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Creating Dialogue on Social Change Through Israeli Hip-Hop

Today’s participant blog post comes from Benji Bernstein, a participant in the Yahel Social Change Program. Benji’s group is living, learning and volunteering in Rishon Letzion, Israel for 9 months this year. This post was taken from Benji’s personal blog.

The last few weeks in Ramat Eliyahu have been very busy, but exciting as always. In the two schools I work in, I have been helping the teachers get the students ready for the nationwide standardized English tests coming up in the next month. The teachers are incredibly stressed, as the results heavily influence each school’s reputation (and unfairly, that of its teachers as well). In a neighborhood where a significant portion of parents received no formal education (usually, while in Ethiopia, only the most gifted children of the Beta Israel Jewish community were sent to school), this preparation task becomes even more difficult for the local schools. This is because not every child is able to receive English support and help at home. These next few weeks will be a sort of “boot camp” of practice tests, vocabulary lists, and reading assignments. We are working hard to help the teachers get these kids ready!

Meanwhile, my other volunteering roles in the community, while challenging, have been developing nicely. Specifically at the community’s evening at-risk youth center, we have been running several different exciting sessions these last few weeks. In early January, myself, and some of my fellow volunteers at the youth center (a couple Israeli national service volunteers, and some American volunteers from my program), started planning a series of four different country-themed weeks at the center in order to provide some opportunities for multicultural learning (and fun) for the teens there. Starting with Spain week, we then went on to America week, Mexico week, and finally this past week, Israel week. Each week, we decorated the walls of the youth center with posters, facts, and pictures from the country of choice. Some of the highlights included a “Spanish Cake” event (originally supposed to be Spanish Churros, but we quickly learned the hard way that they were much tougher to prepare than we thought), a traditional Spanish dance activity, and a screening of the Real Madrid game (a huge hit) during Spain week. During America week, another highlight was an event we led on modern American culture, which featured Jimmy Fallon and Justin Timberlake’s “History of Rap,” “Yo Momma” joke demonstrations (which the kids loved), and even a friendly “East Coast” vs. “West Coast” competition.

Although, on a much deeper note, the most meaningful event came this week, during our final themed week in the series, focused on Israel. Just to provide some background, most of the teens that come to the youth center each night are Ethiopian-Israelis from the neighborhood, and the racism that this community encounters in Israeli society is sadly very real. Various kids in Ramat Eliyahu have brought it up unprompted on multiple occasions, and it has been a large topic of discussion within my cohort of volunteers since arriving here in September. As a result, for Israel week, I decided with a friend to lead a discussion at the youth center focusing on this difficult social issue within Israeli society.

For those of you that have been following my blog, you may know that I have become a huge fan of the relatively new Ethiopian-Israeli hip-hop group, Cafe Shahor Hazak (largely the result of my connections with the kids in this community). Anyway, I decided that the lyrics to their song, “Yamim Tovim,” which means, “Good Days,” could be really powerful to focus on in a discussion on prejudice within the nation’s society. The track specifically describes the different types of racism experienced in Israel, from the very perspectives of the Ethiopian-Israeli songwriters. While planning the session, we thought of a few different discussion questions to ask according to the lyrics, and they proved to provide for some passionate and thoughtful dialogue.

After getting everyone together to participate in the discussion, we explained the activity. “While we hear about these things, and are invested in the situation here, we are still from abroad. We want to hear your thoughts on these issues tonight. We want to understand the reality more–from your perspectives,” I told the kids before we started the session.

As we began playing the song, many of the teens in the room began rapping every word. Together, they sang the chorus, which proceeds (in a rough translation), “There will be good days ahead, we hope/I know that everything begins from inside us/there will be good days ahead, we ARE equal/we’ll live life with smiles on our faces.” Although after the hopeful chorus, the rap verses start highlighting the sadness and hypocrisy of the racism currently found within Israeli society. Together with the artists, blaring through my portable speakers, the kids rapped the first lines, which exclaim (roughly), “A people that was always persecuted and that suffered from racism/suddenly finds itself today amidst the same ignorance.” They continued reciting every word, with incredibly powerful, difficult lyrics presenting themselves throughout the track, including, “We are all coming from diverse backgrounds/so sad that this needs to arise here/from the very root of the issue.” These lines, similar to the first two, highlight again the blatant hypocrisy of the racism that exists within the Jewish State–coming from a people that has constantly been a victim of antisemitism for thousands of years.

After the song concluded, our first question referred to a specific lyric that calls attention to the reality of the situation here for Ethiopian-Israelis, which declares (again roughly), “A reality in which they treat each one of us like a baby sister…they are offending precious souls, including my parents/they search and interrogate us but say it isn’t personal”. “Is this really the reality here, in your experience?” we asked them. After telling us that they felt it was, they started truly opening up about different things that they themselves, or their friends and relatives, had encountered. One girl talked about how a grocery store owner was uncomfortable because of her skin color, and didn’t want her shopping at his store. She said that he tried to make her feel unwelcome so that she would stop coming. Others talked about unwarranted full-body searches they had heard about, and even racism within the classroom. “In the early days of the school year, they took some [Ethiopian kids] from my class and took them to another room, with a different teacher,” one of the teens said. “They have been in that other classroom ever since.” From what he was saying, it sounded like they had put these students in remedial classes, which may have been strictly due to their level. Even so, it was his perspective, and along with all of the other sad things we heard, it became clear that this issue was definitely on the minds of the kids in this neighborhood.

However, I didn’t want to just leave our discussion on that terrible note. I wanted to talk about the future–about how this situation could truly change. This is also addressed in the song, as the artists rap, “Don’t judge me by my appearance/the change will start in you/and only then will everything work out for the best.” So we asked them, “Where does the change begin? Is it within people’s individual attitudes (as the song suggests), or does it need to be addressed more at the state level?” “Gam ve gam,” (“both”), was the consensus response. Although I was delighted to hear one of the kids offer his positive elaboration. He said that within the younger generation, he doesn’t feel it to be much of a problem–that the issue is more with the cops, and older generations. Within the younger generation, he felt that things were generally much better. He went on to say that he has a lot of white friends, and that there is a great deal of integration within the schools in general (something that I have also noticed in the schools that I work in as an English teacher). After hearing this, I then asked the other kids if this is how they felt too. “Yes,” was the resounding consensus this time around. It seemed that their peers were not the sources of the prejudice they experience, and I think that provides a lot of hope. So I said to them, “Maybe that means there could be a lot of good to come in the future, as your generation gains more influence in Israeli society.” “Maybe,” some of the teenagers replied.

While this message may be generic, it is always important to note that the youth of today actually are the leaders of tomorrow, and with acceptance and effort, this societal issue can be combated. While the problems on the ground here are hugely apparent, and very sad, there is a lot of work being done in many different areas to make this place better for all of its people. There are numerous NGOs in Israel and abroad working towards greater opportunity and improved quality of life for the Ethiopian-Israeli community, just as there are for many of Israel’s marginalized populations. This effort could be part of what has led to the aforementioned change in thinking within the younger generation of Israeli society, and it cannot be stopped. Unrelenting effort, along with heightened tolerance, can create true social change–an authentically better tomorrow for Israeli society. As Cafe Shahor Hazak declares, in what is the last verse of their song, “Ain lanu ma levater ki ain lanu makom acher/she yavou aleinu yamim tovim ve hakol yistader,” which means “We have no reason to give up because we have no other place/so let’s hope that good days will come upon us and that everything will work out for the best.” In the face of adversity, we cannot give up. The ability is within all of us to help make these “good days” arrive sooner–to help create more tolerance and acceptance so that “hakol yistader” (“everything will work out for the best”).

Check out this powerful song, “Yamim Tovim,” by Cafe Shahor Hazak

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