This is the transcript of a speech I presented about my Yahel experience at Temple Beth El in Stamford, CT on July 8, 2016.
As you all probably know, I have spent the past nine months in Israel living in the city of Lod, a place that is very different from here. Now that I am back home, it is difficult to adjust to the many differences between Lod and Stamford. On the most basic level, I am confused by the lack of signs in Hebrew, and I am feeling a deep urge to communicate in Hebrew whenever possible. I am also attentive toward the lack of fresh burekas and rugelach at the local bakery, the fact that I am no longer waking up at 6:30AM to catch a shared taxi to work that may or may not come, and the apparent absence of my fellow Yahelnikim, community partners, and supportive Yahel staff. But most of all, I clearly notice the completely different atmospheres that distinguish the cities, especially in regard to feelings toward diversity.
I feel very lucky to have grown up in a community where I could constantly interact with people who look different from me. I can still recall my days at Westhill, where I could not pass by one room or hallway without seeing a large array of cultures and ethnicities. I knew that in whichever class or activity I took part in, I would always have the chance to interact with many people who had backgrounds and life experiences very different from mine. Some of the best friends I made in high school were people with life experiences that are entirely foreign to me, and I have greatly appreciated learning about their lifestyles.
In Israel, I have found that people view diversity very differently. In Lod, unlike in Stamford, it is not largely encouraged to spend time in places with individuals from different backgrounds. Though Lod is considered a mixed city and there are public spaces like the outdoor market or the mall where Jews and Arabs can coexist, I hardly saw social, non-business related interactions between Jews and Arabs during my entire time living there. In fact, from what I observed from the children I worked with, it seemed that such interactions were strongly discouraged and seen as dangerous. I distinctly remember the reaction I received from the little Ethiopian Jewish girls I taught music to at a community center once a week, after I told them I worked at an Arab school. They were completely in shock that I would interact with Arabs, even though there are many Arab kids who attend that same community center. One girl even went so far to say that the Arabs want to kill all Jews and they should leave the Jewish state and make their own state, because it is too dangerous to be around them.
I will also not forget a conversation I had with my 5th grade students at Elrazi, an Arab primary school I taught English at three times a week. It was Yom Hazikaron, Israel's Memorial Day, and during the school day we heard the nationwide siren to commemorate Israel's fallen soldiers and terror victims. I wanted to know how Arabs felt about this day, and I thought I could have an enlightening conversation with these kids, who were at very high levels in English. In a surprising response, Hassan, one of my favorite students who I always joked around with, said to me that he hates soldiers, he hates Israel, and he hates Jews. I then asked him if he hated me because I am Jewish, and he said that I am good but the rest of the Jews are bad.
I was definitely shocked by these responses, but at the same time this was one of the main reasons why I decided to work in Lod. After studying the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in college and starting to learn about Palestinian perspectives on the major issues, I wanted to enhance my understanding of the conflict and contribute to efforts on the ground to advance conflict resolution. To me, the best way of doing this was to immerse myself in a Palestinian community and get to see life through their eyes. This is why, when I first learned about Lod and Yahel's yearlong volunteer program there, I was instantly glued to this opportunity. I knew that I wanted my next work experience to involve intimate work with Arabs and a chance to promote coexistence between Arabs and Jews, and I was confident that living in Lod would help me accomplish both of these goals.
This is also why when it came time to choose volunteer placements, there was no question that I would be working at an Arab school. From the first moment I walked into the building, I had a feeling the Elrazi school would be one of my most meaningful placements, and I was so right. The entire staff immediately welcomed me and Jodie, the other Yahel volunteer placed there, and the kids were so happy to have us. In all of the lessons I managed, my kids were very enthusiastic about playing with me and showing me their ability (albeit sometimes limited) to speak, read, and write in English. My kids knew I was Jewish, which was sometimes confusing for them, but ultimately that was not important. My kids were able to see that, Jewish or not Jewish, I was there to help them learn English in the most fun and productive way, and I was someone they could easily relate to and enjoy being around.
However, my position as a Jew working at an Arab school did not come without its challenges. In fact, there were moments that scared and tested me unlike anything else I have ever experienced. At the time I started working at Elrazi, the "stabbing intifada" was becoming more and more prominent. Day after day, I would hear on the news about multiple stabbing attacks by Arabs in the West Bank and Jerusalem, and even in more central cities like Jaffa, Tel Aviv, Beer Sheva, and Rishon L'Zion. Even though the entire country was on edge, I was confident that I had no reason to feel at risk at Elrazi. I felt that my school was a sanctuary, a place where everyone was committed to nonviolence and where the national wave of violence could not penetrate.
All of these thoughts were put into question one day when I had a startling interaction with one of my kids. I was walking down the stairs with some of my students, and I saw that they were playing with plastic knives. Suddenly, one of my kids placed his knife on my stomach. When this happened, I was in total shock and did not know how to respond. I knew that this kid was probably just playing with me and did not even think about the current events his action related to. However, I could not get it past my mind that he intentionally put a knife to my stomach because he thought it would be a fun game to stab a Jew. With the idea of my sanctuary being somewhat shattered, I could not help but question my decision to work at Elrazi, thinking maybe my kids were not as peaceful as they originally appeared.
Luckily, all of the doubt I had toward the school's position on violence quickly went away after communicating with the staff. Immediately following the incident, I told the English teacher Adel what happened, and she assured me she would tell the principal and implement consequences for the kid with the knife. The next day, I had a meeting with Adel, the principal Zaher, and my Yahel coordinator Mike. To start, Adel told me that she talked to the kid and he apologized and said his actions had nothing to do with the stabbing intifada or the fact that I was Jewish. Then, Zaher revealed that she told the boy's mother about what he did, and the mother denied it, saying her child was innocent and could not do something like that. When Zaher told the mother about impending consequences for the kid's violent behavior, the mother said she would complain about her to the municipality and get her fired. In response, Zaher told her that she could complain to the Prime Minister if she wanted, but that was not going to change Elrazi's zero tolerance policy toward violence. Throughout the meeting, Zaher emphasized to me that she appreciated what I was doing at her school and she wanted me to feel safe there.
The immense support I received from the school's staff in this instance showed me a side to Israeli Arabs that I had never seen before. These individuals were willing to go through tough conditions in order to defend me and make me feel secure. This occurred in other instances as well, when I was going through dilemmas and the entire school staff was prepared to unconditionally support me. In my mind, this is a great example of how kindness surpasses cultural differences, including in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. There was no thinking about the fact that I was Jewish; the school staff saw I needed help and they had my back in the best possible ways.
I have considered experiences like this in every situation I have encountered involving Arabs. Every time I hear of Arabs as violent, Jew-hating individuals, I think of my coworkers at Elrazi who were willing to defend me against violence and condemn violence altogether. Every time I hear of Arabs as backward individuals who disregard human rights, I think of the Arab university students I befriended through weekly meetings with the Arab Student Union in Lod. Every time I hear of how corrupt the Arab education system is, I think of how I actually worked in an Arab school, and the "corrupt" details people mention were nowhere to be found. I am so grateful to have had this eye-opening, life-changing experience that has given me a much more nuanced worldview and openminded perspective on life.