Oct 11, 2012 The Big Hats

I am traveling to Israel/Palestine with a group of African-American civil rights leaders, theologians, scholars, activists, feminists, and fellow travelers under the guidance and affirmation of the Dorothy Cotton Institute.  We are guided by the words and deeds of Martin Luther King and the men and women who continue to walk in his footsteps.  This is a powerful legacy to examine the world, not particularly Jewish or Christian or secular, but breathing with a love and respect for human and civil rights, expansion of democracy, and the uncompromising fight for justice.

But before we even step into the hot Mediterranean sun, the troubles start in the waiting area of the JFK Airport in New York. For me, it is something about the clusters of men with tall brimmed hats perched on top of their heads, (concealing their yarmulkes,) the long black coats, the various frizzy beards , the tsitzit dancing from their shirts. We are in this jumble of travelers and I am horrified to think I am beginning this momentous delegation with a moment of ethnic profiling.  Women with wigs or scarves (in my vernacular, schmatas,) tied at the napes of their necks, herd quantities of children (often ages one, two, three on up…) while their men bend and pray in the central waiting area, davening methodically, hands pressed to their faces, noses deep in prayer books.  For reasons I can’t quite explain, I am awash in this weird blend of embarrassment and hostility. I am filled with an urge to apologize to my non-Jewish comrades for the behavior of my landsmen.

First , I try pretending  they are Amish, or Sikh, or devoutly Muslim, but the body language does not work and I am still searching for my tolerance. Is it too much self-entitlement and too little of the humble supplicant? Is it the spatial dominance? The men do not even acknowledge a brazen hussy like I am beginning to feel. Only men pray, while their women manage the progeny; the feminist in me begins to squirm. During the three hour wait for the nonstop to Tel Aviv, we line up an hour early, bodies crushed together for the second round of security, (does any other country do this?); this time shoes off, but keep your one gallon sealed bag of liquids in the backpack, but yes you take off your jacket: keeping us off balance, conveying that sense of danger lurking, but those Israelis sure know how to protect us.

I suspect Delta already understands this is a difficult group to get into their seats. Many of our delegation are asked to change seats, “I need to be near my husband.” “I do not sit next to women, (not actually spoken but gestured.)” (Are there racial overtones?).  The tenor is generally argumentative, though there are certainly lovely travelers to be found, but it is clear that the ultra-Orthodox are running this plane and their sense of dominance of the space is palpable. There were 150 kosher meals out of 400+, but the overriding accommodation of need went to the men in hats. I will ignore the praying in the aisles, the drawn shades so that morning would not come at an inconvenient time which would only require more praying and more tefillin and blocked aisles.  Let’s just talk hats.

After switching my seat, I watched the endless dance of the hats, each perched in the overhead compartment, demanding space of its own, rearranged countless times with each new piece of overhead luggage; a level of pushing and shoving and entitlement that I have unfortunately come to associate with the caricature of Israelis, an old joke with the punch line, “ the people who do not know how to say, ‘I’m sorry.’”

By now I am torturing myself. Would I be so critical if I was observing some African customs or conservative Muslims turning towards Mecca and praying five times a day or am I angry because these folks are part of my own tribe and I feel responsible? I keep repeating my new mantras: Practice loving kindness. Speak truth with grace. This will be my greatest challenge on this trip, to be an active member of the” beloved community,” to feel nonviolence and kindness in my heart when I much more likely to be enraged.

Delta Airlines, on the other hand, has flown to Tel Aviv with these folks before.  There is a rule (danger lurking everywhere) that when we enter Israeli airspace, everyone must be seated. We get a 30 minute warning to finish with the rituals and the bathroom (they have just filled us with coffee).  This warning is repeated at five minute intervals building to a crescendo.  This goes on for the 30 minutes before we are confined to our seats, as if the stewardesses knew this crowd has a mind of its own. (I think of my children when they were young enough to be testing the limits of parental control: three minute warning, followed by, if you don’t sit down I am counting to ten.) In my sleep deprived state I picture the stewardesses tackling a tall bearded man lost in prayer, wrestling him to his seat, knocking his hat to the floor.

And then a moment of clarity as the caffeine hits my brain: how can I separate the entitlement in the airport, the claiming of space in the airplane, from Jewish behavior in Jerusalem/Al Quds, in the West Bank, in Israeli society.  These ultra-Orthodox Hassidim have come to symbolize for me the arrogant power of Zionism that is making Israel the militaristic, nationalistic country that has broken my heart and made me ashamed.

I look out as the Mediterranean coast sweeps into view. High rises start to sprout from the haze and palm trees come into focus and I am weeping.

Reports reflect the views of the individuals writing them and do not necessarily represent the Dorothy Cotton Institute, the Center for Transformative Action, Interfaith Peace Builders or other delegates or the organizations with which they are affiliated.

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