This past Sunday we had the second of our educational seminars on Israeli Politics and Society, this one in Tel Aviv. We spent the majority of the day in southern Tel Aviv, which has a much lower socio-economic status and situation than the rest of the city.
Our first stop was the Rigozin School, which is a public school for children of foreign workers. Like just about everything else in Israel, the status of these children is very controversial. In some ways the debate is similar to illegal immigration and migrant workers in the States, because some of their parents are here legally, others illegally. The government wants to deport nearly 1200 families at the end of the school year. Some of these children were born in Israel and some were born elsewhere, but even those born here are not citizens and would have to return to the countries where their parents came from - the Philippines, Thailand, Nigeria, and many other countries. The parents often work in agriculture, and like migrant and illegal workers in the States, are willing to work for a fraction of what Israelis would be willing to work for. These are jobs that Palestinians used to have, and once the second intifada broke out, businesses began lobbying the government to allow them to bring in migrant workers to fill those jobs. And now, the same government (and specifically the same MK) that allowed these migrant workers into the country wants to deport their children who were born here. The biggest issue is there are no adequate immigration laws and the government changes its policies on a regular basis.
We then met with someone who works with refugees from war-torn countries who have come to Israel to seek asylum. The underlying issue here is to what extent Israel has a responsibility to take in and help these refugees, who come mainly from Darfur and Eritrea, but other places too. In addition to wanting to be "a beacon of light unto the nations" and to help those in desperate situations, I believe Israel should take in refugees fleeing genocide, like those from Sudan. Of all the nations in the world, we as Jews know the horrors of a true genocide and of a world that watched and sat idly by while millions were murdered and slaughtered and tortured, and we have a certain responsibility to open our doors in the same way other nations should have during the Shoah.
But, like everything else, things are not as simple as that. Taking in refugees also means finding a place for them to live, and resources to help them put their lives back together. There are organizations, specifically in south Tel Aviv, that have built shelters and provide education and other forms of humanitarian aid. On the one hand, we have enough problems "taking care of our own" —Jews and other Israeli citizens who live below the poverty line and are in need of help. But on the other hand, we have a responsibility to make sure that if we take in these refugees, we're putting them on a path to success and not towards a life of despair and crime. A lot of work has been done in recent years to transform south Tel Aviv into a crime-ridden, dangerous area into an area with a future.
The final stop of the day was a type of walking tour around part of the downtown area. The purpose was to examine various sites of cultural significance and to assess their role in Tel Aviv's history. As we visited different buildings and read about them, were forced to think about the role Tel Aviv, the country's cultural and secular center, plays in the Jewish state - is it a Jewish city or just an Israeli city? Is there anything wrong with wanting to escape the political and security problems and spend free time at the beach or at a cafe?
The more I learn about life here, the more I see just how much there is I still have to learn - it's amazing how many different fragments and segments of society there are, how there can be so many different kinds of Jews and Israelis who have such different views of what it is to be Jewish, what it is to be Israeli, and what this country is and what it should be. I feel truly blessed that I have the opportunity to learn all these things first-hand and take in pieces every single day.