The country’s leaders seem to have finally recognized the need to create a
coherent migrant worker policy; it has remained the last of the First World
nations to formulate one, and as a result, Israeli governments have lurched from
one contradictory policy to another since the migrants first began to
Over the years, Israel has encouraged the temporary employment of
migrants, while simultaneously imposing tight visa and labor restrictions that
has left them vulnerable to abusive employers.
for about 800 of some 1,200 offspring of illegal foreign workers have
adopted by an interministerial committee recently appointed by Prime
Binyamin Netanyahu. It is a step in the right direction, however modest
Since the first intifada, more than a million migrant workers from
the developing world have come here to replace the Palestinians, the
previous source of cheap labor.
More than 250,000 foreign laborers, about
half of them illegal, now live in the country, including Chinese
workers, Filipino caregivers, Thai farmhands and a host of other Asians,
Africans and Eastern Europeans who labor as maids, cooks and
Israel has evaded coming to terms with the new reality of the
foreign workers largely due to its self-image.
The country’s raison
d’être has been Jewish immigration, and thus it never imagined the
large-scale non-Jewish economic immigration.
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The foreign workers have
furthermore represented a paradigmatic challenge to the ideology of
Early Zionist settlements were founded on the principle of
Hebrew labor; Jewish work and the creation of a Jewish working class
the Jewish nation and help to counter common anti-Semitic myths that
mainly merchants, that they were unproductive and parasitic.
philosophers such as Aharon David Gordon saw physical labor in the Holy
the key to improving the health and vitality of the Jewish people, to
their national existence and to enabling them to retake their homeland.
labor, in particular agricultural labor, could restore the Jews to
The idealized portrait of the farmer tilling the field of his
ancestors was a widespread stock image during the 19th century, one
by the various nationalist movements of the period, be they Zionist,
Italian or German. It emerged in part due to the disruptive and
effects of the Industrial Revolution.
As peasants left their farms and
poured into the cities to find factory work, the gemeinschaft nature of
pre-industrial Europe began to break down; societies once rooted in
rural life, kinship ties, hierarchical social structures, patterns of
and masculine codes of honor and chivalry slowly became gesellschaft in
character – impersonal, bureaucratic, urban, industrial, mobile and
Nationalist intellectuals responded to the shock by
romanticizing the previous era; they implored man to return his hands to
earth, like his ancestors before him, and leave behind the spiritual
void of the
city, of industry and of modernity.
Indeed, a true nation could only
emerge from the sweat of its base – its peasants, builders and
The call of the gemeinschaft struck a powerful chord for the
dispersed Jews of Europe, long the continent’s humiliated and shunned
The memory of Zion beckoned daily from liturgy, and the return to the
would mean a feeling of rootedness; it would mean being at home. Zionism
mold the exilic Jews into the workers, farmers and warriors of a Jewish
Thus non-Jewish labor has always been a contested issue for
the Zionist movement. As Zionist settlements began to sprout, Jews
refrained from using Arab labor on ideological grounds – Jewish toil
the Jewish state.
Indeed, the image of the Jewish farmer, one who could
quickly leave his fields for the battlefield, became Israel’s version of
American dream. The cartoonist Dosh set this image to paper in the early
with his character Srulik, drawn as a kibbutznik with a curly forelock
upturned nose, and always wearing a blue shirt and a kova tembel atop
Srulik would in time become Israel’s national personification.
greedy, always honest, attached with a deep love to the land, quick to
youthful and with a wild charm about him, Srulik contrasted quite
the Diaspora Jew, an image castigated and spurned by Zionist thinkers.
was no lamb to the Cossack slaughter, he was no intellectual nor was he a
cosmopolitan city dweller; he was a simple, strong and brave farmer, a
resurrected Maccabean warrior from Israel’s ancient past.
however, Srulik seems to have grown up and left the kibbutz for a
apartment in Tel Aviv. Israel, an increasingly affluent and hi-tech
no longer the agricultural republic of its youth, and like other First
post-industrial societies, one would more likely see a Third World
picking fruit rather than a Jewish Israeli.
Ideological opposition to
non- Jewish labor began to break down following the war of 1967; over
following two decades the territories were incorporated into the
economy, and the Palestinians became its laborers and a captive market
The goal was to create powerful economic ties with the
territories to ensure permanent control of them.
occurred simultaneously with a radical restructuring of the political
By the late 1970s, economic elites had begun to pressure the state to
the economy, in part motivated by a desire to join in the spoils of
The 1980s and ’90s would see the liberalization of capital
and other markets, the privatization of state enterprises, the
of the labor market and a significant decline in state
Neoliberalism and joining the global economy have helped to
shift Israel away from a being a society socialist and collectivist in
orientation to one capitalist and individualist.
The change would mean
that once the first intifada aroused fears of Palestinian violence,
would instead contract out for foreign workers.
Netanyahu’s decision to
set aside time and resources to cope with the presence of the migrant
a start. Long-term policies should be enacted that encourage Israelis to
menial work and thus limit the need for the immigrant laborers, but they
acknowledge that immigrant labor is inevitable in a post-industrial
The dreams of a farming utopia worked by Jewish hands have ended,
and the presence of foreign workers represents Israel’s maturation from
revolutionary youth. Today, that Srulik tilling a kibbutz field is most
from Thailand.The writer is a freelance journalist.
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