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Stumbling into Riots

Last Sunday night in Tel Aviv, where I live, I had a 40-minute glimpse into what it’s like to feel like an outsider, like a rejected member of society.
[additional-authors]
May 7, 2015

Last Sunday night in Tel Aviv, where I live, I had a 40-minute glimpse into what it’s like to feel like an outsider, like a rejected member of society. I wasn’t given a chance to explain myself, to answer questions, to say, “No I’m just passing through, I’m not looking for violence.” I was simply one of “them”—one of the thousands of Ethiopian-Israelis protesting against discrimination and police violence. I thought: “But I’m not really part of this! I’m different! I’m just an observer!”

I should have realized that once I was on the scene, I would lose any privilege of being simply an “observer.”

Who cares that I had just stumbled onto these riots? That I had decided to walk to my friend’s house to pick up a toothbrush, and, on my way home, had walked right into the main square in Tel Aviv where the riots had migrated? At first, innocent me, I thought it was just a wild party, one of those spontaneous happenings you often see in Tel Aviv. I heard the sound of fireworks and pulled out my camera, thinking I might record something interesting. I’ve been studying film and communications at IDC Herzliya for three years, so pulling out my camera has become an instinct.

But I quickly realized these were not fireworks—they were stun grenades fired by police. And the people were not party people, they were protesters running away from the stun grenades. Now the people and the police were running towards me. I tried to escape the mob and retreat to my “observer” status, but it was too late. I was now part of the mob. We were all part of the mob.

At one point the police drove what I can only describe as monstrous riot controlling vehicles sporting nozzles releasing foam with the water pressure of a fire truck hose. The crowd began panicking, running in different directions, trying to dodge the foam. Amid the panic, I met a young Ethiopian girl that helped me run away from a stun grenade heading towards my feet. She looked at me and said, “This is Israel, can you believe it?” I didn’t know what to say to her. I was raised to love and admire Israel deeply, to defend Israel come hell or high water. We both kept running and eventually lost ourselves in the crowd.

I made it home safely but I was still shaken. I thought again about the girl’s question: “This is Israel, can you believe it?”

Well, what can I believe? That Israel needs to make good with its Ethiopian population and other minorities, and fight racism and discrimination with all our might? That’s for sure. That Israel is full of problems, like poverty and the high cost of living, that need immediate attention? That’s for sure, too.

But there’s something else I’ve come to believe about Israel. It’s hard to be an observer here. It’s hard to stay on the sidelines. You may think you’re just walking through, that you’re not “one of them,” that you are somehow privileged, but in the end, you get sucked in. You end up joining the mob, becoming a participant. Even when I go film something as innocent as a rave party in the desert, I can’t just be an observer. I become one of them.

I’m not sure what you call this phenomenon. Maybe I’ll just call it Israel.

Shanni Suissa was born and raised in Los Angeles, and is graduating this year from IDC Herzliya in Israel, where there is never a dull moment.

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