Although I’ve lived in Israel almost nine years, I often still feel like the new kid. Unsure of protocol. Constantly questioning my own judgement. Not certain if I can be myself – if “myself” will be accepted, or if I have to don some type of brawny mask to function successfully in greater Israeli society.
Raised in the heart of the Midwest, we girls were taught to stay calm and speak respectfully. Never argue or insist. Avoid conflict. Should you find yourself in the position of needing to assert yourself, do so indolently – don’t ever be perceived as accusatory or threatening. That’s simply not nice.
I am now a mother of three living on a tiny moshav entirely devoid of Americans. I am often (lovingly) hassled by my fellow Anglo community members about not being “Israeli” enough. How much, exactly, is “enough”?
Must I bang on tables to make my point? Must I dictate my expectations and then bargain relentlessly on price, regardless of whether or not the initial quote was reasonable? I attended an adequately diverse public high school, and I remember a friend who expressed similar sentiments back then. She had one black parent and one white parent. Since the cafeteria was (self-imposed) segregated, she wasn’t sure whether to sit with the black kids or the white kids. She felt torn and consistently ridiculed – she wasn’t “black enough” to be black, or “white enough” to be white. Clearly, I’m not American enough anymore to be comfortable living in the Midwest, and I’m accused of not being Israeli enough to prosper here.
Case in point: Sunday morning at the principal’s office. My oldest just finished second grade. It was the hardest year of her life. We moved to the area almost 2 years ago, and shlepped her back and forth to her old school from November through June, to maintain some continuity. Last September, we enrolled her in the local Meitarim school, as it aligned best with our values of tolerance and non-competition.
She had some initial trouble fitting in. Everyone else had begun first grade together, and she was “new”. We expected an adjustment period and my outgoing, charismatic daughter was up for the challenge. We talked about how to make friends, how to keep friends and how to be a friend. We expected that by Chanukah, she’d have playdates by the armful.
Instead, she learned about “this chevreh” and “that chevreh” and all the groups into which she was not welcome on the playground. Boys pulled her hair. Girls called her names. We spoke about positive attitudes, turning the other cheek, giving the benefit of the doubt. We also turned to the teacher for seeking collaborative solutions, counsel, advice and chizuk. This was a newly established school. Our daughter had a first year teacher and a first year principal. No one told us this. We didn’t know to ask.
We were advised by the teacher to be calm. That it wasn’t as big of a deal as we were making it out to be. Our kid was happy most of the time – she just portrayed her experience differently to us, playing to our sympathies. They saw her on the playground – things were improving; things were ok. They didn’t seem ok to us, but we’re American, and we accepted the answer without pushing back. We spoke to the school counselor, who promised to give our seven year old “the tools she needed” to adjust. The counselor met with her twice. We sought solutions from the principal, all the while being told that things were getting better for her, they moved her seat away from the boy who was terrorizing her, don’t worry. Stay calm.
Last week, the teacher left the room to make herself a cup of tea. For two minutes. Four boys cornered our seven year old and started punching her. None of the rest of the children in the classroom did a thing. The teacher returned and broke up the fight (fight? How is this a fight? Four boys beating up a braided, skirted, bookworm girl? Where I come from, we call that an attack.) Three of the four boys were suspended for one day. The teacher called to explain the situation that evening. Our daughter didn’t even tell us about it.
We got the call just after her bedtime, and when asked the next morning why she didn’t let us know what had happened, she broke my heart. “Mommy, they’re mean to me all the time. Why continue to tell?”
Mama Bear lost it. I did my best to shelve diplomacy. I’m in Israel, right? I can behave as an Israeli! I can shout! I can insist! I spent that night planning. I didn’t sleep, for when morning came, I knew I’d have to be Israeli in an attempt to extract a plan of protection for my daughter. Preparing myself for “battle” made me physically ill. It’s so far outside my comfort zone to directly confront an authority figure I literally shook. The worst part was the realization that my lack of Israeli-ness had ultimately failed my daughter. I didn’t insist. I accepted the party line. I drank the “tehragi, giveret” Koolaid.
Looking back, I probably should have done a quick couple of liquid courage shots to ready myself, but it was 8am. I took her to school. I went to the office. I said good morning to the principal, who was very busy at the copy machine. I told her, in Hebrew, that I had come to speak with her. She refused. She told me she was very busy, it was the last day of school, and to make an appointment. I didn’t move. I repeated my request, slightly louder. She waved me away, telling me she’d be happy to meet on a day that was less crazy. I should make an appointment.
I switched to English, in the hopes that her employees who stood around us, attending to their final grading business but probably eavesdropping (wouldn’t you?) would not understand, and said “My daughter was attacked in your school, under your care, after you told me my concerns weren’t a big deal. You will talk to me today.”
She responded that she could make time for me in perhaps two hours, and to come back. I made clear that I would wait until she had availability, and took a seat. No novel, no laptop, no iPhone. I sat. I stared. And I waited.
Thirty minutes later, she asked me to leave the area – I was making all of them nervous. It was “unpleasant” for me to be there while I waited. An internal conflict raging, I succumbed and stepped outside. To wait. I watched her preside over the year-closing ceremony. I listened as the children sang and watched everybody sway together, flabbergasted as they paid lip service to what a successful year it had been. Perhaps it was, for them. For us, not so much.
Two more hours went by, and I stepped back in and reminded her that I was still waiting. She ushered me into her office, closed the door and lit into me immediately. How dare I show up on the last day of school unannounced, imposing, insisting? She disciplined the boys. She took care of it. I should thank her.
This is taken care of? The principal sat across her desk from me and asked me to speak Hebrew instead of English, since it was easier for her. Excuse me, I said, I have lost my ability to find words in Hebrew today. I’m sure you can understand.
The tirade: I was told that I was making mountains of molehills, that I was expecting magic, that if I assumed that ANY school was 100% safe, I could take my daughter and leave, since I was living in a fairyland. She raised her voice, telling me that both me and my child were very dramatic. We spent 40 minutes locked in a power struggle, her voice getting louder and louder until she she told me for the 11th time (I counted) that my behavior was unacceptable, and I pointed out that she was the one shouting, not me. She invited me to make an appointment.
I walked out before the tears started to roll, desperate to keep some shred of composure or dignity. I left the school grounds and began to heave with sobs. I had failed as an advocate for my daughter, both as an American and as an Israeli. My husband and I are dumbfounded. We are terrified that the relationship is now irreparable and our child will suffer further.
It occurred to me that given her behavior with me, her outright desperation to prove her authority at all costs, no wonder she cannot identify nor solve a bullying problem. She identifies with the bullies. She beat me up and sent me home crying.