Thursday, April 22, 2010

An Odd Moment

While I was teaching at Adam Abdullah's shelter a few days ago a six or seven year old girl named Shima and I started playing together. To help her practice her English I asked her to draw some pictures in her notebook. Once she had drawn the pictures I would ask her what the picture was of (in English) and if she didn't know I would tell her, and then we would spell it. B-U-T-T-E-R-F-L-Y, B-E-E, but then she drew a Magen David, a Star of David. Shima is Muslim and was born in Egypt, but this in many ways embodies the paradox of the Sudanese community. Black-African Muslim children who speak near-perfect Hebrew and dress Israeli, and apparently draw Magen David. This is strange to me, as part of the Jewish Diaspora. I had never been inclined to draw crucifixes or Jesus Fish in elementary school. But to Shima it was just a natural thing to draw. Maybe it has to do with the general love of Israel that the Sudanese now have because of the help it has provided. But I don't think so, after all, Shima can barely read and write, I don't think she's a Zionist quite yet. It's probable that Shima has just seen the Star, one of Israel's national symbols, on enough flags, bumper-stickers, and synagogues that it is normal to her - like the Stars and Stripes to American first-graders. But, there is still a strong symbolism in her action. It says something about Israel and about the situation of the Sudanese refugees who have found themselves here.

I asked Shima and she said that her mom and her had not gone to any Yom Ha'atzmaut (Independence Day) official ceremonies, which makes sense because many Sudanese are afraid of immigration police. However, it's possible that Shima feels Israeli. The question than is what happens when the generation of parents start going back to Sudan, but children want to stay, or what happens when some families decide to make Israel their home. In essence, when does a non-Jew in Israel become Israeli? For many Sudanese, their intentions are clear: they want to go home. Peter from Arad, as an example, always has his TV on SSN, the Sudanese Satellite Network, and can't stop talking about home. But for the rest who want to stay in Israel, estimated by some NGOs as around 25% of the community (though no one is sure), it is unclear what their future holds.

Language, employment, and education are important practical concerns at the center of this dilemma, but even more important is the emotional question. Can Israel be a Jewish state and a post-national state, and does it want to be? The obvious answer is no on both accounts, but the reality seems to suggest otherwise. Sort of. The Neve Sha'anan neighborhood, in the shadow of Tel Aviv's Central Bus Station is made up almost exclusively of Thai, Sudanese, Romanian, and other foreign nationals working in Israel. The neighborhood looks and feels dirty and illegal businesses and prostitution abound. However, there has been some recent excitement about potentially converting the neighborhood into the Tel Aviv equivalent of Chinatown. Additionally, while walking with the kids from Adam's English learning program to a nearby park I've seen multiple Filipino children in Israeli scout uniforms. And these workers are moving up. A handful of non-Jewish, non-Russian, immigrant workers live in Bat Yam, which isn't glamorous, but is certainly a step or two up from South Tel Aviv. All of this implies a sense of permanency about Israel's "non-Israeli" population. The Jewish State seems to be adjusting to an understanding that there will always be some "goyim" among us.

It seems that this is the natural consequence of Israel outdoing itself. If we weren't living in such a vibrant and successful economy there would be no incentive for the foreign workers. If we didn't act accordingly with Jewish morals we would have no refugee "problem" to deal with. As the adage goes, as you make your bed you must sleep in it. So, now that we've made our bed so nice and fluffy, with plush pillows and a down blanket, so nice that some other folks have jumped in, how do we sleep with them, if we do at all. There are three options.

Firstly, we could be assertive and brash, kicking immigrants out of the country. There is currently an ad campaign in Israel against illegally employing foreign workers that shows the pictures of Jewish Israelis with their statue (father of 3, newly released soldier, etc.) and says in Hebrew, "don't give away my job." While this viewpoint has some merit, it also runs the risk of seeming discriminatory to a level even greater than Arizona's S.B. 1070, which has already been disavowed by President Obama, influential Republicans like Gov. Charlie Crist of Florida, and even by the Major League Baseball Player's Union. Being under the international microscope of scrutiny, such as Israel always is, imagine the outcry if we were to expel the 20,000 plus refugees and tens of thousands of illegal workers.

Secondly, Israel can drop the whole Jewish thing and make a huge aid project of bringing in more refugees to help them here. While that may boost Israel's public image and do a lot of good, there is still an argument to make that with our limited resources and high poverty rate it may be wiser to spend that money on the citizens of the country in need first and then expand into a project such as this. The Talmud states that one should help their own community first and then those farther away. Additionally, this changes the mission that has held the Jewish State together for over 62 years and the Zionist endeavor for more than 120 years. It's kind of a big deal.

The last, and I think most practical option is to accept what is happening and make it an advantage. After all, this is how Israel has thrived for years, by taking set backs, like the Arab League boycott, and turning them around as Israel did by growing a more independent economy in response to the boycott. The Sudanese are now an economic burden, but they don't have to be. There are creative ways to bring them into the economy and it all starts with teaching language, vocational, and technological skills. This can itself bring the teachers, potentially previously unemployed Jews, some money. The Sudanese want to learn, and Israel is a proven teacher. One way to capitalize on this seeming disadvantage would be to gain foreign investment in an institute that would educate Sudanese, along with Jewish Israelis in the leadership skills they so desperately crave to bring back to Sudan. We can learn from them as much as they can from us, as anyone in Garin Tzedek could quickly tell you. And Israelis are culture junkies that travel the world for new tastes and ideas.

Most important though is that helping these people is not only moral, it can redefine the Jewish condition. We've been hunted and persecuted for so long that our natural instinct has been protectionist and isolationist. However, in a independent Israel, we have our first opportunity to sustain our unique Jewish essence and still extend our hand to others. We are now strong enough that we are beginning to connect globally, it's happening in Israeli business, traveling, and projects - just this month Israel sold millions of dollars of drip irrigation technology to African countries. If we can accept this reality and begin to act accordingly we can help those that need our help from our neighbors to the refugees from Sudan.

So, maybe Shima is just drawing what she's seen all over the streets in the weeks surrounding Israeli Independence Day, but maybe she thinks of herself as Israeli. And while we need to maintain Israel's Jewish character, maybe she can help us redefine who we are as a confident and moral people that can not only govern ourselves, but can also start to save the world.

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