Lately there’s been a lot of talk among my friends about racism. This was brought on, in part, by Israeli Apartheid Week, as well as by a video clip called "What Would You Do?" The clip shows an experiment in which Israeli actors play the parts of a racist store keeper and the young Arab woman in a hijab that he refuses to serve. The experiment, with hidden cameras, observes how people respond to the situation.

Much conversation has ensued about whether or not Jews in Israel are racist toward their Arab neighbors. The discussion has gotten heated, as Jews sometimes write unchallenged anti-Arab comments on community chat lists. (For example: “They can do their shopping elsewhere. This is not a place for them.") Others will point out the difference between an Israeli Arab as opposed to a Palestinian Arab. That’s clearly not racism.

What is it, then?

I have a friend who will go anywhere, just to prove that he can. He has an Arab friend who lives in Ramallah. "When can I come and visit you?" he asked his friend.

"It wouldn't be a good idea," his friend told him. "My [Arab] neighbors wouldn't like it."

Why does the cautious Jew get castigated, but this kind of story never makes the news, much less the court of world opinion?

Another friend says, "There is no symmetry in Israel. You are not able to create the same video with a Jew walking with his kippah into a shop in Ramallah or Jenin. Let’s create symmetric situations, film them, and then I agree to discuss this topic."

For the record, while relations between Jews and Arabs in the Middle East have never been totally trusting and easy, there were periods before the increased involvement of the West and the United Nations that were much better. Not only could Arabs travel relatively freely all over Israel, shopping and dining wherever they wished (as, indeed, they still can, certainly with a greater degree of safety than a Jew can shop in Ramallah or Jenin), but a Jew could travel to Bethlehem, shopping and exchanging pleasant conversation with merchants in the Arab shuk. Now, even the old-timers I know don't dare travel through those cities.

Social Tensions

When I was growing up in America, one could still hitchhike from place to place. After one terrible experience when I hitched a ride with a truck driver, I resolved never to take rides from men again. I didn't suddenly become sexist. I just became cautious. Later, when a few women passengers were reported to have done scary things (such as attacking their hosts with knives, holding them up, and so on), people stopped giving rides, period.

None of my children ever appeared on a milk carton (if you can't remember this era in American history, ask your parents) nor were the children of any of my friends kidnapped. Yet that was irrelevant. My kid wasn't going to be stolen. So they weren't permitted to travel on city buses or to go anywhere alone until they grew to be husky young bruisers.

We shocked our black neighbors by talking to them.

When we moved to Baltimore, we had just come from the US Army, where everyone – regardless of race, creed or color – is "green." Racial intermarriage is tolerated within the military to a greater degree than in society at large, because – with the usual exceptions – we are all one family. So when we moved to this East Coast city, we shocked our black neighbors by actually smiling and talking to them.

Later, as black high school boys turned my kids upside down to shake money out of their pockets, and routinely stole their bikes and other toys, we learned to be prejudiced. But our prejudice was specific: it only included inner-city black males in packs between the ages of 14-25. (Incidentally, my black neighbors in their 50s shared the same unfortunate prejudice.)

When we moved to Israel, we did not take this "racism" with us. Ethiopian Jews are as beloved to us as any other Jews.

Perhaps the most difficult inner turmoil with which I wrestle is the way I am forced to treat the Palestinians who work in my town as “invisible.” In America, if a workman of another race or social group worked regularly in my neighborhood, I would greet him, ask about his family, give him something to drink. Here, I do not feel that comfort level, purely because the workers don't walk around with neon signs on their foreheads stating "I am just trying to make a living, and have nothing against Jews," or "I hate Jews, and can't wait for the next opportunity to murder a few."

When I have a pleasant encounter with an Arab woman on a bus or in a shop, I am delighted. But I cannot treat all of her brothers like people. This causes me great pain. It's not the way I was raised, and it's not the way I want to behave. You may call this racism, if you like to toss around emotional epithets without thinking too deeply. I call it “tragically necessary caution,” and cannot wait for the day that I can set it aside, and take advantage of some of those great sales in Bethlehem.

Moment of Hope

Happily, the customers we are allowed to see in the filmed experiment treat the situation in what I see as the typical Jewish manner. They are offended at the storekeeper's callousness; and customer after customer offers to pay for the Arab woman's coffee.

In one touching scene, a young Jewish woman stands quietly while the storekeeper loudly declares to the Arab woman that he doesn't serve her kind in his store. At first, we are disappointed by the Jewess. Unlike the previous customers, she doesn't speak up. When asked, she responds, "What difference would it make what I think?" Finally, when she gets her coffee, she responds: "You want to know what I think? This is what I think." She hands her coffee to the Arab woman and walks out.

The interviewer who set up the experiment approaches her in her car. She is sobbing and shaking. When he asks her why, she answers that she could not believe anyone would behave in such a cruel manner toward another human being.

The Arab woman and the Jewish woman share a few warm remarks, and a gentle touch of the hands. And we share a moment of hope.