07 February 2012


The first thing one notices immediately upon turning into South Tel Aviv near the Central Bus Station are the exceptionally high number of Sudanese and Eritrean refugees, lined up on corners for day work, sitting in the faded grass biding their time, set among makeshift tents with African television and hookahs, or wondering about looking for something lost.  South Tel Aviv has always been the poorest section of the city, overcome with economic displacement, a hideous monstrosity (the "White Elephant" of a bus station, dropped, Robert Moses-like, in the heart of a humble urban street plan reminiscent of the menorah) but today it is like a mirage of refugees seeking asylum from oppression in Darfur, Eritrea or Ethiopia and posing a series of great challenges and dilemmas for Israel.

A nation built on the idea of making a safe haven for Jewish refugees surely knows the pain and suffering of homelessness, the instability of uprootedness.  It calls the question on certain manifestations of Zionism--are the Jewish people, as a light unto the nations, meant to make room for other refugees seeking asylum inside their borders?  Is there a potential hypocrisy in caring for African refugees while the matter of peace with Palestinians and dealing with their claims of refugee status remain unresolved?  What about the refugees in general as a mean source of labor in an economy where most Jews no longer do the most menial of work?  Are they merely here to be temporarily engaged and then, when possible, returned to their own homeland?  Does Israel have the resources to support the social, educational, health and vocational infrastructure that would be required to integrate these refugees into mainstream Israeli society?  Is it even possible?

These are among the many difficult and as of yet unresolved questions that arose during our time at BINA and our walk around the neighborhood Tuesday morning.  As a cold rain threatened from above, we began studying the famous text about the sage Hillel who one day is shut out of the house of study, goes to the roof to hear his masters teach, falls asleep and is covered in snow.  His body blocks out the light from the study hall and when his masters notice the darkened room, look up above to notice that their neglected student--unconscious--calls for assistance.  Their lesson ceases and they take up the matter of healing him--bringing him indoors and warming him by the fire.

A powerful metaphor for BINA's work--to engage young people with learning while also engaging the surrounding neighborhood in classic community organizing techniques of working with at-risk youth, the elderly, and the refugees--all greatly underserved in any society and certainly in Israel as well.  Noga Brenner Samia did a great job showing us around the neighborhood, laying out the dilemmas and challenges of the work, and inviting us to return, to send our students, and to take responsibility for some very important work in contemporary Israel.
After an early afternoon walk about the center of town and a break for lunch, we shifted gears and headed to the Tel Aviv Art Museum and a tour of the new wing, designed by Harvard architect Preston Scott Cohen.  The building is spectacular and in its center, emanating from a design like the keel of a ship, is what the architect called a "light-fall," which is as disorienting as it is calming--drawing one in as one is drawn into the power of a great water-fall.  An homage to the Guggenheim, I suppose; but I was struck by the sanded concrete ship's bow exterior and felt that art, like life here, was beckoning the epic journey.  Why settle for anything less?
What's a day in Tel Aviv without Gaga?  Yossi Naharin warmly brought us through an introduction to this unique exercise form that after three days and a deep immersion in some hard questions, was a welcome respite from words and a chance to let the body, movement and intuition take over.  Gaga was developed by Yossi's brother, the Batsheva dance director Ohad Naharin, as "movement language" and during this guided meditation, our voices were quieted by the expansions of our "interior" minds to an exterior language of motion.  There was something about this embrace of the ethereal, the reaching up, the turning inside-out, that had me thinking back to the rain that threatened to fall all day, the wind that blew with great strength the palm and ficus and sycamore trees every which way.

We prepare to leave Tel Aviv this morning, to head to the North of the country, humbled by the city's uncommon beauty, exuberant youth and vitality, and insanely challenging dilemmas--both common to any large urban reality yet singularly unique to Israel.

Last night at dinner, someone said, "Can't we just stay in Tel Aviv for a month?" No erstwhile comment--but an expression of the complexities of this place, its alluring narrative of a new Jewish culture in an ancient language, and an irreducible certainty that as Herzl himself imagined in his novel "Altneuland," this place is both old and new.  "Can't we stay?" An admission of being drawn in to the story, of not wanting to leave, of admitting that it's taken hold.  Incredible to think that the state was built by us for our own safe haven and that now others seek it as well.  The dimensions of this reality will challenge Israelis for many more years to come.

We were once slaves in Egypt and when we were freed we danced on the shores of the sea.  Without question, however, is that one can't dance forever.  The world, and its inhabitants, call out for us to bring goodness and justice to them as well.  A message that is both old and new.

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