Four hundred kids. Four hundred kids who love Israel. All ages. Many of them born here, many old enough to know what it is to live here as good citizens, to want to contribute to Israeli society.
It's rare to meet kids like this these days. It's an age of crippling cynicism here. Alienated youths, right, left, and off the political grid, are ducking national service of any kind. At this point, many of the alienated simply see no point in it. In Israel.
But these kids do. They recognize that the founding purpose of Israel was to be a place of compassion, a place of shelter, a place of freedom from persecution. A place with particular sensitivity to the outcast, the marginal, the victim of bigotry.
These kids love Israel in ways only Israelis can understand. On holidays, they hike and picnic in the only country they have ever known. In the place they call Artzeinu, our country. They love their extraordinary school in south Tel Aviv. They take excited and enthusiastic part in the activities of their Israel Scouts troop. They will tell you that they look forward to the day they'll be able to serve their country as young adults.
However, as one of their most powerful spokespeople, 12-year-old Esther Aikpehae, will tell you, the Interior Ministry has other plans for them: Deportation. Beginning as early as the next two weeks.
The 400 are the children of foreign workers whom the Interior Ministry's Population Administration has marked for expulsion. Raised and schooled here, the kids are as Israeli as anyone else their age. But their parents, who want to continue to live and work in Israel, have been denied extensions on permits to stay. Put differently, they would be allowed to stay, encouraged to stay, if they were only Jewish.
"I speak Hebrew, I write Hebrew, and read it without vowels," Esther, wearing her scout uniform, told more than a thousand people at a Friday demonstration in the heart of Tel Aviv. "But like other kids, I don’t meet the criteria of the Interior ministry, and my status in Israel is in doubt."
"In the name of all the other children who find themselves in this position, I turn to the state of Israel and to the person who leads it: Let us stay.”
She closed with a reference to that most Israeli of songs, a song so universally gut-meaningful to Israelis that it began as something of a leftist anthem, but was later adopted as a campaign slogan by the Likud: "Ein Li Eretz Acheret."
I have no other country.
It is barely a week since Hollywood granted an Oscar to the Karen Goodman-Kirk Simon documentary "Strangers No More," which celebrated these kids and the Bialik-Rogozin School (750 students from 48 countries, grades 1-12) which many of them attend.
Now, at a closed compound next to Tel Aviv's Ben-Gurion airport, the Interior Ministry is putting the finishing touches on a detention center intended for families awaiting expulsion. The walls are festooned with the likes of Sponge Bob and Winnie the Pooh, but the intent is clear.
Instead of taking the mature, courageous step of, at long last, establishing an official Israel policy on refugees and asylum seekers, the cabinet is allowing these 400 kids to be used by Interior Minister Eli Yishai as a scapegoat and a substitute for real action.
Yishai, chairman of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, has been unbridled in his remarks about the issue, speaking of foreigners giving "birth to illegal children," and warning of opening floodgates to hundreds of thousands of migrant workers bringing with them "a profusion of diseases: hepatitis, measles, tuberculosis, AIDS and drug [addiction]."
But the decision on deportation is not ultimately Yishai's to make. It ultimately rests with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
But its importance goes far beyond the workings of this government. In 1977, Menachem Begin, elected prime minister only weeks before, authorized citizenship for scores of Vietnamese boat people saved by Israeli sailors and brought to Israel. Begin compared their plight to that of Jewish refugees seeking haven during the Holocaust.
At the Friday rally, actress and Israel Prize laureate Gila Almagor pledged that if the deportations go forward, "I will do everything to hide these children, and I will bear the consequences."
This is an issue which will have a direct impact on the face and future of this country. It is a question on which people everywhere who love Israel have every right and responsibility to raise their voice.
A sticker at the demonstration says it all. "Welcome to Israel," it read. "We even deport children."
Now is the time. This week. Take a few minutes. Write your feelings. Send them to Benjamin Netanyahu. Help make this a better country. For children who want nothing more than a chance to do the same thing.
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