Between the US Supreme Court decision on abortion and a new prime minister coming into office in Israel, one could easily miss the Israeli Interior Ministry’s decision last week to limit employment of African refugees. Announced on Thursday, the decision states, in short, that as of October this year, in 17 major cities, including Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Eilat, and others, African refugees would be barred from working outside of five approved industries.
Namely, in these cities, African refugees would not be able to work outside construction, agriculture, hospitality, nursing, and the restaurant industry. While this policy will not affect most Israelis, it could be a major blow to a generation of young immigrants struggling to break through the barriers of their status.
This takes me to my own family’s immigrant experience as recalled by my grandmother. When my grandmother left Casablanca to arrive with her family in Beit Shemesh in the early Fifties, there was not enough work to meet the employment needs of the many new immigrants from Morocco and elsewhere who left what they believed to be a potentially hostile home. My grandmother tells me that her father, Abraham, received a work slip that was shared between family members.
Every day another family member used the slip to get work as there was not enough work to go around. What kind of work did they engage in? It was the public work kind, the kind that isn’t really needed but is good for controlling unemployment, the digging and moving of dirt, and the clearing of forests and roads. It was this backbreaking work that occupied both my grandfathers from their early twenties until retirement. It was work that my great grandfather Abraham could not bear.
He gave up his small business as a spice merchant upon moving to Israel and is said to have died of heartbreak and disillusion at the age of 54 when he realized there was no market for spices in the then austerity-period Beit Shemesh. But for my grandfathers, working as laborers in JNF forests was the only option. They worked in the forests their whole lives knowing that their children and children’s children would have it different. And they did. It only took a generation for my parents to acquire master’s degrees and white-collar jobs and move to a stone-covered cottage in Modi’in.
Things have changed, but not Israel's immigration law
Israel’s immigration law was written in the fifties at the time my grandparents arrived in Beit Shemesh when there was not enough work to go around. Many things have since changed. The demand for employees is greater than job seekers in almost every sector. This is evident in the choice to permit refugee employment in high-demand industries. Unfortunately, these don’t leave people with many options.
What saddens me most about this decision is the message it sends to the youth, those in their twenties who just graduated from high school and are looking toward their future. This decision says to young refugees: you will remain in your place. You will not be a scientist, a researcher, or a paralegal.
Even if this policy is not likely to last, there is a threat, I fear, that it will nurture new forms of animosity towards Israel among those who could have been Israel’s finest ambassadors. I am thinking of that budding cohort of young bright Hebrew-speaking Africans who were raised on the tenets of Israeli education, suckled on every marrow of the Israeli ethos, from Holocaust memorial to Hanukkah, and are now arriving in droves in Toronto, Montreal, or Vancouver.
How do we want them to speak of the Israel they had left behind?
As a Zionist, I am heartbroken by the missed opportunity. These young men and women could have relayed a completely different message in their Sabra-like perfect Hebrew. They could have said: Israel was good to us; it gave us education; it gave us a profession. I hope it is not too late to turn the tide.
I want to try to end on a positive note. I want to propose that perhaps this policy change only emphasizes that the hope for refugees lies in innovation. Perhaps the way forward for refugees lies in the digital economy, or in blockchain technologies, fintech, and cryptographic currencies. Which professions can one work in that are not location-specific? Which professions can withstand unexpected policy changes? How can one get paid if one works from Israel remotely for a company in the US or Kenya?
These are the questions I would ask myself if I were a refugee in Israel today looking to the future. I hope these are questions that innovation has answers to, and I know that I want to be a part of these answers.
The writer is the CEO of ARDC Israel, and a humanitarian worker who has worked in refugee settings for the past eight years in Israel and in East Africa.