21 Years in Israel

During my visit to Israel last November, I met up with an old friend, Paula Gaon, who has been living in Israel for many years now. She kindly agreed to an interview.

-So, how long have you been living in Israel?

21 years in September.

-Where did you live when you first moved to Israel?

I lived on a kibbutz near Jerusalem while studying in a university level ulpan (intense Hebrew language course) and working part-time on the kibbutz. It was a very interesting experience since most of the students were from the former Soviet Union. After ulpan, I even spoke Hebrew with a Russian accent. At the time, I didn't have much confidence about speaking to Israelis. So I tended to speak only with Russian speakers, a more level playing field.

-How long were you on the kibbutz, and what were your impressions of it?

I was on that kibbutz for only six months. This kibbutz was one of the large, veteran, very successful, kibbutzim. It seemed to have been very well managed - nothing wasted & kibbutz members very settled into their jobs. But, as an ulpan student and temporary resident, most members didn't take much notice of us, nor were they interested in getting to know most of us. Of course ulpanistim were given the least desirable jobs - like employees from manpower agencies & regarded as pretty disposable. In general, kibbutz members, at least at that time on that kibbutz, were quite closed to most things outside their world - including the need for common courtesy. I don't want to sound too negative here. The day-to-day life was really quite pleasant & it was wonderful having so many chores, like laundry & meals taken care of and very well done.

-Where did you go after the kibbutz?

After ulpan on kibbutz, the story starts to get complicated, at least time-wise. But looking back on it, I realize that it was really more the same. So I'll stick to the essentials.

After ulpan, I spent the next two and a half years on two other kibbutzim in the north, southern part of the Galilee. Both were religious and newer. Neither remained kibbutzim. As far as I know, both are now yeshuvim, settlements. I was actually up for membership on the first of the two, but soon saw that this was not going to be. In any case, I managed to get the kind of work on both that allowed me to hone language skills. So from there, I moved to Beit El in the Shamron Sumaria. Beit El was a large National Religious (Dati Leumi) Settlement. Understand that religious communities do not typically like single people, especially single women. So it was somewhat rare that I moved there. But they did areas that single people live in.

OK, so to continue with the Beit El chapter. I had been in Israel just over three years at this point. In all honesty, this is the time that I probably should have returned to the USA. Beit El was a very nice place, but I really came to understand the differences in Israeli and Ameriican mentality. For example, I was always invited by friends for sabbath and holidays meals. Why? Because a single person can't possibly manage. Have to admit that I did resent the fact that people wanted to feel sorry for me because I was single - couldn't understand that I've been alone most of my adult life and had long, long ago realized that that was not likely to change. They just couldn't get it and somehow felt that thay had to be partly responsibe for my well-being and at the same time resented the responsibility.

With all that, the four years at Beit El were nice ones. I came to realize that religious people are people just like everyone else - with the same challenges and obligations. And the people there are kind & decent folks.

My challenge was having to fall back on teaching elementary school English to earn a living. At the time, the Ministry of Education was so desperate for elementary English teachers that they financed certification courses for English-speaking academics.

I had substituted some, so they begged me to sign up for the certification course and teach a few hours at an elementary school in Jerusalem. This is the time that I referred to earlier as the time I should have returned to the USA. In all honesty, have to admit that I was worried about finding my niche in the American workforce, and being able to manage health insurance. Nonetheless, teaching in the public school system was a disaster from the very beginning - talking about a square peg in a round hole! The seminar did put me on probation for awhile, but they were so desperate that they even asked me to continue when I offered to quit. In any case, I did leave. But wasn't the only one. Most of those who went through this course eventually left. Looks like every body learned something from this experience.

[Interview with Paula Gaon, part 2.]

-I am interested in your take on the recent events in the Negev and South TA.

OK, my take on recent events in the Negev & South Tel Aviv. I take it you're referring to incidents involving refugees/immigrants from Sudan. In all honesty, I have not been following the news closely. And when I do catch snippets on the radio, can't help but wonder how accurate the stories are. Also, since I live in the Negev, don't have much feeling for the reality in Tel Aviv. But will give you a few impressions.

From what I see here in this little Negev town, most Sudanese are young men, some with families. From the hours they come and go & the buses they take, looks like they are working in service jobs at the Dead Sea, probably hotels and food services - not jobs people are anxious to take. I have no idea what percentage are employed, or if employed how legal it is. At any given time of day, young men are hanging around the downtown area and in apartment residential areas. But in all honesty, have no idea if they are employed or work night shifts.

When the Sudanese first came here about three years ago, people were suspicious and wondered if they were really refugees or illegals fleeing an awful situation. It looks like some have left, either sent back or decided to go back. But now I get the feeling, at least here, that on the whole, they are hardly noticed. My personal theory is that since this town is more than 40% immigrants, most from the former Soviet Union, residents feel more empathy with people who, for whatever reason, have been displaced.

As you can imagine, Tel Aviv is much more upscale than any town in the Negev. There are a lot more people with a lot more money, more upscale hotels and places of entertainment, more places that would require low-wage employment. The neighborhoods where the African refugees live, as far as I know, have always been poor Israeli neighborhoods with the reputation that many poor neighborhoods have. Get the picture? It doesn't take a great leap of imagination to see the potential for some serious friction.

According to news reports, African residents were attacked by young Israelis. Having worked in the school system, I'm not surprised by this. From my experience, politically correct has taken a strange twist here. Schools, for whatever reason, do not teach or enforce the idea of appropriate behaviour in the appropriate place. The idea of impulse control and expressing one's self inteligently, refraining from insults or attacks was not consistently taught or enforced. I've even heard Israelis aged 50 and above say the same. Why this has come to be - can't tell you exactly. But have gotten the feeling that this is a result of tensions in Israeli society among the different Jewish ethnic groups and has caused a kind of 'despair' regarding matters of discipline in the educational system. Nobody wants a fight, or risk an accusation of being against any Jewish ethnic group, so those in the educational system walk on eggs and make excuses.

In any case, it's terribly embarassing. Of course the USA has severly criticized Israel's racism. How soon they forget... But we do expect more from the Jewish State.

OK, now back to why I came to the Negev. It's very simple, actually. I've just always dug the Negev, Here's an interesting piece of trivia my town is almost the same latitude as Tucson.

On a more serious note, I moved to Jerusalem for perceived job opportunity. But personally, I find Jerusalem unlivable. It's terribly expensive. The cheaper areas are far flung, requiring long, nerve-racking bus trips - cars cost 4 times US price. And the security issues are abssolutely grinding. The Negev is cleaner, cheaper, and low-stress. I have a higher quality of life for a little less money.

-What were the factors that prompted you to leave Jerusalem?

To put it simply, meltdown! Financial, health, just being fed up with the stress. The intifada of the early 2000's didn't help either. I'm a desert rat by nature, so the Negev was always a consideration. When I lived in Jerusalem, I'd sometimes just hop a bus & to this town and walk around for an hour or so to chill out & breathe some desert air.

I'd taken a very good computer applications course through the Ministry of Employment in 2003-04. The course was in Hebrew, but as a native English speaker, I've been able to continue to add to my skill set. At the time, had planned to come back to the USA. But the health care/social support system is much more developed here in spite of the the fact that day to day life is much less convient and comfortable. There is more of safety net here. In the long run it's easier to maintain one's health and well-being and continue to work. There's no comparable system in the USA. As an ageing Boomer this scares me terribly. I'd like nothing more than to be able to come back home and be near family. Maybe I'll be able to swing it one day. Believe me, I'm not the only American who feels this way.

-Tell me your impressions of where you live now. Can you tell me something about the ethnic situation there?

The day-to-day here is in a word, quiet routine. Our sleepy Negev town is relatively new. So, it's well-planned, very pleasant and convenient to walk around. The original settlers were North African immigrants, and former kibbutz members. Now 40% of the residents are immigrants from the former Soviet Union, a large number of the mature set. So Russian is commonly spoken & used on signage.

I used to get annoyed by the prevalence of Russian, but now take it in stride. Hey, they're fellow olim (immigrants to Israel), so we're really in the same boat in some ways.

There are a few English speakers, Americans, English, Canadian. Many of the veteran residents have moved away or passed on. They were a rather tight-knit group, so I never got to know them very well. With all that, I do have a few friends among the English speakers.

As for the North African and former kibbutz member population, it seems to me that there are only vestiges left. When I moved here eight years ago, it was often said that many veteran residents had left. So the Russian influence is very strong,especially in neighborhood and specialty food stores.

There is a community of Ethiopian immigrants, but not very big. As far as I know, there are two groups, Amharic and Geez. From personal experience, I know that they don't like to be confused with each other. But, have to admit that I've never been able to discern what the difference is. In general, the Ethiopian community here in this small Negev town seems very different from people I knew in Jerusalem. The Jerusalem Ethiopian community was a lot more varied - educated, professional as well as village people. Here the Ethiopian community seems older and less absorbed.

-As a person of African descent yourself, how has this affected your experience?

My African descent is a very interesting point. And that's where attitudes and prejudices diverge from American ones. On the surface, Ethiopians would often expect me to identify with them. As a Black American, I naturally felt obliged. But as expected, we had little in common and had to struggle to find a common ground. Israelis, on the other hand, after picking up my American accent, immediately related to us differently - the color was more a 'cosmetic' issue for Israelis. That goes for any Israeli perceptions of me and any persons of African descent. Here's a great example:

When I first came to Israel, I was a permanent resident for several years. Just as I'd decided to change my status to new immigrant, my father passed away in the USA so I went right away to the States. As fate would have it, my residency papers expired while there, but of course I still had an American passport. When I returned to Israel, found myself going through immigration at the same time as a young Nigerian man. Immigration could see from my passport that I'd been here several years and of course I showed them the expired residency papers & explained the situation in grammatically correct Hebrew. The immigration official then moved on to the Nigerian man, who spoke no Hebrew, followed his request in English to enter on a tourist visa as best he could, then called a supervisor. I explained my story again in Hebrew, the supervisor gave the officer a strange look, and asked in Hebrew, 'What's the problem? Let her in.' The Nigerian man was sent away. Never did find out what the issue was with him, probably fear of an illegal worker.

A personal note on the ethnic thing. Since coming to Israel, I've often been in work situations with immigrants from the former Soviet Union. Since we both grew up during and have memories of the Cold War years, we often start to compare notes. I've come to the conclusion that this 'neurosis' about being taken over or outdone has given us a lot in common regarding work ethic and a systemic approach to work and problem solving. More often than not, I've felt that we focus on achieving a particular goal, logical thinking and consistency. Israelis, at least from my point of view, focus more on the 'hevrey', the esprit de corp. Have to admit that I've never mastered the art of following Israeli logic. But can usually follow the logic Russian immigrants. Maybe we were two sides of the same coin after all.

-Can you tell me something about some of the other ethnic and/or religious groups in your town?

he Bedouin are the only group that I've not touched on at all, as far as I know. They are a group of Middle Eastern nomadic Islamic people and are not considered Arabs. They also serve in the Israeli Army. There are a few among the Bedouin who are ethnically Sudanese. I've been told that they are former slaves from the time of the British Mandate, but don't know if this is true or not. Actually, the Bedouin don't seem so nomadic anymore. Many live in an incorporated town not far from our quiet little town in addition to those who have moved to town. At least 3 businesses in town are Bedouin owned. Also, several pharmacists in town are Bedouin. Couldn't tell you why. But, I have noticed that the level of Hebrew among the Bedouin seems higher than that of Arabs in the central part of the country. Maybe it's the army experience.