Thursday, June 19, 2003

Land of the Bullies

If there is indeed a God, why did she have to make bullies?

I’m not talking about megalomaniacal corporations, rogue states and other metaphorical bullies. No, just your plain garden-variety secretly-insecure-but-doesn’t-know-it-yet-so-acting-out bully. The kind who made our own lives so miserable when we were young.

And who is doing it again.

To my kid.

Amir came home in a bad mood the other day. It was beyond the usual pre-teen emotions we already know he is prone to these days.

Cartoon smoke was coming out of his ears, exclamation marks dancing above his head. He growled at his sister, scowled at his parents, refused to clear the table and, in general, snapped at any comment made within a 30 foot radius, whether directed at him or not.

Finally we confronted him.

“What’s wrong?” we asked in as gentle way as we could.

“Oded,” he said, not holding anything back. “He calls me names in class. And he gets all the other kids to join in.” He used the Hebrew term for it: lachatz hevrati - peer pressure.

“Nu, what’s so bad about a few names,” Merav butted in, deliberately baiting him in that manner she has perfected over the years.

“Shut up!” he screamed. “You’re so stupid. I hate you!”

“Amir!” we screamed back. And then there were several more colorful exchanges, which I have promised not to repeat here, before Amir wound up cooling his heels for awhile in his room.

It has oft been said that the only constants in life are death and taxes. To that should be added bullies.

I suffered terribly at the hands of these monsters. As a chubby, brainy kid, I was an easy target. There was Rick L., who used to hang around my bus stop in high school, waiting for his chance to pummel me in the stomach. And Tony G., who in the fourth grade whacked me in the face and broke my glasses.

Beyond the physical pain, they introduced fear into my life at an age far too young. But that’s the way it is with bullies. They don’t work around your personal development schedule.

And now they’ve come after my son.

We never thought Israel would be bully-free. But a little investigation turned up some horrifying statistics.

A study conducted in 2000 by researchers at the University of Michigan and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem found that nearly 80% of students Amir’s age in elementary schools in Israel report that they had been cursed, mocked, insulted or humiliated in the month before the survey.

58% said they had been grabbed or pushed by another student, and 48% had been kicked or punched. In contrast, according to the National Youth Violence Prevention Resource Center, only 14% of sixth graders in the U.S. reported being bullied in 2001. But back in Israel, that many alone – a full 16% - said they missed at least one day of school a month due to fears of violence in class or on their route to and from school.

A slightly older research from 1999, conducted in conjunction with the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), revealed this startling and disturbing fact: only 18% of Israeli eighth-graders feel that suffering an inuury from physical violences rates as a "serious problem."

We clearly didn’t choose to move to Israel because the schools were safer...

When confronted with such staggering statistics, I feel I must do something. Rip out their bullying bones before they mature into full-blown serial killers. How can any parent stand to see their child in pain?

But that would be cheating. Except for the most serious of incidents, kids have to go through it on their own.

That doesn’t mean they must respond with violence. And it doesn’t mean we must blindly accept a school system that enables violence to flow freely.

But at the same time, our children can’t expect a parent to come to their rescue. All that new age pscho-babble about bullying building character is sadly, in some ways, true.

I remember once getting clobbered by a kid who lived right on our street. Since I wasn’t any good at fighting back, I took it. But for once I didn’t cry. I walked back to my house with dignity. Then I saw my mother, and I broke down.

And she ran out and told that kid off, spoke with his parents, I don’t know exactly what. And instead of feeling relieved, I was mortified. She had stripped away my one shining moment of defiance. Of self-respect.

Eventually we grow up. The bullies become less overt and less a daily menace. But we internalize our experiences.

The Jewish people in the Diaspora have had to contend with thousands of years of being bullied. As a result, the last 50 years of nation building in Israel has included a large element of working through our victimization. So now we have our own Jewish playground bullies, not to mention full-fledged Jewish gangsters, prostitutes, corrupt politicians, and an army that, sadly, is not immune to bullying either.

Does this make us a normal country, a nation like all others?

If so, then I think we blew it. But the good news is that it’s not too late. There are organizations working diligently to stem the violent tide. Starting with our kids. Amir’s school, ironically, has been a pioneer in developing a non-violence curriculum that has over the years included conflict mediation and yoga.

And so, as Amir came out of his time-out, we did what any parents, and in particular what one particular parent who knows from bullying far too well, would do: we reached out and embraced our son.

We can’t fight his battles for him. But we can strive in our own small way to make the world at large – and if not that, at least his more immediate world at home – a safer, move loving place.

There are a few positive notes on violence in Israel. Israeli children suffer less verbal abuse from their teachers than in other countries. According to the TIMSS study, we rank only fourth in this category, behind Holland, Australia and New Zealand. We're also fourth when it comes to theft committed on school grounds, this time following Australia, Holland and South Africa.

What is it about the Aussies and the Dutch anyway?

Finally, believe it or not, Israeli kids interrupt their teachers less frequently than their counterparts in Australia, Holland and even the good old United States. Decorum in the classroom? Not quite. But it could be worse.

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