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Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Mayors from 23 countries learn from immigrants in TA

Mayors are guests of Foreign Ministry, Union of Local Authorities and US Jewish advocacy group.

A delegation of mayors from 23 countries on Tuesday toured a school in south Tel Aviv – and drew international attention – after a documentary about the school’s multi-cultural students won an Oscar earlier this year.

The mayors of places as far as New Jersey, Harare, Zimbabwe and Trujillo, Peru met with pupils of the Rogozin-Bialik School and learned about the challenges and hardships they face as children of refugees and immigrants.

One member of the delegation, Winnipeg Mayor Samuel Michael Katz, knows what it’s like to be an immigrant from personal experience. When Katz was a young boy, his Jewish family emigrated from Poland to Canada via Israel, where he was born.

“[My family] had a cousin in Canada and they sought opportunity,” he recalled. “My father was a salt-maker in Poland, and he became a baker, and my mother worked in a store.”

Growing up in north Winnipeg in the 1950s and 1960s, Katz still remembers the taunts at school because of his Judaism.

“Anti-Semitism is everywhere – it’s just to what level and how it surfaces,” he said. “If you don’t see it one day, it doesn’t mean it’s not there. When I was elected, I was the first Jewish mayor of Winnipeg, a city of about 700,000 people, and there were many people who thought there would never, ever be a Jewish mayor.”

He said the Rogozin-Bialik School reminded him of the importance of embracing newcomers and providing them with an education to help steer youth away from crime, and prevent poverty.

The delegation of mayors is part of an annual event now in its 27th year organized by the Foreign Ministry, the Union of Local Authorities in Israel and the American Council for World Jewry, a Jewish advocacy group.

“We chose mayors to come because they are the ones closest to their residents in their local communities – speaking directly to them – and they are also potential future leaders of their country,” said Jack Rosen, president of the American Council for World Jewry.

“From our experience, we had the mayor of Warsaw who ended up president [the late Lech Kaczynski], and two other mayors who ended up as senators [Norm Coleman and George Voinovich],” he added.

Rosen said bringing municipal leaders to Israel was a good opportunity to educate them about the country, and forge future diplomatic ties.

At the school, the children put on a show for their guests, singing songs in Hebrew and banging on darbuka drums.

Cecil Alexander Joseph, the mayor of Roseau, on the Caribbean island of Dominica, said he was touched by the performance.

“You come from all over the world – from Africa, Thailand and the Philippines,” he said, with a Caribbean lilt. “You will enjoy the peace of Israel and you’ve taught us what love is.”

One of the larger contingents of children at the school is Filipino, a fact that Michael Rama, the mayor of the Philippine city of Cebu, acknowledged when he posed beside Angel Natur, a 10-year-old boy born in Israel to parents from the Philippines.

“On Behalf of our country, the Philippines, I would like to thank you for giving the children a future, and not discriminating,” he said.