Shattering a stigma
Last month, an Ethiopian teen won Rotary's Young Speaker contest. Meet Yifat Semaline - math whiz, star debater and defier of stereotypes.
"Hello everyone, my name is Yifat ... I would like to speak to you today about politically correct [sic]. I will introduce the phenomenon, in other words I will define politically correct, talk about its objectives and address its effects in practice."
Last month, a 15-year-old girl from Rehovot named Yifat Semaline won first place in the nationwide Young Speaker contest sponsored by Rotary Israel, a branch of the veteran international organization. Thousands of students from 120 schools nationwide competed in the contest; 17 reached the finals.
In her winning speech, Semaline, who was born in Israel to parents who immigrated from Ethiopia in the 1990s, spoke about political correctness. But she chose not to use the term in the context of the Ethiopian community, or to say anything personal about it. "I didn't want it to be said for a moment that I came in first because I'm Ethiopian," she said later in an interview.
That didn't stop some of her fellow finalists and their families from charging that she indeed won because of her origin - what they termed affirmative action. Which just goes to show that stigmas remain stigmas, and that even when someone from this community succeeds, there are those who see him or her as an Ethiopian and nothing else.
Yael Lazarus, a former governor of Rotary Israel who organizes and runs the annual speaking contest, stressed that Semaline won because her skills and personality are remarkable by any standard. Indeed, this was the second time Semaline won the Young Speaker title: Back in sixth grade, she won first place in the category for younger children. This double triumph in a contest that demands intellectual ability, stellar linguistic skills and an abundance of self-confidence is particularly impressive given that many Ethiopian students have not done well in school.
An Education Ministry report released last month revealed a wide gap between the scores of Ethiopian students and those of other Jewish students on school achievement tests. Organizations that aid the Ethiopian community termed it a brand of shame for the school system: evidence of the failure to absorb Ethiopian immigrants into the schools.
Semaline is indeed phenomenal. A tenth-grader at ORT High School in Rehovot, she is in a Mofet class for students who excel at science as well as a special program that lets students study for a bachelor's degree while still in high school.
Her best subject, mathematics, is actually the one in which the gap between Ethiopian students and others is greatest (about 50 percent ). She is currently preparing to take her math matriculation exam, and will then begin studying for her bachelor's degree in math next year.
This begs the question: What goes into the success of a gifted girl like Semaline? How did she manage to thrive where so many like her failed? And does her success teach us anything, or is it a one-time event, like winning the lottery?
The interview with Semaline takes place at a McDonalds branch in Rehovot, in walking distance of her neighborhood, Oshiyot. But it might as well be another world - a bourgeois area of detached or semi-detached houses, the veritable Israeli Dream. Oshiyot, like other neighborhoods with a high concentration of Ethiopians, is an overcrowded ghetto.
Semaline's father is a security guard and her mother works as a cleaner. The couple has four daughters, all of whom are following in their eldest sister Yifat's footsteps. The second-oldest sister is a seventh-grader at ORT and the younger two are excelling in elementary school. As has always been the case in immigrant communities, it seems Semaline's family views education as a guarantee of social mobility.
Studying math offers a challenge: "I want to prove to myself and others that I can do it," Semaline said. Her success in school means a great deal to her parents as well.
"My father was very angry when, after elementary school, I thought about not going to ORT. A lot of kids went to another school. But he was very insistent that I study in a science track. They'd heard about it at high school informational evenings and thought I could do well."
Her father, Yanassu Semaline, confirmed, "It's important to me. From a young age she was very smart, more advanced. High grades. I wanted her to reach a high level."
The Semalines came to Israel in the 1990s. Yifat was born here. "I didn't go to school here. Only ulpan [Hebrew classes]," her father said. "We can't help her with school work. She did it all by herself. Now the other girls are headed in the same direction."
With her father's support, Semaline's motivation is sky-high. And what matters to her most is that she not be pigeonholed as an Ethiopian. "It hurts when they don't look at what you are," she said.
In the Rotary competition, contestants were given the topics in advance, including gender equality, the environment, the water shortage and teen violence. Semaline chose to focus on democracy and freedom of expression because she wanted a subject that would be more unique and enable her to win.
"I wanted to avoid and not go so much into the whole Ethiopian thing," she said. "Everywhere I go, it's obvious that I'm different from the rest. I'm the Ethiopian. To my great chagrin, my community has not acclimated well here. But my parents and also my sisters and I did fit in here. Perhaps on first meeting me the fact that I'm Ethiopian stands out, but over time, when I don't refer to it, I see that others stop referring to it."
"'Politically correct' is overall a positive concept," Semaline summed up her speech. "It has many advantages. It is ostensibly employed to avoid offending disadvantaged populations. When I use an agreed-upon name ... I do not offend. And that way I can talk about the various groups, and also solve problems. But beneath this wrapping, this lovely name, a problem still lurks, and the fact that we switched the name doesn't solve it."
Yet she also noted that the term "politically correct" has gradually become a synonym for hypocrisy and cowardice. After all, "socioeconomic gaps, problems of equality, education and social class are an integral part of our lives. Language doesn't change the reality."
Still, she would rather not discuss the absorption of Ethiopian immigrants or the sad state of students of Ethiopian descent. "I didn't feel a negative attitude in school," she said, then added: "There is a negative stigma about Ethiopians. I believe this will change and we will fit in more and that kids like me won't be different."
Semaline wrote the speech herself, under the supervision of her school's grammar teacher, who helped to polish the text. She then rehearsed it at home in front of a mirror, and in school in front of her classmates. And indeed, her confidence is admirable, as the YouTube clip shows (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OzzBP49-jmw ).
"My classmates heard me dozens of times," she laughed. That was the only bit of comic relief in my conversation with this terribly earnest girl. Both she and the winner of the contest for younger children, Or Yanovich, spoke as though they were trained to be miniature adults, preferably politicians.
Lazarus said that students who study debating at Haifa University and the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya mentor the teenage contestants. They come to the schools once a week to coach the students and receive a partial scholarship from Rotary in return.
But does this rat race leave time for childhood, or youth? Semaline confirmed that she does not have much time for going out, or just doing nothing, but said she does find time to socialize.
Despite winning the Young Speaker competition, words are not Semaline's vocation. Math, she said with enthusiasm, "is a fascinating subject ... There is always something to investigate. I'm a little girl. Right now I want to get started, and maybe I will continue to research. Everything's open."