At some point during our conversation with my fellow ex-camp counselor at this bar on my first day in Tel Aviv, the rain finally stopped. The weather warmed up and made for perfect walking weather, so we my friend, Omer, suggested he give me a walking tour of the city. I said I thought it was a great idea, so he asked me where I’d like to go, throwing out a few of the neighborhoods/areas we could explore: his own hipster-heavy neighborhood, the posh Rothschild Boulevard, the Bauhaus-heavy city center, the old Arabic town of Jaffa. Having done some of my own research in Israel travel guidebooks, I suggested we go to Jaffa to see the Arabic-style architecture and to climb the bluff that overlooks Tel Aviv for a good view. We took a step in that direction, but Omer quickly turned to me and said, “You know, maybe it’s not the best idea to go to Jaffa today. It’s probably fine, but you don’t know what might happen. Is there another place you’d like to go to instead?”
I was disappointed, but on my first day in Israel I wasn’t going to get into an argument with a sabra (native Israeli) over where is and isn’t safe to go. Earlier in our conversation, I had mentioned my fear about going to Jerusalem later in the week because of all the stabbings that had occurred there, and Omer had called me out for being overly alarmist. “Israel is a big country,” he had said, “and these attacks are happening to a very small number of people. You just have to go on living life.” He had criticized alarmism earlier, and yet here he was asking me to use caution by asking to avoid going into an area where a lot of Palestinian citizens live on a Saturday. Just as I had done before, I took him at his word. So, I made a mental note not to go into Jaffa and suggested we go to see the Bauhaus buildings in the city center. And we had a great time doing that.
I had this conversation in my mind as I walked alone along a road in the southern part of Tel Aviv toward the beach. I wasn’t lost, per se, as I had a map with me, but I didn’t have a ton of confidence in where I was going. I had just come from meeting a fellow anti-occupation activist for lunch in Omer’s neighborhood, and was en route to meet up with Omer at the beach. My activist friend had split off to catch a bus a few minutes earlier, and left me with the advice to keep walking along the road we were on until I hit the beach. So that’s what I was doing, walking west until I could walk west no longer. Yet, walking west along that road led me to what I believed to be the Jaffa neighborhood I had been trying to avoid.
The realization hit me like a brick. I had been listening to a podcast on my phone, but I immediately took my earbuds out and started looking over my shoulder every fifteen seconds, looking for, as they say over there, someone with one hand in their pocket. The streets were pretty empty, but I remained on edge as I crossed Nahum Goldmann Street and onto the beach promenade and started my walk north.
Just as I was crossing from the Old Jaffa beach to the Tel Aviv beach, I heard a shout from the distance, “Allahu Akbar!” My mind flashed to terror news reports. My heart started racing. I jolted around and looked for something out of the ordinary, but I couldn’t find it. I heard the shout again and this time, I identified the source: a Muslim man offering the adhān, the call to prayer. Everything was OK.
As the adrenaline rush went away and I continued my walk north, I began to realize what had just happened: I had mistaken a normal part of Muslim life—perhaps the most routine action in Islam—for a stabbing attack. I felt so ignorant, so ashamed, so sheltered. It didn’t matter that I used to band together with my Muslim classmates in elementary school to explain the concept of fasting to fellow students and teachers. Or that I had just finished reading the book An Introduction to Islam for Jews (in which I learned that the call to prayer is called the adhān.). It didn’t even matter that I had committed, just three months earlier, to living in a Muslim-majority country for a year. When I was in Israel, my only association to Islam was fear.