On buses in the West Bank, Robert Hirschfield learns how a Jew can fear other Jews.

I WAS WARNED. Then, I was treated to fits of Jewish hand wringing in the classical style. But mainly I was warned.

The fuss was caused whenever Israelis heard I was traveling to the West Bank on Palestinian buses to interview Palestinians. White-hot fears wrapped themselves around lurid fantasies. I would be reviled, waylaid, made to regret my ecumenical notions about Palestinians.

“I am meeting with nonviolent Palestinians,” I kept reiterating. “I am writing about Palestinian nonviolence.”

A dati friend said mildly, “Let us know what you find out.”

I found out that to ride a Palestinian bus as a foreigner makes you an honorary taster of occupation. You taste the fear of having soldiers, guns raised, invading your narrow space, reminding you that your bus, like the ground it rides on, is occupied territory.

For a Jew raised in the Bronx after the Holocaust, as I was, the soldiers were historic mutants who shattered the cozy dictum of my childhood that a Jew can always feel safe and secure around other Jews. Fear was what a Jew ingested, not inflicted.

That notion crumbled the first time my bus to Jerusalem was stopped near the Ramallah checkpoint. Two Israeli soldiers leaped aboard. The younger of the two, with a black headband and a ready-to-shoot demeanor, as if he were in an alley somewhere in Gaza, barked orders to the passengers in rapid-fire Hebrew.

For a Jew raised in the Bronx after the Holocaust, as I was, the soldiers were historic mutants who shattered the cozy dictum of my childhood that a Jew can always feel safe and secure around other Jews.

He was a Jew trained to instill fear in Arabs. He managed to detonate a primal fear in me. A fear that out of the blue a uniformed man with a gun could hold sway over unarmed civilians for sectarian reasons. He was the archetypal goy my mother warned me against. I wondered for a moment how she would navigate this moment. Quite well probably. Her denial mechanism was infallible.

The boy’s Rambo style seemed to have little affect on the Palestinians.

I noticed the beginnings of ironic, weary smiles (they have no doubt seen frequent re-runs of this performance) that carefully refrained from tipping over into mockery.

“Passport?”

His eyes locked onto mine without making a tribal connection. Maybe from where he stood there was none to be made. He belonged to a breakaway tribe that forgot the old narrative. My narrative. What about his narrative? Fear-spawned like my own. But in his case luridly democratized, sewn among the enemy, driven deep.

I wondered what his reaction might be to my riding with Palestinians.

He did not question me. I did not interest him. My passport interested him. Otherwise, the interest was strictly one-sided.

Behind me, a Palestinian called out in English, “Everyone under fifty must get out of the bus and go to the checkpoint.”

As the Palestinians filed by, I felt what I was to feel many times over the next few weeks: invisible and privileged. That is to say, existentially desolate.

Returning from Beit Jalla one evening, a soldier, twice the age of the other, hauled his strapping body aboard, muttering “shalom” to no one in particular. He daggered me a quick look. He ordered several Palestinians off the bus for questioning, then came over to me.

His Serblike beefiness, straight out of Bosnian war footage, made it hard to look at him without seismic revulsion. Ethnic cleansing may not have been his thing. But he was a natural at ethnic bullying.

I was tempted to ask him, as he did look somewhat Slavic, where his parents spent the war.

I decided it was unwise to ask him where his parents spent the war.

He ordered me off the bus to join the Palestinians on the side of the road.

In their eyes I saw my fear.

In the soldier’s fist I saw all of our documents pressed together like prisoners.

Community Connection

Have you felt fear of soldiers / checkpoints while riding on buses? Let us know in the comments.

Please see our resource page for travel in the Middle East, including our guide, How to Travel Safely in the West Bank.