January 16, 2014

We Do it Our Way

Young Arab soldiers proudly serving in the IDF? A Filipina cleaner winning first place in the popular X Factor show? Contrary to international criticism about Israeli being an apartheid nation, this country is accepting and open-minded.  Just last week I came across a fascinating article about two Israeli Arabs serving in the IDF. I honestly did not know that Israeli Arabs were permitted to serve. It turns out that not only are they allowed to volunteer, they are treated with great respect.

At the emotional swearing in ceremony when every Jewish soldier receives a gun and plegdes on a Torah, the Arabs are handed a Koran.  Is this not indicative of an open-minded democracy?  It is not easy for these boys; they have been shunned by their community for serving in the Israeli army and their mother, fearing the army uniforms will be stolen, refuses to hang them outside. 

Yet, these strong, principled young men believe in defending their country Israel. They are now enjoying new friendships in their respective units. And their proud mom admits (secretly) that she wants her other sons to follow in their brothers’ footsteps and join the IDF.

And Wednesday night, I sat glued to the TV. It was the final episode of X Factor and most Israelis were also tuned in to this musical talent contest. The last four contestants on the show included a sweet, promising 15-year-old singer, a group of young, cool, guys who sang, danced and wiggled across the stage and a winnowy, bleached blond, scantily-clad girl who imitated Christina Aguilera to a tee. And then there was a short, dumpy, middle-aged domestic worker who was not even Israeli. She had an incredible voice but neither she, nor I, nor many other viewers ever imagined she would win. Am I cynical or is ours a culture where youth and beauty triumph, especially in the entertainment industry?

So when Bar Refaeli, the M.C., announced the final winner, I was delighted and shocked. Rose Fostanes, the Filipino caregiver who won, was in shock too. And I am sure the entire Filipino community here in Israel was in shock.  Here was a woman who worked for an elderly lady in Tel Aviv and shared a tiny apartment in South Tel Aviv with seven others. Here was someone who spent her adult life as a domestic worker in Egypt, Lebanon and Israel, scraping together money to support her family in the Philippines.  Rose spoke no Hebrew, looked like an outsider and described herself as  “an alien.”

The XFactor did not consider her an alien. They rolled out the red carpet, praised her as a diva and acclaimed her the winner. The show managed to fly over her sister and best friend from the Philippines and the Ambassador to the Philippines jumped on stage to celebrate with Rose, Israel’s new music star.

During the commercial breaks of the show, I saw a new TV campaign aimed at  bringing awareness to Israelis about being prejudiced. The commercials focus on Arabs and African immigrants, showing just how awful it feels to be treated badly.

No matter how terribly the world speaks about our country, Israel is progressive and is striving to be better. As Rose belted out last night, “I did it my way,” Israelis should swell in pride for being accepting, endearing, sensitive and embracing. 

We do it our way and we do it well. The Jewish people have had their fair share of feeling downtrodden and know all too well what it feels like to be the underdog. May our Arab soldiers continue to serve their country Israel with pride, may Rosa burst forth in song and may this mark a new beginning of understanding.  

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