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 for the 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 employer 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. They fell in love and married and had children, probably more than 2,000 children, who were sent to schools like Tel Aviv’s Bialik-Rogozin to study with young Israelis their age – reading, writing and arithmetic – in Hebrew.

They also were taught about the remarkable revival of the Jewish state. They learned about Jewish holidays. They played Israeli games and sang Israeli songs, dressed up on Purim and ate matza on Pessah.

All along, economists argued, with some credibility, that foreign workers took jobs away from locals – certainly those jobs that Israelis, if paid fairly, would be prepared to take. Old-style Zionists and religious traditionalists fretted that foreign workers endangered Israel’s Jewishness and would increase intermarriage. There were claims of criminal activity. Pressure mounted to expel illegal aliens, curtail permits, and phase out reliance on foreign labor.

All along, the State of Israel remained perhaps the only western country without an immigration policy, as a report entitled “Managing Global Migration: A Strategy for Immigration Policy in Israel,” released in February by the Metzilah Center, pointed out.

Europe, the US and other nations reacted to the new realities of globalization, that include mass migration from the poor southern hemisphere to the rich north, by adopting clear, transparent policies. Decision makers in Israel, apparently oblivious to our country’s attraction for migrant workers, did not.

Jurisdiction was dispersed among a myriad of government bodies from the Interior Ministry, to the Population, Migration and Border Crossing Authority, to the Prime Minister’s Office, to the National Insurance Institute, 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 seen itself as an aliya (repatriation) state, focused principally on protecting Jewish continuity, as opposed to an immigration state grappling with large-scale economic migration.

THANKFULLY, IF very belatedly, our leaders are now taking the first modest steps toward the formulation of a coherent immigration policy. An interministerial committee appointed by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has adopted naturalization criteria for about 800 out of an estimated 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 years will be allowed to stay. So will their parents and siblings. The reasoning is that these children have integrated into Israeli society and would find it extremely difficult to readjust to their parents’ country.

This is a relatively generous solution to a problem that could and should have been avoided – and hopefully will be from now on.

According to media reports, however, Interior Minister Eli Yishai is proposing to expel 800 of the 1,200 – reportedly according to an arbitrary criteria, whereby only those children who are entering 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 exile, of intermarriage and assimilation resulting from relations with non-Jews. But 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 should be perfectly capable of instituting policies that grapple with the challenge of foreign workers, rather than punish those workers’ children.

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