According to a World Health Organization study of 28 countries, Israel ranks eighth in school violence and 11th in youth hooliganism
Aaron, 11 years old, is trapped in a living nightmare. It began last year and shows no sign of coming to an end any time soon. At some point in the midst of his fifth grade school year, Aaron (not his real name) began to feel that the central Tel Aviv elementary school he had happily attended since grade one had become a hostile and frightening place. Like thousands of other children throughout Israel, he found himself the object of a concerted campaign of bullying and intimidation by other students at his school.
Aaron's father (name withheld by request) recalls, "The bullying started last year in the fifth grade. It had to do with a change of teachers: Aaron had one teacher for the first two years, another for grades three and four, and now a new teacher for grades five and six. His previous teachers, who were older, put up with absolutely no nonsense. They kept a very strict class and were respected by the children. The new teacher, who is younger, is excellent but has a younger outlook. That was how one or two of the children were able to gain dominance over the others and begin to bully kids in the class. One child became the 'king' of the class, dominant among the boys. Another became the 'queen,' dominant over the girls," says the father.
Subtle at first, the bullying gradually became more serious, to the point where the teacher was finally willing to acknowledge the problem. By that time, however, the school year had come to an end.
With the start of grade six in September, however, the bullying resumed and quickly became more severe. Aaron now found himself the victim of several bullying children who subjected him to intense ridicule and verbal abuse in their attempt to dominate and control him. Aaron's father, who was becoming increasingly concerned, discovered that his son was not the only victim and that the problem was widespread in the upper grades and not limited to verbal intimidation.
"A lot of the kids were going through it, and it often involved physical violence like punching and kicking, he says."
As the school year progresses, the bullying has become more vicious - and more physical. Aaron's father says, "Just recently, my son was riding his bike to a friend's house. He passed by an area close to the school. Three children from a higher grade who were sitting at a kiosk got up and stopped him, held his bicycle and threatened him. One banged his bicycle with a stick, another gave him a head butt. Since then, one of these children has stopped him again and demanded money."
Aaron's father felt helpless. "After the bicycle incident, I really didn't know what to do."
After speaking with the local police, the school principal and parents of other bullied children, Aaron's father decided not to pursue the issue for fear of his son being bullied even more.
"My son would end up being called a 'snitch.' The principal cannot control these kids outside school, so the repercussions would just be too much. My son said he could live with the problem and asked me to let the matter drop."
And there the matter rests. Aaron's father plans to confront the parents of his child's tormentors directly at the next sign of trouble.
Webster's dictionary defines a bully as one who is "habitually threatening, harsh, or cruel to others weaker or smaller than himself." Educational psychologists have defined school bullying as "the tendency for some children to frequently oppress, harass or intimidate other children, verbally, physically or both, in and out of school." Virtually all the explanations portray an asymmetrical relationship in which the victim is weaker - not only physically but emotionally or socially as well.
Generally seen as an imbalance of power, bullying can involve individuals or groups. By no means confined to Israel, the problem is worldwide. Just how pervasive it is can be seen by the most cursory investigation on the Internet, where literally hundreds of Web sites exist to provide information, advice, coping strategies and online support groups.
Andrew Mellor, director of one such group at Scotland's University of Edinburgh, says flatly, "Bullying is a problem in every school in the world."
Some countries have long acknowledged the problem and taken far-reaching steps to address it. In Japan, for example, bullying has been recognized as a national epidemic. "Conformity is very important in Japan," says Toshio Ohsako, a consultant to the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization. "If someone stands out, they have a tendency to be bullied."
When a 1995 study showed that upwards of 60,000 Japanese students were being bullied, that truancy was becoming a major problem and that more than one-third of the truants were avoiding school for fear of being bullied, the Japanese government responded by instituting teacher training about bullying, increasing the number of school counselors and nurses to help bullied victims, and strengthening school discipline codes that allow schools to expel any child guilty of inflicting physical or psychological harm on other children. As a result, a 2003 study showed that incidents of bullying had decreased by two-thirds since 1995.
Ron Astor, associate professor of social work and education at the University of Southern California (USC), who has been studying school violence in Israel, notes that it often takes a suicide for many countries to fully recognize the problem of school bullying. It, in fact, took as many as three suicides of Norwegian students in 1982 for Norway to deal with school bullying with an aggressive national campaign that included intervention policies; setting clear limits to unacceptable behavior; increasing teacher training; and providing counseling for bullies, victims and parents. The result: a 50 percent drop in school bullying nationwide by 1985.
Public opinion in Canada was similarly galvanized in 2000 with the suicides of two students, several months apart. The parents of the first suicide victim, a 14-year-old boy tormented by verbal abuse, were not aware that their son was being bullied. The second, a 14-year-old girl, left a suicide note that read: "If I try to get help, it will get worse. They are always looking for a new person to beat up, and they are the toughest girls. If I ratted, there would be no stopping them. I love you all so much!"
USC's Prof. Astor insists that the problem of bullying must be seen within the wider context of school violence in general, in which Israel appears to rank among the most severely plagued countries in the world. A World Health Organization study that surveyed 28 countries found that Israel ranked eighth in school violence and 11th in youth hooliganism. Some 25% of Israeli boys and 6% of Israeli girls were found to routinely carry some sort of weapon to school - a knife, club, brass knuckles, tear gas or a gun - to protect themselves against their fellow students.
Another study by Astor, along with Rami Benvenisti and Anat Zeira of the Hebrew University, revealed that slightly more than 50% of the 16,000 students who were surveyed claimed to have been bullied during the previous term, and 43% admitted having bullied others.
Yet another study by Bar-Ilan University found that more than 60% of all students surveyed had either been involved in violent bullying of other students during the previous 12 months or had been victims of violent bullying. Fifteen percent reported that they had required medical attention after being hurt in violent confrontations.
Why are our schools so violent?
Some, like 'Y.S.,' a Tel Aviv social worker who counsels troubled youth, answer that Israeli schools are violent because schools are violent generally, all over the world. "I'm sure that if you really examine the problem," she argues, "you'll find that our schools are much less violent than most schools in America."
Others dispute the assertion of violence entirely. Says one young man from Ra'anana, recently graduated from high school and now in the IDF, "You don't get it. What you call 'bullying' is really just 'hazing,' like they do in American college fraternities or in some army units here in Israel. It's really no big deal."
Some observers, however, like American newspaper columnist Bill Maxwell, believe that the violence in Israeli schools is indeed a "big deal" and that it mirrors a general Israeli culture of violence: "As one who regularly visits Israel, I have witnessed and experienced some of these 'real problems' - in everyday life - that translate into violence in the school systemâ€¦ Broadly, native Israelis like to call themselves 'Sabras,' a term that means 'prickly pear,' a fruit of the cactus. The suggestion is that Israelis sport a gruff exterior but a warm interior. The problem? Many Israelis use this myth of the tough hide as an excuse to be rude, especially to selected ethnic groups. Rudeness - shouting, pushing, cutting in line - is a prevalent trait and is manifested everywhere, in shops, restaurants, hotels and, of course, political rhetoric. No matter how it is rationalized, rudeness breeds insensitivity, which breeds hostility and aggression. Raw violence is sure to follow, even among children in school."
Aaron's father, struggling to make sense of the relentless bullying of his 11-year-old son, agrees. A native Israeli who grew up in Montreal, Canada, he says, "I was born here, so I can speak freely. Israelis, Jews - especially Israeli Jews - have a tremendous inferiority complex. This is very similar to what I experienced in Canada, among the French Canadians in Quebec. They also have a tremendous inferiority complex. They've both spent many years being put down and treated like second-class citizens. They want to expel all this from inside them and end up going too far in the other direction: overblown arrogance. Also, here in Israel we have separated into mutually hostile groups - Ashkenazi Jews thinking they're better than Sephardim, natives better than immigrants, some immigrant groups better than others, and so on. Now there's just so much hatred and anger here. The violence starts in the home. The kids pick up the anger from their parents. Whatever you do or say at home, affects the behavior of the children."
If that is indeed the case, what is the solution to school bullying and violence?
Short-term solutions that deal with specific cases of bullying are relatively easy to implement. Teachers can be sensitized to the problem and be trained to administer better classroom management. School hallways, lunchrooms, playgrounds and sports facilities can be more brightly lit and better monitored. Victimized children can be escorted back and forth to school. Parents can become more sensitive to signs of bullying and provide their children with various coping strategies.
But experience in other countries seems to suggest that genuine long-term solutions involve a national commitment toward defining unacceptable behavior, setting clear boundaries, opening lines of communication among schools, children and parents, and changing attitudes through education both in school and at home.
As daunting as this may seem, Aaron and thousands of children like him believe it is worth the effort.