First published on eJewishPhilanthropy
Last week, 32 eleventh graders from the Jewish Community High School of the Bay in San Francisco and I were in Tel Aviv’s Shapira neighborhood listening to a Sudanese refugee tell his powerful story of escaping from his village to Khartoum, from Khartoum to Cairo, and then, ultimately to Israel. He offered a real connection to the complex policy issues facing Israel today. The poetics of his talk were not lost on us: Three weeks before Passover, we heard from a person who had walked through the desert to reach the Promised Land.
Over the last three years, we have made this part of our annual Israel trip more robust. In the past, we have described Israel as a “complex place” to justify why we wanted students to develop knowledge of the “refugee problem” in Israel. This year, however, we shifted away from the language of complexity toward the language of “Jewish responsibility.”
Our shift was informed by a desire to infuse our education with a purpose beyond noticing complexity. Donniel Hartman articulated in a column the shortcomings of the term. “While much is indeed complicated, much is not, and distinguishing between the two will determine who we are and the value of our national rebirth,” he wrote.
Using the language of complexity allows us as educators to ask students to stick with something, even when it pushes them in new ways and provides an opening for the possibility of multiple narratives and nuanced understandings. But as Jewish educators, we are also guided by the need for moral education. Complexity may lead to moral relativism, ethical blindness, or apathy.
Israel provides a uniquely Jewish space to examine how Judaism should respond to the public square, as Rabbi Prof. David Hartman argued in his seminal essay, “Auschwitz or Sinai”: “Moral seriousness and political maturity and wisdom must come to our nation if we are to be judged by the way we struggle to integrate the Sinai covenant with the complexities of political realities.”
The goal of this form of education is to foster a deep sense of responsibility for and participation in the affairs of the Jewish state through the lens of the Sinaitic covenant. It does not negate the idea that situations are complex; rather it inducts students into thinking that does not let them off the hook.
In the past, we went on a walking tour of the Neve Sha’anan neighborhood, which is home to refugees and migrant workers. The students struggled with this program, feeling uncomfortable with the poverty, the explicit conversation about race, and the sense that they were being told that Israel had problems.
This year, we offered students more access to the people affected by this, more information about why it is a challenge to the State’s policies, and studied text that would build a cognitive framework for evaluating this experience.
We began our day at the Bialik-Rogozin school, the majority of whose K-12 students are children of, or themselves, refugees and migrant workers. Vice Principal Riki Haskalovitch told us that many of her students were born in Israel, speak Hebrew, and have no other place they call home, yet do not have Israeli citizenship. Unlike the US, being born in Israel does not automatically make one a citizen.
Haskalovitch said she sees her students as people who need her support and care and compared the school to a hospital, which cares for people in need, no matter who they are and where they come from. She described the challenges of educating a student body that speaks more than 48 languages and the realities of life for this population. She also showed a clip from the Oscar-winning short film made about the school.
From Bialik-Rogozin, we traveled 10 minutes to the center of posh Tel Aviv, to Alma: Home for Hebrew Culture, now a part of the Shalom Hartman Institute, where we learned texts that would provide us further perspective for thinking about refugees and migrants in Israel.
We focused on the Talmudic story of R. Eliezer and the Ugly Man (Ta’anit 20a-20b), which begins with the rabbinic saying, “A person should always be soft like a reed and not hard like a cedar.” Before reading it, the students identified qualities of both that seemed admirable. On the one hand, being soft allowed one to be empathetic and caring. On the other hand, being like a cedar meant standing up for one’s values.
In the story, R. Eliezer happens upon the ugly man while riding his donkey, having just left the Beit Midrash. When the ugly man greets him, R. Eliezer responds, “Empty one – how ugly this fellow is! Are all the people of your town as ugly as you?” The ugly man responds, “I don’t know, but you should go to the craftsman who made me and tell him how ugly is the vessel that he made.” R. Eliezer tries to apologize to the ugly man, who does not accept and then travels with him to his village. A back-and-forth among R. Eliezer, the ugly man, and a fellow villager follows, focused on getting the ugly man to accept R. Eliezer’s apology.
Finally, when the ugly man accepts the apology, R. Eliezer immediately enters the Beit Midrash and expounds on the line, “A person should always be soft like a reed and not hard like a cedar.” Teacher Yael Gross-Rozen drew out the tensions in the story: R. Eliezer sees only this person’s surface; what does it actually mean to really see another person? Despite this critique of R. Eliezer, the other main character is ultimately dubbed for all time as “the ugly man.” How does our language define our experience and others?
These questions helped prepare us for our next experience, going to Gan Levinsky and touring south Tel Aviv. Yael ended her teaching with a charge: How will you see the people and the place you are going to go meet? Can you truly open your eyes?
Our tour guide was Jean-Marc Liling, a former lawyer for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Israel and a member of the board of directors of ASSAF – Aid Organization for Refugees & Asylum seekers in Israel, and a kippa-wearing Jew from Jerusalem.
At the center of Neve Sha’anan, Jean-Marc spoke of the Persian Jewish shop owners who used to peddle shoes there. He drew out the contrasting views of Jewish neighborhood activists that characterized migrants and refugees as infiltrators, as well as Mizrachi Jewish activists who felt kinship with what he called “black Tel Aviv,” in the fight against white Tel Aviv.
We read Haim Gouri’s poem, “The Slaves of the Hebrews.” Published on erev Pesach in 1997, the poem’s thoughts on foreign residents still speaks to Israel’s predicament today: “I haven’t been to the old central bus station in Tel Aviv for a long time. I recently spent a few hours there. If you wish to see the “other” Israel, you should go there. A lot of Romanians, Turks, Portuguese, Nigerians, Ghanaians, Chinese, and Thais passed before my eyes, our own builders of Pithom and Ramses, the janitors and the gutter cleaners of the first Hebrew City.”
The faces may have changed, but the story is the same. Jean-Marc highlighted the lack of a coherent state policy for non-Jewish residents in Israel. The State never imagined it would be desirable for a non-Jewish population, and so it has no clear policy of what to do with them. And yet, their story is similar to ours. As Jean-Marc has written, the reason why refugees come to Israel is that [they] “knew it was a free country built by refugees, for refugees.” The challenge he put forth for our students was to consider what it means to tackle these problems as Jews. Can the Jewish state imagine creating a space for non-Jews to thrive within its boundaries?
Shifting our language from complexity to responsibility does not negate the need for the educator to identify the variety of layers at play in Israel. It takes complexity as a given but adds that you must consider a variety of values, needs, and angles when you take responsibility for something.
With Israel as the course content, we want students to get dirty, to challenge, and to be resilient, but we want to do this in service of a larger vision that invites them to imagine a future intimately connected to Judaism and to Israel.
The shift to responsibility provides freedom to act in moments that require moral clarity and also makes explicit the role of these students in imagining Israel’s future. The language of complexity addresses a problem, but it does not provide a purpose.
It hopes to stop Jews from giving up on the state, to stop the hemorrhaging of American Jews from their affiliation as Zionists. Complexity provides educators space to build connection to Israel in spite of BDS on campus, continued terror attacks, a non-existent peace process and nearly 50 years of occupation.
It does not, however, provide a compelling vision for the possibility of the Jewish state. Ultimately, an educational model based on responsibility pushes students to take seriously what it means to be a sovereign people in their own land, what it means to create and administer a Jewish state, what the Jews have to say about this thing called “a State.” It enlarges Israel from a place that serves as a receptacle for the unwanted to a project of all Jewish People.