Olim go through a lot in their quest to move to Israel. Selling a home, packing up lives, discarding unnecessary things like furniture, minimizing stuff, transferring jobs (or giving them up completely), learning a new language, finding schools for children, choosing a new city, leaving behind friends, making new ones from scratch, finding a new job — the list goes on and on.
As difficult as it is for adults, it’s even harder for children since, for the most part, they don’t make the choice to move. They are forced to leave the security and comfort of their home, their friends, and their mother tongue to start life over in a language completely foreign to them. This confluence of factors not only hits on their security and self-esteem, but it also opens them up to being a target of bullies.
As we hit the end of the school year, it is vitally important that this subject be breached again. Each year, this issue needs to be acknowledged and a strategy needs to be created for the coming year. We, as parents and teachers, cannot be passive and expect it to go away on its own.
Bullying, in general, is dangerous and pervasive within the education system, but bullying of olim, specifically, has reached new and disgusting heights. This activity has been going on for decades (including to my husband when he came in 1993) and in 2002, the rates of bullying exceeded 57% of boys and 27% of girls (in Jerusalem). It is unknown exactly what portion of this bullying is directed toward new olim, but it is significant enough that there is continuous discussion amongst olim adults regarding what to do about it and, sadly, some families have even left Israel because of it.
One of the official responses I’ve received was that things are a lot better than they used to be. This may be true, but it stops short of the point. In the twenty-four hours since I mentioned this topic to contacts, I was volunteered numerous personal stories of bullying.
Chana Singer, an olah from Michigan, was picked on almost immediately after her family made Aliyah in 2011. They started out up north where she was ostracized, teased, and called “Ameri-kaki” (a common derogatory term for Americans). Even joining Bnei Akiva, a young adult youth group, didn’t help. She had paint thrown at her and fielded horrible responses when she tried to fight back. Even then, it was better than what she witnessed other kids experience (a ten year old boy had his hands forced into a bonfire and a ten year old girl wanted to commit suicide due to rumors about her divorced mom). Chana decided, instead, to withdraw. Only her close connection with her mother kept her from carrying through with thoughts of suicide.
Chana is now twenty and doing much better. She found her niche of friendly English speakers through theater, but not everyone has the same luck.
Amanda Goldstein’s young son, only five years old at the time, was bullied while in Gan. She’s unsure whether the bullying was due to him being American (it’s hard to tell with young children), but it was definitely due to his softer American nature. He was bullied both in Adam (a city located between Jerusalem and Kochav Yaakov) and Rehovot and, during the two years they lived in Israel, he had no friends.
The bullying was so bad that, two summers ago, Amanda and her husband decided to make the difficult decision to make Yerida and return to America. Since that time, her son has undergone occupational therapy and seen a social worker to regain the social skills he lost while living here. Today, he is all smiles again.
Bullying of Olim doesn’t just happen to kids. It can also happen to young adults. After making Aliyah in 2015, Yael* worked in an English speaking Gan and was verbally bullied by another worker there. She was called names and yelled at, and her coworker would even tell the kids that she was an “awful person.” Yael knew it was because she was an Olah because the worker would tell her that she “wouldn’t survive here” and to “move back home.”
It got so bad that Yael told her boss that she would not be returning the next year, but instead, for some unknown reason, the employee decided to leave and her boss begged Yael to come back. Yael is now happily married to a sweet American guy and still working with young children at the Gan.
So what can be done to continue the change toward acceptance of Olim? Zero tolerance of violence. Criminal records. Expulsion from schools. Punitive financial punishment of the parents. Education. Education. Education.
The Ministry of Education needs to realize that their policy of ‘pushing Olim kids into the deep end of the proverbial pool and expecting them to swim’ doesn’t work. It’s hard enough for kids to want to attend a new school in a new country with a new language; harder still when they fear the schools and the students within.
Kids will drown. People will, and do, commit suicide.
The truth is that native Israelis will never understand what it’s like to make Aliyah. What it’s like to deal with a new world in a foreign language. To wend your way through bureaucracy, automated phone calls, and red tape. To try and defend your choices and your children when you can’t even make a doctor appointment or figure out public transportation. To leave all your friends behind. To not even have familiar foods. To be different – always different.
As Chana eloquently stated, “I am different. I came from a different country. I speak a different language. I keep different traditions. I. Will. Always. Be. Different.”
But we can find people who are different like us. And Israelis can be taught to be open to that fact, to understand that different can be good – that it adds to our society. Israelis need to be educated in diversity – to connect to us rather than forcing us to be more like them. Things can be better.
But they aren’t, and the Ministry of Education doesn’t seem to care. They were approached by KeepOlim (a non-profit organization that represents 40,000 Olim from over one hundred countries) and they were unhelpful, indicating that they had more important issues to manage.
The governments of Israel (past and present) have claimed that they want Jews from all over the world to come and move to Israel. Become Israeli. Be amongst your kind, your brothers, they say. They pay us money to move, give stipends and discounts, but they do nothing when those “brothers” exclude, tease, bully, and assault and batter those new immigrants with their different accents.
Olim have accents, have a different way of dressing, have a different attitude and demeanor, and this puts some of them in the path of bullies who are bound and determined to make their lives hell.
Olim who have stayed are making a difference. They are working together to try and improve things for the next generation, but they shouldn’t be standing alone. The government cannot claim to want Jewish people — Jews who love this country, Jewish refugees, Jewish people fleeing anti-Semitic countries, Jewish people of all cultures and colors, when they allow this bullying to happen.
Improvement toward eliminating bullying of Olim is a good start, but this needs to end. The government needs to educate the public in diversity. The government needs to encourage and train schools to work closely with the kids and their parents to turn this around. It can be done; it needs to be done.
Today. Before one more kid is bullied. Before one more Oleh/Olah takes their life in the land of their ancestors.