Hate and the Hebrew Lesson
Days after being stabbed in a Tel Aviv café, my African student remains determined to learn the Aleph-Bet
Rallies with a take-back-the-neighborhood spirit popped up. At one memorable protest in the south Tel Aviv neighborhood of Hatikva, a Likud member of Knesset declared from the podium, “The Sudanese are a cancer in our body.” (For many, “the Sudanese” has become an umbrella label for all African migrants in Israel—Eritreans, Nigerians, Ghanaians, and those from the Ivory Coast.) The demonstration later devolved into racial violence and destruction of property. “Before the demonstrations I felt free,” Eseyas told me. “They smashed one guy’s teeth and his head. Anyone black they wanted to jump on. That night, I didn’t go to back to my house in Hatikva. I stayed in my Internet café and slept in my chair.”
Africans have been beaten and shot at. There has been arson as well. May saw a string of Molotov cocktails hurled at Africans in south Tel Aviv. In July, an Eritrean man and a pregnant woman were injured when their Jerusalem apartment was set ablaze. In Tel Aviv today, there is growing distrust and fear.
“I’m afraid to go to that whole area, anywhere near the central bus station,” Daniella, a twentysomething who’d been sitting next to me at a bar confessed, swinging her cigarette in an air-circle to sketch which area she meant. I met Daniella, whose complexion suggested Mizrahi ancestry, in the politically activist Florentine neighborhood, also in south Tel Aviv. I had been drinking alone, so I infiltrated the conversation of Daniella and her friend. When I mentioned my volunteer activity, we began to debate.
“I’m just afraid to walk there, even when I’m not alone. As a woman, I walk by and they touch you. They touch your arms, your ass. It’s very uncomfortable and scary,” Daniella said. “They grab you”—and she grabbed my arms with a forceful, rude touch—“they touch your chest.” (By contrast, two female volunteers I work with claim they have never even experienced a catcall.) I agreed with Daniella that harassment is a serious problem—and one that’s difficult for me to relate to as a man. But, I countered, the solution is to provide more opportunities to the city’s African community. Her solution was simpler: “Liha’if otam,” she said, using the Hebrew idiom which literally means “send them flying.”
If anything can make someone fly, it’s this: On July 31, at 10:30 a.m., a 34-year-old Israeli native entered Eseyas’ Internet café with a knife. He stabbed two Eritrean customers in the doorway before turning toward Eseyas and stabbing him as well. The assailant was arrested, and the victims were treated and released from the hospital. Apparently the attacker is mentally unstable with a history of psychiatric treatment.
When I heard about it on the news, I called Eseyas in disbelief. He recounted the details over the phone like a matter-of-fact reporter, speaking in English: “We had never seen him before or nothing. He stabbed one guy in his back, the other in the butt. Then he cut my hand.” Sensing my worry, he assured me he was alright.
During our conversation it occurred to me that Eseyas understood his situation far better than I did. He is, after all, a trained nurse: Wounds are precisely the symbols he recognizes. It was a wordless attack by a stranger with a blade shaped like the Hebrew letter vav, a mischievous letter that is at times a consonant and at times a vowel.
I had one question I wanted to ask Eseyas, but I held back, because I didn’t have the nerve to be trivial: Was it your right hand or your left? He continued describing what happened, with the police and the hospital, as I searched my memory for proof that he’s a righty. I couldn’t help but wonder, Will you be able to write Hebrew letters next time we meet?
When I met Eseyas again a few days afterward, I realized I had misunderstood: He was stabbed not in the hand but in his bicep, on the right side. He had flung out his arms in self defense and the attacker sliced the artery. While Eseyas tried to stop the bleeding with his other hand, the man threw a desktop computer at his legs and fled. I stared at the stitches on his arm, blue like veins, which Eseyas scratched and fingered as we spoke.
I asked if he is afraid. “Why not?” he answered. More than violent lunatics, he said, he fears being deported, given the repeated promises of the interior minister to do just that. Despite having dodged bullets and blades to stay, Eseyas imagines a life elsewhere. He dreams of going to Europe or America, a place “where there is opportunity,” and becoming a doctor. Until then, we will continue to learn the Aleph-Bet.
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