There are two ways one could see the issue of foreign workers in Israel: as a dire threat to the Jewish character of the state, or as an inevitable phenomenon of the worldwide movement of economic migrants that needs to be regulated. The two concepts can't coexist, because the former negates the latter.
Worldwide, there are millions of economic migrants on the move away from their countries, mostly to Europe and America. Tens of millions are leaving Africa for the developed world in search of better conditions. They travel by boat and by land. Sometimes they succeed in smuggling themselves through, and sometimes they are stopped, incarcerated and sent back. Many of them arrive legally, outstay their welcome, and become illegal aliens. Spain, Italy, America, which have absorbed millions of migrant workers, all have policies in place for economic migrants. Israel still doesn't.
There are some who argue that Israel should welcome economic migrants, and there are some who argue that we should stop them from coming because they bring with them disease and assimilation.
Apart from the potentially xenophobic undertones of the latter argument, from an economic point of view, there is a case to be made that migrant workers are good for the Israeli economy because they aren't paid well and carry out jobs that Israelis don't want to do.
On the one hand, you could look at it through the eyes of Interior Minister Eli Yishai. When Yishai looks at the vast African migration, for example, he sees a column of a million dark, disease-bearing non-Jews descending on the fragile Jewish state to take away our Jewish character, our jobs, our homes; the end of the Zionist enterprise. In this view, every foreign worker who comes takes a job away from Israelis, be they Israeli-Arabs, Jews from the periphery or others. They came here legally but stayed here illegally. They're breaking the law, they're criminals.
On the other side of the coin, you could see the migrant worker story as an inevitable cultural and economic phenomenon with huge potential benefits to Israel. Fields get tilled and houses get built. We enjoy their culture and they enjoy ours. Call it the "we're all human beings" approach. We see it in major cities all over the world: Berlin, Paris and New York. In these cities, the municipality, in conjunction with the central government, takes over dealing with the economic migrants and foreign workers. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't and there are problems.
Many of the migrants come from countries with much worse problems than Israel's. Spain, for instance, has absorbed between 3 and 4 million African migrant workers in the past decade, some 10 percent of its population. Regardless of your worldview, the urgent need for a coherent policy is obvious.
This issue comes up at almost every Sunday cabinet meeting, and gets put off week after week. The children of the foreign workers, some 1,200 of whom are threatened with deportation, live under a constant shadow of uncertainty. It is almost inhuman keeping them in this state of distress. But the children are just the tip of the iceberg.
What's really at stake here is Israel's policy toward the hundreds of thousands of migrant workers already here, and those yet to come.
When the policy is formed, it needs to take into account that mass economic migration is not an epidemic. If left unregulated, it can turn into a national emergency. But if well managed, it can be a boon. The country needs these workers. We need their labor.
While they're here we can give them better conditions, and thus lower the risk of social and medical problems. It also works out for the foreign workers. Each pays between $10,000 and $12,000 to get to Israel. Their monthly wage is about $800 on the high end. If they work here for five years they can make about $40,000. Out of that they have to spend about $10,000 to $12,000 for their basic living expenses. So they're left with $25,000. So after five years of very hard labor they're left with about $15,000, an average income of $3,000 per year. Doesn't sound much, but it's still more than what they would have made back home. Some do better and some do worse. Some take home tens of thousands of dollars and live like kings. But all this is unregulated and open to abuse.
As a first step, the government can make a decision to absorb those foreign workers with children who were born here. Deporting 1,200 Israeli-born children will not solve the problem of foreign workers and will only make Israel look terrible.
Secondly, the government could set a limit to the amount of time foreign workers allowed to be here legally to say five or 10 years. That should have an impact on the issue of children, as the workers won't be here long enough to start families. Most of the African migrant workers who come here, for instance, have no children, and because there are comparatively very few women among them (less than 10%) they're not expected to have a lot of children (this does, however, lead to a big demand for prostitutes).
Male immigration worldwide brings with it the issue of prostitution and abuse of women, and one of the largest markets for prostitution in Israel is for the foreign workers. This is an issue that will demand attention if and when the government eventually does form a policy.
The reason there are so many children of foreign workers here now is because the migrant workers think they're staying for good, because the government didn't tell them otherwise, so some of them start families.
In Tel Aviv's Levinsky Park area, where tens of thousands of foreign workers live, the city has started social and health programs independent of an overall national government policy - of which there isn't one. The park is overflowing with men from Eritrea, the Congo and Sudan with very little to do except mill around. The apartments and underground bomb shelters in south Tel Aviv near the old central bus station are filled to the brim with them. Some shelters are exceedingly overcrowded and are incubators for disease and social problems.
Where the government in Jerusalem is not deciding, the municipality in Tel Aviv steps in. When Jerusalem dithers, Eilat and Arad feel overwhelmed.
Those who choose to view migrant workers as a threat to the demography of the Jewish state argue that there are millions more of them just waiting to flood Israel. In the case of African workers, the facts are disputed. According to numbers from Brit Olam, the International Israeli-Jewish Volunteer Movement, there are some 40,000 Africans currently in Egypt, of whom 20,000 are South Sudanese refugees. According to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, South Sudanese are no longer refugees, now that there is a cease-fire in place there.
According to Brit Olam, which works in several countries across Africa, there is very little chance that many of these will cross the Egyptian border into Israel. According to NGOs, there is the potential for up to 20,000 more African workers to come to Israel through Egypt, no more.
It remains to be seen who is right about the numbers - NGOs such as Brit Olam or the Israeli Minister of the Interior.
Incidentally, before Eli Yishai was interior minister, he was minister of trade and industry, and he himself imported hundreds of thousands of foreign workers to Israel. His tough stance on them now comes from the seat he now occupies. As interior minister, Yishai has the power to allow or deny people entry to the country. In his eyes, Yishai is now the ultimate protector of Israel's Jewish character. As industry and trade minister, he was the protector of the agriculture and construction industries, which were hungry for cheap labor. With Eli Yishai as interior minister, there seems little chance for a more tolerant policy toward economic migrants.
For more of Amir's articles and posts, visit his personal blog Forecast Highs