The noise of decency or humiliation

January 25, 2012 by

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It’s strange how the most trivial thing brought me closest to violence.

I’m sitting on the train. The carriage is quiet. Four kids get on and sit across the aisle from me. They’re about 15 or 16. Well-equipped with their various mobile devices, they all loudly and boisterously turn to their respective video games. None of them have earphones.

One guy in particular is playing his beeping video game with the volume on full.

After putting in my noise-cancelling earphones and unsuccessfully trying to ignore him, I give in. I ask him, fairly nicely, to turn down the volume.

At first he doesn’t respond.

Then after I repeat my request he tells me to wait until he finishes the game. He is a little irritated that I distracted him. Blood rising to my cheeks I ask him again, less nicely.

His giggling mates guffaw as the kid tells me that I ought to be more patient.

I want to kill him.

Even more frustrating is the ticket inspector who is sitting only a few seats away. He does nothing. In the end – oh the shame! – I respond in kind. I unplug my earphones from my computer and turn my own volume up.

Only then does the inspector get up and tell us both to turn the volume down.

I breathe again.

A few days later, and I’m in even more of a state. I’ve just read that the Railway Authority has refused a request for announcements to be made in Arabic as well as Hebrew. Arabic is one of Israel’s official languages. It is spoken by a significant proportion of Israel’s citizens, and the train stops at several cities with a large Arab population – Lod, Ramle, Acco, Haifa.

But no announcements are made in Arabic.

They are made in Hebrew and, quite often, in English.

Here’s the kicker. What is the reason Israel’s Rail Authority will not make announcements in Arabic?

Because it would make the announcements too long, and, wait for it – “it would make the train ride noisy.”


Were I only concerned with my decibellian comfort, I’d laugh bitter tears. But these days I’m reading a lot of Avishai Margalit. He is the wise man who suggested we let go of lofty aspirations to a Just Society, and aim for the more modest goal of creating a Decent Society. A decent society, according to Margalit’s famous encapsulation, is a society that refrains from humiliating its citizens.

This decision, this deliberate decision not to make announcements in Arabic is humiliating. It humiliates Arab citizens of Israel. It’s especially humiliating because it’s so trivial. It’s not about changing the words of Hatikvah, it’s not about the Nakba, and it’s certainly not about the Occupation. A compromise would have cost nothing. Instead, it’s another little humiliation for Arab Israelis.

What does one do with such feelings of humiliation?

I know that when that kid refused to mute his stupid game, my fury and fantasy of violence emerged from a feeling of helplessness and the inexplicable humiliation of having my humanity disrespected. I was humiliated. In particular by the way in which the ‘system’, ie the representative of Israel’s Rail Authority, was so loath to intervene.

It was almost as if he didn’t care about the noise.

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