An Israeli's loyalty test

'Remember when you were slaves in Egypt'

Patriotism, like almost everything in Israel, is far from subtle. Every spring, beginning a few days before Independence Day, blue- and-white plastic streamers wave from street lights and electricity poles in every Israeli town, and polyester flags overflow sales bins beside supermarket check-out counters.

Things were no different last week, when Israelis celebrated their 51st Independence Day. Three out of 4 drivers whizzing by clipped miniature flags onto car windows, blatantly flourishing their loyalty. With the highways a blur of blue-and-white stripes, there seemed to be no space left for ambiguity.

My Israeli friend, whom I'll call Ruby, displays no flag, but she is nonetheless a patriot for not wearing her heart on her sleeve. Patriot, or traitor, she isn't sure what to call herself. But I am.

Israeli authorities seal off the territories governed by the Palestinian Authority during Independence week. That's the time a terror attack would be most symbolic - and most likely to occur.

But not long ago, Ruby stood at the window of her apartment in the Tel-Aviv suburb of Herzlia gazing at a winding branch of secondary road below. As usual, Palestinian laborers from Gaza and the West Bank were congregating at the informal pickup point beside the road, where Israeli contractors came daily to fill their labor needs with one-day migrants. By afternoon, the Arabs would be back on the bus that sped them out of Israel-proper before dusk.

As Ruby gazed down, she saw a police van pulling off the road and stopping next to the Arab group, also a normal sight. It is not labor-law violations the police have in mind in these routine spot checks: Any man without proper entry papers is immediately high up on the suspect list as a potential terrorist.

All at once Ruby noticed two figures detach themselves from the group of men and bound away, running crouched over through the adjacent fields. From her vantage three floors up, she could discern that they were not much more than boys, in their teens, their thin bodies running with the panic of fleeing deer. She saw them turn this way and that, hunting for a place to hide. Just as the police van loomed close, they ducked behind the brambly branches of a thistle plant. They became one with the ground, only their eyes stared wide.

Because the pair were concealing themselves, they clearly had no papers. It was obvious that they were infiltrators. True, they were teens, but teenagers are often the most dangerous.

"Terrorists!" she thought, panicked. "Who knows, their pockets might even now contain grenades ready for detonation, butcher knives, stolen revolvers...."

Getting out of the van, the two policemen sauntered over to the cluster of Arabs still standing by the roadside. Each man fished in his pockets and obediently held out his documents for inspection. There was no reason for the police to suspect that two others were concealing themselves in the nearby bushes.

Ruby snatched the telephone receiver and dialed police emergency. She had to turn them in. But before the switchboard answered, she hung up.

Ruby stared at the two human beings crouching in the dirt. In her mind passed footage of the innumerable hunted, oppressed, and fugitive throughout the ages, at the perpetual mercy of the powers that be. Ruby - Israeli born, generations removed from pogroms, and personally far from genocide - saw before her not the semi arid Middle East, but a fleeing pair in a snowy forest running for their lives from their fascist pursuers.

She couldn't bring herself to make the call. Ruby watched as the police, finding all in order, drove away. After 15 minutes, the two boys rose out of the thistles and trod warily back to the group - in a second, indistinguishable from their comrades.

All day Ruby waited to hear the news of the attack launched by the men whose escape she had abetted. She thought of her own boy and girl - both soldiers, both out there riding the buses every day in their olive uniforms. Sitting targets. Ruby knew as well as the next person that the pair she had let go free might be the suicide bombers who would get into her own child's bus.

Her decision wasn't prudent, or logical, or even conscious. But without knowing it, she had weighed two principles, and had chosen faith in humanity. For Ruby, too, believes that people are really good at heart. She had looked down at those scared boys, and wanted them to be benign, knowing full well they were probably filled with hatred and anger and political sentiments she would find abhorrent.

But she refused to assume them murderers. Instead, she acted on the conviction that they were so desperate for work that they were willing to take the risks of sneaking in without papers, of exposing themselves to arrest, to detention, to worse.

There was no terrorist attack that day. And maybe the boys did manage to pick up a few hours' wages at a building site.

Detestable political realities force us all into untenable moral dilemmas. The peace process holds out the hope of rescue from these predicaments.

Independence Day in Israel comes on the heels of Passover, when we are told, "Remember when you were slaves in Egypt." Some of us do.

*Helen Schary Motro, who writes a column for The Jerusalem Post, is an American attorney living in Kfar Shmariahu, Israel.

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