The question came out of the blue: “How many Palestinians have you killed?”
I was on a semi-subsidized trip to Israel and had to be creative with the modest travel stipend, so I ended up in Tangier on a recent Shabbat for a stopover. The day before, I visited Morocco’s so-called Blue City, Chefchaouen, which is bluer than Safed but without the mysticism in the air. I had been greeted just outside the old city by a fellow Jewish New Yorker I met through Couchsurfing.org, and we headed in his car deeper into town.
Mohammed, a stranger who so graciously let me sleep on his traditional, low-slung couch, which lined the walls of his living room, sat in the passenger seat. He also hosted other travelers. I celebrated American Thanksgiving sipping scalding hot mint tea with two Muslims from the city, a Palestinian from Detroit, a Jew from Long Island and a backpacker from Jerusalem. After one of the locals set up his carpet in a corner of the living room facing the holy city of Mecca, I prayed Maariv. Not bad for a random Thursday.
I spent Friday morning and early afternoon walking around the city and turning down offers of kif (Moroccan marijuana), and then took a cheap taxi to Tangier. It was there I learned that U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was set to visit Moroccan King Mohammed VI in Rabat.
He reportedly had two goals: to bolster America’s lukewarm relationship with a possible ally and to normalize relations between Israel and Morocco. Pompeo is the highest-level U.S. official to visit Morocco since President Trump’s election in 2016. (He changed his itinerary slightly to meet Benjamin Netanyahu in Portugal, and his shortened visit to Morocco did not include a visit with the king.)
Pompeo has a unique opportunity to help with Judaism’s branding problem. People around the world have very strong reactions to Jews, but have never met one. A global leader like the Malaysian prime minister blames Jews for his country’s woes, despite very little Jewish presence there.
I ran headlong into that branding problem in Tangier. Part of the problem is that people often conflate Judaism and Zionism. When I stay at hostels abroad, fellow travelers often see my kipa and ask me if I’m Israeli, and I blanch for fear of the conversation topic becoming about the Middle East conflict. I’m inevitably forced to answer for decisions and beliefs that I did not make nor follow. These two problems — growing anti-Semitism and the conflation of Zionism and Judaism — can be solved with each other in mind. Though anti-Semitism has proved to be a stubborn disease, Israel could help world Jewry combat it with diplomacy, goodwill and better treatment of Arab Israelis and migrants. (In fact, Israel has made considerable strides in cultivating relationships with countries in the Arab world.)
I always wear a kipa abroad, despite fellow Jewish travelers warning me against that practice for fear of anti-Semitism. But taking off my public sign of Jewishness sends the wrong message, because it would mean that I traffic in fear, a first cousin of prejudice. More importantly, if I hide my Judaism, I let the anti-Semites win.
So there I was on Shabbat in Tangier, which has a Jewish population of just 28. That’s just a fraction of the number of Jews who lived there before the founding of the state of Israel, when Morocco’s leaders treated the Jews kindly. After I exited the bus downtown, I looked at my phone for directions to the old Arab quarter. That was when my phone sent me a news update about Pompeo’s visit.
As I walked up the busy hills of old Tangier, I stopped on a bench in the main square to book a hostel bed for the night. A man in his 70s sat down next to me. Leaning in close, making eye contact, he asked the dreaded question, in English: “How many Palestinians did you kill?”
Confused by his question and his accent, I asked him to repeat himself. He leaned in again and smiled menacingly, his yellow teeth showing. “How many Palestinians did you kill?”
I was scared and disoriented. My maroon skullcap betrayed my beliefs. How could this piece of cloth send a message about my supposed military service and murderous instinct? My Hebrew is terrible and my politics don’t make me a natural candidate for the IDF.
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I quickly stood up and rushed into the keyhole-shaped entrance of the busy medina. Surely, my fate would be better there. As I walked down the main avenue, I passed by shopkeepers trying to lure me in with cries of “Shalom!”, a kinder and gentler indication of my supposed Israeli citizenship and patronage. I passed a café full of men sitting outside on plastic lawn chairs, smoking Winston cigarettes. A large man yelled at me in French.
“Viva la Philistines! Viva la Philistines!” He got out of his chair and followed me, jeering me with cries, “Viva La Philistines!”
If the man had asked about my opinions, he might have learned that we agreed on the flourishing of Palestinians. He saw my University of Chicago Chabad yarmulke, which fit neatly into his narrow worldview. Of course, he was suggesting I was a Zionist who hated Palestinians, the same way that Muslims hate Jews. Like it or not, Jews who travel abroad are forced to reckon with the actions of an imperfect yet democratic government in Israel.
Maybe Pompeo’s trip to Morocco will help change the conversation and improve the lives of Jews around the world. In the meantime, my maroon kipa is still on and, tangled up in Tangier, I’m still trying to reconcile Mohammed’s kindness and the old man’s hateful question.
Eli Reiter writes the Culture View column for the paper.