Tel Aviv mayor tells of Israel’s illegal immigration

Mayor Ron Huldai addresses group at home of Norman and Roberta Greene June 30

By Donald H. Harrison

Donald H. Harrison

SAN DIEGO—Mayor Ron Huldai of Tel Aviv, after showing the Oscar-winning short-subject documentary Strangers No More at a private gathering June 30 to promote the work of the Tel Aviv Foundation, found himself discussing a subject that has preoccupied both Israel and the United States recently: what should be done to discourage illegal immigration from economically poorer countries?

While he did not discuss the situation in the United States, Huldai expressed a nuanced view of the question as it affects Israel.  He voiced support for the work of his city’s Bialik-Rogozon School, featured in the heart-warming documentary.  The school, utilizing a dedicated staff and numerous “volunteer grandparents,”  educates students from other countries and helps them adapt to Israel, notwithstanding the fact that some of the students arrived in Israel illegally.

Huldai explained that Tel Aviv offers a broad array of services for any immigrant, legal or illegal.   “He’s a human being, and he’s mine—especially the children,” the mayor declared during a parlor meeting in the Alvarado Estates home of Norman and Roberta Greene.

The mayor said helping immigrants is humanitarian, in keeping with the Torah’s injunction to remember that the Jewish people were once strangers in Egypt, and contrasts favorably to the way Jews were mistreated by the nations of the
world during the Holocaust.  Additionally, such programs are beneficial for his city: “If we didn’t do it, we would face
more crime,” he said.

The son of pioneers of Kibbutz Hulda located between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem (thus his Hebrew name “Huldai” meaning “from Hulda”), the mayor had served for 26 years in the Israel Air Force, retiring as a brigadier general, and then won national attention when for six years he served as a school principal at the Herzliya Gymnasium, a well known academy. Huldai  was elected in 1998 as Tel Aviv’s ninth mayor, and currently is in his third five-year term.

Noting that many foreign workers were brought to Israel during the time of the intifada, when Israeli businesses couldn’t depend on steady labor from the Palestinian territories,  Huldai said many of these workers simply stayed beyond the time their visas had expired, preferring to be illegal in Israel to going back to their economically depressed home countries.  He suggested that the national government adopt a  “tough” policy requiring such workers to be rounded up and flown back to their countries of origin.

Undocumented immigrants, said Huldai, compete for jobs with native Israelis from lower economic brackets.  He advocated that there be a crackdown on employers of undocumented workers.

The mayor also said he favored the re-implementation of a policy requiring non-Jewish immigrants to work only in the developing areas of the Negev and the Galilee, while being prohibited  from employment in Israel’s central areas, including Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.  When such a policy was in effect, he said, illegal immigration to Israel across the porous Egyptian border dropped almost by half.

The mayor and Dr. Meggie Navon, vice president for North America of the Tel Aviv Foundation, differentiated between refugees—some of whose children are featured in the documentary—and former foreign guest workers and other illegal
immigrants.  They stressed that Israel welcomes true refugees.

Particularly touching in the documentary, which is now making the rounds of film festivals, were the stories of children from the soon-to-be independent Darfur region of Sudan and from Eritrea.  Film makers Karen Goodman and Kirk Simon followed these children for a school year under a grant from Lin Arison, widow of Carnival Cruise Line founder Ted Arison.

Relating the back story of that production, Navon said that the Tel Aviv Foundation had escorted Mrs. Arison around the city, for the most partcomplying with her request that the tour be restricted to venues of arts and culture for which the city and foundation seek funds.   But given that the Bialik-Rogozin School has a wonderful choir, Foundation staff slipped the school into the visit.  Mrs. Arison initially resisted, but agreed to stay at the school only for 10 minutes, according to Navon.  However, after Mrs. Arison saw the children of the school, and heard  from the school’s principal, Karen Tal, the visit stretched to two hours.  Mrs. Arison subsequently provided the funding for the documentary, which premiered on HBO.
Thursday evening’s  parlor meeting followed by a dessert reception at the Greene home was described as a “friend-raiser”
rather than a “fund-raiser” and no direct solicitation was made for contributions to the Tel Aviv Foundation.   Instead,
Navon invited the guests to come visit her in Tel Aviv, so that she could take them on similar tours.   Navon explained
that donors to the Foundation are able to designate to what project their contribution should be applied, adding that their donation will trigger a matching grant from the City of Tel Aviv.

Harrison is editor of San Diego Jewish World.  He may be contacted at [email protected]

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