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What Does A Local Israeli Really Look Like?

Our first blog post from the 2021-2022 cohort is here! This blog post is written Micaela, a Yahel fellow living in Lod. We will be posting writing from our fellows each week to share their voices throughout the fellowship.

Two weeks ago I decided to go for a walk in Lod/Lyd, the city I’m currently living in. Lod/Lyd is considered one of the “mixed-cities” composed by Jews, Arabs, asylum seekers from Africa, and Russians, among others. While I was walking I suddenly found Lod’s St. George’s Greek Orthodox Christian Church- which actually is one of the most important churches in the world. I was alone, and I decided to enter to see the place. To my amazement, it was beautiful inside, and I asked if I could take some pictures and stay to see how they prayed.

Lod's St George Orthodox Greek Church (outside, on left; inside, on right)

After the prayers the members of the church invited me, a curious Jew that came from Argentina, to sit down for a while and talk about our culture, traditions, lifestyles, personal aspirations and their experiences as a minority living in Lod/Lyd. Then, they asked me if I wanted to help them clean an abandoned church founded in 1860 that they want to restore. I gladly accepted. I stayed there all morning, and then I returned to my apartment.

Lod’s St George Orthodox Greek Church from 1860

There were not many people on the street on my way back home because it was Saturday, and many thoughts came to my mind. I was actually so excited because they were so welcoming and warm towards me and because there are so many communities here I have to learn about. I also realized how little I knew before about them, even though I have visited Israel, and during the last years I frequently read Israeli newspapers, and Israeli history books back in Argentina.

Today I went again to the church to help, and there was a Palestinian man of around 80 years old that came to me and actually spoke Spanish, so we started having a deep conversation. He told me how he experienced his life here, as a Palestinian Arab man born in Bethlehem, who was originally from Jerusalem, and ended up in Lod/Lyd. The man, named Elias, showed me a lot of pictures of his family and art he made (sculptures, photographs). He told me his family history, how he ended up having a picture with Golda Meir, and despite the things he have witnessed growing up in a war zone context how he still has many friends from different communities here.

In 2014 I came to Israel for the first time, with the program “March of the Living”. I spent 2 weeks here, and visited the most known places and interacted with lots of Jewish Israelis, and went to many Jewish events. Since then, I always thought about coming back. I went to a Jewish school all my life in Argentina, and I have a huge affection for Israel. As years went by I realized there were many things I didn’t know about this country, specifically, about the non-Jewish members of the Israeli society even though they represent 25% of the population. One of the main reasons I wanted to join this program was because I wanted to have an experience here in which I would be able to listen to the stories, narratives, lifestyles and perspectives of the different communities, because I understood Israeli society is very diverse and also has a complex history. Now, I’m doing social work for different groups: Ethiopian Jews, religious Jews, asylum seekers that come from Africa, Arab young adults and Arab kids. It’s very difficult to understand how this country works and how people really feel if you don’t live here, and if you don’t try to engage and listen to perspectives that are not always the same as yours.

“Today I feel very happy because I’m here with you,” one of the kids told me during a lesson in the Arab school I volunteer in. This community school is located in a small and low socio-economic Arab neighborhood in the city of Lod/Lyd. Some kids there don’t seem to have much in-depth interaction with people who aren’t from their community and they looked very surprised when I told them I wasn’t Muslim, nor Christian, but Jewish. At the beginning they were really curious because they are Palestinian kids, and still don’t understand much how the Jewish community works worldwide: why is there a Jew, coming from Argentina, here in my school helping me with English and making activities for me? It’s not a very typical scene for them. At the beginning they were logically more shy, but as time went by, they started opening more and speaking about their personal aspirations, families, bad and positive experiences, about what they do in their daily life, the countries they would like to visit, and about their traditions and culture. Every time there’s a break, many kids come close and start asking me a lot of questions, about football, about TV programs, about my family, or why I’m here, what I’m doing here.

One time a kid told me about a hard experience he had, and started crying, and while consoling him I explained to him one of the reasons I’m here is to help the Arab community of Lod/Lyd in the best way I can. His face suddenly changed, he started smiling, hugging me and thanking me. Many of the kids there have complicated backgrounds, and despite that, they are very warm and welcoming if you show a predisposition to listen to them. I understood the importance of approaching the Arab youth in general not only and specifically to talk about sad things, and about what’s going on with Israel/Palestine, and all those typical debates -- but also I believe is important to show the minorities here that regardless of their religion, culture, we, Jews, a majority here, are willing to communicate, to learn about about their personal goals and aspirations and to show them they are not only the “other” in a complicated conflict. I learned that approaching them in a non-political context is very important, because they have a daily life that many of us know nothing about. And by doing so, It’s easier to understand why they think the way they do, to find a middle ground, based on human values we share, in order to achieve a peaceful future. I realized if we *only* engage in political contexts, or political debates, that will be very complicated to achieve. Israelis and Palestinians are not robots, political pawns, or political ideologies, but human beings with real lives, challenges, and issues they face every day like any other person- situations that in my opinion the worldwide media usually never shows, contributing to the dehumanization of both sides.

I realized that teaching is a huge passion I have while watching some pictures I took during my volunteering in Tesfa, an organization that works with asylum seekers from Africa. It’s an amazing place to learn about their culture. And the truth is that usually if you make Aliyah directly from your country, and you are not much in the social work world, you don’t ever get to know these stories. But it’s important to start spreading more awareness. They also come from a very low-socio economic context and they are very erased from society. I really hope this vulnerable group that lives here receives the attention they deserve, and a positive solution to their situation. Because they deserve to live in dignity. I see their faces of excitement when me and the other fellows arrive, and it surprises me how eager they are to learn English at such a young age. Me and the other fellows do activities, and prepare games, in order to teach them English in a fun and creative way. Not only to make them improve their English language skills, but also to interact and engage and create good memories together.

Students working hard to learn English at Tesfa.

I believe our work, of all the fellows, from all the cities, contributes a lot to the well-being of the Israeli society and the needed social cohesion. Sometimes, volunteers, social workers and NGOs fill the vacuum of the issues the governments don't want to deal with. But if this doesn’t start to change, things won’t get better. We can talk about a two state solution, about a confederation, about a one state solution...we can draw an infinite amount of territorial solutions, but if there’s no mutual trust, no mutual understanding and no mutual recognition, how is this solution going to last? Now I realize, and I begin to understand while meeting all these people, that in order to have a secure, democratic and successful Israel the group that represents the majority here -- us, Jews -- need to start showing the minorities that they also matter, and that this is also their country.


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