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A damper on Israeli school's Oscar celebration

Bialik-Rogozin School, which serves migrants and refugees, was featured in the Oscar-winning documentary 'Strangers No More.' But about 120 students face deportation under a controversial Israeli policy to curb illegal immigration.

March 01, 2011|By Batsheva Sobelman, Los Angeles Times
  • A teacher works with students at Bialik-Rogozin School in the heart of Tel Aviv. The school helps mostly migrant and refugee children, and is the subject of a short documentary, "Strangers No More," which won an Oscar this year.
A teacher works with students at Bialik-Rogozin School in the heart of Tel… (Simon and Goodman Pictures )

Reporting from Tel Aviv — Students and teachers at an innovative Tel Aviv school profiled in this year's Oscar-winning short documentary, "Strangers No More," celebrated Monday with balloons and gold-foil-wrapped chocolates, far away from the glitz of Hollywood.

But the post-Oscar party at Bialik-Rogozin School, where many of the students have escaped poverty, war and even genocide, was dampened by a government threat to deport as many as 120, or nearly 15%, of the pupils under a controversial new policy aimed at reducing Israel's illegal migrant workforce.

"I hope the film stops the deportation that hangs over our friends," said Shira Mollo Musikanda, 18, a student from the Democratic Republic of Congo. Though she is not among those at risk for deportation, Musikanda said she hoped the attention raised by Sunday's Academy Award honor will change the way some Israelis view foreign workers.

"I hope the film makes people see we are all people," she said. "No matter how different we look, we all have the same thoughts and dreams."

Neahama Seinberg, director of the school's elementary program, expressed hope that the movie would bolster opposition to the deportation policy, which has not been fully implemented yet. "Films and media have tremendous power," she said. "I hope it can generate change too."

"Strangers No More," produced and directed by Karen Goodman and Kirk Simon for HBO, follows the travails of three students at Bialik-Rogozin, one of Israel's most diverse schools. The student body comprises hundreds of migrants, refugees and asylum seekers from four dozen countries.

Though not Israeli-produced, the film — which celebrates racial harmony in a country struggling with ethnic and religious hatred — might have been a public relations boon for Israel. Instead the documentary has drawn attention to one of its most divisive policies.

Struggling with a flood of illegal workers, the right-wing government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced in August that it would deport as many as 400 children who did not qualify for residential status. Many were born and raised in Israel, speak Hebrew and have known no other home.

Esther, one of the three young students featured in the film, is at risk of deportation. If she and her co-stars had attended the Oscars ceremony in Hollywood, they would not have able to return to Israel.

An Interior Ministry spokesperson said Monday that the agency was proceeding with the deportation policy. But numerous critics, including Israeli President Shimon Peres and Netanyahu's wife, Sara, have urged the ministry to reverse the decision, calling deportations of children "un-Jewish" and "inhumane."

Rotem Ilan, founder of the advocacy group Israeli Children, questioned how the same country that produced a school praised for its tolerance and assistance to children facing hardships could also pursue such a policy.

"It's the same country that just announced completion of the jail where children will be locked up before being deported to a country they have never known," she said, referring to a planned detention facility for children. "With all due respect, pictures of Spongebob Squarepants and Pooh-Bear on the walls don't change a thing. A jail is still a jail."

"They are wonderful, loving children and they will be wonderful Israeli citizens," she said. "We are not doing them a favor by allowing them to stay. We ourselves will be the first to benefit from their becoming a legal part of Israeli society."

Sobelman is a news assistant in The Times' Jerusalem bureau.

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