Bialik-Rogozin’s challenge to Zionism

The fate of the 120 Bialik-Rogozin children slated for deportation underlines the tension between these two Zionist values.

Bialik Rogozin school 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Bialik Rogozin school 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Much of the attraction of the Oscar-winning 40- minute documentary Strangers No More is its unique perspective on Israel as a country that celebrates diversity and tolerance.
An embattled Jewish state, observed from afar primarily through the prism of conflict with its neighbors, is shown to have produced Tel Aviv’s remarkable Bialik-Rogozin School, with a compassionate, dedicated staff laboring lovingly to integrate into Israeli society non-Jewish migrant children from 48 different nations – including the underdeveloped, oppressive Eritrea and Sudan. Here, Hebrew makes order of the babel of tongues and becomes the preferred vehicle for mainstreaming a most diverse group of children.
Something feels eminently “right” about this picture of Israel. What a welcome relief from all the worn-out stereotypes. This secular version of the biblical “light unto the nations,” the film seems to be saying, is precisely the sort of thing the Jewish state is supposed to stand for. Perhaps this partly explains the decision of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to select the film for Oscar distinction.
Yet there is at Bialik-Rogozin an ominous subtext, not explored in the movie. Of the school’s 828 pupils, ranging from kindergarten to 12th grade, 120 face deportation with their families because they do not meet government criteria for obtaining legal status.
In all, nationwide, 400 children and their families are currently slated for deportation. The Interior Ministry said Monday that the government’s preparations for dealing with the children of illegal residents were in their final stages, and that the plan would be carried out in the coming weeks.
Esther, 12, one of the three students featured in Strangers No More, is slated to be sent back to South Africa, the country she left four years ago. Though she is fluent in Hebrew and sees herself as bona fide Israeli, if Esther had attended the Oscars ceremony in Hollywood, she would not have been allowed to return “home.”
Unfortunately, Esther and another 119 of her schoolmates at Bialik-Rogozin have been caught in the crossfire as Israel struggles to maintain a strong Jewish majority while serving as home to about one-and-a-half million Arab Israelis, 300,000 non-Jewish immigrants from the Former Soviet Union, and 300,000 foreign workers, about half of whom are here illegally after their work permits expired, not to mention thousands of refugees, migrants and asylum seekers, most of whom hail from Africa.
SINCE ZIONISM’S inception, there has been an inherent tension. On one hand Zionists wanted to create an ethnonational state that would safeguard Jewish continuity against the ravages of anti-Semitism and assimilation. But there was also a Zionist vision that the Jewish state’s “model society” – hevra l’mofet – would be at the vanguard of all humanity. The traditional belief that faithful adherence to God’s commandments would bring about a heavenly redemption was replaced with a secular model: the proactive building of an ideal society that would provide an ideal role model.
Israelis’ irresistible drive to make public displays of providing humanitarian aid when disaster strikes in places like Haiti, Thailand or Darfur is an example of the aspiration to create a “model society.” The story of Bialik- Rogozin is another. At the same time Zionism never abandoned its goal of creating a state that would protect the Jewish people from the dangers of exile: intermarriage, political and military impotence, and anti-Semitic violence.
The fate of the 120 Bialik-Rogozin children slated for deportation, along with another 280 additional minors and their families, underlines the tension between these two Zionist values.
While we do support the adoption in the future of more stringent immigration laws that would make it harder for foreigners to come to Israel and stay here, these 400 children and their families do not present a demographic threat to Israel.
In a recent interview with The Jerusalem Post‘s Larry Derfner, Kirk Simon, one of the directors of Strangers No More, explained that he did not broach the subject of the threatened deportations “because our film was going to take over a year to produce, we thought that dramatizing an issue that might be resolved, or change, or evolve, could hurt its long-term viewership potential.”
Let’s hope the issue is resolved, that the children remain in Israel, and that this lauded film’s main message – celebrating Israeli diversity and tolerance – retains its relevancy.