Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Coexistence Through Snow?

What is a mixed city? How can Jews and Arabs effectively live together as friends and equals? What is my role in building relations between two vastly different cultures? These are just some of the questions I have been struggling with for the past five months. As the time I spend in this complicated city progresses, the answers become more and more unclear.

I found something close to an answer yesterday while walking around a snow pile. Yes...a snow pile. It may seem like nothing, especially to those who have ACTUALLY been experiencing winter. But for someone who has been living in essentially an early spring for the past couple of months, seeing a pile of snow seemed miraculous (especially on an 80 DEGREE DAY!!).  If that was what it felt like for me, imagine what it felt like for the residents of Lod who always have winters like this, many of whom had never seen snow before firsthand. People from all over the city, Jews and Arabs, came to see this pile of snow that was brought from Mt. Hermon in Northern Israel. At Commando Square next to Lod's Municipality building, where the snow was situated, kids were able to climb the giant pile of snow and throw snowballs at each other to embrace this novel occurrence. This was a fascinating sight not only due to the immense amount of joy in the air, but also for the creation of a space where Jews and Arabs from across backgrounds could share that joy and leave judgments aside.

Instances like this provide positive evidence for me to support the notion of Lod as a mixed city. Looking at this snow pile, I could not help but see the entire population of Lod represented as equals to one another. I saw Arab and Jewish kids and adults inhabiting this space together that both of them valued and cherished, and realized that both Jews and Arabs truly feel like this city is their home. Just as Arab and Jewish kids can play in the snow next to Lod's government office building, Arab and Jewish adults can shop together at the shuk and attend a performance together at the Heichal Hatarbut (Culture Hall). If that is the case, and all the city's public spaces can be inhabited peacefully by both groups together, what is to say that Arab-Jewish coexistence is impossible and Lod cannot be a mixed city?

This idea also came to my attention this week after an emergency nationwide siren I participated in. Across the country, people needed to respond to a siren by sitting in their houses' bomb shelters for 10 minutes and simulating what would actually happen if they needed to protect themselves from a rocket attack. This was naturally very interesting for me, as this practice is something I find very unique to Israeli society. First of all, it was quite an experience to have all seven of us stuffed into a small bomb shelter (which just happens to be my room, so my roommate Dustin and I needed to clean it well before allowing five others to enter!). Secondly, the process of thinking of what actions to take in a life threatening situation really made me contemplate how my Lod community is measured. I began thinking that if an actual rocket attack were to occur and all of Lod's residents were in danger, I would feel strong solidarity and responsibility for every Lodian I know, including ones I don't usually interact with.

I felt especially strong about connecting with the Arabs of Lod during such an incident after observing a special lecture that my school has been administering this week. Since last Sunday, Elrazi has had an IDF soldier come and speak to the different grades in Hebrew about what to do in case of a rocket siren. One detail this soldier described in depth is how we have 15 seconds to run to the nearest miklat (bomb shelter), and if there is no shelter nearby one needs to lay down with their face toward the ground and hands on their head for ten minutes. Throughout the lectures I have observed so far, I could tell that my kids were getting bored and not getting a lot out of it. As my fellow Yahelnik Jodie put it, it is similar to when kids in the US are lectured about fire safety and are not fully invested because of the absence of immediate danger. However, even if my kids did not respond to it, I felt so much meaning in this setting. Observing my Arab students learning about the same security procedure I am familiar with showed me that ultimately, Israel cares about the safety of us all and the Arabs I work with are as much a part of Israel as I am. Throughout my studies and observations while in Israel, I feel I have been constantly been told narratives of division between Arab and Jews. The assumption of division can be easily gathered when looking at Lod, especially when you hardly see any Jews in the Ramat Eshkol neighborhood I work in besides a religious community that is there explicitly to work against the Arab population. However, when I saw my Arab students receive this security lecture, this division completely disappeared from my mind. In that moment, these Arabs were simply Israelis.

At the same time, it is important to note that the situation in Lod is far from perfect. True, I did see Arabs and Jews together enjoying themselves at the snow pile. However, they seemed to only situated near each other, and I did not actually see Jewish and Arab children playing WITH each other. This is similar to what I see at other city events, with Jews and Arabs only interacting within their own communities. I know there are parts of Lod where Jews and Arabs are friends and have great relationships. However, until this is normalized to the city at large, I cannot say Lod is at an acceptable point for Jewish-Arab relations. If we all live here, and we all identify strongly with this city and country, we should be able to forge durable bonds with one another. Until the point when I can walk around Lod and see Jews and Arabs interacting in a multitude of settings, I must continue to encourage efforts to build a strong shared society here that fully benefits all the residents regardless of their background.

But until then...let it snow, let it snow, let it snow!!!


It was great to see two of my fifth graders from Elrazi enjoying the snow!!

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Finding An Alternative to Violence

Words and actions can both have positive and negative repercussions. Just as one can be scarred by physical acts, words can also pierce through your soul and create an emotional wound that seems impossible to repair. But while words and action can easily destroy, they also have an astonishing ability to create and repair. This has been one of the most important things I have learned as a social change activist.

Before I began my time on Yahel, I didn't see myself as someone who could influence significant social change. I simply saw myself as having some skills and knowledge to share, and having the potential to use these tools to help others in need. However, after observing some of the biggest problems facing the communities of Lod, I have realized that sharing my core values not only has the potential to assist populations in the short term, but can also fundamentally transform the way these communities operate in the future. I have learned this particularly through my work with the Arab population of Lod, in my effort to promote nonviolence among Arab children.

I have thoroughly enjoyed my time teaching English at the Elrazi school, and I truly cherish the bonds I have made with my pupils and other staff members. However, even though the adults and kids at school are genuinely friendly, I am truly astounded by the violence I witness from both groups on a daily basis. It is a common occurrence for me to see fights breaking out among kids in the middle of hallways and classrooms, involving hitting and throwing objects like pencil cases and chairs. It is nearly impossible for the teachers to control their classes once fights emerge within them. In fact, the teachers deem it necessary to discipline troublemaking kids with more aggressive action, forcibly dragging the students and even spanking and slapping them in extreme cases. When their methods are ineffective and they feel they have no other option, the teachers send kids outside the classroom where they roam around the halls and disrupt lessons going on in other areas of the school.

It was especially hard to respond during one instance two months ago that was very traumatic for me. It was the beginning of November, when the stabbing attacks here started to really escalate. As I was leaving one of my fifth grade classes, I was walking down the stairs with two of my kids who were playing with plastic knives. Out of nowhere, one of the kids pointed the knife right on my stomach. I became overwhelmed with many feelings after that, and I quickly ran to the teacher's room to get some privacy and refuge. The possibility definitely occurred to me that this was just an innocent game with no relation to the context of what was going on in Israel at the time. However, I understandably could not help but think that these kids were aware of all the stabbings and took advantage of this opportunity because they thought it would be a fun game to stab a Jew. Before this moment, I never once questioned my safety when going to work. After this moment, I was so afraid that any kid I see could see a reason to attack me.

It was this moment and others I witnessed that convinced me that the violent status quo in this school is dangerous and unacceptable. Not only does this violence affect me, but also the teachers who are unable to teach their lessons effectively and the high-performing students who are forced to be held back. And, of course, the students who actually receive the abuse. I had an incident last week in which two students were fighting in my private lesson and they refused to apologize to one another. Instead, one was crying by the window for most of the lesson and the other was making noise and disturbing the two others who were trying to learn.  This incident has significant repercussions to this day, with one of the kids refusing to join my group in order to avoid the girl he was fighting with. This is not the type of situation that I want for my classes, and I am determined to make it stop.

Unwilling to allow violence to continue to disturb the educational setting of the bubbly kids I have grown so attached to, I have set my top long-term Yahel initiative to be reducing violence at Elrazi by educating about its negative repercussions and teaching alternative ways to settle differences. I started the process by talking to Zaher, the principal, about what she is doing to reduce violence at the school. I was pleased to hear that after the knife incident, Zaher went to extreme measures to educate the entire school about the dangers involved. She organized assemblies for both individual homerooms and the entire school about how violence is wrong and unacceptable. She also reached out to both the kids involved and their parents, saying she will not tolerate violence in any capacity even if she needs to go to the Prime Minister's office to enact consequences. From this response, I could tell she understood the severity of the situation and we were on the same page. I also appreciated how she had the kids apologize to me in person, which showed me that it was truly an innocent act and they did not intend to cause me any emotional pain.

I was also interested in learning about additional consequences that have been introduced in response to violence. I talked to Adel, Elrazi's English teacher, who remarked that the incentive to behave properly relies mostly on a plus-minus system. When students behave well the teachers give them pluses, and when they behave poorly they receive minuses. At the end of each month, the kid with the most pluses gets to go on a trip to a place of his or her choosing. This seems promising, but Adel revealed its implementation is very flawed because only the "good kids" abide by it. The "bad kids," as she explained, don't care and are glad to receive punishment when it involves them getting released from classes. Also, the parents of these kids are usually not in the picture and do not care about their kids' education, which deprives the kids of role models for positive behavior.

As one who is new to the culture here as well as teaching in general, finding a way to introduce nonviolence to the school has been a monumental task. After doing some research on what other teachers have done, I thought it would be effective to conduct an activity regarding "I" sentences. I found an exercise online that involved forming sentences that personally express one's feelings about an incident, such as "I feel angry when you hit me because it hurts, and I would like you to stop." The kids then write letters to specific classmates who they feel have mistreated them in some way. I feel that this is a great way to get kids to express their feelings in words rather than violent acts, and I would like to try it in a class Adel thinks will be cooperative and responsive. With Adel translating my instructions into Arabic and the kids communicating with one another in Arabic, I believe there is potential for this to work and for there to finally be an educational initiative in place to train the kids to act nonviolently. However, since I have absolutely no experience with this type of training, I am reluctant to attempt an exercise until I am more familiar with the process and I know it will be effective.

Luckily, along with my fellow Yahelnik Jodie, I am going to be receiving training of my own to develop my role as a nonviolence advocate. Dana, Yahel's Executive Director, recently got us in touch with an organization called עיר ללא אלימות (Ir L'lo Alimut, City Without Violence), which works with governments and schools to encourage violence prevention methods. Hopefully next week, Jodie and I are going to meet with representatives from the organization and Elrazi's principal Zaher to go over Elrazi's specific situation regarding violence and which methods would work best for us to apply. I am excited for this meeting and I am confident that these representatives will greatly increase my ability to make my kids more peaceful and harmless toward one another. I also have a meeting arranged with Lod's Education Minister Shalom Azran in two weeks, and hopefully he can provide insight on how to improve the situation at Elrazi.

All in all, I am still dealing with this unacceptable violence on a daily basis. However, by taking initiative to solve this problem and organizing meetings with people who have much more knowledge than me on this issue, I feel confident that soon I will receive the tools necessary to make a significant improvement in how this problem is dealt with. I know that I will be leaving Lod in five months and it easy for me to do some nonviolence activities that kids may learn from in the short term but not implement into the rest of their lives. However, this is an issue that I know the kids will face for the long haul, and I think that is the school is very active we can really create a more positive and peaceful future for our kids. I don't want any more kids hurting and crying in my classes, and I don't want them to feel unsafe in the environment that should be stimulating them to learn and mature. But even more so, I don't want any more kids to feel they are of low worth and the only way to get what they need in life is through physical force. This may be a larger societal issue that I cannot eradicate simply by conducting activities at a school. However, it is my hope that the exposure I provide to this ideal path of behavior will motivate my kids to think about the benefits it can include in the short term and the rest of their lives. Most importantly, when I leave Lod in five months, I want to be able to look at the results of this project and say that I truly made a positive impact on this community.