It’s considered a grave sin to say bad things about the Holy Land of Israel, even if they’re true, but sometimes, when there is at least the possibility of redemption, the story needs to be told.
Israel is not immune to the Human Condition — both its beauty and its ugliness. It’s been my mission in my blog “Midlife in Israel” to promote its beauty because the Land of Israel gets enough bad-mouthing from the rest of the world, and most of the accusations are unjust.
But this story tore at my heartstrings.
It starts with a Jewish-but-not-religious grandmother who made aliyah with her 11 year old daughter from Romania. The daughter grew up, married, and had a son. I don’t know what their particular challenges were, but they returned to Romania when the boy was 2. Ten years later, they decided that they wanted to raise the child in Israel, among Jews, so they came back to Israel a year ago and settled in Netanya, a coastal town north of Tel Aviv. The mother knows Hebrew fluently; the rest of her family does not.
On his first day of school, the teacher asked 13-year-old Daniel to introduce himself. He didn’t really know Hebrew yet, but he said his name, that he was from Romania, and that his “dream was to become an Israeli soldier,” a line he worked hard to memorize in Hebrew.
Unfortunately, the kids didn’t care about his dream; they only knew that he was different. His accent sounded funny; he dressed differently. And so when the teacher wasn’t looking, a boy punched him in the shoulder.
This wasn’t a friendly punch. Daniel was shocked. Little did he know that he had enrolled in a school controlled by a small cluster of hoodlums that made the lives of many children difficult. Instead of feeling pity, the other hoodlums’ victims felt relief – – maybe now the bullies would leave them alone and pick on someone else. And indeed, the bullies had a field day with Daniel, punching him in the shoulder, back, and stomach throughout that first day. It was just a single delivered punch, and it always came as a surprise when Daniel least expected it, by multiple assailants.
The bullying escalated throughout the year. Daniel’s mother complained, but her complaints fell on deaf ears. The teacher was having trouble coping with the large size of her rambunctious, difficult 7th grade class, and felt powerless. The principal didn’t want trouble. He scolded the boys but was wary of doing much else. The bullies were sons of bullies who were known to police. They came from a culture in which to “be a man” meant being cocky and domineering, intimidating, stubborn, and in control; where establishing one’s pecking order as king of the mountain and head of the pack was paramount, using any means (including violence) to achieve that end.
These parents refused to take responsibility, and in fact felt proud of their sons’ bullying because it showed they were “tough.” The principal did not take responsibility. Nor did the teacher. It was only Daniel and his mom, and it would not be enough.
A few weeks ago, the Hebrew press reported the story of a 7th grade boy in Netanya, only 13 years old, who was bullied and beaten and brutalized by his classmates – – 30 of them! – – so badly that he was hospitalized for three weeks. Neither the principal nor the teacher stopped it, even though it took place on school property. It was Daniel! And even more than the physical wounds he suffered, the emotional trauma was severe. He was afraid to go back to school and seriously contemplated suicide. Not his teacher nor his principal could be bothered to visit him in the hospital even once. His mother had to take much time off of work to care for him, and as a result her job is currently at risk. They felt truly, absolutely alone.
The instigating ringleaders were 6 bullies, all very full of themselves and completely without remorse. Daniel’s mother demanded something be done. Nothing was. And meanwhile, Daniel continued to receive threats.
Fortunately, the story got the attention of the director of a Facebook group and non-profit organization called “Keep Olim.” The group was started to try to stem the tide of immigrants who come to Israel full of idealism, suffer a mountain of disappointments, feel life is too difficult here, and return to their countries of origin. For some it may be the difficulty of learning Hebrew; for others the difficulty of finding a job or affordable housing; some haven’t been able to integrate into a community or Israeli culture – – there are as many reasons for failure as there are immigrants. But Liami Lawrence, the American-born founder of the group (and someone who questions his sanity daily for staying in Israel with all its challenges, when life could be easier back in the US), decided that if immigrants united together, regardless of personal politics, country of origin, or their level of Jewish observance, they could help one another, provide information and resources, and even – – dare he hope? – – change or improve the “System” to make life in Israel more navigable and manageable.
Relying solely on donations and going into severe personal debt, Liami and his cohort, sabra Tzvika Graiver, started getting things done. They provided pro bono legal aid for immigrants struggling to understand complicated housing and employment contracts; they formed committees to visit and help immigrants who were hospitalized or needed care, provide hosting with volunteer families for meals and a place to stay during Jewish holidays, and created a job bank, career counseling, and low-cost mental health services. They also lobbied successfully to allow immigrants to circumvent the long, expensive and complicated Israeli driving license laws, enabling immigrants to immediately transfer their valid licenses from their countries of origin and receive valid Israeli driving licenses.
The Keep Olim facebook group and nonprofit organization has grown to nearly 40,000 members in two years.
And now Liami was calling upon its members to be witness advocates for Daniel. He was going to court in Netanya with a pro bono lawyer and his mother, to try to get the six bullies permanently expelled from the school and get a restraining order against them, as he no longer felt safe due to the threats and the abuse he has already suffered and continued to experience.
Daniel was very scared to be in that courtroom. Despite his large frame, he was pale and shaky and on the verge of tears. Even there, the bullies and their parents heckled him. The school’s recommendation was that Daniel go to a different school. For the school, it was a lot easier to move one student than it was to move six. And in the small picture, it would probably have been easier for Daniel to start anew.
But here is 13-year-old Daniel’s greatness: he refused. He knew that if he left the school, he might not get bullied, but someone else would. And the cycle would continue unabated, and the school would not be forced to take responsibility or do anything about it. So with great courage, he demanded that something be done, so that he could continue in the same school, and so that no other student in that school would have to suffer as he had.
Because Daniel’s Hebrew is so limited, it was his mother who did most of the talking. She was a lioness, fighting for her only cub. She refused to be intimidated, and she refused to back down. Yet she remained calm, polite, and spoke with both passion and grace on her son’s behalf.
In the end, the judge ruled that five of the six boys must be removed from the school, and were given restraining orders to not come anywhere near Daniel. The sixth boy, it was felt, was simply a weakling who was controlled by the mob; he expressed remorse (the only boy to do so) and apologized to Daniel. He was allowed to remain at the school and hopefully, will start a new chapter without his former friends’ influence.
Daniel was incredibly grateful for the support he received from the members of Keep Olim who spent the afternoon at the courthouse giving him moral fortitude and encouragement. With great emotion and composure, he thanked everyone and told them that he hopes that someday, should his advocates require his help, that he will be there for them,”day or night.”
But despite his courage, he still suffers from PTSD. He has panic attacks and often becomes both tearful and fearful.
I spoke with both Daniel and his mom. “I know you may not be ready for this,” I ventured, “but I was wondering if you would both consider coming to my village to speak about your experience. Bullying is not just a problem at your school – – it’s everywhere, whether in rich or poor neighborhoods, secular or religious, in cities or in kibbutzim. Many people simply don’t realize how bullying can alter someone’s life forever, that you don’t necessarily just ‘get over it.’ If you could speak in front of a class of seventh graders like yourself, you could help kids really understand what it feels like to be bullied, and perhaps create empathy. Maybe you could even help the bullies in other places take responsibility and feel some sense of remorse.”
And to his mother I added, “You should also speak! Other parents need to hear about bullying from a parent’s perspective: how to respond to your child, how to protect him, how to work with the school and if necessary, and how to deal with the legal system.
“When you are ready – – I’m not pressuring you, I want it to be when you feel you can do this – – I want you to come to us, to inform and educate. It is awful what happened to you, but you can change the world, one kid and one parent at a time, one school at a time, one town at a time! I know it will be very difficult at first for you to recount and relive this trauma, but it will get easier each time you tell your story. Will you consider it?”
Both Daniel and his mother said they would. We exchanged phone numbers and the very next day I approached the administration of my village. “Yes!” was the answer I received. There was a lot of excitement about it.
So the while this chapter isn’t yet over, it is looking very positive.
Next week Liami is taking Daniel and his mom to a Maccabi Tel Aviv basketball game – – Adam Silk, the team’s chiropractor, personally donated the tickets, just in time for Daniel’s fourteenth birthday. Members of Keep Olim are sending birthday greetings Daniel’s way – – we truly have his back, and he knows he is not alone.
And hopefully, in a few years, Daniel will reach his eventual goal: becoming an Israeli soldier. Those of us who met him have no doubt he will use his difficult beginning in Israel to become a true leader that others will want to emulate.
for more information on bullying and what you can do to stop it, visit www.stopbullying.gov