Taking a gap year between high school and college, I found myself going back to school. It was an unbearably humid day early this past fall. The walk there was hotter than I thought it would be. Puddles from last night’s rain spotted the sidewalk, but the weather still hadn’t cooled down. Pants and a long-sleeve shirt were not a good idea.
I strode past the storefronts on Salame, the main street that runs east-west through the neighborhoods of Yafo, Florentine, and Shapira. Past the bizarre vendors hawking discount manikins and the ragged awnings of makolets – the Israeli version of a bodega. Underneath a bench near the school lay a cat that had lost one of the midnight scraps you can hear from your window if you listen closely to the street below. A single streak of blood slipped down the pavement.
The school was housed in an enormous concrete block with a gaping hole at its center. The retaining wall surrounding the school was covered in gigantic murals of smiling children, parts of which were defaced with frightening graffiti scrawl – blacked out eyes, disfigured teeth, and profanity. The students passing by didn’t seem to mind.
Inside the school, the noise of screaming, shrieking, and laughing was crushing. Children launched themselves at one another with jumping karate kicks in the middle of the hallway. The teachers walked by without intervening.
The chaos continued into the classroom. The students, now sitting at desks, threw pieces of their lunches across the cramped and filthy room. The teacher, a Russian woman who had made aliyah, stood at the front of the class and gestured for quiet. The kids paid her little attention. After around seven more minutes of shouting – the teacher in Russian accented Hebrew and the children in perfectly unaccented Hebrew – a wave of relative quiet came over the classroom.
“This, here, is Josh,” the teacher announced. “He’s here from America to teach you.”
The students began babbling again. “Do you speak English?” Asked a small Filipino boy. “Yoooo, do you skateboard?” Asked another.
“Here, take these two,” explained the teacher, pointing two a boy and a girl in the second row. “Sit with them in the library, and teach them this worksheet.”
I was charged with tutoring the two kids, a boy and a girl, in math. Both were born in Israel. Their parents were from Kenya, Nigeria, and the Ivory Coast. These students were from the class the teacher described as “behaviorally challenging.” The students had with them their workbooks, titled “Simple Arithmetic.” They were both learning to add and subtract three digit numbers. And they were having trouble understanding the concept of place values. They didn’t seem particularly interested in focusing either. Even more than the audible screams from the middle courtyard and the sounds from the video playing in the library I seemed to be the biggest distraction.
“You were born in America?!” They exclaimed.
“Do you have a mother?!”
“You live here, in Israel?”
“How can you be Jewish if you weren’t born here?”
I tried to get them to focus on their work, with little success. They seemed, towards the end of the lesson, to understand the difference between subtracting by 20 and subtracting by 2. And after completing several exercises without interruption, they appeared fatigued. They could only focus for so long with a complete stranger from foreign country sitting beside them, speaking with a funny accent.
“The bell will ring soon,” the girl said, putting down her pencil. She was done for working for the period.
Finally, after what feels like months of transition, my teaching schedule on Tuesday and Thursday mornings has settled down. For the most part, I teach the same students each class. But recently, I had two new students, M. and J.
M. was reluctant to introduce herself, while J. was more gregarious and excited to work on the math problems. M., with gold ribbon woven into her tightly braided hair, suggested that we move to the side of the library that was quieter. It would be easier to focus there. As we walked from one side of the library to the other, I glanced at a computer screen on which an older student was preparing a presentation on Martin Luther King, Jr.
Despite a sizable Ethiopian Jewish population, there are only two Ethiopian members of the Knesset. And with large numbers of refugees and migrant workers from African countries, there are few organizations working to combat discrimination against people of African descent living in Israel. The students at the Bialik-Rogozin school are as Israeli as anyone else here, but they face astonishing racism on a daily basis. Elderly shopkeepers scream slurs after them. The Jewish population avoids them at all cost. Israeli society ignores their uniquely difficult experiences. School books and TV programs feature only white faces. There are nearly no Israeli residents of African descent as visible leaders on the national stage or as spokespeople for civil rights. There is no Israeli Martin Luther King, Jr., despite the glaring need for one. Walking down the street in any major city – Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, or even Eilat – it is impossible to ignore Israel’s diversifying population. And yet, due to racist naturalization and citizenship laws and unjust conditions for refugees and migrant workers, Israeli residents of African descent have been unable gain a voice in the Israeli political system. Yet again, “democracy” in the “democratic and Jewish” state rings hollow.