A pinch of stardust was scattered on us unexpectedly this week, when the Academy Award for best short documentary went to “Strangers No More,” a film showing how the Bialik-Rogozin School in south Tel Aviv educates and integrates the children of parents from 48 different countries.
At a time when Israel is discussed primarily in the context of occupation, violence and isolation, the film’s content was something of a revelation − not only to viewers worldwide but to many Israelis as well.
The film documents a sort of secular, civic Israeli melting pot, in which children of various races and origins speak fluent Hebrew and see themselves as Israelis through and through. This spectacle is somewhat ironic, as well as possibly conveying a subversive protest, in view of the ethnocentric atmosphere prevailing in Israel today − especially when the establishment, inspired by a Shas interior minister and religious Zionist parties, imposes an atmosphere of discrimination and xenophobia.
However, it would be a mistake to reduce the issue, and the movie, to a mere emotional argument in the debate over the policy of deporting aliens and keeping out refugees − a policy that is not altogether lacking a certain logic. The challenging issue pertains not only to economics, but also to Israel’s identity and self-definition.
Israel already displays several characteristics of theocracy, in the absence of separation between state and religion. In such a country, seeing migrants who yearn to assimilate and become loyal citizens, out of complete identification with the Israeli experience − irrespective of religion, race or faith − does indeed come across as the kind of thing you see in a movie.
The story of the Bialik-Rogozin School may seem unrealistic when viewed outside of the political context, but it still teaches us something about a kind of normalcy that seeps up from beneath.
Mainly, though, it teaches us about the power of Israeliness, about Hebrew language and culture, and about Israel’s ability to integrate outsiders without losing its identity, culture or Jewish heritage.
This Israeli identity is vibrant, attractive and strong enough without the guards at the gate: Jewish proselytizers of all stripes and those who want everything to be “kosher.” And therein lies the difference between a Jewish ghetto and a Hebrew state.
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