The Lionesses at the Dora community center in Netanya. Tomer Appelbaum

'My Color Is Beautiful and Strong': A Fierce Takedown of Racism, Courtesy of Ethiopian-Israeli Girls

A group of Ethiopian-Israeli teens who penned a searing rap opens up about racist teachers, facing discrimination and finding solidarity with Palestinians



The video clip lasted two minutes and 46 seconds. It started with a few Ethiopian-Israeli girls, in their teens or younger, and a boy walking on the street with their backs to the camera, with a rap song they’d apparently written playing in the background. I cried when I heard this part: “And even you, who stick me with an accusing look, shout at me where to sit, belittle my mother on the bus, put down my father at a parents’ meeting. Who are you, anyway? Go look, all of you. Go look into your heart where all the hate comes from, the racism, the contempt, the fear. Go look deep into your soul, because we’ve already found it.”

The viewing experience was no less than jolting. The fusion of the children’s voices and the powerful messages intrigued me. It was real. There weren’t any of the terrible things that happen to an artist when he tries to connect with his inner pain and then engages in self-flagellation; there was no attempt to be cool or display any other affectation. Just anger. Savage, youthful rage; frustration born as a product of culture.

Who were these kids, who seemed to know just who it was who had hurt them, and how, and what they have to do about it? How can children, from among our society’s most powerless community, understand so clearly how they’ve been wronged and know just how to respond, and not only that – also to create art from all of it? This is a song that’s so genuine that every iota of cynicism that I may have been feeling before it was played just wilted and tumbled onto the floor.

The performers call themselves the Lionesses of Dora; the group’s members, who number between 15 and 20, turned out to be girls of 13 to 15. What were you doing at that age? I wasn’t doing anything.

I went to the central Israeli city of Netanya to meet them.

As I traveled there, by way of three buses, I was afraid they wouldn’t want to meet with me or talk to me. It was an old fear I felt, that of going to meet someone who I’m sure has no interest in me and has far more important goals than an encounter with me on their agenda. I imagined a kind of closed group of young girls who would just look at me as spoiled – someone who’d come from the “enlightened” newspaper to cover their activities in an cheap, voyeuristic way. Above all, I was afraid that since they’d think I wasn’t one of them, they wouldn’t cooperate. As if I were a kid who should have been asleep a long time ago, but who’s here tugging on his parents’ sleeves while they’re entertaining company, and who is told: Go to your room, the grown-ups are talking.

Tomer Appelbaum

I was ashamed for not having a struggle of my own, that I’ve been a whiner over nothing, that I made a big deal out of the two-and-a-half racist incidents I (being of Russian origin) had experienced, and dozens of negligible cases of sexual harassment, in order to taste something of what’s become the bon ton lately: being deprived and excluded.

My problems were like flowers that had undergone genetic engineering so as to be more colorful, and along the way had lost their scent; their problems were a jungle.

“Enough whining,” I thought. “I’m going to meet lionesses.” I wanted to see up close what a real struggle looks like.

On the bus from Haifa to Netanya I jotted down questions to ask the girls. But I kept thinking that my questions were awful and that I’m a lousy journalist. What kind of question is, “Would you have descended into a life of crime were it not for the Dora community center?” And imagine if I actually were to ask them what it was like to make the journey to Israel on foot. I crossed out that sentence with a double line and decided I would just go with the flow. I figured that if they wanted to be angry and yell at me for the racism of all the Israelis, to do a freestyle rap number on me because of my highfalutin’ way of speaking, I would let them – I was willing to be a martyr.

We arranged to meet in the community center of Netanya’s Dora neighborhood, where most of the Lionesses’ activities take place. Once I was in the city, and on my third bus, on my way to the center, I started thinking that all the down-on-their-luck places are so far from each other and are connected by poor public transportation just so that all the people who suffer will go on suffering in solitude, and that the only thing that can shatter the boundaries of a neighborhood is art.

Do I scare you?

The Lionesses were waiting for me in an air-conditioned classroom at the community center. I didn’t remember that adolescents of that age are actually girls. One of them came with her even-younger sister, a third-grader. Hard to believe that from these small beating hearts the anger burst forth that could say: “Who are you people that you should color me? I have my color, I love it and it’s mine – it’s beautiful and it’s strong. Does it scare you that I’m strong? Deal with it. Or go look. Look for what frightens you.”

After the girls began to talk and open up a little, I suddenly could see who they were, and that they’re angry but also good, funny and inquisitive, ambitious and good friends.

Bat El, 15, charismatic and funny, told me that when she heard that a reporter was coming, she imagined some old lady. Reporters, she said, are worse than undercovers. Here’s the thing about “undercovers.” That term is generally a reference to undercover cops, but I understood from the girls that they use the term to refer to teachers who seem to be nice but are actually racist.

“You look like an undercover who works in a clothing store,” Bat El tells me. I concur.

It’s very hard to talk to kids of this age. A group of kids is like an entity one of whose elements is always reaching an extreme: very shy, very excited, wanting to get up and leave. One of the girls would get up and come back, another would get up and put on music. I wanted to impress them so they would to talk to me. I had to shake off the image of “Meital Shapiro” being a model's name (as Bat El put it), so I told them about the last time I was in a brawl, when I was their age. It took place 10 years ago and wasn't all that magnificent (I broke an umbrella over a girl’s head on the school bus), but I exaggerated. From that moment, a lot of barriers fell and we were able to talk comfortably.

I ask them about the song. It turns out that its lyrics are drawn from comments made during the past year at the community center during activities of an Arab-Jewish youth education program called Sadaka-Reut. That’s why every sentence of the song is a kick in the gut. There’s no room for a regular sentence. The text is not structured to reach a climax and then fade away; from beginning to end, it maintains a peak state of anger, because it embodies all the moments of anger these teens experienced during the past year.

Yitzhak, a member of the group, relates that after the song went online, he felt more in harmony with himself. Believe me, that boy is a star. I tell him so and he asks me to be his manager. It’s hard for me to turn him down. Tahel, 14, is a star, too. She says that while they were working on the clip, she discovered she could act and began attending a drama group, also at the community center.

I want to know what they do at the center. Turns out the kids spend a great many afternoons here; during summer vacation they came here when they weren’t working or at home. This is the place to be.

I ask them my stupid question: What if there were no community center? Their reply: They would go crazy from boredom at home. In short, this gem at the far end of the neighborhood is apparently a character-shaping structure that provides backing and support, with counselors and after-school activities, while the formal education system – most of the girls attend religious public schools – is where these young people hear talks from Yad L’Achim, which is basically a Jewish missionary organization. And that’s only a small problem compared to the racism of their teachers, both the openly bad ones and the undercovers, who “belittle my mother on the bus, put down my father at a parents’ meeting,” as their song puts it.

Palestinian connection

The most interesting activity in the community center seems to be that of Sadaka-Reut, a Jaffa-based educational-social activism group that promotes Jewish-Arab coexistence. Sadaka-Reut’s work begins with strengthening the sense of national identity within each community – the Jewish and the Israeli-Palestinian – before moving on to encounters and dialogue between them. The initial internal work is very meaningful. During the past year, there were fewer meetings between Jews and Arabs, because the latter wanted to come to the encounters feeling stronger and more engaged.

The girls told me about some of the things they do. When talking about their meetings within the Jewish group, they described the netchim (whites, in the slang of Ethiopian Israelis) from Bat Yam as snobs, and of the Tel Aviv kids they met, they remembered only one boy with long hair. But they connected powerfully with the Palestinians – kamantim, as they call them. They said that the kids from Taibeh were the ones who listened with the greatest patience when the girls told them about Abera Mengistu, the Ethiopian-Israeli man who’s being held in the Gaza Strip by Hamas, and about the ongoing struggle of the Salamsa family for justice for their late son.

Mengistu's family

The girls explained that the Salamsas believe that their son, Yosef, killed himself as a consequence result of police brutality: He was detained on suspicion of attempted burglary in Zichron Yaakov in March 2014, at age 22, and stunned with a taser by police, before being released. Four months later, in July, he committed suicide. In 2016, a Justice Ministry investigation of the police who had arrested Salamsa was closed, for lack of findings of criminal behavior.

The Lionesses said they had been very apprehensive before the first meeting with the young Arabs. The prepared in their “strengthening” sessions by discussing the associations they had to such things as “terrorists,” “attacks,” fear and hookahs. But during the first encounter, they connected so naturally that afterward the Lionesses sent the kids from Kalansua and Taibeh a video with an Arabic song and with photos from the meeting, and at the end a segment of the girls standing in the classroom and addressing the Palestinians directly. The clip ends with the girls saying, “We want you to come and we love you very much. Love you, Sadaka group!” Then they cheer “woohoo,” and Yitzhak starts to dance.

The girls like passionate women. When they were given Maya Angelou’s 1978 poem “Still I Rise” to read, they discerned immediately that it was written by a woman who’d experienced racism, and that it talks about her being allowed to be provocative and feminine, and they were angry together with her about why in the hell that frightens people.

“Does my sexiness upset you?

Does it come as a surprise

That I dance like I’ve got diamonds

At the meeting of my thighs?”

We’re so used to saying that “boys feel threatened by us because we’re so big and amazing,” but it’s always in contradiction to the fact that in the day-to-day we don’t experience that awe they supposedly have, but rather the diminishment that comes as a result of it. The girls grasped at once that not only is anger good, but also – as they sing in the song – that, “We’re too big and there’s no way you’ll succeed. You’re too little, scared and cowardly, open your eyes and start to look for where your fear comes from. Go look for whoever will listen to your scarifying.”

It’s clear that the meetings in the community center are important to them. Yitzhak says he came because the girls told him it would be worth his while, but that he didn’t know what to expect, and was very shy about going.

Tomer Appelbaum

He talks about a meeting in Jaffa, where they were addressed by Amiya Taga, who plays for the Maccabi Netanya soccer team. Taga told them about how he was fined by the Israel Soccer Association for misconduct after he wore a T-shirt protesting the country’s treatment of Abera Mengistu, the man missing in Gaza, before a match. Yitzhak was impressed by the fact that Taga paid his fine in coins, and calls him a “king of the world.”

The girls get upset: Another player, who took the field wearing an Elor Azaria T-shirt – in support of the “Hebron shooter” – wasn’t fined. I ask Bat El what she thinks about Azaria. She replies, “I don’t think so much that he should be in jail, but only because my brother is a soldier. If my brother weren’t a soldier, then in my opinion he should be in jail.”

Yitzhak says that he doesn’t give a damn about what people at school think about the song. We’re talking schools where Yad L’Achim – an ultra-Orthodox, anti-missionary organization that functions largely among Jewish-immigrant youth – operates. Yad L’Achim came out against the Lionesses taking part in meetings with Arabs, telling the children not to participate, out of concern over intermarriage. This is an organization whose slogan is, “We don’t give up on even a single Jew.”

I ask the young people whether they find it hard to be getting messages of one sort in school, and messages of another sort at the community center – and we come back to their belief that all the teachers are racists or undercovers anyway.

In Sadaka-Reut, they’re taught about social involvement and are given tools for critical thought and resistance. The girls’ thrust for action began in their first meeting in the movement. They said, “Well, it’s true that there’s racism. So? Are we just going to talk about it?” They demanded to do something practical. Activities. Rallies. Action.

Now we’d arrived at the scariest moment for me. The kids ask me what “leftist” is. Supposedly, there’s no place for right and left in talking about justice. I panicked, just as I did when the 12-year-old girl I was tutoring as part of a university project asked me what menstruation was. Am I allowed to teach something that their parents haven't taught them?

I begin by replying with the most left-wing answer in the world – “It’s complicated” – and already I lose them. They ask, “What’s the connection of it to Arabs?” And then Yitzhak says, “ISIS is such old stuff” Someone else follows him: “Yeah, they’re not so bad already.”

Tomer Appelbaum

“No, they’re still bad,” asserts Bat El. “They behead people. What was done to Ethiopians [in Libya in 2016]. They’re bad, they’re bad.” Afterward I try to be brief: “In short, left means social involvement.” And Bat El looks at a girlfriend and nods, “Then that's what we are.”

We go outside so they can be photographed. A couple of the girls are bashful and don’t want to have their picture taken, and Maya agrees to be photographed only from the back, and with her fist raised in the air. Yitzhak looks into the camera as if he’s a model – the girls tell him he looks too serious. But Bat El looks even more serious, holding her hands with fists crossed, gazing angrily at the camera, and telling Tomer, the photographer, that, “I don’t want to come out white. I want my skin to come out black like it really is.” Tahal agrees to be photographed, but then she gets tired of it.

Afterward, the girls tell me that one day it was "light" above the more affluent Kiryat Sharon neighborhood, while above Dora it was dark and rainy, and they say, “Do you get it? Like, do you get it?” I get it. I spent a few hours with these kids, and they didn’t even get fed up with me. When it started to get dark and I left, they ran back into the community center to go on being together until they had to go home.

Just before we parted, I asked Bat El if she had any final remarks to make, because, after all, people will read what she says, and she said, “Ah, yes, obviously. For Abera Mengistu to be returned and justice for the Salamasa family. Enough, give the families answers. It’s not logical that they’ve been fighting for such a long time and not getting answers. People need to support, to show caring and sensitivity. Not to treat it like a story that happened and is over.” 

"Time to roar," by the Lionesses of Dora 

“Go look for someone to scare, to threaten, to upset, go look for someone to fluster, to confuse, to diminish.

“We’re too big and there’s no way you’ll succeed. You’re too little, scared and cowardly, open your eyes and start to look for where your fear comes from. Go look for someone who will listen to your scarifying.

“I don’t ask you what to do with my private life. Who asked you, you didn’t give me answers when I was angry, so why should I ask you when I have it good. And yes, anger is good, anger is good, anger is good. Don’t try to prettify, to fudge, to tell tales. I want to get angry when I feel like it, I want to dance when I feel I have it good.

“Who are you to tell me no, who are you to tell me yes, who are you to tell me, huh? Who are you, anyway? Who are you to put me in a drawer, who are you to color me? Who are you to color me? I have my color, I love it and it’s mine – it’s beautiful and it’s strong. Does it scare you that I’m strong? Deal with it. Or go look. Look for what frightens you.

“Who are you to put me in the back? Behind the pillars? To let me talk only with your say-so, and to talk from there.

“Who are you to keep girls separate? To exclude women? What kind of people are you? So scared of women.

“Who are you? Where did you come from? Who even brought you here? This is ours, our place. This is our friend. On our hand he wrote his name and asked us to remember forever, and we will remember. And you forgot, forgot the truth long ago. Forgot God and what he really says. Which God dictates to put us in the back? Which God says you can do experiments on us? To practice circumcision on us, to cut, to wound. That’s the God you invented. Go look for God, because you forgot him long ago. 

“And you too who stick me with an accusing look, shout at me where to sit, belittle my mother on the bus, denigrate my father in a parents’ meeting. Who are you, anyway? Go look, all of you. Go look in your heart where all the hate comes from, the racism, the contempt, the fear. Go look deep in your soul, because we’ve already found it.”

Meital Shapiro is a stand-up comic and a writer.

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