On a sunny Thursday morning during Israel’s February heat wave, I boarded the No. 63 bus in Givatayim, on my way to central Tel Aviv. I took a seat near the window to admire the white city. A few stops later, as the bus started to get crowded, a young black man got on and moved to take an empty seat near the driver.
The woman in the adjacent seat wouldn’t let him sit down. “Lo po,” Not here, not near me, she ordered, covering the seat with her hand and turning her head away. The young man retreated, and a woman seated a few rows back in a single seat gave him her place and went to sit up front. He sat down and began to quietly cry.
Immediately there were shouts all over the bus, a chorus of complaints in Hebrew, and as people recognized that the young man didn’t understand the language, in English too. “We don’t treat people like that in this country,” “Here, we are all different and we are all the same, we all have the same blood,” “This is Israel, not South Africa,” “You are making Israel into a terrible place,” and more directly to the woman up front, “You should get off of the bus now” and “You should be ashamed of yourself, I am ashamed of you.”
The middle-aged woman sitting next to me walked up to the front of the bus and poked her on the shoulder and suggested that she should apologize. She did not, and continued to face forward, ignoring the commotion.
Here, in a moment of commuting, was the worst and best of Israel: a woman with racist behavior and a group of people unwilling to watch silently. They stood up for this young man they didn’t know in a manner that impressed me, made me proud to be Jewish, to be connected to them in those ways that — especially in Israel — it seems that all Jews are linked together.
A distinguished man with a thick briefcase went over and shook the young man’s hand, saying, “You are welcome here,” as he got off the bus. Others said they were very sorry.
I moved to sit facing him and learned that his name was Tony, that he is from Ghana, and had been working in Israel for three months, and would return to Ghana in another six months. He wiped his eyes as he spoke. “This hurts me.”
He works hard in Tel Aviv, cleaning several people’s homes each day. Alone in Israel, he lives with other foreign workers — he knew the Hebrew word for them — in a city neighborhood. Sometimes, his bosses don’t pay him for his work. His family is in Ghana, and he described his profession there as making upholstered seats for cars, pointing to the fabric-covered bus seats. His father is dead, and as the oldest he’s responsible for supporting his mother. I guessed he was in his early 20s but he’s 32. The bridge of his nose is scarred.
I told him I was leaving Israel that evening, and he said that he wanted to be in touch so, as my stop approached, I gave him my rented cell phone number. We shook hands and I too apologized to him for the woman’s behavior. That night, as I was packing my bags, he called to say thank you.
When I told this episode to my cousin, who survived the Shoah as a child on her own in Poland, she grew teary. “Shame, shame,” she repeated. “This is not our Israel any more, this is not right.”
I later watched the evening news with her family, listening to reports about Rabbi Mordecai Elon’s transgressions, clues about the murder of a Hamas leader in Dubai, a man who flew a plane into a building in faraway Texas and a moshav growing some very expensive orchids. Nothing about Tony, whose story continues to grip me.
Sandee Brawarsky is the paper’s book critic.
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