The Day I Lost My Privilege
When I was in my early twenties, my goal by 40 was to have travelled to as many countries as I have years on the planet. On Dec 17th this year, I’ll reach the 40 year mark. But my travel goal has been far surpassed. As of my most recent trip to Israel, Jordan and Palestine (controversial, but I’m counting it as a country) I have been fortunate enough to have visited 67 countries.
This is a privilege most people don’t have.
Even more of a privilege is how easy travel is for me. As a tall, white, healthy cis-gendered man, there have been very few instances in my travels where I’ve felt out of place or unsafe. I’ve rarely felt looked upon with suspicion because of what I look like. In a bind, I know I could use my strength and height to my advantage. Indeed, in many countries what I look like has advantages — getting to the front of lines at night clubs and restaurants, upgrades at hotels, not ever having to worry about being sexually assaulted at a bar, being able to walk alone at night, and not generally being afraid of the police are just a handful of examples.
I’m aware of my privilege, but if I’m honest, I’ve taken I for granted if for no other reason than its never questioned. That is until a recent trip to Jerusalem.
Having arrived in the Holy City at about noon on Saturday, I immediately noticed how eerily quiet, even desolate the streets were. Not a car on the street, not a sound from the city. It was sunny and warm outside, yet no one was outside. For a moment I wondered if I was in a scene from a zombie movie with deserted streets and abandoned store fronts.
Quickly my apocalyptic fantasies were replaced with the realization that today was shabbat, the Jewish day of rest and reverence which is observed from a few minutes before sunset on Friday evening until the appearance of three stars in the sky on Saturday night. After checking into my hotel (a bit of a challenge because the only person willing to work that day had to cover the check-in for three properties), I decided to walk around the town. The next day we would be touring the old city, so it occurred to me to take a visit to Mea Shearim, one of the oldest Jewish neighbourhoods in Jerusalem and today populated by Haredi Jews, an ultra-conservative sect of Judaism.
Not but half a kilometre from my hotel, Mea Shaerim is an entirely different world. Planet. At the entrance to the Mea Shearim, there is barbed fence with a sign that reads “Follow the rules of decency in behaviour and clothing.”
The Haredi take this very warning seriously — men and boys wear black frock coats and black hats. On shabbat, their hats are as covered in fur and as large and circular as a family size pizza. Long, black beards cover their faces and many grow side curls called ‘payots’ according to biblical mandate. Women and girls wear what is considered to be modest dress – knee-length or longer skirts. No plunging necklines or midriff tops. No sleeveless blouses. No bare shoulders. Some women wear thick black stockings all year long, and married women wear a variety of hair coverings, from hats to wigs and headscarves to avoid showing their head in public, which is considered a sin.
For the Haredi, life revolves around careful adherence to Jewish law, prayer, and the study of Jewish religious texts. People here don’t use TV, smartphones, Internet, or text messages. Most families have between 5 and 10 children, in accordance to the religious ban on contraception.
Entering Mea Shaerim was like entering another world. And with good reason. The Haredi have done little to modernize life, dress, or customs since it was founded by Russian Jews in the late 1800s. And even though I knew all of this going into their quarters, nothing could prepare me for what would happen next.
As I walked past the barricades (which are placed at the entrances of the quarter every shabbat to prevent anyone from driving though the quarter, lest rocks be thrown at them which has been known to happen), I saw a family with several children.
One of the youngest children looked as equally surprised to see me as I was him. Upon locking eyes with me, he stopped in the street, pointed at me, and said “Goy,” the Yiddish word for anyone non-Jewish.
His parents nodded in agreement.
Now, the term goy can be debated as to whether or not its a slur. Wherever you may land on that spectrum, the feeling it produces is clear: “You’re not one of us. You don’t belong. You are other.”
As a walked no more than 50 meters deeper in Mea Shaerim, I was again reminded of my otherness when a blond haired boy stopped, pointed, and said “goy.” Again, his parents nodded in agreement.
Never in all of my travels have I felt so different, so other, so out of place, and so unsafe. I was clearly in a neighbourhood where no one wanted me to be, for no other reason than I was not one of them.
Quickly, I decided to approach a man on the corner, and ask for his advice. Sheepishly I approached, and whether right or wrong, decided not to look at his wife and only direct my inquiry to him.
“Excuse me, sir” I asked. “Do you speak English?”
“I do,” he replied matter of factly.
“I’m wondering if it is safe for me to be here?”
“Safe?” he repeated. “I’ll tell you what, my friend. Take my cell phone number and give me a call if you find yourself in trouble.”
For a moment I felt relief, thinking that I might have some support. That relief rapidly vanished when I remembered that today was shabbat, and that under no circumstances would he answer a cell phone, if he even had one.
Ice ran through my blood. In that moment, I felt utterly and entirely alone. I was entirely vulnerable in a place that no one wanted me to be. Should anyone want to harm me, I’d be completely at their mercy, with no access to my privilege which for so many years had served me.
For the first time in my life, I felt what so many minorities must often feel going about their daily lives. Other, different, vulnerable, and unsafe — for no other reason than how they look, or what they believe, or how they talk. For me, the act of going into an ultra-conservative Jewish neighbourhood where I clearly was different was courageous. For many people who are non-white, non cis-gendered men, its simply going into a store. Or a bank. Or work.
If you are interested in learning how to become a better ally to those who may not have the same privilege as you, please see some of the resources below.