It was cold outside and pouring rain. The cafe was packed, upstairs and down. “It’s really a commune here, huh?” the woman next to me said as I sat down. I smiled, nodded, and asked if it would annoy her if I plugged my laptop in. The wire would run right behind her, grazing her back. “No problem,” she said.
I listened in to her conversation with her friend, a blonde woman digging into a big bowl of organic fruit, yogurt, and granola. (It was one of those cool, lefty, organic coffee places). They were talking about an opening at an art gallery I have been to on many occasions; they discussed some grant in New York that one of the women was thinking about applying to. I could tell these women were cultured, educated, well-traveled. They were the type of girls I would sit in a cafÃ© with. And it’s likely that we have mutual friends already.
On my other side was a large group of Russian tourists who looked to be in their late teens and early twenties.
When the blonde woman next to me opened the window behind her, eyebrows went up all around us. Russian, Israeli—it didn’t matter—we reached a quiet consensus that the window should stay closed.
So one of the Russian guys up and, as he reached to close the window, he asked, in English, if it was okay. He said it in that quick, cursory way that suggested he was just doing so to be polite.
“Really, it’s not,” the blonde answered. “We prefer it open. We want a little air.”
Eyebrows shot up through the room.
The Russian boy explained to the women that his girlfriend had a cold and a chill.
“That’s why we need the window open,” the woman next to me countered. “So we don’t get her germs.”
I wasn’t following her logic. Did this intelligent, educated, worldly woman really think that opening the window would create a magic vacuum that would suck all the viruses out of the air?
As the wind came in, and the room grew colder, the boy stood. He seemed unsure of what to do.
“Fine,” the blonde said. “Close it, but leave us a crack so we can breathe.”
But the window didn’t work that way—it was all or nothing. After trying for a bit, the boy gave up and began to walk away. The window swung open. The wind rushed in.
“Just close it,” I said to the boy, in English, as he passed my table. “It’s the middle of winter. It’s raining. It’s cold. It’s fine.”
I looked around to see if anyone agreed with me and I saw heads nodding, all around. The boy went back and closed the window.
“Ezeh chutzpah,” the blonde said to me. What nerve. “I told him to leave it.”
“Look,” I answered, in Hebrew. “I’m sorry you’re uncomfortable but there are a lot of other people in this room. And it’s winter.”
For reasons I didn’t immediately understand, this outraged the women. They called me crazy. They called me an asshole.
I was angry and hurt but I did my best to defend myself without name-calling. “It’s ridiculous to keep the window open in the middle of winter,” I said. “That poor girl is sick. Everyone’s freezing. It’s not polite to expect everyone to suffer just so you can get some air.”
“It’s not polite that you told him to close it,” the blonde said.
I could have countered that it wasn’t polite that they’d opened it in the first place but I wasn’t going to play the “you started it” game. And I understood that they weren’t going to let me win. So I just shrugged and turned back to my work.
“Tell me how that was polite,” the blonde said, raising her voice.
I ignored her.
“Tell me,” she repeated herself, louder. “How was that polite?”
“Cacha,” I said, shrugging. It literally translates to “like this” but, in a situation like this, it means “because” and suggests that the conversation is over.
“Cacha?!” The blonde shouted. “That’s not polite! How is that polite?!”
I raised my hands in defeat. Yes, she’d humiliated me, but it wasn’t worth a fight.
And, really, it isn’t about these women.
This is about the leaders of a state of 7 million that put its so-called security concerns over the freedom of 70 million of its neighbors—this is about a government who supported Mubarak in the face of massive pro-democracy demonstrations.
It’s worth adding that some of these security concerns are unfounded. Egypt, too, profits from peace with Israel (in the form of American dollars, amongst other benefits). Its new leaders, whoever they may be, will be faced with the enormous challenge of building Egypt anew. And it’s unlikely that they’ll want to add to their full plate by ending peace with Israel. (Indeed, after I wrote these words, Haaretz reported that Egypt’s military announced that it will continue to honor its peace treaty with Israel).
Israel’s fear of Arab democracy points to other problems. The top brass here say they’re worried that Egypt might become an Islamic state. But that begs the question: why is a Jewish state just fine while an Islamic state is not? (I think there are plenty of Palestinians who could offer convincing arguments regarding the dangers of a Jewish state. And I think there are plenty of secular Jewish Israelis that are concerned about the growing influence of Israel’s own religious right, which might give rise to a radical, Jewish state not so different from those that Israeli leaders deem threatening).
And it begs other obvious questions that the Israeli government would loathe to answer: Why is democracy—the people’s ultimate expression of self-determination—only for this particular group of people (the “Westerners”, the Jews)? Why don’t Arabs, including the Palestinians, have the same rights to democracy and self-determination? Must the countries around us suffer dictatorships so Israel can maintain its (illusory) democracy? And if that’s the case, what does it say about us? That maybe we’re not so democratic after all?
The events in Egypt—and the international, historical examples that preceded them—also offer Jewish Israelis an opportunity for reflection. Like the oft-overlooked 1986 People Power Revolution in the Philippines that brought an end to the 20-year-old regime of Ferdinand Marcos, the protests in Egypt prove that if Jewish Israelis really wanted peace and an end to the conflict with the Palestinians, they could take to the streets and force their leaders to take to the negotiating tables.
This is about a society that is so focused on putting itself first that it lets the occupation grind on. And this is where it starts—with two women in a crowded cafÃ©.
This article appears courtesy of Souciant’s forthcoming sister publication, Babylon Times.