Smells Like Teen Spirit

Birthright is now 13 years old. Haaretz talks to five Israelis who have also reached that milestone and discovers through them a different ‘start-up nation.’

Yuval Ben-Ami
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Yuval Ben-Ami

1. Ben Gibor, Modi’in

If Israel is most associated with its armed forces, this place must be its heart. My journey into 13-year-old Israel begins with Ben Gibor, whose name can be loosely translated as “Brave Son.” He lives on a street named after the Israel Defense Forces’ Givati Brigade. His city, Modi’in, a cluster of residential neighborhoods between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, resembles a fortress with its uniform, dense and bland architecture.

Thirteen is an innocent enough age to overlook all that. Ben is a gentle and intelligent boy whose main interests are math and basketball, in that order. His twin sister Or is too busy studying for a test to take an interest in the conversation. Her brother’s big test is due the following Saturday his bar mitzvah.

Instead of a big party, he will travel to Italy with his father, a policeman, who walks around the house wearing his gun in its holster. Ben and Or have already traveled widely, usually with their mother. “I’ve been to Croatia, Slovenia, the U.S., Canada, Italy, Germany, the Netherlands, Thailand, Turkey, and Spain,” Ben says, before correcting himself. “Catalonia.”

Where in the world would you most like to live?

“Probably Spain, after Israel, though. I prefer Israel.”

Do you think Israel has a future? Will it ever be a land of peace?

“I don’t think so. No matter how hard we try, there won’t be any.”

So what makes it so worthwhile?

“It’s got everything. It’s got the desert, the green north, shopping malls [laughs].”

What would you like to do when you grow up?

“I’d like to be the CEO of a cool company, like Apple. That’s why I put a lot into my studies. They always say that if you invest in school, your future will be bright.”

So you’re not planning to take after your father and be a policeman?

“No, not around here, though I wouldn’t mind being a policeman somewhere where there’s more action and where cops make good money.”

So they don’t make good money here?

“Depends on your rank.”

I get to visit the twins’ rooms and enjoy Or’s fantastic paintings of serene, European-like country vistas. No more than three kilometers from here is the West Bank, where children grow up in rural Palestinian surroundings, yet Ben and Or’s childhood is strictly Western, and clearly secular.

How religious are you?

“I don’t keep Shabbat or anything, but I expect to be putting on tefillin for a month or so after my bar mitzvah, maybe even longer. It’s supposed to make you feel good.”

With your haftorah approaching, do you feel closer to, say, ultra-Orthodox Israelis?

“No. I mean, it’s not that I don’t like them, but there’s always the nicer ones and those who are less nice. People who wear knitted kippot are nicer. I met some of them at our basketball course, but then, even among them there are nicer ones and those who aren’t as nice.”

How about Arabs? Do you ever get to meet them?

“Yes, some, I mean, only those who come to work in Modi’in. Again, there are nicer ones and those who aren’t as nice. I’m not one of those who thinks every Arab he sees is a terrorist and wants to kill him. I learned in history class that there was a time when we all cooperated on developing engineering and astronomy.”

So maybe peace is possible after all?

“Yes, could be. You’re right."

2. Liron Argez, Givatayim

There are literally hundreds of ways to find contrasts with Ben’s world, but rather than traveling from Modi’in to a Bedouin community or the ultra-Orthodox Mea She’arim neighborhood in Jerusalem, we travel 20 minutes to the west to Givatayim. This city is also associated with the Ashkenazi middle class, but it’s several decades older, more naturally urban and slightly more diverse.

Liron Argez, half Ashkenazi and half Yemenite by heritage, was born in the blue-collar Tel Aviv suburb of Bat Yam and lived there until she was 5. “I remember Bat Yam,” she says. “We lived in a very tall building. There was a grocery store at the bottom with a really nice old man who still knows me. I would go down and buy chocolates from him.”

In middle-class Givatayim, shopping is a different experience. The Argez family lives not far from the city’s big shopping mall. “The mall is more for kids than for grown-ups,” Liron says.

Still, she realizes that a mall obsession must have its limits. “I don’t want to spend my life seeking beauty,” she says. “There are kids who think they’ll have it easy if they go to the mall and put on makeup all their lives. I want to become an architect, and I know it’s not an easy job. You have to sit down and plan houses, find employees, lots of stuff.”

Do you and your friends ever talk about the coming election?


And do you care at all about politics?

“I once felt that I supported Tzipi Livni, but only because she’s a woman.”

If you could live anywhere in the world, where would it be?

“In Italy or somewhere in Europe, where you can move freely between countries without feeling the borders.”

Do you think the Middle East can ever become such a place, with peace and open borders?

“I don’t think that’s really a possibility. I’ll tell you the truth: They showed us this movie in school, ‘Lord of the Flies,’ which they really shouldn’t show to 13-year-olds. We talked about people who are bad and people who aren’t, and I got into this whole political thing and said that a better world is possible, but it’s a one-in-a-million chance.”

So you don’t believe in people?

“I do, but there will always be that someone who wants to hurt people to ruin everything. For example, somebody who wants to be elected prime minister will put on a show and say he’s a good person, and then start a war when he’s in office.”

Let’s move on to more interesting stuff. Any romance in your circle of friends?

“Not really romance, but I do have a boyfriend. He’s from Herzliya.”

Herzliya? That’s a whole other town. How did you meet him?

“My brother has a friend whose brother went to a surfing course with a kid from Herzliya named Amit. Amit introduced his friend Uria to one of my friends, and then Uria introduced us to a guy named Ro’i. Then, when we went to the mall in Herzliya, Ro’i came with his friend Nov. All the girls got the hots for him, but he asked them to ask me if I would be his girlfriend. That was two weeks ago.”

And have you seen him since?


Does he at least know you said yes? “I think so.”

3. Jenny, Emmanuel and Rosefin, Tel Aviv

Just south of the municipal border between Givatayim and Tel Aviv, east of the Ayalon Highway, Tel Aviv’s streets grow narrow. The Hatikva neighborhood was once the city’s most notorious slum and hasn’t improved much over the years. Only the population has changed.

If once this was home only to Jewish Israelis of Middle Eastern origin, today migrant workers from around the world and African asylum seekers share the neighborhood’s neglect. The coexistence isn’t always ideal. Over the past year, right-wing Knesset members have visited the neighborhood, stoked xenophobia and sparked riots. Businesses have been torched and Africans attacked.

The neighborhood’s children all share the same schools, but the differences are expressed in social groupings in each class. Jenny, Emmanuel and Rosefin, three friends, meet me in Rosefin’s tiny but cozy house and describe the two main groups, whom they refer to as swags and arsim.

The three are children to three mixed pairs of Filipino and West African parents. They are Tel Aviv-born and speak impeccable native Hebrew.

So what do these terms mean?

Rosefin: “Swag is us songs in English, hats, Shamballa bracelets, skinny jeans, Vans-brand clothes and [Converse] All-Star shoes.”

Jenny: “The arsim listen to Mizrahi music, wear Nike hats and swear all the time. They’re racist.”

Emmanuel: “Not all of them! I have arsim friends who aren’t racist, like Baruch and Or.”

Have you ever been to the countries your parents come from?

Emmanuel: “I’ve been to the Philippines. It’s really wonderful. You discover your culture. You discover a new side of yourself; fall in love with yourself anew.”

Jenny: “You speak such high Hebrew.”

Emmanuel: “You can too. Say: I am ill-informed about what happened there.”

Jenny: “I am ill-informed about what happened there.”

What are your dreams?

Jenny: “I want to be famous in dance.”

Emmanuel: “I want to be famous in acting.”

Jenny: “He’s also good at making up dances.”

Rosefin: “I want to be an actress too; I’m better than him.”

Emmanuel: “No you’re not. Watch how I cry [attempts crying].”

What do your parents do?

Emmanuel: “They work, they invest in us, they give us love and we give love back.”

Where in the world would you like to live?

All three: “USA!”

Jenny: “There’s more swag there than anywhere.”

And Israel?

Emmanuel: “It’s a nice country, but most people here aren’t like us.”

Jenny: “They judge people by their skin color.”

Emmanuel: “Everyone here came as foreign workers. They came from many places, from Morocco, from Yemen ...”

Jenny: “But they think of the foreign workers as if they were space aliens.”

Emmanuel: “Today I went to a long-jump competition, and the referee, who was about your age, said to me, ‘considering you’re black, you’re okay.’ They’ve even invented songs about us.”

Jenny and Rosefin: “Cushi yo yo. Cushi yo yo [cushi is a derogatory term for a black person].”

Emmanuel: “But I wear it with pride. We have to wear it with pride.”

The three are now joined by another friend, Nicole. Nicole’s father is Nigerian but her mother is Ethiopian and Jewish, so she’s considered Jewish. The conversation quickly turns to religious differences and gets too bogged-down in detail to describe here.

We learn that a boy who came to school wearing a crucifix was beaten up, and hear Rosefin reciting the Jewish Shema prayer with her hand covering her eyes in the traditional manner. The children have just celebrated Hannukah at school and find it perfectly natural that Christmas gets no mention there. Native-born or not, they identify as foreign a designation that sounds so much more appealing when called swag.

4. Siwar Aghbarieh, Jaffa

One mile to the west and a few steps south, nobody is Filipino-Nigerian or Filipino-Ghanaian, nor are many people Jewish Israeli. The heart of Jaffa is home to the city’s Israeli Arab community.

Siwar Aghbarieh is active in Sadaka-Reut, an organization that brings together young people from different religious and ethnic backgrounds.

“This is a political home,” her aunt Rola states, and even names a political party the family prefers. It’s Hadash (Al-Jabha), a joint Arab-Jewish party that promotes a socialist and egalitarian agenda.

Siwar’s home is located in a troubled neighborhood, where crime is a day-to-day reality. We sit with five other members of the family in their living room. A soccer game is playing on a wide-screen TV. Grandma is wearing a hijab.

Where in the world would you like to live most?


That’s quite a surprise. So far, no kid I’ve met on this project has answered that question with “here,” though one came close.

“Jaffa is my family, it’s like my mother. I connect to the people here, who are also my friends.”

What’s life like in Jaffa?

“It’s nice. It’s fun to live here, but it isn’t easy. There are problems, like the people killing each other all the time. There’s a lot of fear. I don’t see any of the violence, but I feel the fear.”

Do you know people who’ve been hurt?

“Yes, but I’d rather not go into it.”

Is there a solution?

“I’m part of Sadaka-Reut, and we’re trying to get teenagers together to change the situation. For example, we want to give a special theater performance: to perform in the middle of the street in a way people won’t know whether it’s real or not. My counselor did that once. They acted as if a man on the bus had hit an old woman and then explained that it was a show. This way people learn about their indifference.”

What’s your dream?

“To be an archaeologist and make music as a hobby.”

What kind of music?


Why an archaeologist?

“Archaeologists have many adventures, and I’m an adventurous girl. There’s also a lot of history in archaeology.”

You live in a country with a difficult history, a history that defines identities. What is your identity?

“I am first and foremost a Palestinian Arab who lives in a Jewish state.”

Are you comfortable living in a country that’s identified with a people that’s not your own?

“I would like for that to change; I would like for us to have a Palestinian country again, but I know it can’t happen. Nothing can be done.”

Do you ever experience discrimination?


How? “You know how there was this war now, Pillar of Defense? These pages on Facebook, not friends, but commercial pages that I ‘liked,’ they started posting things like ‘Give us a like for every bomb the army drops on Gaza,’ and talking about how Arabs should die.

“They posted mean things, and we ignored them. It’s very mean, and it’s like that in the job market too. If two people want a job and one is an Arab and one is Jewish, of course they’ll prefer the Jewish guy.”

What’s your favorite movie?

“At the moment it’s ‘Step Up,’ it’s about a group of dancers who do everything to get recognized. The message is that you should never give up.”

Are you swag?


5. Meir Shnur, Ganei Tikva

There’s only room for one more interviewee. Five conversations are hardly enough to create a tapestry of 13-year-old Israel. We’re still missing a kibbutznik, a moshavnik, a Druze, a Circassian, a child of immigrants from Ethiopia or Russia or Canada for that matter and a representative of the Jewish working class, still struggling with prejudice against Mizrahi Jews with roots in North Africa or the Middle East.

All the boys and girls interviewed so far are urbanites from central Israel. They share one more thing: All of them come from backgrounds that are in one way or another secular. But Meir Shnur’s family is ultra-Orthodox, members of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement.

Meir is an exceptional artist. His naturalist interpretations of biblical scenes and Hasidic tales are stunning. One of his gems is a comic strip where a miracle-making rabbi saves students from having to study secular subjects.

Do you study anything besides Judaism in school?

“We get 40 minutes of secular studies, 20 minutes of math and 20 of grammar, and this is the last year we have to do it.”

What would you like to be when you grow up?

“A rabbi.”

You wouldn’t like to be a painter?

“That wouldn’t be fun.”

So why do you paint?

“It’s just what I happen to do, but what I really love to do is read.”

Tell me about the Lubavitcher Rebbe.

“He’s the head of the Jewish people; he feels for every Jew and cares for every Jew. He’s a guide for all Jews. He leads the people.”

Did you ever get to visit his home in Brooklyn? “Yes, we went last year. We got off the plane and went through all the checks and then took a cab with another man. We visited the big synagogue, the home of the previous Rebbe, and then another small synagogue. There are offices there and the Rebbe’s office, the holiest place in the world. They also had a library with really old stuff.

“Then down the street is the Rebbe’s home and grave site, where you have to put on cloth shoes. You wash your hands .... You write your name and your mother’s name, a good decision and a wish, and then you tear it up.”

Do you get to visit other parts of Israel?

“I do. We went to Lake Hula and I was impressed by the beauty of the birds the herons especially. We also went to Jerusalem to the Western Wall and the City of David. Jerusalem has a special beauty, a style to it. It’s a very mixed city. It even has non-Jews.”

Did you feel comfortable being among non-Jews?

“Sure I did. After all, I was in a car.”

Your father says you go out sometimes to give alms to the needy. Can you tell me about that?

“There are many volunteers who come to hand out food, and people who come to pick it up. My brother and I help unload the boxes.”

What are the needy like?

“They’re ordinary people.”

Some people think that if the country were run differently, fewer people would be needy.

“It’s written that there are two things that are not dependent on man livelihood and children.”

What does that mean?

“That if the heavens determined that a person would be needy, he would be.”

Does that mean we shouldn’t work to change things for the better?

“No, it doesn’t.”

Ben Gibor, Modi’inCredit: Daniel Tchetchik
Liron Argez, GivatayimCredit: Daniel Tchetchik
Jenny, Emmanuel and Rosefin, Tel AvivCredit: Daniel Tchetchik
Siwar Aghbarieh, JaffaCredit: Daniel Tchetchik
Meir Shnur, Ganei TikvaCredit: Daniel Tchetchik

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