"Strangers No More"
Updated: Mar 9, 2021
It's my second morning in Tel Aviv and already I have had quite an experience. Our group is made up of 14 students, the director of the program – a professor from Queens College – and the assistant director, also from Queens College.
The professor and five of the students are all ethnically Jewish and vary from Orthodox Judaism to nearly secular. Two of the students wear the hijab (the head covering for Muslim women), one is Pakistani and one is Sudanese/Eritrean ethnically. We have a Bahai Persian with us (The Bahai religion is a Persian-based minority religion with its main temple in Haifa, Israel), a non-Muslim ethnic-Indian man with a Muslim sounding name, an ethnically Egyptian girl with a very non-Arab name, the assistant director, Nashwa, is Egyptian, and there is an African American female as well. The rest of us are white, non-Jewish men.
Why does this matter? When we landed at Tel Aviv, Mark Rosenblum, our director, pulled us all aside to prepare us for moving through the passport checkpoint. We were all given a form from the Foreign Ministry that essentially acted as a security clearance which should make the passport people not be suspicious. Mark went first through the line and explained the nature of our trip to the lady working the desk. She said she understood and everything would be okay. Then the first girl, Jabeen, the Pakistani Muslim, approached the window with her passport and security clearance form. The lady took one look at her and told her to move to another room where they would interrogate her. This happened to every non-white person except for the one African American student. Mark explained later that this lady was a Russian Israeli and that Russian immigrants to Israel are known to be extremely conservative and far-right. She had complete control over our fates. Those who were taken to the other room were held for almost three hours. They were asked many questions, including their father and grandfather’s names (to determine their ethnicity) and what they were doing here. I spoke with Jabeen afterwards and she said one of the two security men interrogating had a disgusted look on his face every time he looked their way and had a very rude manner about him we he spoke. At one point he asked her if our group was a mix of Muslims and Jews and she said “No we also have Christians and Catholics” and he responded with revulsion “Are you trying to make change”. After the ordeal ended Jabeen said that the man was obviously racist but she was not offended by his actions. She plans on coming back to Israel to travel and study next summer.
In the end, it turned out that the Foreign Ministry had never sent the security service the memo clearing us for travel. Once it was sent and everyone was released the man in charge showed up and apologized to Mark for his people holding our group and asked to apologize to those students who were held as well. There is no doubt that Israeli security is based around race and religion profiling and there are clearly many racist Israeli’s who abuse the system, but the fact that this man wanted to personally apologize shows the complexity of opinions within the fabric of Israeli society.
Nearly all of the Jewish students had been to Israel before but had never known about this side of the passport process. While waiting for our friends, two of the students said that their perception of Israel had changed greatly. This was an eye-opening experience for them to see how non-white, non-Jews are treated by government policies and individual Israelis. Luckily the group who was detained was able to have a good time while being held and enjoy each other’s company so no one came out of it really shaken up.
Yesterday, we visited one of the most amazing places I have ever been, the Bialik Rogazin School. This school is in a very poor immigrant and refugee dominated area and went from being the worst performing school in Israel to the best over the past few years with a 96% passing rate. Nearly all of the students are non-Jewish and most come from conflict zones in Africa. After South Sudan was officially recognized by the UN in 2012, the Israeli Government decided to deport all of its Sudanese refugees and illegal immigrants to the new country. Bialik Rogazin, which has a large Sudanese student population, fought this decision but lost. It has since helped all of the deported families move to Uganda where they are much safer. Since 2012 the school have fought and won several legal battles giving its students the same rights as other Israeli students. Its sports program is incredibly good, with its women’s basketball team and men’s cross-country team having won the Israel championships and on their way to the World Championships in June.
But all of this is overshadowed by the truly amazing work that occurs in the classrooms of Bialik Rogazin. There are two primary objectives of the school: First, integrate the students into Israeli society so that when they graduate they are on equal footing with other Israeli students. Second, teach the students about their heritage, especially their mother tongue, so they have an understanding of where they came from and so that in the worst case scenario and they are deported, they can integrate back into their country. The first objective is achieved by teaching all the students in Hebrew, taking them on the same field trips as other students (such as to Auschwitz), and having them dance and sign Jewish folk dances and songs. However they also spend part of their day learning their mother tongue and learning dances and songs from their own countries.
While we were talking with the Principal, Eley, a young girl walked by and he pulled her over to speak with us. The girl, Mimi, was Arab and Muslim. He asked her what she liked about the school and she responded, “The teachers respect the students, they respect them at the same level”. He then asked if she had only Arab friends and she responded, “No. I have many friends from many religions and from all colors. Its love and friendship. We don’t care what we look like”. This is Bialik Rogazin’s legacy. It has effectively taught its students the importance of looking past color and creed and seeing each other as human. The school is also very involved in the community, staying open until 10:30 so that that the parents can come to classes for a few hours after work. They serve breakfast and lunch (serving food at school is illegal in Israel) because they don’t want the students going out into the city and because many students cannot afford food. They now have almost 1,100 students and will be opening a new campus in southern Tel Aviv in the next two years.
I encourage everyone to watch the short documentary “Strangers no more” which HBO made about the school and won an Oscar in 2010. It is important to understand that this school operates within a country that is becoming extremely anti-immigrant and battling huge racism issues. The new Minister of Art is the same lady who was at the front of an anti-immigrant protest two years ago and stated that “immigrants are the cancer of our society”. The new Minister of Justice, Ayelet Shaked, wrote a Facebook post last summer effectively claiming that all Palestinians were enemy combatants and should be killed. About a month ago a video of two police men beating an Ethiopian-born IDF (Israeli Army) soldier sparked huge protests across Israel by the Ethiopian Jewish community. In the mid 2000’s a new policy was created where all childless immigrant men over 18 had to travel to a certain office and sign their name three times a day. The travel time required to get to this building and the lines they had to wait in meant that these men could not hold a job now, creating mass unemployment and increasing the poverty and crime of immigrant neighborhoods.
But this school represents hope for immigrants and hope for cooperation and tolerance between all faiths and races within Israel. It was a profound and moving experience to see and meet these people.
Greg Waters is a member of the 2015 Ibrahim cohort.