Daniel Ben-Shabbat is a young Israeli soldier. Like all young Israeli soldiers, she doesn’t like Sundays. On Sundays, young Israeli soldiers have to wake up early, put on their uniform, and hop a bus back to their base after a weekend at home. This is never pleasant, and even less so when the country is seized by a wave of Palestinian terrorism that puts everyone, but soldiers especially, on edge.
This Sunday, Ben-Shabbat took her seat on Bus 836 from Tiberias to Tel Aviv. She sat by the window, as she always did, and looked forward to leaning her head on the cool glass and catching a few more minutes of sleep before reporting for duty. Then, the bus stopped and a young Arab woman got on.
Her head was covered. She argued with the driver in an accent that left little doubt about her ethnicity. And even though there were other seats available, she walked right up to Ben-Shabbat and sat besides her.
Given the current state of affairs, the young soldier’s heart was racing. Will the young Arab woman do as several young Arab women had done in the last few weeks and pull out a knife? If so, how would Ben-Shabbat respond? Using pepper spray struck her as uncool; she’d have to respond with her bare hands, and played out kung fu scenarios in her mind. She grew scared.
Which is when she decided to do what felt most natural: she texted her mother. Concerned, the mother advised Ben-Shabbat to quietly get up and move to a different seat. The young soldier considered it for a moment. Then she looked at the young woman sitting next to her. They were about the same age. Ben-Shabbat looked at her seat mate’s pale pink lipstick. She knew exactly what she wanted to do.
Without thinking twice, Ben-Shabbat turned to the young Arab woman and told her that she was freaked out for a moment, that she had texted her mother, that her mother told her to switch seats. Then, she asked the young woman if she’d mind taking a selfie together, just so Ben-Shabbat’s mother sees there was nothing to worry about. The young Arab woman laughed and agreed right away. After the shot was snapped, Ben-Shabbat texted it to her family, together with a humorous caption that read “taken just a few moments before the stabbing attack on board bus number 836.”
The two women started talking. Ben-Shabbat learned that her seat-mate was named Saffa, that she was a student in Tel Aviv University, and that she didn’t care much for politics. Later that day, she posted the selfie she took and the story that went with it to Facebook. It went viral, a brief moment of humor and hope in a moment largely devoid of either.
Liel Leibovitz is editor at large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One.