Bialik Rogozin: Teasing Out Israel's Demographic Conundrum
We enter the school on a Tuesday morning, walking past the sports yard and the sounds of kids playing football and shouting through the fence to grab our attention. The classrooms are already in full swing, with a few students scrambling through the halls to make it on time. We’re greeted by Eli Nechama, the principal of the school, whose playful and kind disposition welcomes us in. But what strikes me more as we walk into the school is the student artwork that covers the walls, along with endless photographs of different events put on by the school. Students have recently celebrated a “Dare to be Different” day, and their drawings are rife with various skin tones, nationalities, and even LGBT+ pride symbols and stick figures with rainbow-coloured skin. Flags from around the world line the inner courtyard, and I have to fight the urge to cry. This is Bialik Rogozin, a 1st-12th grade school in downtown Tel Aviv, but all I can think about is how much it feels like home.
I grew up going to international schools around the world—and what they all had in common was a welcoming environment, opening their arms to incredibly diverse groups of students. It’s an attitude that I’ve carried with me my entire life, and it’s an attitude that I felt in Bialik Rogozin. But this school is unique in that it exists in the middle of a long-standing conflict. It struggles to fit in with Israel’s goal of a Jewish majority state, or even with the current immigration policies of the Israeli government.
Bialik Rogozin is not an average Israeli public school. Its purpose is to provide a supportive and empowering learning space specifically for students in vulnerable circumstances, like refugees or children of migrant workers living in Israel. It not only teaches them, but also helps acclimate them to life in Israel, as well as giving them the tools they need to succeed in their home countries if and when they return. It’s a fantastic project, and it seems almost too good to be true. But it’s real, and it’s growing so quickly that they’re building another campus to accommodate even more students: right now they have 1,178, from over fifty-one countries. These students will grow up with a different idea of identity—one that is more similar to that of “third culture kids.” They feel Sudanese or Eritrean or Pinoy, but they also feel Israeli. They learn Hebrew, they celebrate Jewish holidays, and they live full-time in Tel Aviv. I anticipate that they will have a more inclusive and flexible attitude towards nations and towards identity.
But as I said, this isn’t the norm for Israel. The country’s current government isn’t happy with the number of refugees and/or immigrants that the school is taking in. Israel already struggles with the idea of increasing the number of non-Jewish/Israeli citizens in its state—it’s one of the driving forces in the conflict with Palestine. We’ve heard this issue repeated over and over again on our trip: the demographic challenges of creating a Jewish state inhibit the possibilities of a one-state solution. Right now, in the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, the population of both the Israelis/Jews and the Palestinians represents forty eight per cent 48%. If a one state solution were to be reached, the most common consensus is that it would lead to civil war. Because Palestinians are generally lower-income, they tend to have more children, and their population would quickly overwhelm a Jewish majority—something that is irreconcilable for many Israeli politicians and citizens. And this problem is not just hypothetical for the government. It is happening right now, an existential and tangible threat to the idea of a Jewish state, leading to reluctance and resistance when it comes to things like accepting refugees or providing adequate resources for low-income immigrants. On a certain level, this makes sense. Even as a non-Jew, I can understand wanting to have a state that is majority Jewish; wanting to have a home that makes you feel welcome and comforted, wanting to have a state after so many centuries without one.
But there comes a time when those who support the idea of a Jewish state must examine what that will mean on the ground. Right now there is a discord in defining a Jewish state, and the population of Israel—all facets of government, religious leaders, and every constituency —must decide what their state will look like as the conflict continues. To be sure, these are difficult questions, but it is a difficult situation. What will it mean for Jewish identity to maintain a Jewish majority at the cost of entry to refugees running from war? What will it mean for Jewish identity to maintain a Jewish majority at the cost of full rights for Palestinians if there is a one state solution? What does it mean for Jewish identity right now that the state continues to occupy the West Bank and the Gaza Strip? The answer, perhaps, is that Jewish identity will never be monolithic nor exclusive., The Jewish nation will practice their religion and their identity as they interpret it. Citizens like Eli Nechama will go a more inclusive route, providing safe spaces for refugees, trying to make a home within Israel for those vulnerable students, trying to create a home for them within his own home. Spaces like Bialik Rogozin are not necessarily the solution to the conflict, but they raise difficult questions that the state of Israel will eventually have to find an answer to.
Zoe Brouns is a member of the 2016 Ibrahim cohort. Read more about her experience on her blog: Jamil Jedan: A Trip Through the Middle East.