For Many, ‘Passing’ Means Survival in the Holy Land

When traveling between east and west in Israel and the West Bank, one must carefully consider how much of oneself to reveal or hide

For Many, ‘Passing’ Means Survival in the Holy Land
Illustrated by Joanna Andreasson (New Lines)

When the off-duty Israeli soldier arrived, I had been sitting for 45 minutes or so in the Nazareth office where the “sheruts” (shared taxis) operate, waiting for a ride to Tel Aviv.

The office, a single room that opened directly onto the street, was a functional and transitory space. White plastic chairs were set up along the walls. There was a Formica-topped desk with a telephone and a radio on it, a schedule pinned on the wall behind. A fan kept the summer air moving, and there was a small sink and a burner in one corner.

As I waited for the attendant — an older, working-class Arab — to let me know when a sherut was available, a number of local men stopped by to converse with him. He made us all cardamom coffee on the burner, serving it up in egg cups.

I was not sure how much longer I would need to wait, as details of the schedule had been vague. But I felt reassured by these low-key interactions — the making and serving of coffee, the men talking, the fan gently blowing — after what had been a harrowing day.

I had just drifted into the zone of semi-slumber, half-smile on my face, when the soldier swept in. He was wearing jeans and a slim-fitting dark blue shirt paired with sleek black leather shoes and silver jewelry, a weekend bag slung over his shoulder. His hair was shiny and black, and when he removed his sunglasses I could see that his dark-lashed eyes were greenish hazel. A fine figure of a man.

He had not been settled long in the chair opposite when the attendant, cigarette in one hand, grabbed him by the arm and gave him rapid instructions, motioning for me to go with him. I hurried to keep up with the soldier as he strode through the town, looking from side to side, and then, not finding what he was looking for, waylaid an elderly bearded Arab in a skullcap and brown “dishdasha” (long robe), who in turn signaled us to follow him.

We stood at the side of the busy main road leading out of town as traffic whizzed by, until we saw the yellow minibus approaching in the middle lane and our escort flagged it down. The sherut slowed briefly, the door slid open and we jumped in — the last two passengers — squeezing in together on the back seat next to an older man with his adult daughter and two large ladies with grown-out hennaed hair and swollen legs.

As we sped along the highway, pressed up next to each other, the soldier placed numerous calls, speaking almost directly into my ear, looking for a last-minute flight from Tel Aviv to the Red Sea resort of Eilat, wondering aloud to me about the price. In a bizarre kind of way we had been thrust into the role of a couple, and I wondered if the others on the bus perceived us so.

After a time, the soldier asked me if I was going to Tel Aviv only, and suggested I go to Eilat too, with him. I was attracted and flattered by his casual yet pointed implication but struck mute by my own situation, which I did not want to betray.

Though he had taken me for a Judeo-Christian tourist — a perception not entirely mistaken — I had grown up in East Jerusalem during the First Intifada of the late 1980s and was at that time residing in the Palestinian town of Ramallah on the West Bank, which was my journey’s ultimate destination.

I knew that revealing this would change everything about our journey together. At best, an admission would elicit surprise, a barrage of questions. At worst, suspicion or outright hostility. His view of me would change entirely — forcefully and irreversibly.

There was no way that it couldn’t.

But even leaving this unspoken had an effect, and the soldier sensed it too. With my hesitation, the sense of intimacy that had arisen between us ended as abruptly as it had begun. His attention turned away from me, toward bright parasails winging their way over the Mediterranean, passengers suspended beneath like prey in the talons of a kite.

I started to get out my cellphone (2010 version), but then stopped myself. It would not work in Israel, as it was a Palestinian phone that operated on the Palestinian network and would receive no signal on the other side of the wall (known variously as the apartheid wall, separation barrier or security fence, depending on your point of view). It had the brand name of the Palestine Cellular Communications Co., “Jawwal,” emblazoned on it: a dead giveaway should the soldier look down.

And the time on the display was out by an hour — another anomaly that would not go unnoted.

The Palestinian Authority currently sets the dates for Daylight Saving Time (DST), which differ from those observed by Israel. For chunks of the year, the two operate on different clocks, temporarily out of sync.

This is a deliberate act of political resistance, with roots in the First Intifada.

“Even the category of time itself was seized upon as an opportunity for intervention, when the Intifada leadership declared that Palestinians would set their own dates for beginning and ending daylight savings time,” writes the university lecturer and human rights worker Janet Varner Gunn in her autobiography “Second Life: A West Bank Memoir.”

“That decision did not go unnoticed by Occupation authorities: Soldiers beat scores of youth whose watches, which the soldiers usually smashed, were set to their own time,” she writes. I remembered the era of smashed watches well, as well as the stories of friendship bracelets in the colors of the Palestinian flag being ripped off by the soldiers. Of local youth rounded up and forced to paint over pro-Palestinian graffiti.

And worse, of course. Much worse.

Peacefully defying the ruling authorities with small acts of resistance is all well and good, in its place. Many countries have legislation that upholds the right to protest. But it is not so helpful if you are “passing” and trying to avoid attention rather than attract it.

“Passing” — a term that Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel of the same name brought into common parlance during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and ’30s — refers to the ability to be regarded as a member of a different group, particularly, but not exclusively, as it pertains to race. The book, which inspired a 2021 Netflix movie, documents the rise and fall of the beautiful Clare Kendry, a biracial New Yorker who is not just passing as white but also is married to a self-proclaimed racist, John (“Jack”) Bellew.

The story is told through the eyes of Clare’s childhood acquaintance, Irene Redfield, who runs into Clare by chance and is reluctantly swept back into her orbit. Irene is light-skinned enough to “pass” herself but is appalled and offended by Clare’s choices.

Her anger almost boils over during a tea party Clare is hosting for Irene and another light-skinned black woman, when the oblivious Bellew arrives unexpectedly and makes his racist views clear, to the deep yet deeply-hidden discomfort of the women.

Clare handed her husband his tea and laid her hand on his arm with an affectionate little gesture. Speaking with confidence as well as amusement, she said: “My goodness, Jack! What difference would it make if after all these years you were to find out that I was one or two percent colored?”

Irene concedes that Bellew is making an effort to be agreeable to Clare’s friends and that, under other conditions, she might have liked him: “A fairly good looking man of amiable disposition, evidently, and in easy circumstances. Plain and with no nonsense about him.”

But she finds the incident, and Clare’s part in it, unsettling, and vows not to see Clare again.

It was, Irene thought, unbelievable and astonishing that four people could sit so unruffled, so ostensibly friendly, while they were in reality seething with anger, mortification, shame. But no, on second thought she was forced to amend her opinion. John Bellew, most certainly, was as undisturbed within as without.

He is the only one of the group who is not in on the secret.

The sherut pulled up outside Tel Aviv’s central bus station and the soldier smiled goodbye with a flash of white teeth. I caught a last glimpse of him striding confidently through the crowd in the late afternoon light, bag over his shoulder, heading onward to Eilat, perhaps. I will never know.

I bought a piece of pizza studded with green olives and a bottle of lemon-flavored water, which I used to wash down an Advil, as my head was beginning to ache. Then I located the sherut for the next leg of my journey: to Yerushalayim (Jerusalem or al-Quds).

It had been a long, strange, frustrating and ultimately unsuccessful journey.

I had intended to write about a summer camp in Nazareth that the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem and the Middle East was hosting for its parishes in both Israel and the West Bank. This was a rare opportunity for Arab Christian youth who are normally separated by the wall to come together at St. Margaret’s in Nazareth for fellowship and fun.

Though simple in concept, this annual event was incredibly difficult to organize, as it necessitated that each one of the youth traveling from the West Bank obtain a permit from the Israeli authorities to cross into Nazareth, an Arab town which is now part of Israel. Getting there was another challenge, as there are only certain places where one can cross from the West Bank into Israel following the construction of the wall.

To get there myself, from Ramallah, I had spent the previous night in Jerusalem, in order to avoid the rush hour at the notorious bottleneck of Qalandia — an Israeli checkpoint.

In the early morning, I had taken a bus to the East Jerusalem bus station, then made my way on foot to West Jerusalem, where I caught a sherut to Tel Aviv. From there, another sherut to Nazareth — which took me along the coastal plain and past the high rise buildings of Israel’s tech corridor, then inland through fertile fields and fruit groves, through the flat town of Afula and its monument “to the victims of terrorism,” then upwards into rising arid hills studded with minarets — and finally to Nazareth, where I took a taxi to the church.

When I finally got there, I found the place deserted.

As my phone did not work in Israel, I had to politely ask the receptionist at the church hostel’s front desk if I might use the landline to call my contact, a local priest.

“Oh, no,” he said when I identified myself. “There is a big problem.”

The big problem was that the camp had been canceled. Despite the best efforts of the diocese, it seemed, the camp had been too difficult to pull off, and nobody had remembered to tell me. He was embarrassed and apologetic that I had come so far for nothing.

Having no other reason to be in Nazareth, I turned right around and headed back.

From Tel Aviv, after my encounter with the soldier, the sherut took me past Israel’s Ben Gurion International Airport and up through hills wooded with pine and cypress, where a newly painted convoy of tanks from the 1948 war — “Nakba” (catastrophe) or War of Independence, depending on your perspective — was displayed in a special park. I remembered first seeing the tanks in the early 1980s, rusting along the roadside.

I got out at the West Jerusalem sherut stop and set off along Ha Nev’im Street on foot. Down the hill and past the Ethiopian compound and the Moskabiya detention center (Russian compound) where Palestinian prisoners were interrogated during the First Intifada, past the entrance to the Orthodox Jewish neighborhood of Mea Shearim.

Finally, I found myself on a quiet stretch of road, heading directly into East Jerusalem.

An informal, almost surreptitious, point of crossing.

Though Irene does her best to be rid of Clare — after their initial encounter, then after the unfortunate tea party — she cannot seem to shake her. Clare insists on pursuing the friendship. She writes Irene a letter that goes unanswered and finally shows up in person at the Harlem brownstone where Irene lives with her doctor husband, Brian, and two sons.

Irene tries to dissuade Clare from visiting her in Harlem, telling her that in her precarious situation she “ought not to take such silly risks.”

“It’s not safe. Not safe at all,” Irene cautions.

But “some sixth sense warned her that it was going to be harder than she thought to convince Clare Kendry of the folly of Harlem for her.” It is 1927, the glittering height of the Harlem Renaissance, and Clare — “exquisite, golden, fragrant, flaunting” — is drawn to it like a moth to flame.

Clare invites herself along to a party with Irene and Brian. Soon, she is in Harlem at every chance — visiting whenever her husband is away and accompanying them to various social events, beguiling the couple and becoming a favorite with Irene’s sons.

But invisible lines have been crossed, the order of things has been upset, and things begin to fall apart — including Irene’s marriage.

Another chance encounter — this time between Irene and Clare’s husband, John Bellew — sets in motion the chain of events that leads to the book’s climax.

Rounding a corner of Fifth Avenue arm in arm, Irene and a dark-skinned friend come face to face with Bellew. In an instant, he understands everything.

Irene, who has quickly pretended not to recognize him but is not certain her act was sufficiently convincing, wrestles with whether or not to alert Clare — or even to tell her own husband, Brian, who has fallen in love with her.

The thought of alerting Bellew to Clare’s visits to Harlem has occurred to Irene before, as a means of putting Clare out of her life. “But she shrank away from the idea of telling that man, Clare Kendry’s white husband, anything that would lead him to suspect that his wife was a Negro. Nor could she write it, or telephone it, or tell it to someone else who would tell him.

“She was caught between two allegiances, different, yet the same. Herself. Her race.”

“Across the lines/who would dare to go,” sings the American singer-songwriter Tracy Chapman in her self-titled debut album of songs that address racial inequity and social justice. “Under the bridge, over the tracks/that separates whites from blacks.” Released in 1988, as the struggle to end apartheid roared into action in South Africa and the First Intifada gained traction, it found resonance among the Palestinians, who heard in it parallels to their own situation.

In the ensuing years, as the largely peaceful activism of the First Intifada failed to achieve meaningful progress and the Second Intifada erupted into violence — including the deadly Afula mall attack of May 19, 2003, carried out by a female Palestinian suicide bomber — the metaphorical and physical walls that separate the Israelis from the Palestinians have grown longer and higher.

At the start of my journey, I had passed through a chink in the wall that separates the two sides: traveling from Ramallah to Jerusalem through Qalandia, a checkpoint set between gray cement watchtowers, bedecked with concertina wire and manned by armed soldiers.

At one time, it was possible to travel directly from Ramallah to Jerusalem, past the Palestinian village and refugee camp of Qalandia and the Qalandia/Jerusalem airport, which is no longer in service. But by the time of my journey, in 2010, Qalandia had been transformed into a hellscape of gridlocked traffic, garbage and palpable anxiety, as West Bank residents sought to cross into East Jerusalem.

When the bus I was taking to Jerusalem pulled up at the West Bank side of the checkpoint, West Bank ID holders were required to disembark and make their way on foot through a warren of narrow turnstiles and metal-fenced holding pens, present their papers to a soldier sequestered behind bullet-proof glass and place their belongings on a conveyor belt to be scanned.

The lucky ones — bearers of foreign passports or a Jerusalem ID — could remain on the bus as it traversed the checkpoint. Conversations halted as armed soldiers came on board, demanding passports and inspecting bags. One of them trod heedlessly on my sandaled foot as he made his way along the narrow aisle. A collective exhale on the other side, where the driver pulled in to wait for those who had crossed on foot.

Some people were left behind.

In contrast to this “hard crossing,” the route across the 1967 Green Line on my return journey through Jerusalem was subtle and muted. It had a dreamlike quality to it, of being not a place in itself but rather a portal from one world to another, an in-between area with locked metal workshop doors on one side of the road and high stone walls with trees behind them on the other.

Pedestrians passed me along the way, heading in the other direction, faces down, avoiding eye contact. I crossed Israel’s new Route 60, which cuts along the path of the Green Line, and picked up the same road on the other side, where it changes from Ha Nev’im, named for the Hebrew prophets, to Antar bin Shaddad, in honor of the pre-Islamic Black slave-prince-warrior and poet who also stars in an early Arabic love epic akin to “Romeo and Juliet.”

Tense and self-conscious for a few blocks, I began to relax as I merged in among the Arab street. I made my way to the Nablus Road bus station and boarded the No. 18. Another hour, through hellish traffic at Qalandia (no inspection in this direction) and I was back in the West Bank.

My phone worked again, but the battery was almost dead.

I called a friend, who offered me a ticket to see Bony M, a Euro-Caribbean vocal group formed in the 1970s that was playing that night at the Palestine Cultural Festival.

Two hours later, I was dancing under the stars and bright lights when the power went out. Improvising brilliantly as the power came back on, the singers segued into the Bob Marley classic: “Don’t you worry/About a thing/Every little thing/Is gonna be all right.”

Bony M did not perform their 1978 hit “By the Rivers of Babylon” that night, with lyrics taken from Psalm 137; a lamentation of the Jews in exile longing to return home to the land of Israel. But I heard it anyway, playing in my head.

And I thought about the soldier.

Clare is attending a party at a fifth-floor walk-up in Harlem, with Irene and Brian, when her racist husband John Bellew bursts in and confronts her.

Clare stood at the window, as composed as if everyone were not staring at her in curiosity and wonder, as if the whole structure of her life were not lying in fragments before her. There was even a faint smile on her full, red lips, and in her shining eyes.

It was that smile that maddened Irene. She ran across the room, her terror tinged with ferocity, and laid a hand on Clare’s bare arm. One thought possessed her. She couldn’t have Clare Kendry cast aside by Bellew, she couldn’t have her free.

In the confused seconds that follow, Clare falls to her death.

Passing is indeed not safe, as Irene has astutely foretold. In segregated societies, one can exist fully only in one place, only on one side and not the other. Passing between them is risky, dangerous — potentially even fatal.

But Irene is partly culpable for Clare’s death, her self-interest ultimately colliding with loyalty to her race. In a different way, she has been “passing” as well — suppressing her truest self to maintain her secure, strategic marriage and her social status.

We are all passing in some way, our lives a Venn diagram of parts of ourselves we choose to reveal or hide. The crucifix, Star of David, wedding ring, keffiyeh, kippah or hijab. The affiliations and viewpoints proudly shared or intentionally kept silent.

Yet Larsen suggests that passing diminishes both the person and the culture from which they come. It only goes in one direction, she observes, also suggesting that those who are taken in by the deception involved in passing – Bellew, the soldier – are as guilty as the ones in disguise. Because if we could be our authentic selves, at all times and in all places, there would be no need to “pass,” or hide aspects of ourselves. There is an inherent arrogance in myopia, in failing to fully see what is directly before us.

The need to pass points to something rotten in the system: something in need of change. It signals that things are off balance, out of equilibrium, inequitable.

And it is, above all, a warning sign.

Sign up to our newsletter

    Will be used in accordance with our Privacy Policy