The Bialik-Rogozin school in south Tel Aviv is one of the most unusual educational institutions in the country.
For one thing, the school includes a kindergarten, primary school and high school under one roof and one management.
For another, it has a unique demographic composition. Thirty-two percent of its students are the children of foreign workers, 19% are children of immigrants from the former Soviet Union and 7% are Israeli Arabs.
Another peculiarity, to say the least, is that Bialik-Rogozin must be the only school in Israel that stands to lose about 30% of its student body before the end of the school year.
In accordance with a government decision passed on June 26, all children of foreign workers and their families will be deported from Israel as of March 31, 2006 unless they meet each of the following criteria:
• The child was born in Israel, is at least 10 years old and has lived here continuously.
• His parents entered Israel legally with a visa and permit according to the Entry to Israel Law before the child was born.
• The child is studying in an Israeli school or graduated from one, speaks Hebrew and his deportation would involve “cultural exile” to a country to which he has no cultural connection.
In its June decision, the government endorsed a proposal originally approved by the Interministerial Committee for Population Registration headed by then-interior minister Ophir Paz-Pines (Labor).
Paz-Pines’s proposal was a more draconian version of the one made by his predecessor, Avraham Poraz (Shinui), two years earlier.
According to Poraz, children of foreign workers who had lived in Israel for at least 10 years and who were in high school or who were high school graduates would receive permanent residency status. Children who had lived in Israel for at least five years and were in the 11th or 12th grade would be eligible for temporary status if a special committee concluded that they had a strong connection to Israel.
Poraz did not make residential status for the children of foreign workers and their immediate families conditional on the birth of the child in Israel or whether their parents originally entered the country legally.
In accordance with the more restrictive criteria established by Paz-Pines, only 27 of the 225 children of foreign workers studying at Rogozin were eligible to remain here.
On August 24, two months after the government endorsed Paz-Pines’s proposal, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) and the Hotline for Migrant Workers petitioned the High Court of Justice, asking it to declare that the two conditions Paz-Pines added to Poraz’s proposal—Israeli birth and legal entry by the parents—were improper.
These conditions, wrote ACRI attorney Michal Pinchuk, “are arbitrary and do injustice to the aim of the arrangement, which is to find a solution on the basis of humanitarian principles, to the problem of the children of foreign workers. These children have integrated into Israeli society. Their deportation would mean taking them to an alien country with which they have no cultural or emotional ties.” Pinchuk argued that these conditions had nothing to do with the children’s existential plight. The children had no responsibility for the nature of their parents’ entry into Israel or where they were born, and neither of these matters determined their own ties to Israel, the country in which they had been raised.
Even if the High Court accepts the petition, many of the pupils at Bialik-Rogozin will be forced to leave Israel as of next Sunday (January 1, 2006.) More than half the children of foreign workers, 120 out of the 225, are younger than 10 years of age and are not covered by the petition. Another 27 meet all four criteria. That leaves less than 80 pupils and their immediate families who will in fact be affected by the High Court decision.
On November 27, dozens of these children piled into a school bus to attend a hearing on the petition before seven High Court justices, headed by Supreme Court President Aharon Barak.
Aside from some obvious physical differences, like the color of their skin or the shape of their cheekbones, the children looked and dressed like any Israeli youth of the same age. Those who were here from a young enough age talked with exactly the same accent and slang as their Israeli contemporaries.
At the end of the hearing, the petitioners won the round but not the battle. The court extended the deportation deadline for children of foreign workers aged 10-18 until March 31, regardless of how their parents entered the country or where the children were born.
A FEW weeks later, I met a few of them in the teachers’ lounge at Bialik-Rogozin. Earlier, the principle, Karen Tal, had told me that although they might look the same as ordinary Israeli children, they did not live the same way.
“These children sleep with one eye open,” said Tal. “They’ve heard the door close in the middle of the night when police took away their father or uncle. They don’t have the privilege of deep sleep.”
The children were quiet, polite and soft-spoken. Maybe it was because of the subject at hand, but none of them laughed, played around or even smiled throughout the discussion. They said a few, sparse, commonplace words about why they wanted to stay in Israel, and spoke with almost no passion until they described some of their experiences with the immigration authorities.
Among them were: Grade 8 pupil Robert Bronstein, 13, who came to Israel from Moldavia at age seven; Grade 8 pupil Richard Suarez, 14, who came to Israel from Colombia at age 14; Grade 12 pupil Jose Escobar, 17, who came to Israel from Ecuador five years ago; and Grade 12 pupil Laura Diaz, 16, who came to Israel from Colombia more than three years ago.
“I grew up here,” Bronstein said. “I won’t know the language, I won’t know anything [in Moldavia]. It’s better here. I have Israeli friends.”
Escobar has already written some of his matriculation exams and is considered an outstanding pupil. “It was very hard for me [to acclimatize] at first,” he said. “After a couple of years here, I began to settle in and concentrate on my studies. I have friends here, play soccer and basketball with them. It will take me a long time to find myself in Ecuador. I will finish my matriculation by the end of the year. If they expel me, I’ll have nothing to show for my schooling here.”
Escobar hopes to work in computers in the army and then study computer science at university.
Diaz is a Messianic Jew, Escobar a Seventh-Day Adventist, while Suarez and Bronstein are Roman Catholics. All of them say they are not concerned by Israel’s being a Jewish state.
“It doesn’t bother me,” said Suarez. “I visit my Jewish friends on their holidays and they visit me on mine.”
Despite the anxiety and uncertainty with which these children live, they are temporarily better off on a day-to-day basis than they ever were in all their years here. The parents of at least three of the four children entered Israel illegally and from the day the Immigration Authority was established five years ago, they faced the threat of deportation every moment of the day. It was only when Poraz issued an order to the police not to expel families with children until the government decided what to do about them that they found themselves out of immediate danger. But this did not mean that their parents were not arrested or that they did not witness deportations of family members and friends.
“My mother was arrested by the immigration police,” recalled 14-year-old Suarez. “I had to bring our passports to the station and translate for her. The police threatened her.”
“The police are very violent,” interjected Diaz.
Escobar said that four policemen and two Interior Ministry representatives knocked on his door at 3 a.m. to arrest an illegal worker who was sleeping in his family’s home.
“Downstairs, there were two more policemen flanking the entrance with a Doberman Pinscher,” he added with a note of bitterness.
Diaz said she was home alone one day while her mother was out working. “I didn’t want to open the door,” she recalled. “The policeman banged on the door and shouted. I started to cry. He left but returned at night. We decided to move. They think we’re not people, that we’re animals.”
After such experiences, why would anyone want to make their life here? “Just because one Jew does something bad does not mean that everyone is bad, said Suarez. “There are many good people here.”
“Most Israelis don’t like to behave like that,” added Diaz. “Even many policemen.”
TO A large extent, the government decision of June 26 was based on an error. Paz-Pines’s political aid, Gilead Heiman, told The Jerusalem Post that the minister had received figures from the Population Authority stating that his decision would enable 2,500 children of foreign workers and their families to settle in Israel. However, Education Ministry figures indicated that only about 600 foreign workers’ children were registered in school, and these apparently included children below the age of 10.
According to Heiman, Paz-Pines said at the time that he himself had been skeptical about the Population Registry data, but that he had had no choice but to act on them, since they were the official government figures. He said he had intended to examine how many children were actually granted residency by the end of the year. If the figures were low, he would lower the threshold of eligibility.
In the event, only about 150 children have proven eligible for residency status according to Paz-Pines’ criteria, including 27 pupils at Rogozin-Bialik. This is a far cry from the hordes of non-Jews that Interior Ministry officials feared would flood the country, adversely affect the demographic balance and threaten the Jewish character of the state.
Paz-Pines said he would not have changed the two conditions in dispute in the High Court but would have lowered the eligibility age barrier to six years instead of 10. Unfortunately for the dozens of children who would have benefited from the change, he did not remain in office.
Tal said she was ashamed of the government for its attitude towards the kids.
“I don’t have a problem with Israel closing its skies to foreigners,” she said. “But we cannot slough our responsibility to the children who are already here. Israel signed the UN Covenant on the Rights of the Child, in which it undertook to grant every child the right to education, development and health.”