I devote 90 ninety minutes every Thursday morning helping Israeli students improve their English. This Internet-based volunteer work is through a program called Israel Connect which was launched in Ottawa by Sarah Gordon. Israel Connect pairs volunteers with Israeli school children. I find that my interactions with the students aged 11 to 14 offers a window into Israeli society that is all too often unavailable to those of us living in North America.
There was a segment on Art Linkletter’s “House Party” TV show decades ago called “Kids Say the Darndest Things.” Linkletter would ask children questions like “What is the first thing a firefighter does when the alarm sounds? (He pulls up his pants)” or “What is the first thing you would do as president of the United States? (Keep my mouth shut).” The studio audience would roar and the children would revel in the attention.
When I’m chatting with my students in Israel, I do not subject them to questions intended to elicit cute answers. Rather I want to better understand their lives. Two years ago, I asked an 11-year-old boy living in Ramla what he had received for Chanukah. “Nothing,” he answered.
I was shocked. Even in a city of immigrants with a struggling economy, I never thought a child would go giftless on Chanukah. A few weeks later he told me he had received a new tennis racket – he is a nationally ranked player for his age group – for Christmas. I was shocked and annoyed at myself for assuming that my student was Jewish. He was a child of Ukrainian immigrants whose grandparents fit the definition of Jewish for purposes of aliyah from the former Soviet Union in the late 1980s. Of course, there are Christians living and thriving in Israel, but my tours, my study sabbaticals and my personal journeys rarely bring me in contact with Israeli Christian children.
“What is their life like as a member of the third minority religion?” and “How do they view the present government’s desire to legally declare Israel a Jewish State?” are questions I would love to ask, but not to an 11-year-old. With whom do we ever ask and discuss these questions? Does our love for Israel and our concerns for its safety make us blind and tone-deaf to its citizens who don’t fit our stereotypes?
The United States Embassy opened in Jerusalem on May 14. The invocation and benediction were offered by two evangelical Christian ministers, Robert Jeffries and John Hagee – two proud supporters of the State of Israel who are not very fond of Jews. I wonder why Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu praises individuals who desire our disappearance as a religious people. With whom do we chat about evangelical Christian allies who are important political and financial supporters of Israel, but who theologically yearn for the disappearance of our people? That same day, 60 Palestinians were killed in Gaza and thousands more wounded. I have many questions and field many more from neighbours and friends. Most of these questions are not easily answered. Many require background knowledge unknown to the questioner. There is angst and anguish. With whom may a lover of Israel chat about this day without being branded a fascist or traitor?
I look forward to my Thursday morning conversation with a 14-year-old student who lives in a small settlement on the West Bank. She does not call it a settlement. It is just where she lives and goes to school. I ask, “Mah chadash (What’s new)?” I am expecting a comment about Gaza. I am interested in how she hears the news. Once again, I’m wrong. She wants to chat about Netta Barzilai, the Israeli singer who won the Eurovision song contest. Her song and music have no appeal to me, but to my student she is magical. My student then says the ‘darndest thing’: “Netta is not your usual woman celebrity. She’s big, not very slender, can’t really dance, but we are so proud.” Then she reminds me that the last Israeli winner of the contest was Dana International, a transgender singer, in 1994. She ends our time together saying, “What a country. A big woman, a trans woman. We don’t go for the usual here!”
So that is what I have learned. Israel does not do the usual. Christian evangelical pastors bless the dream of an embassy in Jerusalem. Israel places its young brave soldiers in situations requiring life or death decisions. Israel opens its gates to two million people – many of questionable Jewish lineage – escaping the former Soviet Union, but does not have room for thousands of African refugees fleeing for their physical safety. Israel honours two woman singers as national heroes and neither of them looks like a Kardashian.
My student is correct. In Israel, the usual is not their thing!