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Tuesday, July 5, 2011


This is the third in a series of posts about politics in Israel. To view the earlier posts in the series click these links:
1. Celebrating Israel   2. Middle East, not Middle Earth
This year I befriended a Palestinian man named Sayid who, in the words of our landlady, "comes begging for work every now and then."  We had been told by our landlady that we could trust him, though it took us a while to understand what it means for an upper-middle class Jew to trust a working class Palestinian.  He won't hurt you, he won't steal anything from you; but don't let him in the house unless absolutely necessary, and don't trust the details of things he says. 

In the beginning he seemed to lie to us, or at least he stretched the truth in irritating ways.  Certainly he viewed us as money machines, and his job was to extract as much from us as possible. But over time, as he saw that I respect him as a human being and that I want to help him but that I do not have the financial resources to solve his problems, he and I developed a deeper level of mutual trust.

Sayid is the father of five children.  The oldest is a teenager with severe developmental problems, who lives in an Arab boarding school for the disabled.  His second child's growth seems delayed, and she is being treated at Hadassah hospital (Israel's premiere hospital, named for the Jewish women's organization that funds it.) His youngest child is still a toddler.

In talking to Sayid, it seems everything he does is for the sake of his five children.  They live hand to mouth; many days Sayid himself eats nothing.  His capacity for physical hardship astounds me.  He can work in the hot sun for hours on end, with nothing in his belly but a cup of coffee and nicotine from his cigarette.  More than once he has told me his electricity was disconnected, or he has no water this month and has to borrow from neighbors.  Not long ago at a particularly desperate time he was talking about selling his refrigerator; I don't know if he went through with it. 

Sayid hates coming to Jerusalem.  He walks the streets searching for work, in constant fear of the police, as he has no work permit and could be jailed.  On more than one occasion he has been hauled into the police station at a time when he was not engaged in work, he was kept standing on his feet for several hours and then set free.   To anyone involved with working class Hispanic communities in America, this should all sound familiar.  But Sayid keeps coming back, because on the days he finds work here he can expect to earn at least 40 NIS an hour -- that's about $11.  A full day of hard labor in the Palestinian territories, working from 8AM to 5PM with no lunch break, earns him just 70 NIS in total.  (I confirmed these numbers with other sources.)

A few months back, Sayid's wife left him.  She told him, "This is no way to live," and she took the baby and ran to her father's house.  Eventually she returned to her husband, but in the immediate aftermath of her departure Sayid came to me, desperate for work.  He talked to me for almost an hour, telling me of the humiliations he suffers on a daily basis.  He kept repeating two phrases, אני בן אדם, "I am a human being", I want to be treated as a human being,  and אין לי, "I do not have" -- I do not have land to build a store, I do not have an education to get a salaried job, my wife has never worked for money and I don't have anyone who can share my financial burden.  "All my children's needs, they all fall on my shoulders," he told me.  As he spoke, his voice grew more and more desperate.  And though I was sitting alone with him in my living room, and I trust him that he would never hurt me, still it was not hard to imagine that desperation turning to violence -- if the atmosphere were ripe, and if someone lit a spark.

This is the third in a series of comments about the political situation in Israel.  To read the next comment in the series, click here.


  1. A very touching post! I see your analogy with Hispanic communities in the U.S., although with a few differences...