We needed them to build our houses, to plant and harvest our fields, and to care
for our elderly, especially when the security situation here deteriorated and
cheap Palestinian labor became increasingly inaccessible. And they came,
creating in the process a mosaic of cultural diversity.
Most (30 percent)
came from Thailand, but many migrated from the Philippines (18%), from China
(10%), Nepal (6%) and Romania (5%). They were willing to work harder than the
average Israeli for longer hours at a lower salary (40% lower on average,
according to the Bank of Israel).
Many stayed on after their permits
expired – to defray the initial payments they had made to the middlemen
chance to come, or simply to enjoy Israel’s economic boom.
Others came as
near-indentured servants who were forbidden to work for anyone but the
who first hired them, until the High Court of Justice ruled that this
arrangement violated basic human rights, annulling in the process their
discriminatory work permits.
These “guest” workers, who today number
between 250,000 and 400,000 – half of them illegal – did not only toil.
fell in love and married and had children, probably more than 2,000
who were sent to schools like Tel Aviv’s Bialik-Rogozin to study with
Israelis their age – reading, writing and arithmetic – in Hebrew.
also were taught about the remarkable revival of the Jewish state. They
about Jewish holidays. They played Israeli games and sang Israeli songs,
up on Purim and ate matza on Pessah.
All along, economists argued, with
some credibility, that foreign workers took jobs away from locals –
those jobs that Israelis, if paid fairly, would be prepared to take.
Zionists and religious traditionalists fretted that foreign workers
Israel’s Jewishness and would increase intermarriage. There were claims
criminal activity. Pressure mounted to expel illegal aliens, curtail
and phase out reliance on foreign labor.
All along, the State of Israel
remained perhaps the only western country without an immigration policy,
report entitled “Managing Global Migration: A Strategy for Immigration
Israel,” released in February by the Metzilah Center, pointed
Europe, the US and other nations reacted to the new realities of
globalization, that include mass migration from the poor southern
the rich north, by adopting clear, transparent policies. Decision makers
Israel, apparently oblivious to our country’s attraction for migrant
Jurisdiction was dispersed among a myriad of government bodies
from the Interior Ministry, to the Population, Migration and Border
Authority, to the Prime Minister’s Office, to the National Insurance
to the Industry, Trade and Labor Ministry.
Perhaps part of the
disinclination to face up to the new realities stemmed from Israelis’
self-image. As the Supreme Court pointed out, Israel has traditionally
itself as an aliya (repatriation) state, focused principally on
Jewish continuity, as opposed to an immigration state grappling with
THANKFULLY, IF very belatedly, our leaders are now
taking the first modest steps toward the formulation of a coherent
policy. An interministerial committee appointed by Prime Minister
Netanyahu has adopted naturalization criteria for about 800 out of an
1,200 offspring of illegal foreign workers.
Children who are enrolled in
school, speak fluent Hebrew and who have been here for at least five
be allowed to stay. So will their parents and siblings. The reasoning is
these children have integrated into Israeli society and would find it
difficult to readjust to their parents’ country.
This is a relatively
generous solution to a problem that could and should have been avoided –
hopefully will be from now on.
According to media reports, however,
Interior Minister Eli Yishai is proposing to expel 800 of the 1,200 –
according to an arbitrary criteria, whereby only those children who are
first grade next year would stay.
It may be that Yishai is motivated by
the deeply ingrained Jewish fear, fostered during nearly 2,000 years of
of intermarriage and assimilation resulting from relations with
while it is vital to protect Israel’s Jewish character, the Jewish
people is no
longer an embattled minority wandering among the nations.
The Jews of
Israel are a majority with their own sovereign state, and that majority
be perfectly capable of instituting policies that grapple with the
foreign workers, rather than punish those workers’ children.