Three flights, 24 hours of travel, and a 7-hour time difference had taken me from a sunny Jacksonville afternoon to where I was sitting, a bench across from the empty car rental counter at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport. The counter was empty because it was 3 a.m. on a Saturday morning, the witching hour of Israel. Straining my ears, I could hear the faint pitter-patter from outside the window that marked what I would later learn to be the first rain of the year (Israel’s rainy season starts in the fall). Inside the window, I was the sole viewer of a Hertz ad that played on loop every two minutes—the scenes of blue skies and white beaches contrasted nicely with the bleak grayness outside.
Incredibly, my presence at this bench was part of my (rather poorly conceived) travel plan. I was going to stay with a friend from camp in Tel Aviv and felt that it wouldn’t be the most considerate thing in the world to wake him up at 3 a.m. on a Saturday. So, I figured I would find an outlet and some free wifi, and hole up with my two bags to do some reading for the World Zionist Congress until it was a more respectable hour. As I took out my laptop to read, I saw the familiar sight of the bumper stickers I had attached below the white Apple logo. And suddenly, I panicked.
I thought back to the first time I put a sticker on my laptop, back in my first year at UNC. The first club that I joined in school was UNC’s Young Democrats chapter. At the first meeting, I remember catching this palpable excitement about politics, the likes of which I hadn’t seen before. I was awed not only by the ambitious plans that the chapter had for the semester to get out the vote for the midterm elections, but also by the knowledge and passion of the chapter leaders. In my high school, I was known as something of a politico because I was one of the few people who wasn’t scared to admit to liking Obama. But supporting a candidate was one thing; working on a campaign was another. The people in the Young Democrats chapter were people that had worked on campaigns, and they had the stories and the stickers to prove it. There were so many stickers: as I glanced around the room I saw laptops covered in two and three layers of stickers, mayoral candidates covered up by Obama stickers covered up by town council candidates. I remember looking sheepishly at my own laptop, shiny silver and conspicuous for its newness, and wishing that I could trade it in for a weathered Lenovo with a Kay Hagan sticker. At the end of the meeting, I signed up for a Senate campaign shift and got my first political sticker: a circular one with the visage of Obama telling people to vote on November 2nd.
I pasted the sticker on the top left corner of my laptop, where it would remain for another four years. In the interim, I would populate the other three corners with a mix of political messages, advertising my support for J Street, Obamacare, and Planned Parenthood, among others. As I graduated college and started working for the RAC, though, I started to grow a bit uncomfortable with the stickers. I would periodically bring in my laptop to work as our computers weren’t good, and thought better of advertising political candidates in our legally non-partisan advocacy organization’s office. So, I ripped everything off and put in place just two stickers: a circular UNC sticker and a rectangular sticker from Americans for Peace Now. I chose the latter sticker because it didn’t betray any organizational affiliation: it simply displayed the words “Peace Now” in English, Hebrew, and Arabic.
It was these two stickers that greeted me when I took out my laptop, and the Carolina one wasn’t the one worrying me. My Peace Now sticker, which had been a benign marker of my connection to Israeli left-wing in the American Jewish community, now became a conspicuous Arabic sign in a country that was no stranger to so-called “price tag” attacks against Arabs. In that moment, I began to understand my American privilege. While advocating against the Israeli occupation in the American Jewish community has never been easy, it’s been free from the threat of violence and (for the most part) widespread political isolation. That’s not the case in Israel, where “left-wing” is used as an epithet and Arabic speakers (Jewish and non-Jewish) face ridicule. From the States, I can say what I want about Israel with little personal consequences; Israelis saying the same things might not be so lucky. I realized that, perhaps, I could do a better job listening to my Israeli anti-occupation partners and understanding their fears and hesitations about standing up for justice and Palestinian rights.
Amidst this realization, as I sat with my laptop half-pulled out of my backpack, I saw that I had the first of what would be several tough decisions to make over the course of my three weeks in Israel. Should I keep the sticker on, exposing myself to perhaps a bit more risk in Israel than the average foreigner, or should I take it off, forfeiting this part of my public political identity for the first time in half a decade? I struggled to imagine my laptop without a political sticker, but I also thought of my activist friends, who advised me strongly to avoid conspicuousness as much as possible: “We’re coming to Israel to stand in solidarity with our Israeli and Palestinian partners, not to get held up in customs or to get in a fight with a right-wing nut.” And I thought of my mom, who was already uneasy with me going over to Israel amidst all the violence, and wouldn’t be happy if she knew I was putting myself more at risk because of a laptop decoration. And so, I dug my nail into a corner of the bumper sticker, finding that the adhesive gave way rather easily. And then I did my reading, fading into the background as easily as someone with two suitcases and a yellow backpack sprawled across and airport bench can do.
When I got into Tel Aviv later that day, my friend took me to the bar he works at. Of course, there was a man sitting next to us who noticed that I couldn’t speak Hebrew, and so he asked me to proofread his CV for a job at the US Embassy. We got to talking, and we realized that we had worked at the same camp (Camp Coleman) 10 years apart. I told him about my job last year at the RAC and how we worked a bit with the State Department. Confused, he asked, “So, you were working for J Street?” I explained the organizations’ differences, but added that we did work together on a number of issues. “Good,” he said, “It’s so important to have a voice like theirs speaking out against our government’s policies.” I thanked him, and as he left, I remarked to my friend that I had learned my first lesson about Israel of the trip: no matter how screwed up and unfamiliar Israel might seem to a liberal American Jew like me, it’s hard to overestimate the power of the Tel Aviv bubble. My sticker would’ve been fine, at least in that neighborhood.