The stranger in the locker room

The locker room at my local swimming pool was unusually crowded on Saturday morning and the old-timers were looking for someone to blame. Someone said it was because of “those people from the university” – apparently their pool was closed for repairs and they invaded ours. Someone else said “how dare they,” until a third woman tried to make peace, declaring: “The pool belongs to everyone, whether new or old.”  Even though I’ve lived in the neighborhood for 21 years and am a heavy user of our sports facilities, I still wasn’t sure where I fit in: I am not part of the gaggle of elderly ladies who seem to go back together many decades; I only know a few faces and fewer names, and rarely exchange more than a polite hello and a smile. I wondered if they considered me “new” or “old.” I think they weren’t sure either, and the test was whether I would express solidarity with their group. While I was changing into my bathing suit I stayed out of it, but when I came back after a refreshing swim I discovered passions were even higher.

It was even more crowded. Some of the population had changed while some of the same ladies were still working on their hair and nails, but now there was a new common cause. It started innocently: “She’s been in there for a long time, hasn’t she. What’s going on there?” one woman asked nobody in particular. “I know. She’s been showering for 20 minutes or something. We would never take a shower for more than three or four minutes.” There was collective agreement. “We” would never do such a thing. “She must be a foreigner,” said another. “If she were one of us she would know better.” A discussion began over which water-rich country this water guzzler was from; surely if she were “one of us” she would know Israel is suffering from a water shortage and not wasting water is one of the highest forms of patriotism.

The tone of conversation was rising to an angry panic, until someone couldn’t stand it anymore and went to the shower stall and called through the curtain: “What kind of long shower is that? Enough already.” The stunned addressee called back sheepishly, “Oh, is somebody waiting?” And was answered with a curt: “No, nobody’s waiting, but you can’t take such a long shower. You’re wasting water.”

Then the vanguard came back and reported: “She’s a foreigner. She looks Japanese.” I knew this meant “she has Asian features but I have no idea what ethnic group she’s from,” but in today’s isolated, xenophobic Israel you can still sound like you are in the U.S. in the 1960’s, before cultural sensitivity and political correctness. It is also completely acceptable to make racial slurs openly in a crowd of people, without anyone pointing out that as a descendant of Jews who suffered for generations because of their minority status you should know better.

A woman getting dressed next to me tried to enlist me: “You can tell she’s a foreigner. One of us would never take such a long shower and waste Israel’s water.” Undoubtedly, there is a plot underway by foreigners to use up our country’s water, she implied, waiting for my approval. I couldn’t help noticing that these high-minded environmentalists, so concerned about our natural resources, are the same people who in the summer insist the windows of the gym stay open while the air conditioner runs even when it’s 40 degrees centigrade outside, “so it won’t be stuffy.” While toweling myself off I tried to de-escalate. “If she’s a foreigner she might not know about our local rules and problems,” I tried, “but I’m sure she’ll learn.” My neighbor gave me a dirty look and turned away, but I saw another young woman flash me a smile of support. I was definitely “new.”

It was still a few minutes until the “Japanese” lady got out of the shower, during which the women could talk about nothing else but her impertinent wastefulness. Out of nowhere sprung a consensus that she be reported to the management and barred from using the pool. When she did emerge, the woman was showered with scorn. I wanted to go up to her and offer some compassion, but was relieved to see someone else talking to her gently in the corner, explaining what the uproar was about. I wasn’t sure if those were tears in her eyes or just redness from the pool. But I felt deeply disturbed by the ease at which a random group of people who happened to show up at the swimming pool at the same time turned into a lynch mob. All the rules of “in” and “out” group psychology kicked in instantly, from the presumed superiority of the in group to the shared hostility towards anyone outside of it.

On my way out I passed two of the defenders of the pool and Israel’s honor, complaining to the receptionist about the foreigner who was trying to use up Israel’s water. In that context it didn’t matter that the receptionist was an Arab; as an employee of the pool he was still “one of ours.” As long as he doesn’t try to rent an apartment in our neighborhood or date one of our daughters.

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