Middle Israel: Wanted: An immigration council

Israel's immigration problems seem too complex for the current political system to tackle.

amotz asa el 88 (photo credit: )
amotz asa el 88
(photo credit: )
They say of Igor Stravinsky that when he faced the US immigration officer he was asked to spell out his name, despite being by then a 57-year-old internationally acclaimed composer. When Stravinsky complied and spelled out the name slowly and loudly, the American ignoramus he faced stared at him, full of good will, and said: "You can change your name, you know." Boy, has history traveled since then. Unlike 1939, when immigration around the globe had dwindled to a trickle, reflecting a fascist and isolationist Zeitgeist, in this day and age the world is like a beehive. According to the UN's International Organization for Migration nearly 200 million people around the world, nearly 3% of mankind, are immigrants, and practically every country in the world is a supplier, recipient or conveyor of immigrants. Israel is no exception, as so vividly demonstrated by Ghanaian soccer star John Penstil's waving of a blue-and-white flag after his team scored a goal in the World Cup. The Hapoel Tel Aviv defender is only a resident here, but his chances of obtaining citizenship have clearly increased, and his heartfelt gesture is emblematic of a world where anyone can conceivably land and eventually belong anywhere, and of an Israel where hundreds of thousands of newly arrived non-Jews represent dilemmas that our founding fathers could not foresee. HOW SERIOUS, then, is our problem, and what should we do about it? The good news is that post-Cold War immigration to Israel, while partly echoing global trends, is nonetheless unique and generally much more promising than alarming. The bad news is that, faced with it, we have been doing what we have always been best at - improvising - rather than what the situation demands, which is a plan. The overall figures seem low, and possibly fail to adequately include some of the illicit immigration that is happening around the world. Then again, considering the migrants' disproportionate preference for Western Europe and North America, even these numbers indicate that immigration, whatever its exact size, is threatening global stability and demands fresh outlooks on the part of statesmen, lawmakers and thinkers in Europe, America and Israel, too. A world in which Mexican immigrants compel the US to build a massive fence, in which Muslim immigrants torch cars across France for two weeks, and in which African laborers land incessantly along Spain's coastline is clearly facing some serious indigestion problems. This, in a nutshell, is also the context in which Israel's multi-faceted immigration challenge has emerged in recent years. FORTUNATELY, the Jewish state's immigration crisis is simpler than Europe's and America's. Economically, Israel managed originally without an immigrant labor force because it had a nearby supply of unskilled Palestinian laborers who, unlike Germany's Turks or France's North Africans, returned at the end of a day's work to their towns and families, thus leaving the "host" society's social fabric unaffected. When this supply came to an end in the late 1980s with the Palestinian uprising of the time, it coincided with the end of the Cold War, thus allowing the Palestinians to be replaced by Chinese, Romanian and African workers. Until several years ago, that workforce's growth seemed to be getting out of control, but since then Israel proved surprisingly efficient in expelling illegal workers and the public generally accepted that policy despite its humanitarian drawbacks. Moreover, with Israelis reproducing more than other developed populations, the labor market's demand for foreign workers was relatively limited. At the same time, immigration to Israel was predominantly Jewish, and in fact a critical mass of the new arrivals quickly joined the middle class. Lastly, unlike Europe and even the more pro-immigrant US, most Israelis see even the questionably Jewish immigrants as lost brethren and generally embrace them. Still, Israel's immigration setting is fraught with problems which seem too complex for the current political system to tackle. THE MOST pressing problem is an estimated 200,000 questionably Jewish or altogether gentile immigrants from the former East Bloc, who cannot marry here because of the Israeli legal demand that marriages be performed by the clergy, whether Jewish, Muslim or Christian - a demand that precludes the kind of civil marriage their situation begs. The circumstances that produced this situation, namely the sudden arrival of East European Jewry here flanked by a sizable non-Jewish population, were simply not foreseen by Israel's founding fathers, whose famous who-is-a-Jew legislation was designed to address the realities caused not by today's global freedom, but by their era's anti-Semitic persecution. By the same token, they also did not prepare for Israel's economic maturity, which has now made it a magnet for downtrodden people from all corners of the Third World. Israel's response to all this so far has been a typical alternation of sitting on its thumbs and shooting from the hip. It's been six years since then-justice minister Yossi Beilin, with characteristic originality, proposed a civil process potentially agreeable to Jewish law to accommodate those who were unable to marry through the Rabbinate. His idea was that a secular marriage would be called "partnership" rather than "marriage," and as such would not require Jewish divorces, thus avoiding future suspicions of bastardy-related ineligibilities for marriages with Jews. Though backed by former chief rabbi Eliahu Bakshi-Doron, and then by a cabinet committee that included modern-Orthodox lawmaker Nissan Slomiansky, this urgent reform has yet to happen. Now, Justice Minister Haim Ramon wants to legislate a version of this idea, insisting he has Shas's support for it. Middle Israelis will believe this when they see it. For now, what they see is a disgrace whereby a large population that pays taxes, serves in the army and has generally thrown its lot with us is still forbidden to marry here. Elsewhere on the immigration front, a slew of official forums has issued along the decades all kinds of resolutions concerning the Falash Mura in Ethiopia, but that situation remains unresolved, this way or that. Meanwhile, some illegal foreign workers' children were legitimized in an emotional fit which, while admirably humanistic, is clearly not part of any systematic policymaking process. At the same time, a High Court petition generated a ruling concerning the future of Israelis' marriages to non-Israeli Arabs, thus highlighting, yet again, the lack of up-to-date legislative clarity and vision on a major immigration-related issue. Hovering above all these is a narrow-minded conversion machinery that largely remains the same as it was back when its prospective clientele was minuscule. It's time all this changed. Israel must establish an immigration council comprising rabbis, demographers, security officials, political scientists, philosophers, retired justices, maybe one or two novelists and various other luminaries. In its charter, this forum should be told to equip Israel with ways of enlarging its citizenry while retaining its character. At stake, it should be told, is a rare opportunity to accelerate the Jewish people's demographic rehabilitation and complete the Jewish state's consolidation. It would follow that the Judaic dilemmas raised by the current immigration situation be approached with the kind of vision and boldness that made Rabbi Yohanan Ben Zakkai save the very institution of conversion by abolishing, soon after the Temple's destruction, a convert's duty to present a special sacrifice there. After debating all aspects of naturalization, residency and matrimony, the council will emerge, by a set deadline, with majority and minority blueprints offering alternatives to the existing Law of Return, Law of Marriage and Divorce and conversion rules. For unlike Igor Stravinsky's name, these time-honored entry tickets to Israeli society can no longer remain unchanged.