Social justice group brings Birthright youth to South Tel Aviv


One muggy afternoon in December, a tour bus carrying a football team’s worth of young Los Angeles Jews pulled up to a dirty curb in South Tel Aviv. It was their fourth day of Birthright, and they were scheduled for a tour of Tel Aviv’s notorious bottom half. 

After they exited the bus, one petite L.A. woman in head-to-toe sportswear grimaced and held a tissue to her nose, blocking the neighborhood stench. “I feel like there are a lot of homeless people here,” her friend whispered.

BINA Secular Yeshiva’s director of international seminars and communication, Elliot Glassenberg (right), led a Birthright group from Los Angeles on a tour of South Tel Aviv on Dec. 18.

“Anybody know the name of the neighborhood we’re in?” asked their guide, Elliot Glassenberg, director of international seminars and communication for the BINA Secular Yeshiva, a Jewish school and social action center in South Tel Aviv. The yeshiva is funded in part by The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.

“The name of the neighborhood is Neve Shaanan, which means ‘oasis of serenity,’ ” Glassenberg said. “You feeling it?”

The group laughed nervously. Their tour of South Tel Aviv — one of about a dozen Birthright tours scheduled at the BINA Secular Yeshiva throughout the program’s current winter season — had been arranged and financed not by the umbrella Birthright organization but by The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, one of Birthright’s many partners. (Another two-dozen Birthright tours of South Tel Aviv were scheduled for summer 2014, but were all canceled because of the war.)

“There are a lot of moving parts” to the Birthright funding structure, Birthright spokeswoman Pamela Fertel Weinstein said in an interview. When Federations from different U.S. cities put money toward a Birthright bus, she said, they have the option to include a couple of stops in the itinerary that correspond with “things The Federation is supporting” — in this case, the BINA Secular Yeshiva.

For security reasons, Birthright groups are not allowed to travel into the West Bank or Gaza — not even the Muslim quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City. But what is perhaps Israel’s second most controversial demographic conflict — the government’s struggle to expel 50,000 undocumented African immigrants — is easily accessible from within the confines of Tel Aviv, Israel’s sexiest, most contemporary city.

Weinstein said BINA’s tour of South Tel Aviv is “an approved site visit under the Talmud/Torah educational category,” but is not one of the “certain places everyone must visit,” such as the Western Wall or Masada. 

However, Birthright’s policy toward these offbeat tours appears to have shifted in recent months. According to Sarah Austin, head of Birthright programming for the L.A. Federation, the BINA tour — which had been supplemented by Birthright in past seasons — is no longer covered.

“It’s not supplemented within our normal visit,” Austin said. “Seasons before, we didn’t have to pay for the visit. I don’t know why, but something changed.”

Weinstein said she was not aware of this change.

The L.A. Federation was willing to pay for the tour itself, Austin said, because it felt strongly about the value of visiting South Tel Aviv. “It’s important that people see there’s a bunch of different ways to be Jewish — that Israel is not just a tourist country,” she said.

On the Dec. 18 tour, Glassenberg tread carefully while telling his abridged history of the neighborhood. “In 1921, there were, um, well, riots — er — tensions between Jews and Arabs in Jaffa,” he said.

So a group of a few hundred Zionists, he explained, moved north to the lower outskirts of Tel Aviv, where they founded Neve Shaanan — an idyllic agricultural village with streets in the shape of a menorah. Their vision was for Neve Shaanan’s crops to feed the middle classes up in Tel Aviv proper. But “as an agricultural experiment, it quickly failed,” Glassenberg said, and Neve Shaanan soon became known as an immigrant neighborhood — not unlike “the Lower East Side of New York or the South Side of Chicago.”

“It’s almost a microcosm of Israel,” Glassenberg told the Birthright group. “A little piece of every wave of immigration has come to this neighborhood.”

He pointed out architecture left behind by each wave of immigrants. The first wave was of European Jews, post-Holocaust. Then, in the 1970s, Middle Eastern Jews arrived from countries such as Morocco, Syria and Iran. In the 1990s, around 1 million Russians — some Jewish, some not — escaped to Israel after the fall of the Soviet Union. And later on in the ’90s, following the First Intifada, migrant workers flooded in from Asia and Eastern Europe — arriving to fill blue-collar posts formerly filled by Palestinians. By 2008, there were approximately 300,000 foreign workers in Israel.

But the most recent influx of around 50,000 Eritrean and Sudanese work migrants and asylum seekers has been one of the most dramatic. It has transformed the area surrounding the dilapidated Tel Aviv Central Bus Station, where most of them came to live, into what locals call “Little Africa.”

Neve Shaanan’s street signs are written in a mishmash of Hebrew, Russian, Arabic, Amharic (Ethiopian) and Tigrinya (Eritrean). Cafe windows steam with fragrant African stews and breads. Groups of unemployed Eritrean and Sudanese men — and some women — cluster in South Tel Aviv’s central Levinksy Park, lining benches and sitting or sleeping in the grass. Many of the neighborhood’s homes are barely standing, covered only with sheet metal or tarps to protect them from the weather.

Walking down Neve Shaanan Street, some Birthright kids looked bewildered, others inspired. “It reminds me of L.A. in some ways — certain parts of L.A. where you’ve got the Blacks, the Mexicans, the Asians all in one place,” participant Erik Knipprath said.

Oren Peleg, a Disney employee (and occasional contributor to the Jewish Journal) who was on his third Birthright trip working as a staff member, said he’d “never done anything like this” on prior trips. “I was talking to the [Birthright] soldiers and they were saying, ‘It’s a grimy neighborhood, we never come here,’ ” Peleg said. “But I see a lot of character.”

When the group reached a free community library in the middle of Levinksy Park, set up by Israeli volunteers and featuring books in 16 different languages, Glassenberg delved further into the debate.

“Israel in 2011 realized this was becoming a major problem,” he said of the African influx. “So they did a few things: First, they built a fence along the border with Egypt so people are no longer entering. So there are now about 50,000 asylum seekers in Israel, but nobody else can come in. But they decided that now — instead of getting a free bus ticket and a visa — they would now be considered illegal infiltrators and they would be given three years in prison.”

Glassenberg then gave the floor to Birthrighters, asking them how they felt about so many foreigners moving into an Israeli neighborhood. “It’s an ongoing discussion,” he said. “What does it mean to be a Jewish state? How can you have, in the Hebrew city of Tel Aviv, 50,000 foreigners? That’s a significant chunk of the population, in a country of 8 million people. What does it mean?”

One participant responded: “It’s tough if everyone meets this [refugee] requirement. What can you do?” Another asked: “Maybe they could make aliyah?”

As the group continued to discuss, an elderly Israeli resident of South Tel Aviv pulled a couple of Birthright boys to the side, telling them in a hushed voice about how dangerous the neighborhood had become since Africans moved in. 

A few more blocks into the tour, Glassenberg ran into his friend Walyaldin Suliman, a Darfuri refugee who now runs a barbershop in Neve Shaanan.

Somewhat reluctantly, Suliman tried to sum up one of Israel’s most complex issues in a five-minute pitch: “I have 2 1/2 years in Israel,” he told the group. “I’m living, but I didn’t get the status of refugee. I only have a visa to stay. And now the visa is not a solution, because the government made a new decision to take everybody for 20 months in the Holot prison. This is a big prison in the desert. They take people to the desert prison because they come from Africa.

“More than 2,000 Sudanese and Eritreans are now in prison,” Suliman said. “In prison, they push you to go back to your country. But when you go back, and you arrive at the airport, the security men of the government of Sudan catch you.”

After the walking tour, BINA organizers told the Journal that their tours’ most educational moments often come when an Israeli or African approaches the group.

“We don’t want to be this foreign element just wandering through their neighborhood,” said Dan Herman, director of the Tikkun Olam post-college volunteer program (a joint project of BINA and the Daniel Centers for Progressive Judaism). “We want to be responsive to the neighborhood, not to force our solution or force our ideals.”

Multiple participants on this Federation-funded Birthright trip told the Journal that South Tel Aviv turned out to be the highlight of their itinerary.

“This is the most interesting thing we’ve done,” said Ariel Thomas, a 23-year-old Hawaii native with Jamaican roots. “I was looking forward to it — especially because we couldn’t stop talking about what happened at customs.”

According to Thomas, she and a handful of other Birthright participants from minority racial groups had been interrogated for hours at Tel Aviv’s Ben-Gurion International Airport — an experience that made them question whether they were welcome in Israel. “They didn’t believe we were Jewish,” she said of airport security officers. “I thought they weren’t going to let me in. So I thought, ‘I wonder if they’re racist because of the immigrants.’ ”

Avila Santo, 23, a Los Angeles artist, said he was “surprised but happy” that Birthright had allowed the BINA tour. “I think it’s very important because it allows you to question Jewish identity, what it means to be a Jew and what it means to care about your neighbor, right here in Tel Aviv — it was great to see.”

But Santo realized that the visit might not work with every group. “Even in this group, which is very secular, it’s very sparked,” he said.

Indeed, during a discussion session following the South Tel Aviv tour, a 22-year-old Israeli soldier accompanying the trip called the Africans ungrateful. “I know it’s hard to live here, but it’s such a better place for them than in Sudan and Eritrea,” he said. “In Egypt, they shoot them. In Europe, in a lot of countries, they put them in jail. In Israel, they can live. So I think they just need to thank Israel.”

The soldier added: “They can cry about it and say Israel is stupid, but … they have such a better life here.” 

A male L.A. participant sitting next to him, who wished to remain anonymous, agreed with the soldier. “We still haven’t addressed the fact that they’re not citizens, though,” he said. “Shouldn’t our obligation be toward the people who are citizens first? The fact that they can make in a day here what they can make in two months in their country — it’s infinite times better than what they already have. Is that enough, or are we required to give more?”

Santo thought for a moment, then responded: “It’s kind of hard to have a cookie-cutter avenue for everyone to go through. Because some people can’t go back to their countries.” 

The group’s Israeli leader, Nadav Dori, said afterward that he believes more Birthright groups should come see South Tel Aviv. “[Glassenberg] has an agenda, and it’s obvious,” Dori said. “But it’s important that people bring up this subject to public opinion, because people who aren’t from Tel Aviv, it’s important that they see this. And it’s a very good subject to bring up specifically with Americans, because they’re dealing with the same thing in America.”

America’s own immigration debate did come up many times in discussion. “Sometimes I feel like they get more than we do,” Sasha Santos, 26, said of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. who are eligible for college scholarships. “As Americans, we’re not getting the resources that we should be getting, and they’re getting them before us.”

Glassenberg told the Journal that simply starting this discussion was half the point of the tour, and fits into Birthright’s mission of engaging young Jews.

“If you open up a conversation and invite the participants to understand and take part, they respect that and they appreciate that, and they’re able to engage more positively in the conversation,” he said.

And most importantly, as a result, he added, “They feel more connected to Israel.”

BINA leaders, and others within the social Zionist movement, believe visits to the area might offer a way to modernize Birthright’s reputation in the eyes of politically aware Jewish youth — and help with Birthright registration numbers, which the organization has been attempting to increase.

A Haaretz news story from before the summer war dissected Birthright’s recent attempts to expand its PR reach. The piece cited a Birthright-commissioned survey finding “less affiliated Jews had not enrolled in Birthright amid concerns it would be too religious for them or push pro-Israel propaganda. More than half the respondents cited these two issues.” 

Although Birthright participation increased overall between 2011 and 2014 — from 33,000 to 43,000 participants — new registration hasn’t kept pace with rising donations and projected growth of the program.

Weinstein said Birthright is an “apolitical organization” that does not oppose trips to areas like South Tel Aviv. “We consider it a job well done if people come home and have more questions,” she said.

However, multiple other sources involved in organizing Birthright tours said they felt more resistance to exploring the area in recent months.

“I think there’s a natural fear of airing the dirty laundry,” Herman said. “A fear that if you show people [South Tel Aviv], you’re going to scare them off or be unfairly critical of Israel.”

However, he said, “Our generation was brought up learning to question things and be critical. You can’t ask them to put that on hold here. Because if you do, they’re not going to trust you.”

Herman’s program, Tikkun Olam, is one track available within the monthslong study abroad and post-college program Masa, known as an extended Birthright for the quarter-life-crisis crowd. Masa has been very public about its work with African immigrants, and has been sending young American Jews deep into dirty, messy South Tel Aviv through various programs for six to seven years now.

A 2013 study conducted by the Jewish Agency for Israel on the effects of longer-term programs such as Masa found that “exposure to Israel’s challenges and problems in the context of service work did not weaken participants’ commitment to and interest in the country. On the contrary, connection to the country and its people seems to have been consistently intensified by exposure to some of its most challenging realities.”

In the words of Noga Brenner Samia, deputy director of the BINA Secular Yeshiva: “Love is what’s left after you’ve seen the complexity and understood the reality.”

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