In the less than three weeks since the government decided to deport an estimated
400 children of foreign workers, a national and international Jewish movement,
from the grassroots to the leadership, has risen up against it. (Outside experts
say the government is actually targeting as many as 1,000 children; see box.) By
now, activists on behalf of migrant families clearly sense the wind at their
backs, as the battle seems to pit “Eli Yishai vs the world,” as a Jerusalem Post
headline put it.
The crowning blow came last weekend as Sara Netanyahu,
the prime minister’s wife, wrote a letter to the interior minister, who had
pushed to deport all 1,200 migrant children in Israel yet accepted the
compromise of 400.
“Dear Eli,” Netanyahu’s letter began, “I appeal to you
as a mother of two young boys and a psychologist in the public service. I am
asking you, from the bottom of my heart, to use the authority granted you by the
government decision and allow the vast majority of the remaining 400 children to
stay in Israel.”RELATED:Who stays, who goes
Before Sara Netanyahu, there was Elie Wiesel. “I find it
hard to believe that such a thing is happening in Israel,” he told
“Where is the Jewish spirit, the Jewish heart, the Jewish
compassion?” And while even many opponents of the decision deplore any
comparison between the migrants and Holocaust refugees, the Center of
Organizations of Holocaust Survivors in Israel, the umbrella group for 28
survivors’ organizations, made just that comparison.
“Those of us who
survived the Holocaust witnessed the selection and separation of children from
their parents,” the center said in a letter to Prime Minister Binyamin
Netanyahu, who backed the government’s decision. “We, in particular,” the letter
continued, “cannot see pictures of the unfortunate children who are not
responsible for their own situation and be apathetic.”
For good measure,
Abraham Foxman, head of the Anti-Defamation League and the bestknown voice in
America’s Israel lobby, said the 400 kids “should be ‘grandfathered in’ and
permitted to stay on humanitarian grounds.”
In Israel, no national figure
except Yishai is still fighting publicly for the deportation plan, which passed
13-10 with four abstentions on August 1, winning unanimous support from Shas and
Israel Beiteinu, while splitting Likud and Labor. Defense Minister Ehud Barak,
absent from the vote, said later, “The State of Israel must not deport hundreds
of children. It is not Jewish, not humane and will scar all of Israeli
During the tempestuous cabinet debate, Netanyahu said the
decision struck a balance between “humanitarian considerations and Zionist
considerations.” He also threatened to back Yishai’s plan to deport all 1,200
kids if the cabinet didn’t approve the deportations of the 400.
however, the prime minister seems to have yielded the floor to his
Even before Sara Netanyahu’s letter, Sigal Rozen, head of the
Hotline for Migrant Workers and one of the veterans of the movement, said she
didn’t believe the government would go through with the plan. “Personally, I
look at the public’s attitude and I don’t see how they’re going to do it,” she
Other activists seem to be wary of such optimism.
learned from experience to be pessimistic until something good happens. If the
minister of interior is determined to kick them out, he will,” says Rotem Ilan,
head of Israeli Children, which was founded a year ago to take up the migrant
children’s cause. Yet she acknowledges that political reality does seem to be
lining up with her hopes.
“I believe deep in my heart that it won’t
happen, that the ministers and Knesset members won’t go through with it,” she
says. “I’ve never seen an issue win support from such widespread parts of the
population. When even the prime minister’s wife raises her voice, it shows how
broad and how deep public sentiment is.”
With the estimated 300,000
migrant workers making up about 4 percent of the population, and half or more of
them here illegally, there is an overwhelming national consensus that their
numbers have to be brought under control.
But there is also a consensus
that another 400 children, even with their parents, are not a threat to the
country’s Jewish character or economy, and that the government’s move makes no
sense from a humanitarian or hasbara perspective. Thus, Barak is proposing to
grant amnesty to the 400, and to implement the government’s decision only in
future cases of migrant children.
AFTER FUMING in the cabinet that “this
isn’t the Jewish state I know,” Labor’s Binyamin Ben-Eliezer added, “This is not
the time for the world to see the State of Israel deporting 400
On that latter point, even Eli Yishai might agree, if only
The campaign against the government’s plan has gone beyond
statements and demonstrations, the largest of which attracted upwards of 2,000
people last Friday to march to Tel Aviv’s Park Meir. At the rally, Meretz MK
Ilan Gilon joined hundreds of other Israelis who’ve pledged to open their homes
as hiding places for children slated to be deported. “I will hide them in my
home, even if that means I’m breaking the law,” he told the fired-up
In its “Project Hospitality,” the organization Israeli Children
has signed up some 250 Israeli families and 50 migrant families to take in kids
if and when the deportation orders come through, says Ilan. Mindful, though, of
Interior Ministry threats against the use of this tactic, she stresses that the
organization’s plan is “to host, not hide” the children.
Movement has also offered to house migrant children threatened with
“We’ll be ready to take them in tomorrow morning,” Yoel
Marshack, head of the movement’s social activism arm, declared shortly after the
In Tel Aviv, artist Yigal Shtayim created a Facebook
page titled “The group for sheltering the families of 400 children to be
deported from Israel.” By this Sunday, a week after the page went up, it had
attracted 1,843 responses.
“I’ve gotten offers to take in kids from
Holocaust survivors, from children of survivors, from grandchildren of survivors
like myself,” says Shtayim in his studio. “I got messages from people who run
bed-and-breakfasts and say they have an empty bungalow, from moshavniks who have
an extra room, from families in cities and suburbs who are willing to let the
children stay in their security room.
“People are shocked,” says Shtayim,
adding: “It’s very Jewish to identify with the suffering of
Yishai, however, has no tolerance for this.
Green Party of Givatayim offered families threatened with deportation “help in
finding a hiding place until this disgrace visited on us by the interior
minister is removed,” the minister’s spokesman said the Greens’ announcement had
been “relayed to legal authorities...”
However, until any of the children
are officially wanted for arrest, it’s difficult to see how simply letting them
sleep in one’s home, or advocating such a gesture, would be a
After the government decision, the Tel Aviv offices of the Hotline
for Migrant Workers, of Mesila, the municipality’s aid agency for foreign
workers and asylum-seekers, and of Physicians for Human Rights, all filled up
with migrant families seeking urgent help. In the yard of Mesila, near the
central bus station – the nerve center of Israel’s foreign population – black
kids from Africa and brown kids from Asia ran around jabbering in Hebrew.
Inside, their parents waited to talk to one of the many volunteer counselors
who’ve been turning up lately.
“Gloria,” a Philippines woman, knows that
her son, “Roy,” stands to be deported because at age five, he’s only registered
for kindergarten next year, not first grade as the criteria require.
other words, he’s a year too young to stay in the country. Although there’s a
possibility the Interior Ministry would refer Roy’s case to the interministerial
committee that will be considering “borderline cases,” Gloria, on the advice of
Mesila counselors, isn’t going to risk it.
“They told me to prepare my
documents, but not to go to the Interior Ministry. Who knows? After a while,
maybe they’ll change the law,” she says.
In the meantime, Gloria says
she’s going to continue showing up for work as a housecleaner and living in the
nearby one-bedroom apartment that she and Roy rent with three other Filipina
women. Some of her friends, however, are giving up.
“I have a lot of
friends here with children who are around three years old, too young to meet the
criteria, and they’re really feeling low,” she says. “Some are already packing
their bags to go home, sending their valuables back to the
AT THE HOTLINE’S offices in midtown Tel Aviv, amid a
similar flurry of foreigners and counselors, “Sonya,” whose daughter “Tatyana”
finished high school two years ago – and is thus two years too old for permanent
residency – is taking the chance that the girl will get in as a borderline case.
“We’re going to the Interior Ministry at the beginning of next week,” says
Sonya, photocopying her documents with the help of an elderly
A housecleaner living in a West Bank settlement, Sonya says
she “always wanted to go all the way, to try to get legal residency, because the
way it is, we can’t get anywhere. My employers cheat me out of benefits and say
I’m not entitled because I’m illegal. Tatyana gets jobs as a store clerk, but
after a couple of months they ask for a work permit and she doesn’t have one, so
they let her go. She was a very good student and she wants to go to college, so
we have no choice – we have to try.”
The pressure on migrants has
produced some highly charged scenes. Says Tamar Schwartz, director of Mesila:
“There was this one woman from Ghana in our offices, and I saw that she was
standing off to the side crying, and I asked what was wrong and she said,
‘Nothing,’ but then I called her inside, closed the door, and she told me – she
had AIDS, and she was afraid she and her child would be deported even though the
child met all the criteria. I told her, ‘What are you talking about? Just the
opposite – now you’re finally going to be able to get health insurance and good
care.’” On another occasion, says Schwartz, a sixyear- old boy from Ivory Coast
went missing at Mesila. “Twenty police drove all over the area until they found
the boy at about one in the morning. A father from Ghana with a fouryear- old
child – too young for the criteria – took the older boy home, evidently hoping
to pass him off as his own,” says Schwartz, explaining that if the kidnapped boy
were to get permanent residency, the Ghanaian father and his underage son would
be eligible for temporary residency.
“The father from Ghana told police
he only brought the boy home to give him some candy,” she notes.
Interior Ministry’s office in Tel Aviv is on the second floor of the government
building across from Azrieli Towers. On Thursday of last week, kids of various
nationalities were sliding noisily along the floor on flattened pastry cartons
left out by a café. The ministry was manning five counters to accept people’s
documents, but the migrants were still sitting and waiting for hours. At around
3 p.m., on this fifth day of operations, a ministry official called for the
day’s 162nd applicant family to bring their papers to the window.
migrants in the office looked bored, not worried.
“With very few
exceptions, everybody who’s been here today meets the criteria,” explained a
young Hotline volunteer advising a grateful Ghanaian woman.
next month, the Interior Ministry says it will begin deporting children whose
families do not take them out of the country.
That will be an interesting
challenge. In a Haaretz column urging Israelis to shelter these kids, Yossi
Sarid wrote: “Let the representatives of the law look for them in the attic, in
the basement, in the closets, under the beds; let the authorities tear them from
In another sign of the depth and breadth of opposition to the
government’s policy, Itzik Peri, head of the Social Workers Union, called on
social workers to refuse to cooperate with child deportations, which would make
it even harder and more embarrassing for immigration police to carry out such
But even if they do, migrants whose children are slated for
deportation will still be able to appeal to the Supreme Court, as they often do
with the aid of human rights lawyers. In practice, deporting hundreds of
children will take years – another reason why many activists believe the policy
will never be carried out. A good illustration is Rabbi Eliezer Cruz, a
colorfully named 12-year-old boy who lives with his Filipino parents,
Christopher and Lorna, in South Tel Aviv.
They were the first family to
seek residency status after the government, in 2006, made its initial attempt at
systematically deporting migrant children in the hope of dissuading guest
workers from settling down.
“We were turned down by the Interior
Ministry, we had deportation orders against us,” says Christopher, who, like his
wife, came to Israel as a caregiver in the mid-’90s. “But then we went to family
court, to district court in Jerusalem, then to the Supreme Court. We had to get
documents from the Philippines. We’re still going to court.” Four years later,
the deportation orders are still being held up. Nevertheless, he estimates he’s
been arrested and released by immigration police a half-dozen
“Once, on a Sunday morning at about six, they knocked on our door,
woke us up and came in,” he adds.
Little statues of Jesus stand in the
Cruzes’ living room. “We chose the name ‘Rabbi Eliezer’ from the Bible,” says
Christopher. Asked what he wants to be if he’s allowed to stay in the country,
Rabbi Eliezer, who plays guitar and organ, says, “Either a pilot or a musician.”
Asked what he’ll do if he’s deported, the boy replies in what sounds rehearsed.
“I’ll be very sad, but I’ll try to get used to it,” he says. “I don’t have any
other country, this is the only country I know.”
That was the middle of
last week. The following morning, the Cruzes brought their documents to the
Interior Ministry office.
“They said they’ll call us very soon for an
interview,” says Christopher. “I think we meet the criteria
“Everything was okay,” adds Lorna.
“It wasn’t like before.
This time they were very friendly, they didn’t give us any problems,” says
“We felt like we were home.”