A Srulik from Thailand

Immigrant labor is inevitable in a post-industrial Israel.

Srulik 311 (photo credit: Jewish Agency)
Srulik 311
(photo credit: Jewish Agency)
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 arrive.
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.
Naturalization criteria for about 800 of some 1,200 offspring of illegal foreign workers have just been adopted by an interministerial committee recently appointed by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. It is a step in the right direction, however modest it may be.
Since the first intifada, more than a million migrant workers from the developing world have come here to replace the Palestinians, the country’s previous source of cheap labor.
More than 250,000 foreign laborers, about half of them illegal, now live in the country, including Chinese construction workers, Filipino caregivers, Thai farmhands and a host of other Asians, Africans and Eastern Europeans who labor as maids, cooks and nannies.
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 prospect of large-scale non-Jewish economic immigration.
The foreign workers have furthermore represented a paradigmatic challenge to the ideology of Zionism.
Early Zionist settlements were founded on the principle of Hebrew labor; Jewish work and the creation of a Jewish working class would heal the Jewish nation and help to counter common anti-Semitic myths that Jews were mainly merchants, that they were unproductive and parasitic.
Zionist philosophers such as Aharon David Gordon saw physical labor in the Holy Land as the key to improving the health and vitality of the Jewish people, to renewing their national existence and to enabling them to retake their homeland. Physical labor, in particular agricultural labor, could restore the Jews to preexilic fortitude.
The idealized portrait of the farmer tilling the field of his ancestors was a widespread stock image during the 19th century, one popularized by the various nationalist movements of the period, be they Zionist, Irish, Italian or German. It emerged in part due to the disruptive and cataclysmic 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 tradition, rural life, kinship ties, hierarchical social structures, patterns of deference and masculine codes of honor and chivalry slowly became gesellschaft in character – impersonal, bureaucratic, urban, industrial, mobile and rootless.
Nationalist intellectuals responded to the shock by romanticizing the previous era; they implored man to return his hands to the 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 soldiers.
The call of the gemeinschaft struck a powerful chord for the dispersed Jews of Europe, long the continent’s humiliated and shunned outcasts. The memory of Zion beckoned daily from liturgy, and the return to the lost land would mean a feeling of rootedness; it would mean being at home. Zionism would mold the exilic Jews into the workers, farmers and warriors of a Jewish national redemption.
Thus non-Jewish labor has always been a contested issue for the Zionist movement. As Zionist settlements began to sprout, Jews generally refrained from using Arab labor on ideological grounds – Jewish toil would make 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 the American dream. The cartoonist Dosh set this image to paper in the early 1950s with his character Srulik, drawn as a kibbutznik with a curly forelock and an upturned nose, and always wearing a blue shirt and a kova tembel atop his head. Srulik would in time become Israel’s national personification.
Not greedy, always honest, attached with a deep love to the land, quick to arms, youthful and with a wild charm about him, Srulik contrasted quite sharply with the Diaspora Jew, an image castigated and spurned by Zionist thinkers. Srulik 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.
THESE DAYS, however, Srulik seems to have grown up and left the kibbutz for a high-rise apartment in Tel Aviv. Israel, an increasingly affluent and hi-tech society, is no longer the agricultural republic of its youth, and like other First World post-industrial societies, one would more likely see a Third World migrant picking fruit rather than a Jewish Israeli.
Ideological opposition to non- Jewish labor began to break down following the war of 1967; over the following two decades the territories were incorporated into the country’s economy, and the Palestinians became its laborers and a captive market for its products.
The goal was to create powerful economic ties with the territories to ensure permanent control of them.
This incorporation occurred simultaneously with a radical restructuring of the political economy. By the late 1970s, economic elites had begun to pressure the state to liberalize the economy, in part motivated by a desire to join in the spoils of globalization.
The 1980s and ’90s would see the liberalization of capital and other markets, the privatization of state enterprises, the deregularization of the labor market and a significant decline in state expenditure.
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, Israelis would instead contract out for foreign workers.
Netanyahu’s decision to set aside time and resources to cope with the presence of the migrant workers is a start. Long-term policies should be enacted that encourage Israelis to take up menial work and thus limit the need for the immigrant laborers, but they should acknowledge that immigrant labor is inevitable in a post-industrial Israel.
The dreams of a farming utopia worked by Jewish hands have ended, and the presence of foreign workers represents Israel’s maturation from its revolutionary youth. Today, that Srulik tilling a kibbutz field is most likely from Thailand.
The writer is a freelance journalist.