Aliyah: How I lost access to my education in the country that I made my home
It’s October 18, 2019, at 5:10 a.m. I’ve committed to the 5 a.m. club’s morning routine and have just sat down with my non-negotiable morning coffee in my cozy Be’er Sheva apartment, in the center of the Bet neighborhood. I catch a glimpse of the black and blue paint-splattered-style, ’80s floor tiles under my feet. When I first moved in, they stood out to me like a sore thumb. This morning though, they seem a lot less foreign to me, and instead, fill me with a warm feeling of familiarity.
I like using this early hour to sit down with myself before the city opens its eyes, and read a few verses of Tehillim. Only after do I sit down at the oversized, wooden desk I inherited from my renters, take out my small black notebook, and scribble down a short list of to-dos for the day:
“Prepare for interview”
“Get ahead of assigned readings”
“Highlight and annotate syllabi”
I catch up with news stories, reluctantly browse through and answer my emails, and review some early ideas I have for my master’s thesis. It’s barely the beginning of the semester, but I’ve known for a while that I want my research to fall somewhere into the field of the right to healthcare, though I haven’t found the sweet spot yet.
I log into my Facebook and am suddenly bombarded with a close-up photo of my face, posted by Nefesh B’Nefesh, A few weeks ago, they asked if I’d be willing to write something for their page, in honor of my first anniversary of making aliyah:
“In the midst of my plans for moving to Israel, I felt certain that I would live and attend graduate school in one of the major cities that olim often flock to. However, throughout my first few months in Israel, I became more keenly aware of Be’er Sheva and Ben-Gurion University through family and friends who both taught and studied here. I quickly understood that Be’er Sheva was the right fit for me. Importantly the large, success-driven student population has been motivating and inspiring to me. I feel lucky to be living in Be’er Sheva and am looking forward to continuing to build a life here.”
For a moment, my body can’t decide if it wants to cringe and shrink into oblivion at the sight of this zoomed-in photo of my face or at the mushiness of my words. I have always been one to wear my heart on my sleeve, and I’ve never succeeded in stopping it from leaking into my writing. Still, the first glance of my words published somewhere other than my notebook always gets me. Instead, an immediate burst of joy runs through my entire body. Then, a cold chill up my arms and my back.
“I always knew I could do this. I made my dream come true”.
* * *
In June of 2015, I was 21 years old. I had just returned to Canada from my gap year on the Aardvark Israel program where I had completed an internship at Kav LaOved, a labor rights organization in Tel Aviv. There, I surveyed refugees and asylum seekers, listened to and recorded their stories, wrote grants and project proposals, and compiled the notes of field workers into reports. I was in love with the work, and could feel myself gleaming anytime I told my friends and family about my job.
The thing was though – I was excellent at this job, and I was surprised. As a 21 year old, the years through which I suffered incessant bullying during high school were still fresh for me. My mind and body still remembered and believed every provocation, as if I had been molded like clay around the trauma and taunts. All things considered, I seemed to impress my supervisors more and more and was handed more responsibility within the Resource Development department every day. My affection for the people our organization helped grew, and my earnestness for the work and the growth I had experienced sharpened my instincts. Doing that work, in this country that I adored, brought out the best in me. I knew that I would make Israel my home one day.
When I returned to Canada, I immediately scheduled an appointment with a student advisor at my university, where she estimated that if I took a full load of courses every fall, winter, and summer, I could graduate with my BA from the Honors program in June of 2018. That gave me enough time to prepare and tie up any loose ends in Winnipeg, before taking a flight to Israel in October of that year. I pledged that date to myself and that same day, I bought a small hardcover notebook from the overpriced university bookstore. I declared on the first page, “Aliyah – October 2018”.
The years leading up to this date were excruciating. As a student, I battled socio-economic roadblocks at every turn, and as if that wasn’t enough for a heady dose of character building, I continuously slipped in and out of severe depression all throughout my time in the Honors program. Then, six months before my graduation date I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and celiac disease. With the limitations that my weakened body posed, I was forced to push back my graduation to October, in order to complete the required course credits. I still remember how my family and friends’ faces fell when they heard the news. No one believed that I’d be able to fulfill the required credits in time to graduate and make aliyah in the fall.
However, to no surprise of my own and in typical Nicole Meged style, I completed all the requirements on time, and on October 14, 2018, I boarded my plane to Israel with three overweight suitcases and my mother beside me. Determined to be accepted into a Hebrew-language graduate program, I registered for two separate, intensive ulpan programs to improve my Hebrew. Then, only nine months after arriving in Israel, I was accepted into the Politics and Government graduate program at the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.
In the eyes of my closest friends, I was a miracle. They couldn’t fathom how a girl who barely spoke throughout high school, who suffered with a debilitating speech impediment from childhood right into university, who had been ridiculed for years for being the only brown-skinned Jewish girl in her high school class – who at one time had made plans to end her own life, had not only completed an undergraduate degree in a specialized program through multiple illnesses but had just been accepted to graduate school in a country I had only just immigrated to. Wide-eyed, they told me that I had defied every odd and statistic that had previously counted me out. To tell you the truth, I thought so too – though they knew me as their friend who always held her humility close to her heart.
Needless to say, every word of appreciation I’d written in the excerpt above about Ben-Gurion University and Be’er Sheva was genuine. I was glad to have chosen the university as my home for the next couple of years as a master’s student and eventual doctorate student. I had interviewed and had been accepted at other universities in the country, but I had already forged a great connection with a Ben-Gurion professor, and whole-heartedly decided very early in the game that I wanted her to be my thesis advisor. She was invested in my journey as an immigrant student and took the time to have thoughtful conversations with me about where she felt my research and unique way of thinking could take me as a future PhD student. I had a clear conscious, believing that I had connected with educators who aligned with my values and academic goals. My sharply trained instincts advised me that I had arrived in the right place. It was early on after arriving in Israel when I decided I had to arm myself with these instincts and extensive research too when it came to finding a university with a Political Science department that would be the right fit for me. I spent months meeting with department heads at different universities and hours reading up on their professors. Now, when it comes to my education, I am uncompromising. I inherited that philosophy from my grandparents, who were uncompromising when it came to sacrificing their own desires to ensure that their children and grandchildren would have access to quality education in Canada.
My grandparents, Jack and Malka, immigrated to Canada from a community of Iraqi Jews in Bombay, India in the sixties, along with my mother and her younger sister. For as long as I can remember, my grandparents put their blood, sweat, and tears into ensuring that this time, this generation would have access to the educational and career opportunities that they never did – and did we ever. My grandparents instilled in me ambition and an extraordinary yearning for knowledge, and this took me to great heights as a university student. Despite my illnesses, I graduated from the Honors program with glowing recommendations and a toolbox full of highly graded academic papers. My professors were adamant that being less than able-bodied should not impede my academic success, and I promised myself that in my own career as a professor, I would conduct myself with the same insightfulness and discernment when it came to understanding my students’ challenges.
“I’m happy,” I thought to myself, still inspecting that close-up photo of my face.
With a deep breath, I close my laptop and look around my bedroom, taking in my surroundings. Sometimes, I have these moments where everything around me slows down, and I’m able to absorb every little detail, texture, sound, and smell. I’m captivated by the moment, conscious that what I’m experiencing is precious. That day, I absorbed that I had a beautiful home; a bedroom with a modest stack of books I imagined would someday grow into the well-used, slightly dusty home library that I always planned on having. I let my curious mind wander further into the future and wondered if this two-bedroom apartment would be big enough to raise a sweet and loving family here in Israel and at the same time, be a sanctuary for their mother who was to be steeped in academia. Importantly, I thought, I had secured my education.
The excitement that I had for this new era of learning that had begun in my life was nearly child-like. It took me back to being 9 years old when my grandfather would show up on our doorstep during the icy, frigid Winnipeg winters, with a pile of books nestled safely under his arm that had been produced in the plant of his printing company in downtown Winnipeg.
“Reading is very good for the mind”, he would tell us with a stern, but, loving expression on his face. I’d take the books and race up the carpeted stairs to my bedroom where I’d flip through maps, books about the British royal family, and children’s books in French.
My head still in the clouds and my grandparents still on my mind, I begin tracing my steps from my Be’er Sheva bedroom, where the soft morning light has just begun to flood in through my window, all the way back to my grandparents’ home. Once again, I’m inside the house that I was partially raised in, with its grand, bright white walls – on which I had scribbled my name when I was learning to write as a child. I linger on the long, marble dining room table where my grandmother graciously and lovingly laid out feast after Sephardic feast on Friday nights, my grandfather always in position, at the head of the striking table. When my sisters and I were little, he would begin reciting Kiddush and then suddenly, motion to us with his elegant hands to come to stand around him. He would put his arms around us, and my grandmother would look at us from her spot next to him and smile softly, with her warm, brown eyes and radiant smile.
I remember sitting at that table during my teenage years, when my stutter and the bullying at school were at their worst. I grew up at that table, listening to and absorbing every word my grandparents taught us about integrity, self-worth, hard work, compassion, and how we must always carry ourselves with grace, regardless of any injustice being set against us. They would tell me that I was not and would never be any less than my peers at school, and to “Just wait and see” the woman I’d become in the future. Knowing the tremendous obstacles that they had faced after moving to Canada, I was consumed by the thought of a once very young couple, my grandparents, surmounting together so many hardships and societal barriers. I imagined that one day when the bullying and ridicule had finally come to an end, the deep pain that was threatening my young life at the time would reveal the purpose it had for my future. As I grew up and matured into a young adult, I discovered that this deep pain did have a purpose. It taught me to be stubborn as hell, upstanding, and to fight for who I was and where I wanted to go. It taught me to be like my grandfather and grandmother.
Next, I let my mind guide me to my grandparents’ dimly lit kitchen, where we stood saying goodbye to each other the evening before my aliyah flight.
We gather around quietly as my grandfather hands me a navy-blue book with gold, Hebrew writing engraved on the cover. I run my fingers over the beautiful embossing, that all-too-familiar lump beginning to form in my throat.
He reaches out, pointing to the title with his index finger.
“It says, ‘Aneni’ – it means, ‘Answer me.’ I know you already know what it means”.
I break out into tears.
“Don’t cry darling”, he says as his own voice begins to break.
“Whenever you feel uncertain or weak, just choose the appropriate blessing and recite it. Hashem is always listening to you.”
Then, just like he does every year on the eve of Yom Kippur or before any of his 15 grandchildren are about to board a plane, he lifts his hands and places them on my head. My grandfather, a Cohen, begins reciting Birkat Cohanim; and I begin to weep underneath his hands.
I suddenly come back down to earth to my Be’er Sheva bedroom, my eyes full of tears. I shake myself out of my daydream and wipe the tears away from my cheeks. I pull out a blank sheet of paper and begin writing down a verse from the Book of Tehillim – the one I had held close to my heart as that bullied teenager. I reach up and hang it above my desk.
.תערך לפני שולחן נגד צוררי, דשנת בשמן ראשי כוסי רויה
“You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil, my cup overflows.”
* * *
Just to set the record straight – at no point in my imagined future in Israel did I believe I would not come by insurmountable obstacles. No – that, I was already an expert in. I have always had the ability to endure great pain for something that I believed was purposeful. I was more than willing to accept this because I loved this country, its people, its way of life, and its spirit. What I didn’t envision at the time is that even as a twenty-seven year old woman, shame and bullying would still be able to wage their power over me. Only this time, it came in the form of the wealthy and powerful, adorned with academic titles and villas in gated communities. This, along with my ability to endure great pain for something I believed was purposeful – my education and love for academia, had me losing sight of who I was. I even lost sight of the self-worth my grandparents had endowed me with all those years ago, as a teenager sitting at their dining room table.
It was around May of 2020, two months after the World Health Organization announced the Covid-19 pandemic as a global health emergency. Like students around the world, my peers and I were still becoming accustomed to the new system of digital learning and while never openly telling each other the challenges each of us were coming up against, it was clear that the hardships that came with the pandemic, didn’t discriminate against any of us. On this May morning in Be’er Sheva, I was laying in bed propped up by four pillows, my body surrounded by heating pads. I was four weeks into a severe fibromyalgia flare-up and depressive episode. I had just crawled across the floor of my bedroom, dragging the most easily accessible clothes out of my closet. Trembling, I quickly threw the clothes on my body and hobbled into my bed. I propped my laptop up on my thighs and signed into my morning Zoom class. Being present during classes had been a challenge during that period. Even with constant high doses of lorazepam, I’d lay in bed, wincing and moaning at every one of my movements. I felt like my body was being crushed. That day, my professor requested that I stay behind after class – she wanted to have a conversation with me.
“Nicole, I can’t in good conscience pass you in this course. I’m telling you now that you will fail, and there is nothing you can do to change that.”
Bewildered, I wondered if she had just forgotten about my documented illnesses. Over the past couple of weeks, I had been in touch with her and my thesis advisor regarding my state of health. I sent the two professors my updated thesis proposal each time I made progress on it, and made sure to note that I was waiting to receive a letter regarding my disability from my doctor, which would be submitted to my department as soon as possible.
My jaw aching, I began to speak.
“I’m so sorry that my assignments haven’t been submitted yet, but I can assure you that they will be completed in time.”
She looks at me from above her black, thick-rimmed glasses.
“Even if you hand everything in, I will still fail you.”
Staring back at her through the screen, I begin to reason with her, though I can feel the depression weighing on my ability to express myself.
“These diseases are disabilities. I am waiting on documentation from my doctor and will submit it to you and my thesis advisor as soon as possible. She is aware of the situation and informed me that there was no cause for concern in regards to my standing in this class or any other class.”
In spite of the impairment that came with the fibromyalgia flair-up and the depression, I was in shock. I knew that with a failing grade on my transcript, I would stop receiving my tuition scholarship from the Ministry of Absorption; a right that is given to all new immigrants of a certain age group. Without my scholarship, I wouldn’t be able to continue studying in my program. Importantly, I had the sinking feeling that a code of conduct was being breached and that my rights as a student with a disability were being disregarded. I was cognizant that within institutions of higher education, students with disabilities are afforded a certain set of rights that prevent them from being discriminated against, based on that disability. Today, I know that here in Israel, this is called “The Students’ Law”.
I exited the Zoom meeting and made the decision to discuss this with my thesis advisor.
“She’ll know how to proceed,” I thought to myself. I trusted her judgment.
A couple of days later over a Zoom conversation, my advisor informed me that due to principles of “academic freedom,” it was impossible for the department to attempt to “influence” my professor in regards to my grade in her course and that medical documentation wouldn’t rectify this situation. By this time, the depression had pulled me deep underwater. I realized that the professor’s conduct was improper, but I had confidence in my thesis advisor. She explained to me that in the unlikely situation that this grade would affect my continuing to receive my scholarship, the department would take steps to retrieve it.
As the pandemic progressed into the following months, like many fellow students I lost the jobs that had been keeping me above water. As a result of the failed grade on my transcript, the Ministry of Absorption decided that they would not continue to fund my education. This led to the loss of an additional scholarship I had been receiving from the Ministry, as well as the funding I had been given by my department. I firmly decided that I would continue attending my Zoom courses until the tuition payment deadline – I would continue discussing this with the Ministry and my department and we would come to a solution by the time the deadline would arrive. In my free time, I taught English courses online and took advantage of any cleaning job that was available. I scraped together any money I could find and was making just enough to pay my rent at the on-campus residence for research students. Meanwhile, I used lorazepam in high doses to manage my physical pain and to take the edge off the depression.
By some miracle, I managed to gather enough strength to advocate for myself at the department of my university and at the Office of the Dean of Students. I spoke openly of my situation and described the events that had led to my current set of circumstances. During this period, I also had the opportunity to speak with a specialist, who wrote a detailed letter to both my department and the Ministry, describing her dismay and disapproval at the chain of events that had led me to this point, particularly, the conduct of my professor several months back, and the scholarships that had subsequently been aborted. The doctor called for the department to rectify the situation and retrieve my scholarships. Receiving that letter, the department assured me that attempts would be made to retrieve my scholarship, but that I must submit my thesis proposal by a deadline they would be setting for me.
In February of 2021, I found myself in the emergency room of the Mental Health Centre in Be’er Sheva, my state severely deteriorated. I had relapsed into the worst depression I had ever experienced. The impairment was severe – I’d lay in bed, my body frozen to the mattress. That day, I managed to crawl out of bed and get in a taxi to the hospital. As I sank into the scratchy, black chair I was sitting in at triage, the social worker and ER doctor looked me up and down, taking notes inside their beige folder. A few minutes later, he took a deep breath, rubbing his bald head between his hands.
“Why are you crying wolf?”, the doctor charged, staring at me from across his desk.
Wide-eyed, I opened my mouth to speak but nothing came out. I remember wondering why I couldn’t speak, or why I wasn’t even crying. Instead, my eyes stayed frozen forward.
Then, “You look too good for someone who is suicidal”, said the social worker in a strong, Israeli accent.
I recall starting to feel myself morph back into the traumatized sixteen-year old I once was; the girl who couldn’t speak – that dirty brown girl who would walk through the hallways of her high school with her head down. I left the hospital with their words running through my head. I remember my stomach turning, the dusty Be’er Sheva streets spinning around me before I finally broke down, vomiting on the street. I still don’t remember how I got home that day.
Several weeks went by, and my health was on the mend. I was receiving treatment for my depression and my fibromyalgia symptoms had settled. My professors and advisors assured me that if my proposal were to be submitted and well-received, they would try to correct the situation with the now, three scholarships that had been taken away. Still deeply trusting my educators, I told myself that if I succeeded in submitting this proposal, I would be able to continue to study and by receiving back my scholarships, I could begin to mend my finances and pay my rent on time. Each day, I’d close all the electric shutters of my dusty Be’er Sheva windows and barricade myself in my bedroom, drowning out the sounds of the owners of the campus building bagging on my door, demanding rent. I typed and typed to that sound for several days. When the day of my deadline arrived, I proudly scrolled through the document one last time, proud of my work. I knew that the proposal was solid.
I remember the moment I received the news of the approval and solid grade that my proposal received. I watched as my tears pooled on my tile floor, and then glanced in the mirror at my mascara-stained face, tiny teardrops sitting in the curvature of my eyelashes.
I think it takes a fellow, passionate graduate student or academic to understand the passion I had for my research. My master’s thesis was my baby. Several months prior, I had thousands of pages of research bound into thick books so that they would stand the test of time being shuffled around Be’er Sheva in my tote bag. I wanted my research to be meaningful, to have an impact. With the approval and positive comments my proposal had received both from my advisor and an objective reviewer, I believed I was heading in the right direction. My thesis proposal had been submitted and approved – I’d held up my end of the bargain.
Several days later, I contacted my professors, requesting an update on my scholarships. My department instructed me to write a letter to the Ministry of Absorption and Student Authority. I was to forward this letter to my professors, and they would add their own letters and send them off together. I inquired about my department scholarship and was told that they were working on it. Then, a week before my twenty-eighth birthday, I was informed by my on-campus residence building, that if I did not come up with the rent immediately, I had to leave my apartment. I contacted my department, relaying the gravity of the situation, and inquired about my scholarships. I sat on my blue Ikea sofa, waiting for a response. That evening when my phone finally binged, I shot up off my desk chair and opened the message.
“Sorry to hear about this news, Nicole.”
I stared at the words on my screen, and I slowly sat back down. At this juncture, my support system had broken down, the burden of my health proving to be arduous for my relatives in Israel. My trusted group of advisors and professors were suddenly cold and out of touch – with nothing more to say of this situation which had been developing for months.
On my 28th birthday, I spent the day and night emptying my apartment of all my belongings. I gathered up my dishes, small pieces of décor, and glassware and organized them carefully in plastic bags filled with old newspapers. At one point, I came across a particular group of small trinkets and set them aside, unsure of what to do with them.
When I first moved to Be’er Sheva, my cousin, a brilliant professor, passed down boxes and boxes of beautiful things that had belonged to her parents. She would send me home with dishes, Persian rugs, vases, wine glasses, and trinkets from her Moroccan side – glass and metal hamsas, a terracotta tagine, and a deep, wooden frame encased with charms and amulets. I loved the deep-blue beads and the preserved garlic clove in the tiny glass flask that were kept inside in the frame. When I got home that evening, I unpacked what she had gifted me, and padded around my apartment in my slippers, lovingly placing the trinkets and glassware – the tagine on top of my ladder-style shelf, the vases with flowers in the center of my kitchen table and the precious trinkets and amulets on my bedside and entrance tables.
“They bring good energy”, I remember thinking.
They also reminded me that I was a part of my beautiful cousin’s lineage. Oftentimes, we would drive to our Be’er Sheva campus together and chat about our schedules for that day. When I felt uncertain about a presentation or an idea that I was to voice in a seminar that day, she would remind me that I was brilliant and that I shouldn’t worry so much, because “Brilliance runs in the family”. I would watch her with awe as she conducted herself throughout incredibly draining days, and I wanted to follow in her footsteps. She guided me and advised me on everything and anything that two women could come up with together. After spending a couple of months around her, I began to carry myself differently. I dressed differently and walked into classes and meetings with my professors with my head held high, forgetting about that Nicole who almost ended her life when she was sixteen. She changed my life, and I adored her.
I shake my head, bringing my mind back to the present. I leave the trinkets aside and begin filling the elevator with my small vanity table, my ladder-style shelf, my plants, framed artwork, and a small, dark-wood table. I drag my things outside, arranging them neatly on the side of the street where I lived. Back upstairs, I watch from my window as a middle-aged woman in a noisy, beat-up car stops by my collection. Gleaming, she rummages through my trinkets, dishes, throw pillows, duvet covers, and furniture and begins to load them up into her car. A small grin formed on my face, imagining how my things were getting a second life by freshening up another woman’s home.
I walk back to my bedroom and pack three suitcases and several reusable grocery bags full of my clothing, toiletries, books, tens of thousands of pages of research material, and notebooks filled to the brim with my handwritten notes. I glance out my window and realize with a shock that it was already morning, light flooding through my apartment.
“I have to hurry!”, I say to myself.
Though I was conducting myself with calmness and order as I breezed in and out of each room, my insides were twisting into each other, begging me not to continue hiding the anguish I was feeling. I told myself that I couldn’t fall apart – there was no one there to put me back together.
I run out to the kitchen and carefully grasp my glass Shabbat candle holders from the kitchen counter, wrapping them in a sheet of newspaper and setting them gently inside my purse. I take a last look around my apartment, double-checking my cleaning job, ensuring that I wasn’t leaving anything behind. I quietly walk to my front door and after closing it behind me, I reach up and kiss the mezuzah. In a daze, I stand in the door frame silently for a moment, before reaching my short arm up and yanking my mezuzah right off the door frame. I hold it in my hands, my insides eating at me. Ignoring the grief I can feel bubbling inside me, I kiss my mezuzah again and drop it into my purse. I begin to haul my stuff to the car of a very kind couple, and we begin our three-hour drive to the Arava desert where I have been offered temporary housing and a volunteer job as a maid in a guesthouse.
Since that day, so many people have vanished off the scene of my life – my father, my modelesque, curly-haired cousin with the pretty dishes and Moroccan amulets, who once passed down a tablecloth to me that was way too big for my own kitchen table because “One day you’ll have a big dining room table for your own big family”. My aunts and uncles too, with the smell of cigarette smoke that always lingered around them, their loud voices and deep, authentic laughter. Even my thesis advisor, with her quiet confidence that I had admired so much, who just a couple of weeks before I left my home, had told me that she was amazed at my stamina amid my illnesses.
I disappeared off their radar too, no longer the doll-like Nicole that I once was to my relatives – the Nicole with the perfect manners, talented mind, and pretty hands that everyone always commented on. Now, I was exhausted, less pretty, malnourished, and trapped inside an aching body that I had to drag across the floor. Markedly, I was ashamed. Yes, I had been wronged, but I believed that because of the weakness that came with my illnesses and disability, I had brought both the mistreatment and the resulting shame upon myself. I would stand in one of the bathrooms I would be cleaning at the guesthouse, and I’d look at myself in the mirror with shame too, fearing that my grief was erasing both my inner and outer beauty; that the wrongness of the situation had annihilated my intellect and my ability to speak up – an ability I worked painstakingly hard to master as a young adult. Most of all, I was ashamed that all of this had happened to me in Israel, the country I loved and had made my home.
The months flew by as I worked as a maid in the desert, through both the dry winter and dry summer. Still, in true researcher fashion, I speculated and hypothesized day and night about the mechanisms of the shame I was consumed with. Losing sleep, I finally decided to relentlessly research the topic and the influence it was having on me. I found that in 2003, Bell Hooks wrote that shaming was one of the greatest tools of capitalism and patriarchy because shame produced trauma, and trauma often produced paralysis.(1)
I’ve come to realize that not only was this true in my case, but even more perilous was the way in which this shame and trauma had led me to believe that I wasn’t who I thought I was. While working as a maid, I continued making attempts to remain a student in my program. I met with the Vice-President of the university and The Office of the Dean of Students, and continued to have extensive conversations with my advisor. I wanted – I needed, to understand why the mistreatment I experienced had been regarded as acceptable. In the summer of 2021, I was informed by the Office of the Dean of Students that my building’s management had charged me with destroying my apartment before I left and that as a result, I owed the company over ten-thousand shekels. I discovered that the company had further defamed my name to the Office of the Dean of Students, and I put forward effort after effort, through a depression that refused to let up for months, to correct the lies and demand that an effort be made by the university to both evaluate and amend this. Still, my efforts were in vain, and they continued to convince me that nothing improper had occurred; and that even if it had, there was nothing to be done about it.
Up until very recently, I continued to believe this.
For a year and a half, I let my mind wrestle with itself, wondering if maybe I had “missed something” – if my recall of the events was incorrect, or maybe in my personal case, my disability and illnesses simply indicated that I didn’t belong amongst my fellow peers. I believed all of this while simultaneously knowing that I had been a student who received great grades on every assignment, presentation, paper, and yes, my thesis proposal. People with power and prestige had not only shamed me into silence and paralysis but had succeeded in suffocating me with my own story. I recognize this now, and my understanding has allowed me to gain a tiny amount of mental peace. My illnesses had made me vulnerable and unfortunately, I had become vulnerable amongst the wrong people. I trusted my advisor and professors deeply, believing that my education was safe in their hands and that when push came to shove, the situation would be dealt with in an ethical way. Today, I am certain that if I had been in good health, I would have not allowed myself to be taken advantage of in a situation wherein a professor had carried out a decision that is widely considered to be illegitimate in the academic world.
It’s now been a year and a half since I walked out of my Be’er Sheva home for the last time, but the trauma and shame continue to affect me. The scent of a certain hand soap that I had used in my home, the smell of fresh laundry drying on a clothesline in the dry, Arava heat, or when a photo of a former professor pops up on the feed of one of my social media accounts – they all have the power to reduce me to tears or churn my stomach – until I finally vomit.
Today, I have a deeper understanding of the vastness of the power that comes with titles, wealth, and prestige. I’ve also determined that while these influences may have had the ability to exploit my passion, defame my name, abuse my trust and even take away my home, they can’t rob me of my knowledge or my brilliance. If they had, I wouldn’t be here today, writing my story for you.
I deeply believe that marginalized communities, the displaced, ethnic minorities, people of color, the ill, the disabled, and the downtrodden are entitled to more than the crumbs of justice and humanity of our country’s health and educational institutions. This past year on my twenty-ninth birthday, I took the four-hour bus ride to Jerusalem to go to the Kotel. There, I prayed to every and any higher power, begging that they help me find my way back to school so I can spend the rest of my life fighting for other brilliant, intelligent women and men so that they never find themselves in the grief and pain I found myself in, because of people who dare to use their power in unethical ways. I also believe that these communities have the right to be angry. Maybe some of you are wondering if a line should be drawn, limiting that anger and the power it has to provoke. My research also led me to Soraya Chemaly, who said,
“How much anger is too much? Certainly not the anger that, for many of us, is a remembering of a self we learned to hide and quiet. It is willful and disobedient.”(2)
Chemaly’s words have led me to imagine that somewhere up in the vast skies, my female ancestors have been staring down at me with anger in their eyes, watching, waiting for me to remember who I am and the women that I come from; willing me to realize that obedience is not a trait that has been passed down through my lineage. It’s certainly not what my grandfather and grandmother taught me all those years ago while sitting at their Shabbat table.
I’ve imagined those ancestors telling me firmly,
“Nicole, your silence doesn’t protect you.”
“You still deserve to have an education. You still deserve to hold a degree with your name on it, even if it is to be held by fibromyalgia-weakened hands.”
“Without your knowledge, without the uniqueness of the way you have experienced the world – without your story, there is no representation.”
“You still deserve to have babies, raise a loving family and yes, be steeped in academia – all in this country that you still adore.”
“What you have been robbed of is not just about you. There are young girls whose own justice will one day depend on women like you opening their mouths.”
I understand now that this is my story, and there is no story of mine that is too abounding with abuse, injustice, or shame where I won’t have the last word.
So, here, ancestors, okay? I’m up now, and my mouth is wide open. Just, please, watch me so that I don’t fall again.
(1) Hooks, Bell. Moving Beyond Shame. 2003. Routledge.
(2) Chemaly, Soraya. Rage Becomes Her. 2018. Atria Books.