Wonderfully scripted propaganda

The entire saga of foreign worker children has been dominated by a carefully constructed tale that focuses the debate only on the kids.

311_headlines for foreign children (photo credit: Seth Frantzman)
311_headlines for foreign children
(photo credit: Seth Frantzman)
"If any of you know children who are candidates for deportation, take them into your homes, hide them…let the authorities tear them from your arms. Maybe you won’t succeed in averting the evil decree, but this is how human beings are supposed to act. A few years down the road, they become Righteous Gentiles.”
Sounds pretty bad doesn’t it? Like the shadow of Nazism threatens children and we must save them. Of course this is merely the hyperbole in Israel’s newspaper Haaretz issuing forth from former education minister Yossi Sarid. It’s typical Sarid. On June 4th he compared himself to Pastor Martin Niemoller, of “I was not a Jew so I did not speak up” fame.
Fantasies of the Holocaust notwithstanding, Sarid is part of the larger “foreign worker” story that has caught the Israel public and parts of the world in its talons. The latest twist on the story was announced August 2 with the claim that the Israeli cabinet has voted to expel 400 children of foreign workers. The newspapers and television shows are ablaze with perfectly scripted “foreign worker” children, their beautiful faces staring back, perfectly placed to look the most vulnerable and cute with signs in English reading “don’t deport us: we were born here, Hebrew is our language.”
Another photo shows the children gathered with signs in English that read “there are no illegal children” and “let us be together, kids, mom and dad.”
The story has been a long time coming. Since the 1990s foreign workers have been coming to Israel, initially legally, to work. The process accelerated during the second intifada when Palestinian labor was replaced by foreign workers.
In 2006, some 700 children of these legal foreign workers were given residency if they were over the age of 10. Over the last five years there has been a major influx of foreigners entering Israel illegally through Egypt. Now there are some 300,000 foreign workers in Israel, the majority of whom are here illegally. And with people come children.
IN THE fall of 2009, the government was set to crack down on the increasingly chaotic situation surrounding the foreign workers, legal and illegal, living in Israel. Activist groups like ‘Israeli Children’, Hotline for Migrant Workers, Physicians for Human Rights, the New Israel Fund and UNICEF Israel all began a campaign designed to change the debate from one about the 300,000 foreign workers, to one about the 1,200 children supposedly at risk for deportation. Where the exact number 1,200 came from is not clear and seems awfully low considering a population numbering 100 times that number of adults.
The activists succeeded, and in November of 2009 Netanyahu and his interior minister, Eli Yishai of Shas, postponed the deportation to allow the “1,200 children of foreign workers who are staying in Israel without a visa” to finish the school year. The school year ended in June and on August 1 the cabinet approved a plan to grant legal status to 800 children and deport 400. It was a contentious vote with Yishai arguing that more should be deported and Isaac Herzog of Labor declaring “I could not accept deporting a group of five-year- old children.”
Binyamin Ben-Eliezer went further saying “this is not the Jewish State I know.”
Rotem Ilan of Israeli Children claimed that the Torah demanded Israel show “compassion and kindness” to the children.
There was also the threat of international reaction, Ben-Eliezer declared “this isn’t the time for the world to see the state of Israel deporting 400 children.”
Eitan Haber wrote in Yediot Aharonot that the world would see Israel as “cruel and heartless” and images of weeping children would show up on CNN and the BBC. They were right. The Sydney Morning Herald headline screamed on August 3, “Israel will expel 400 native-born children of non-Jewish foreign workers to help safeguard the country’s Jewish identity.”
The Global Post’s Sara Sorcher claimed “migrant workers are not allowed relationships, let alone children, while in Israel.”
Surely this is just the tip of the iceberg. Katya Adler wrote in the BBC “Israel’s government now wants Noah Mae [a foreign child] to leave. Here it’s illegal for migrant workers to have children.”
This is mostly misinformation, the workers can have relationships and children, the children just don’t qualify for residency or citizenship and, along with their parents, must leave the country eventually. The entire story about foreign worker children has been dominated from the beginning by a carefully scripted story that focuses the debate only on the children. Let’s start by asking where the numbers come from and why there is no discussion of the parents in this whole story.
Why is the headline “Israel to expel 400 children” and not “Israel to expel foreign workers?" The activists who have latched onto the foreign workers as a cause realize that while many people have little sympathy for illegal immigrants or legal ones overstaying their visas, most people have sympathy for children. But discussing the “400 children” without the parents is wrong.
Children don’t arrive in Israel mysteriously by themselves. Their parents came, with or without the children and raised them here. That was the choice of the parents. The parents claim their children “have never been to the Philippines, how can I tell her she’s going home? She hardly speaks a word of Tagalog.”
But whose fault is that? Do Israelis who travel abroad and have children and overstay their visas get to complain that their children don’t speak enough Hebrew to return to Israel? And let’s be honest, the children don’t only speak Hebrew, they also speak the language of their parents, every child does.
Controversy about deporting foreigners is not unique to Israel, similar debates are being hotly had in Arizona and France at the moment. But in Israel the media has completely surrendered the field to the activists, allowing them to dictate the terms of the discussion and allowing the perfectly scripted kids whose protest signs are often crafted with the input of activists to be the only face of the debate.
But the face of the debate should be the parents, their lack of concern for their own children’s future and their irresponsible wanton violation of the law.
The writer is a PhD researcher at Hebrew University and a fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Market Studies.