Snap Judgment: Sushi and the Jewish Problem

Here in the Jewish state, assimilation and intermarriage are the friends of the Jewish people.

Gaza kids (photo credit: )
Gaza kids
(photo credit: )
Whenever I have a craving for sushi, my first choice for years has been Sakura, a restaurant in the center of Jerusalem. Though hardly enough of a Japanese food connoisseur to know how it really stacks up to the competition, I've always been reassured by the fact that whenever I walk in, there always seems to be a Japanese chef cutting the fish behind the sushi bar. Alas, how much longer that will be the state of affairs at Sakura and many other sushi restaurants here is open to question. The government has stepped up its efforts of late to reduce the number of foreign workers in the country, both legal and illegal - a number now estimated at 150,000. Of these, perhaps 900 are licensed foreign restaurant workers, the majority of them Asian chefs. The Interior Ministry recently announced it would cut that number down to 500 by next year. In reaction, the Israeli Ethnic Restaurant Association has begun (no kidding) a series of one-day strikes on which customers will be denied certain dishes - spring rolls one day, sushi the next. As if this country didn't have enough tsuris. Well, I guess this Ahi sashimi-lover is now getting hoisted on his own, umm, sushi knife. In the past, I've railed against the government's policy of allowing certain businesses to bring in foreign workers to do more cheaply the kind of skilled labor that many unemployed Israelis would be happy to perform, provided it paid the decent wage such positions deserve. No doubt there are sushi mavens out there who will argue that no sabra can even hope to match the sushi-slicing skills of an Asian-born chef. But it's reasonable to assume that the plentiful number of young Israelis who have spent so much time hiking and hanging about in Asia might be appropriate candidates for the oriental cuisine cooking classes that the Interior Ministry is now offering. While I would be happier to see the government first crack down completely on the powerful construction industry's exploitation of foreign labor before it takes on the sushi bars, I'm prepared to make this culinary sacrifice for the sake of bringing the foreign worker situation under control. Hopefully, Sakura's nori and maki rolls won't suffer too badly. THERE IS, though, another side of the foreign worker issue to consider. For example, meet Bondi Faibon - the new face of Israel. At the beginning of this month, the 19-year-old Faibon became the first child of foreign workers to be inducted into the IDF. This became possible after the Interior Ministry last year passed a new law allowing children born and raised here and now between 10 and 18 to receive citizenship. Faibon was born here to Thai workers and raised in part by an Israeli couple who served as his foster parents. "I am an Israeli in every sense of the word, and I view my enlistment as the most natural thing in the world," a proud Faibon told Yediot Aharonot. He is one of some 2,000 children of foreign workers now eligible to receive citizenship, in addition to an estimated 12,000 parents and siblings who can qualify for permanent-resident status. That may not sound like much with Israel's 7 million-plus population, but to put it in proper perspective, the total number of Jews who made aliya last year was 19,700. The IDF was more than happy to promote Faibon all over the local media, and why not - especially during a week when Defense Minister Ehud Barak was refusing draft deferment requests by 1,000 ultra-Orthodox students enrolled in newly created yeshivot, itself a small percentage of the some 90,000 haredi men of enlistment age currently ducking military duty. With that number growing every year, and a non-haredi public increasingly unwilling to shoulder an unfair share of the nation's security burden, the IDF is facing a real manpower crunch in the coming years. Naturalized children of foreign workers are hardly the solution to that problem; in giving Faibon such exposure, the IDF is clearly more interested in simply sending a message to the rest of society that there are still those who view military service as the sine qua non of citizenship. Still, there's good reason why both sushi chefs and Bondi Faibon are here in the first place. They obviously want the better life found in the type of free, economically developed Westernized nation that Israel has become. And Israel allowed them here because these kinds of growing economies regularly need the infusion of new labor only foreign workers or immigration can provide. Every European and North American country is dealing with this situation in its own way. The big difference, of course, is that Bondi Faibon isn't Jewish - and even if he wanted to be, he would find it tough going given the current restrictive hyper-Orthodox monopoly over the conversion process. Of course that's a situation that should be changed as soon as possible. But you know what - in the long run it's not going to matter. Here in the Jewish state, assimilation and intermarriage are the friends of the Jewish people. Odds are, Bondi is going to settle down one day with a nice Jewish girl, and his kids are going to be Jewish, even by the toughest standards of Bnei Brak. Unfortunately, not so his sister's kids (yes, he's got one) - but some of her grandchildren will be, if her male offspring marry Jewish girls too, and the result will still be more Jews. It's not that I'm recommending this as a course of action - just noting (not for the first time) that it is an almost inevitable trend, given the demands of the economy and the socio-political need for steady immigration here. And that immigration, both legal and illegal, is increasingly going to be non-Jewish in origin. How all this might one day affect the quality of Israeli sushi, or more seriously, the manpower levels of the IDF, remains to be seen. But its influence on what it means to be Israeli - and ultimately Jewish - will have far more impact than too few here, or in the rest of the Jewish world for that matter, seem prepared, or even willing, to acknowledge.