‘They’re all named Mohammad nowadays’

Mya Guarnieri confronts discrimination, identity politics — and the occupation — as she searches for an apartment in Bethlehem. Read her previous post, ‘Reflections on one state from the West Bank.’

Not knowing much about my background, the elderly landlord who doesn’t rent to Jews called and asked me to come sign a lease. Despite my reservations, I agreed.

The landlord ushered me in and we sat on a couch on her large, enclosed balcony.

“First, I must ask you,” she began. “What is your religion?”

“I don’t see how that’s really relevant.” While I understand that she and her family have suffered greatly since 1948, I don’t think that every Jew should be held responsible for that suffering.

“What is your religion?” she insisted.

“I’m secular,” I said. This is mostly true. I make a nod to Shabbat by cooking and having a big meal on Friday evenings with loved ones and by lighting candles when I get around to it — sometimes that’s sundown, sometimes it’s at 10pm. I try not to work on Saturdays. My holiday observance is similar.

She nodded. “Because, me, I’m Catholic.”

“That’s nice,” I smiled.

It seemed that the subject was closed. But my soon-to-be landlord went on, asking personal questions about my partner: How often will he visit? Will he stay over? How many days a week? What is his work? Where did he grow up? Where does he live now? What village does his family come from? What is his family name? What is his first name?

“Mohammad,” I answered.

“They’re all named Mohammad nowadays,” she said derisively, rolling her eyes.

It hit me—this woman doesn’t like anyone who isn’t Christian. I was uncomfortable. But, I reasoned with myself, I was there to lease an apartment. Her feelings about Jews and Muslims are her business.

Against my better judgment, I signed the lease.

But I remained troubled. Not by my landlord’s attitudes but by my own dishonesty. And—I asked my partner, who appreciates the Jewish holidays—what happens when Chanukah comes? Will we light candles in secret, staying away from the windows as we do so? Will we hide the hannukiah during the day in case the landlord comes in to the apartment while we’re gone? What about my Hebrew books? Will I put them on the bookshelf? Turn them around, spines in? What if the landlord snoops and finds my Israeli passport?

Mohammad recalled another Christian landlord we met, whom I’ll call Miral. The first time I met Miral, I was with a female friend. “Boyfriends, girlfriends,” she gestured to the two of us, “Everything is okay.” When I told Miral that I have a male partner, she shrugged. “It’s not my business.”

“I can’t imagine Miral asking about your religion,” Mohammad said. I added that when Miral met Mohammad it was clear that she didn’t care that he is Muslim. We both agreed that Israel and Palestine need more people like Miral.

But this isn’t just about landlords. It’s also about those who consider themselves the “lords of the land.”

If Israel didn’t insist on separating Jews and Palestinians and my partner had his human rights and could move freely, I wouldn’t have to leave Jerusalem to continue our relationship. Instead, we find ourselves in an absurd situation because Israel is intent on maintaining an unsustainable demographic majority and extends human rights to the Jewish population while denying it to the Palestinians under its rule.

So there are the little things we can’t do together, like go to the beach. And then, of course, there are the bigger issues: when I was living in Israel, my partner had to apply for permission to come see me—like a prisoner asking for a weekend furlough from jail. His other option? Coming in without a permit. But this can be dangerous: In August, Israeli soldiers fired at Palestinians as they attempted to enter Israel in hopes of finding work.

If only the state of Israel treated everyone with the dignity Miral is willing to give her tenants.