It took a smoker to make me understand what the Ethiopian Jews here in Israel are going through.
Generally, I am very establishment. I once overheard someone saying of me “she’s Cosby Black.” I couldn’t really argue too much (minus the accusations of impropriety against Bill Cosby), because much like Dr. Cliff Huxtable, I like speaking out against injustice, but admittedly it’s frequently from the comfort of an upholstered sofa, versus down in the streets where I might get hurt, or even worse, arrested.
Until recently, when people asked my opinion on how to help the Ethiopians, I gave textbook answers. Education. Working with employers. Encouraging strong communities. But as I found out the hard way, sometimes, to get people to do the right thing, you’ve got to yell.
I didn’t get angry when the Israeli cab driver blew smoke directly into my face as my friend and I queued to enter the mall on my lunch break. This man was being inconsiderate to everyone, not just me. So, even though I might have sounded angry when I quipped, “Are you kidding me?!” reflexively, it was more in the vein of standing up for my rights, as opposed to anything personal.
In that spirit, my first appeal was to the onsite authority figure, the elderly security guard standing next to mall entrance. He asked me what was the problem, and when I replied that I didn’t appreciate having my lung capacity assaulted, he snorted dismissively. “It’s public property out here,” he scoffed. “I can’t do anything about it. And anyway, what do you care?!”
Having at least made an attempt to register a complaint, I continued into the mall, and completed my shopping. Mission accomplished, I returned to the same entrance a few minutes later, and immediately launched into a coughing fit, as two mall employees proceeded to exhale streams of smoke into my path. Once more I demanded that the guard do something, to no avail. I pointed out that if he had seen a violation involving one of the parked cars, he would have gotten involved. So, how could the sidewalk between the mall and the parking lot be more public than the parking lot itself?
He angrily told me that people can smoke outside the mall if they wanted to, and that I should take it up with the mall’s administration if I didn’t like it.
My parents didn’t march at Selma for me to back down from a challenge like that.
My friend (who by this point had decided that there was definitely some entertainment value to be had in coming along for the ride) and I were directed deep into the bowels of the mall. I actually joked that perhaps “going to the mall administration” was actually code for “dead (wo)men tell no tales”. Eventually we found the mall’s office, and after furiously pantomiming that we were indeed interested in speaking with someone, we were let inside.
The woman at the front desk, who referred to herself variously as the secretary or office manager, depending upon how much responsibility she wanted to take at certain points during the conversation, was unhelpful almost from the beginning. She began with the rationale that the law only covered inside the mall. Then she admitted she didn’t know what the law was, and that even if she did, the mall personnel couldn’t enforce it outside the building.
I began to feel a little anger. It was becoming clear to me that no one involved actually cared about how it felt for me when, during the course of doing what I was told, I had my rights infringed upon. I asked for a manager. At this point, a gentleman appeared from within a break room. He advised that he had overheard the conversation and felt that I was overstepping my boundaries by requesting that people refrain from smoking outside.
“What if someone came into my house and told me to stop smoking? You can’t tell me…”
“Do you work for the mall,” I interjected?
His eyed shifted. “I work at the mall.”
“Do you speak for the mall?” I continued.
“If you don’t work for the mall, and can’t speak for the mall, why the (expletive deleted) are you even getting involved?!”
I was now extremely mad. I explained at length that the mall required me to stand in a particular place in order to go through its security procedures, and then had failed to protect me from what could have conceivably caused an asthma attack. What if, for example, a mother and baby had been waiting in the line?!
I was launching a detailed assessment of the costs that would accrue to the mall if action wasn’t taken, when a well-dressed young woman emerged from further inside the offices. She raised up her hands soothingly, and asked what was wrong. I explained about the smoke, the guard, the secretary, and the jerk. She nodded.
“You’re absolutely right,” she began. “When the mall asks you to wait in line, then there’s no reason people should be smoking where you can’t avoid it.”
Exactly! It felt so good to be heard that my anger dissipated almost immediately. Sometimes unpleasant things happen because of someone else’s bad behavior, and you don’t have to just shut up and take it. She promised to speak with the Head of Security, and ensure that all the guards separated the smokers from the security line. I felt vindicated and powerful.
My friend and I wandered back to our office and told the tale of our valiant fight for oxygen breathers everywhere. My friend then expressed to everyone that this is the first time she had seen an actual “angry Black woman”. She gave a demonstration of my performance, which included a passable head roll, and an aggressive “what” with arms thrown in the air. I didn’t remember doing any of that, but she assured me it was true.
And what, you may ask, does this have to do with the plight of the Ethiopians in Israel?
Simple: Within 30 minutes, I went from generally happy to raving mad, all because of how I was treated. At first, when I encountered unfair treatment, I took the proper steps to redress the situation. It was only when I saw that my problem was not going to get fixed that I actually became belligerent.
Why were there demonstrations in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, and why did these events become violent? Because too many Israelis act like indifferent security guards, and not enough of us act like responsible managers, looking for and implementing solutions. And when we begin listening to the needs of our minority populations, and working towards full integration, then the anger will disappear, and the real work can begin.
Malynnda Littky moved to Israel from the Detroit area in 2007, and lives with her family in Hadera, halfway between Tel Aviv and Haifa. She currently works as a Content Manager for a software company.
Header images by Lior Mizrahi and Ha’aretz