Family values

Like his father Davidi, Gilad Meiri is working to correct social injustices in the city. In a joint interview they reveal how they came to be bitten by the activist bug.

meiri 521 (photo credit: courtesy)
meiri 521
(photo credit: courtesy)
Afew weeks before the Knesset elections in 1973, a group of young Jerusalemites, all born and living in the Musrara neighborhood, gathered at the Katamon home of Davidi Meiri, a social worker at the municipality.
The group was determined to persuade him to join the Knesset party they had decided to run.
Under cover of a cold, late winter evening, they sneaked through the empty streets to the house of the only man they knew who would always trust and support them in the face of the establishment.
In the same living room last week, almost 40 years later, a visibly moved Meiri recalled the scene, and what followed from that evening.
In the early ’70s, the Jerusalem Municipality operated out of an old, modest building at the end of Jaffa Road, overlooking Jaffa Gate and the Old City, and on the northern side, neighboring Musrara, by then a hotbed of rebellion and social agitation. The outbreak of the Yom Kippur War shortly before had put a halt to the large and mostly violent demonstrations by desperate and angry youth from that poor and neglected neighborhood, but the ashes were still smoldering, ready to rekindle at any moment.
The most violent demonstration took place in 1971, led by a group of young men calling themselves the Black Panthers. For over two years, protests and clashes with police filled Jerusalem’s streets without bringing any substantial improvement to the neighborhood.
To these disaffected young people, the elections in the confused aftermath of the Yom Kippur War seemed, for the first time, like a concrete opportunity to bring about some improvement – or at least to spread the word about their anger to the rest of the country. But they needed someone with weight, a member of the establishment who would support their cause. Who better than Meiri? However, Meiri was reluctant to cross the line between being a committed youth counselor and joining politics, which would entail a great deal of public exposure. He did not ultimately become an MK – and never regretted it – but he did maintain his devotion to working with youth, especially those on the verge of delinquency or already involved in petty crime or drug use.
Not everyone at the municipality liked his particular methods, but he refused to conform to the demands of the establishment.
“For me, there was only one thing that mattered,” he says. “To save these young and desperate people, to show them that they mattered at least to someone.”
Today, he is retired, but social involvement and helping those facing difficulty have remained in the family genes. His eldest son, Gilad, is a former youth counselor whose first real job was to work with at-risk teenage girls living in hostels.
Gilad says that even he was not really aware he was following in his father’s footsteps; all his important choices and decisions, he feels, were “simply planted inside my head from early childhood.”
During his late 20s and early 30s (he is now 42), the younger Meiri founded and led a community television program along with a group of Nahlaot- Mahaneh Yehuda neighborhood residents, created a poetry group called “A Place for Poetry” there, and pioneered poetry workshops for disabled adults and youth – always working with weaker, disadvantaged populations, “whether it was on socioeconomic issues or cultural issues,” he says.
“The thing is to look for what is inside each person, not to judge by external appearances or rough behavior,” adds his father.
DAVIDI MEIRI was born in 1938 in Zichron Yosef, a tiny neighborhood on Agrippas Street, near the Mahaneh Yehuda shuk. His parents had walked all the way from Kamishli, a small town in northern Syria – traveling at night and hiding during the day – to fulfill the dream of his grandfather, a respectable rabbi in his community, and join the Zionist venture.
“When they arrived here, none of this [progress in Jerusalem] had happened,” recalls Davidi. “They had to make it with very harsh conditions, which included a terrible blow – the indifference of the surrounding community. As a result, my grandfather, despite his high status in his community of origin, couldn’t find anything better than becoming a guard at the Jewish Agency building, which barely allowed the family to survive.”
Davidi’s father worked on construction sites, his mother cleaned houses, and his grandmother became a laundry worker.
“As a result, I started to work in order to help my family from the age of 11, as school became a less and less realistic option for me,” he says.
One of his teachers, who tried to keep him in the loop, suggested he join a youth movement.
Naturally, as a son of a traditional family, he first tried the Bnei Akiva movement, where he didn’t feel at ease. The same happened with Betar. He eventually ended up in Hashomer Hatza’ir – not the most traditional place for a religious Sephardi youth.
“My grandfather was a rabbi and a Talmud scholar, but he was nevertheless very tolerant and openminded, and never opposed [my joining the youth movement],” he recalls.
Soon, Davidi went to training camps for the movement, one of them, in 1953, near the recently formed transit camp of Oshrat, near Nahariya.
“Though I had led a very modest lifestyle, nothing prepared me for the terrible poverty and neglect I found there, among the new olim from Kurdistan, Persia and Iraq,” he remembers. “It was a terrible shock. I would sneak out from the movement’s camp to help a bit with the children. I don’t think I could do very much then, but the seeds were sown.”
Upon finishing his army service, he found a job as a clerk at the Jewish Agency, “but I couldn’t forget the sights of abandoned youth in poverty and neglect.”
Eventually he reached Avner Amiel, a legendary social work figure in the Jerusalem Municipality during the late ’50s and early ’60s, and managed to persuade him that he could do something. Davidi was sent to work on a summer day program for the children of the Talpiot transit camp, where the children of Musrara were sent. That was his first encounter with some of the children who later became the leaders of the Jerusalem Black Panthers.
“The first day was a memorable day,” he recalls.
“I arrived, and all the boys were standing in a circle.
They all seemed very hostile, and one of them stepped forward and I noticed he had a big stone in his hands. ‘One move and this stone goes into your head,’ he warned me.”
Davidi had known he would meet tough guys – he had been warned that all the staff before him so far had left, since no one could cope with the anger, the violence and the lack of trust among the children of Musrara.
“I realized immediately that I was being put to the test, and the first thing that came to mind was The Road to Life by [Anton] Makarenko [a Soviet author who wrote about the best ways to cope with abandoned and violent children during the revolution era in Russia], which we all read at the Hashomer Hatzair movement.”
He acted according to those educational principles, moved forward – and ended up with a bleeding forehead and a brief blackout. But unlike those before him, instead of calling the police or leaving immediately, he remained at his post and engaged in a kind of dialogue.
“That was a turning point,” he says. Later on, the children learned to respect him, and more importantly, to trust him – and that was the beginning of his relationship with the young upstarts of Musrara. The teenager who threw the stone was Sa’adia Marciano, who later became a leading figure in the Black Panthers, and eventually an MK.
For Davidi, it was clear by then that this was his place – at the side of those who, out of poverty, neglect, discrimination and rejection by society, spent most of their time teetering on the edge of crime and drugs.
“It’s not that I accepted that,” he clarifies, “but here were these poor guys, who had nothing and didn’t believe in themselves, and on the other side was the establishment, which didn’t give them a chance, and the police, which in those years – I’m speaking about the ’60s and early ’70s – treated them with brutality and disregarded their most basic rights. I began to visit, sometimes undercover and other times with the help of trusted people inside, the prisons and detention centers – I was horrified by what I saw there.”
GILAD, LISTENING carefully as his father recounts his experiences, smiles from time to time.
“The stories my father is telling now are drawing out my memories – when my brother and I were children, and we had to face some tough kids in the schoolyard,” he says, now causing his father to listen carefully.
“We weren’t the strong kind, but one day, when I came back home after a really serious fight, my father decided that we’d go together to the parents of the kid who attacked me,” he remembers. “I didn’t know what to expect, but when the father opened the door and saw my father standing there, he almost kissed his feet, and I was astonished.”
It turned out that the admiring father had been one of the Musrara teenagers whom the elder Meiri had saved from the streets years earlier.
“The scene was very strange – the boy looked terrified, apparently realizing he’d made a mistake; the father seemed torn between his admiration for my father and his anger and shame at his son’s behavior. One thing is sure – from the following morning, my brother and I became the heroes of the school, the most admired and feared of the children there,” Gilad finishes, and he and his father share a big laugh.
Unlike Davidi, Gilad has chosen the academic path. He has a PhD in literature and wrote his dissertation on the origins and expression of humor in poet David Avidan’s work, which was recently published as a book. Yet the two agree that there are echoes of his father’s approach in the way he runs his professional life.
“I grew up in a home with a father who was a kind of hero,” Gilad explains. “Hanging around with him at the Mahaneh Yehuda market was an experience a child cannot wipe out of his memory. The admiration, the respect, even the love from all over – these were my childhood memories.”
As he grew up, he learned the facts – at least those he and his brother were authorized to hear – and began to grasp what they meant, and the importance of standing up for those who had less. While his father acted on this with youth in underprivileged neighborhoods, Gilad “found that the right place for me was through literature, poetry, any artistic expression.
I began with the creation of the first community TV group in Nahlaot, and a few years later, it was the right time for the ‘Place for Poetry’ and all that it includes in terms of advancing underprivileged communities, besides promoting the poetry. But basically, it all comes from the same place.”
“It’s a matter of trust between people,” adds his father. “It’s about getting a stone in the head from an angry teenager who has nothing, who feels that the whole world has betrayed him, and nevertheless to remain with him, to build, slowly but surely, a bridge to his heart. It’s about being there when and where you’re needed the most – when someone has lost hope and you’re the last call before he commits suicide, before he injects some drug again, and you are the last person he calls to help him not to do it.”
For Gilad, his upbringing was a source of inspiration that showed him how to cope with a rapidly deteriorating situation, how to prevent failure while he was working with teenage girls for two years. It was what made him start working with younger students during his first year in the university literature department, helping them do their homework or understand some question in mathematics.
“I saw that Gilad [tended toward this path], the social work and the caring about the underprivileged,” says his father. “I was both astonished at his capacities to understand things rapidly in this field, but also worried – as a father, I wanted him to take a path in which he would earn a better living.”
But soon Gilad put some distance between himself and social work, continuing his studies at university and working, like many other students, as a guard at the Jewish Agency headquarters in Jerusalem – exactly where his grandfather had worked a few decades before. He gradually began to understand that violence was the first obstacle, the first threat to a normative society.
“Once it was the brutality of the police, when there were no organizations that would [take up the cause of] civil rights, like it is today, or the violence expressed and experienced in the most neglected neighborhoods, where there is no hope for any change,” he says. “But today, when I see how the state is treating art and culture, when I have to face, time after time, threats of closure or budget cutting for the cultural projects we run – I feel that in fact, nothing has changed really.”
He and his father exchange remarks and quickly agree on another basic point – what they consider the criminal indifference of the state. In the background loom the issues of ethnicity: Who is Ashkenazi? Who is Sephardi? “I was not raised as a Mizrahi [someone of Sephardi origin] nor as an Ashkenazi,” says Gilad. “In fact, I am neither, since my mother is a Holocaust survivor born in Poland and my father was born here, to parents who came from Syria.”
However, he admits that through his television work at the Lev Ha’ir community center in Nahlaot, meeting with residents whom he carefully chose from all ethnicities and streams, an understanding of these issues began to emerge.
“We were the first group that included Mizrahi and Ashkenazi, religious and even ultra-Orthodox and secular, men and women – it started with a wider community and social awareness, which grew and reached other issues,” he explains.
“It’s not that I have become a champion of ethnic tension issues, but I see today things that I was not aware of once, like the fact that the money, the large sums, never reaches the right places in my view – the poor neighborhoods, the cultural needs in these neighborhoods, those who have no other way than to rely on the state – they do not get enough, if at all.”
He starts to expound his views on bringing poetry and writing skills to each one. He has opened workshops for the physically and mentally handicapped, with enormous success; his workshops have begun operating outside the city as well. He has continued the momentum, creating the One Square Meter poetry festival and bringing culture – poetry and music – to the heart of Mahaneh Yehuda.
“Like my father, who didn’t hesitate to mobilize the top lawyers in the country, whom he managed to persuade to help him represent youth arrested for petty crimes and treated as if they were at least members of the mafia, I dare to go to the top writers and poets, and ask them to join me and to come and speak and teach poetry in the most remote neighborhoods,” he says. “It’s all against the violence of the system.”