly fighting the phenomenon, can’t really see what the problem is with separating Jews and Arabs, certainly when the question is one of sharing the same liquid in a pool. And why is prevention of Arabs from swimming with Jews more discriminatory than the absence of the former from editorial meetings at newspapers, from the semicircular panels of news commentators on television, from meetings of Israeli broadcasting corporations, and from administrative, marketing and content-related meetings at all the media outlets that pretend to be shocked when Ahmed, or Munir, isn’t allowed to enter a public pool?

Swimming pools bring to mind ancient struggles against apartheid in South Africa and racial separation in the United States. It’s easy for the Israeli mainstream media to adopt platitudes from the struggles of “civil rights” movements in the last century. But what is the attitude of the Israeli media toward the values being espoused by activists of the movements that are currently gaining momentum in the United State?

A case in point is Black Lives Matter, which is fighting for social justice and against racism and police violence aimed at minorities. Are the Israeli media outlets that are occupied with swimming pools capable of criticizing army violence against Palestinians or police violence against Arab citizens, among them journalists who could even be considered colleagues of those who are writing the pool exposés? How can the same media outlets that profess to be appalled at Munir’s being denied entry to a swimming pool, or at the remarks of a Jewish mayor who doesn’t want Arabs at the swimming pools under his jurisdiction – how can these same media outlets then run stories about a man who is emerging as a new Israeli national hero, after he shot and killed a Palestinian who was trying to steal his truck?

Isn’t this precisely the type of violence that is driving the current generation of activists who are fighting discrimination against minorities in the United States? Against the ease with which a black person or a Palestinian can be killed in the name of self-defense, or the obvious danger projected by that black person or Palestinian, whether he steals from a grocery store in the United States or from a moshav in Israel?

The so-called Dromi Law, under which burglars can be shot as an act of self-defense – passed by the Knesset in 2008 following an incident in which a farmer named Shai Dromi shot and killed an intruder – sparked something of a public debate, as that case was a precedent. The killing of the Palestinian thief this week is already considered a social convention. The report, on the same news site that would be outraged about Munir and the swimming pool, headlined the story (which deals with murder): “Man trying to steal truck shot to death.” According to this item, the man caused his own death – he pretty much committed suicide. And if readers had, heaven forbid, any doubt that killing thieves is anything less than a commandment, the report also mentions an incident in which a Palestinian car thief murdered an Israeli pedestrian when he ran a red light.

Car theft kills, just like stone throwing. Killing is permitted, so is demonstrating support and offering encouragement to the shooter. What’s important is that it’s really not right to refuse Arabs entry to public pools, unless they’re trying to steal sunscreen, in which case you can also drown them.