November 02, 2016

Am I an Alien?

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“I don’t drink coffee, I take tea my dear,
I like my toast done on one side.
You can hear it in my accent when I talk,
I’m an Englishman in New York” 

Or should I say an Anglo-Israeli in DC.

Sting’s words in his song “Englishman in New York” certainly ring true for me here on a daily basis, whether I am fending off yet another eye-roll as I “over-milk” my tea at Starbucks, or repeating myself for the third time as I say “wor-tah” instead of “wadderrr” when ordering my drink with lunch. Being a stranger in a strange land is a truly unique feeling, and getting to know and understand new cultures never ceases to fascinate me. Believe me, I know – this is the fourth (and hopefully last!) time that I have relocated to a different country since college. 

Yes, my life has been packed with international travel and interesting experiences, but I remind myself daily not to get complacent. I have been extremely fortunate in having the support of my family and wide circle of friends who are spread out all over the world. At no time have I felt alone or unable to cope, or had to choose between paying the rent or feeding my children. And, as much as I would like to believe that I made my own destiny because I worked hard in school to climb the career ladder, the truth is that it was all actually a lucky accident. I was born in the “right” place, the “right” color, speaking the “right” language into the “right” type of family who luckily had the means to give me a good education, a happy childhood, a roof over my head, and enough food to eat. 

Which brings me to the topic of food insecurity – the bread and butter of the work we do here at MAZON (forgive the pun). As a Brit and Israeli, food insecurity as a national issue was never really on my radar, mostly because of what I perceived to be the robust, almost socialist, safety net programs that existed in the UK and Israel. Both countries have free (albeit flawed) national healthcare systems after all! When I made aliyah (literally “ascended”) to Israel, as a new immigrant I was given tax breaks, a monthly stipend, free Hebrew classes and a whole government department to help me get acclimated and make sure that I had adequate housing, the ability to work, speak the language and put food on the table.

So imagine my shock when, through the work I have been doing here at MAZON, I learned that almost 20% of Israelis live below the poverty line, around 775,500 of whom are children. If we had stayed in Israel, that could have been as many as one in every three children in my son’s kindergarten class, depending on where we lived. Granted, Israel does face some unique challenges that do not exist for other developed countries – namely the very pressing issue of national security, its isolated location in the Middle East, and its religiously, culturally and ethnically stratified society. But this is Israel! The land where people went to escape and recover from the trauma of genocide, persecution and anti-semitism in Europe, the land overflowing with milk and honey, where hummus is available on every street corner, right? Wrong. 

For most Israelis, especially those twenty-to-thirty-somethings living in a north Tel Aviv bubble like I did, filled with tiyyulim (walks) in the park, brunch at batei café (coffee shops), chats with other sfon-bonim (yuppies) and al-ha-aish (barbecue) at hof-ha-yam (the seaside), the terrible reality facing so many Israelis, some just a few miles away in south Tel Aviv, is something they know very little about, and not from lack of reading the news, which is arguably a national sport! The issue is still not addressed sufficiently in the Israeli media, and the wonderful work that some of our grantee partners such as Leket and Latet are doing in the food insecurity and food rescue sphere is often dismissed by the Knesset as a “leftist” discourse that pales in comparison to the amount of time, effort and money that must be dedicated to national security. 

When I first moved to Tel Aviv, I had the privilege of volunteering at Bet Ha-Shanti, a home for children who, through choice or circumstance, had no family to support them and nowhere to call home. Each week I would cycle to south Tel Aviv to chat with these children in my broken Hebrish while cooking them a dinner cobbled together from a pantry of donated food. Their politeness, friendliness and commitment to helping each other totally astounded me, especially in the face of such personal pain and tragedy.

It is those children who I picture in my mind’s eye when I read the statistics about poverty and food insecurity in Israel, and it is those children and their American counterparts (among others) who we at MAZON strive to help every day through our advocacy efforts and policy recommendations, often aided by our grantee partner network. For me as an Israeli, our work in Israel is particularly meaningful, and I am excited to be part of and learn more about how we at MAZON can help facilitate further discussions about the issue, and help mobilize the Israeli anti-hunger community to bring about lasting and effective change.