This week’s participant blog post was written by Rachel Cherrick, one of the 12 participants on this year’s Yahel Social Change Program. Every week, we’ll be posting insights and reflections from a different participant.
As a Yahelnik, I spend much of my time teaching English in a local high school both in and out of the classroom. I also volunteer as a counselor in the neighborhood youth center that caters to local Ethiopian Israeli young people. I work in conjunction with my co-counselor Melaku, who grew up in a nearby Ethiopian Israeli neighborhood in Gedera, to plan various educational and recreational activities for girls in 9th grade.
It is a fairly typical day in ometz, (bravery in Hebrew) a special class at the high school catered to students with various behavioral and learning needs, serving as the school’s attempt to help these students stay in school. I function as the teacher’s aid in the class, answering students’ questions and helping students complete class work. Just as we are about to get started, one of the students walks into class boasting a freshly cut Mohawk. Though I notice, I don’t think much of the haircut. Then a couple minutes later, one of the school administrators comes into the classroom to make an announcement. At the end of the announcement, she comments that the student’s haircut is inappropriate and that he will need to wear a hat to cover it up or get a haircut. The student immediately becomes outraged at the teacher’s demand, blatantly refusing to do so. The conversation enrages several of the other students and they also begin to yell at the teacher. At this point, too many students are speaking at such a fast rate that I cannot exactly understand what the exchange. It’s obvious that they are upset though. At some point, I hear the administrator justify the haircut’s inappropriateness by saying it makes the student look like a Muslim young person. In response to this, the one Muslim student in the class shouts that he is Muslim. The administrator’s comment that follows absolutely floors me. “Well then you should go back to Muslimia, because this is a Jewish State,” she says. This shuts the student up pretty quickly and I quickly exchange looks with the teacher and she looks just as surprised as I am. The argument soon ends, but I do not listen to the rest of it as I am so shocked by the exchange. I debrief about the conversation with the teacher after class and she agrees that the comment is inappropriate.
Beyond the obvious inappropriateness of this statement, the implications of this comment speak to a much deeper issue in Israeli society. This comment is one of many examples that illuminate some Israelis’ discomfort and sometimes contempt toward the outsider. Despite the fact that this student was most likely born and raised in Israel, many people may perhaps feel threatened by his presence in Israel because he is not Jewish. I do not wish to discuss the political and historical reasons rooted behind this comment. Rather, I worry about the effect these sorts of racist comments have on the targeted person. Even though the student told the later told the teacher that he was not upset by the comment, I can only imagine the self-loathing and sense of inadequacy that such a comment suggests.
Demonstrations of racial inadequacy can also be seen on a broader systematic level. Just a couple of weeks ago, news reports claimed that Magen David Adom (Israel’s Red Cross equivalent) refused blood from Israeli lawmaker Pnina Tamano-Shata, because she was born in Ethiopia. Israel’s health ministry asserted that anyone who was born in Ethiopia or has spent more than a year in Ethiopia after 1977 is a potential carrier of AIDS. Tamano-Shata is quoted in a Ynet news article saying, “I am good enough to serve the state and in the Knesset. But for some reason, to give blood I am not good enough…this is insulting.” Though this policy is designed to protect Israelis from disease, such a regulation implies that the blood of Ethiopians, of these Israeli outsiders, is tainted and dirty. Such a law implicitly tells Ethiopians that there is something biologically wrong with them, marking them as separate and inferior to other ‘purer’ kinds of Israelis.
When I tell many of the students with whom I work that I live in the Shapira neighborhood of Gedera, they usually react similarly: “Oh, with the Ethiopians…Why would you want to live there?” Most of these same students have never stepped foot in the Shapira neighborhood and are only judging the area based on its reputation as unsafe, as it is where the Ethiopians live. Many of my students are surprised when I tell them that the neighborhood is both safe and fun as there is almost always someone outside to speak with and children to play with.
Labeling and judging someone as an outsider solely because they are Muslim or Ethiopian negates every other part of their multi-faceted social identities. In a recent activity I ran with young Ethiopian teenagers, I asked them to create an identity map, writing out different qualities unique to them. I then asked them to tell me which parts of their identity they were the most proud of and which they most ashamed of. Expecting many of them to say they were ashamed of their Ethiopian heritage, I was pleasantly surprised to hear that many of the teenagers associated their Ethiopian identity as a point of pride. As one teenager so simply put it, “black is beautiful.” I smiled and wholeheartedly agreed. Despite both the blatant and discreet racism, I was relieved to see that she had not internalized such racist attitudes. Perhaps encouraging self-affirmation and enabling youth to think about characteristics they value or view as important can work to protect them from perceived threats of racism.