In 1971 I spent the summer at Hebrew University in Jerusalem studying mathematics. I was trying to learn a little Hebrew and a little of the local culture. And I wanted to visit some of the historic sites.
In 1967, Israel occupied the West Bank of the Jordan River. Now Jews could travel to biblical sites they had not been allowed to visit since 1948. One day I decided to visit Nablus (Shechem) in the northern West Bank, the ancient capital of Samaria. I wanted to see the well where Joseph had met Rachel and Jesus had met the Samaritan woman.
I went to East Jerusalem and took a local Arab bus to Nablus. But when I got off the bus, strange things began to happen. People made faces. They turned away. I walked toward a taxi stand, and all the drivers got in their taxis and drove away.
I hadn't been following the local news, I didn't know there was trouble in Nablus. This was long before the onset of the first intifada in 1987, the major Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation. Before this, I'd been quite comfortably received in Arab towns. But now I was in trouble. I didn't know my way around well enough even to find the bus back to Jerusalem. I needed help.
As I walked down the street, a quiet residential one, I suddenly noticed that the building I was passing was a shop. Displayed in the window were books in Arabic. In one corner was a stack of small photographs of Gamal Abdel Nasser, then president of Egypt, and his young sons. I walked into the shop, picked up one each of several of the photographs, and walked over to the clerk. I held out a handful of coins. The young woman looked at me in terror and fled into the back room.
Soon the shopkeeper, an older man, appeared. He looked me up and down. At that time I had the beard indicative of a very religious Jewish college student. The shopkeeper said, in heavily accented English, "You speak English?"
"You shouldn't be here. Not safe."
"I know," I said, "but I don't know where to get the bus to Jerusalem."
He looked at the change in my hand, and carefully counted out the cost of the photographs - about three cents US. Then he came around the counter, took my elbow, and led me down the street to the bus stop. He stood with me, waited for the bus, and even put me on the bus.
For years I thought of myself as the hero of this story, for finding a way to make a gesture of friendship. But years later, in Memphis, I listened to a speaker talk about the integration of Central High School in Little Rock, Ark. The speaker told of a white woman who looked at one of the colored girls and realized what she was seeing: a very scared little girl. She walked with that little girl through catcalls from a hostile crowd to the bus.
I was not the hero of my story, I was under duress, I had to find a way to communicate. The true hero of my story was that courageous Arab shopkeeper who braved severe local pressure and threats in order to deal with a frightened young Jewish man, to reassure him, protect him, and see him - see me - safely out of harm's way.