Thursday, February 6, 2014


Once upon a time few people in Israel owned cars and traffic in Jerusalem flowed smoothly. As the country became more affluent the streets became more and more crowded. Traffic jams in the Holy City became the norm so the city government decided something needed to be done. That something was to build a light rail train system to ease the congestion. 

Two and a half years ago that system finally began. What was at first a strange phenomenon has become a routine method of transportation. The train integrates with the bus lines and its route begins in a northwest suburb of Jerusalem and continues through Beit Hanina and Shuafat, passes by the Old City and heads to downtown Jerusalem,  goes to the main bus station and then turns south as far as Mt. Herzl. The driver sits in his own compartment separate from the travelers. Payment is done with a travel card or ticket which is validated by special machines in each car of the train. Inspectors regularly board the train to make sure no one has gone for a free ride.  Whether the system has helped the congestion is debatable. There are those who love the train and those who hate it. I still have not yet made up my mind.

There is nothing to debate about the regularity of the light rail. Signs at every station post how long it is until the next train is arriving. Except for once when there was a breakdown I have never had to wait more than eight minutes. The first time I rode the train through Beit Hanina and Shuafat I had a ride down memory lane. It had been twenty years, since the beginning of the Oslo Accords and those Arab suburbs because off-limits for Jews, that I had seen the neighborhoods. It was fascinating to look for familiar landmarks.
If I have a choice, though, I still prefer to board a bus. I do not like talking to answering machines or making appointments by computer so I really appreciate that there is an approachable, human driver on the buses. Although that driver might be rude and gruff, often he is polite, helpful, and a valuable source of information on directions. For years there has been an unwritten rule on the buses that the young and healthy need to give over their seats for the elderly, infirm, or pregnant women who are standing.  Sometimes, if no one gets up, the bus driver interferes.

I have not seen that happen on the light rail. In fact, I recently boarded the train downtown in the middle of the day and was barely able to find a place to stand. Fortunately, many passengers got off at the next stop and one of the places on a double seat became available. Unfortunately for me, an Arab teenager beat me to it. There was nothing for me to say. All is fair in love, war, and finding a seat on public transportation. The fact that the young man was an Arab had nothing to do with this part of the story. I’m sorry to say that many Jewish teenagers would have acted just as he did. What followed though happened because he was an Arab.

One stop later the woman sitting next to him left the train and an elderly man wanted to take her place. The teenager refused to allow him access. When prodded by a couple of other passengers he moved slightly in order to occupy both seats. There were murmurs of indignation and then the young man turned gallant. He rose as two Arab women boarded the train and slid out of the two seats just in time for them to sit down. The old man continued to stand while an Arab woman, almost a fourth of his age, sat comfortably. There were more murmurs of indignation but no one said anything.

It took the city years to complete the light rail system. It is a system that integrated both Arab and Jewish neighborhoods. Sometimes there have been rocks thrown at the train as it travels through Arab areas. Sometimes there have been nationalistic scuffles between passengers. Most of the time, however, the passengers travel to their destinations without incidents. Anyone who thinks there is apartheid in Israel should try taking a ride on the light rail train system.  

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