Israel’s Immigration Debate: “Where is the Jewish Spirit?”

Israelis needed them to build their houses, to plant and harvest their fields, to care for their elderly. Demand peaked when the security situation deteriorated with the beginning of the second intifada in fall 2000 and cheap Palestinian labor became increasingly inaccessible due to curfews and roadblocks designed to prevent terrorist attacks. And they came, creating in the process a mosaic of cultural diversity.

Most of Israel’s foreign workers (30 percent) came from Thailand but many migrated from the Philippines (18%), and from China (10%), Nepal (6%) and Romania (5%). They were willing to work harder than the average Israeli for longer hours at a lower salary (40% lower on average according to the Bank of Israel).

Many stayed on after their permits expired to defray the initial payments made to the middlemen for the chance to come or simply to enjoy Israel’s economic boom. Others came as near-indentured servants who were forbidden to work for anyone but the employer who first hired them, until the Supreme Court finally ruled that this arrangement violated basic human rights, annulling in the process their discriminatory work permits.

These “guest” workers, who today number between 250,000 and 400,000 (half of whom are illegal) did not only toil. They fell in love and established families and had children, probably more than 2,000 children, who were sent to state-run schools like Tel Aviv’s Bialik-Rogozin to learn with young Israelis their age to read, to write and to add and subtract—in Hebrew. They also were taught about the miraculous creation of the Jewish state and about Jewish holidays. They played Israeli games and sang Israeli songs, dressed up on Purim and ate Matzoh on Passover.

An Age-Old Dispute

What is the proper Jewish answer to these children? If you ask Interior Minister Eli Yishai, of Shas, an Israeli haredi political party with a constituency of traditional-minded Jewish immigrants or children of immigrants from Muslim countries, all 1,200 should be deported; including those born in Israel to workers who came legally. They endanger Jewish continuity. A few years from now, these cute little boys and girls will be marrying our sons and daughters. And if we let them stay, more will be encouraged to come, further weakening the fragile Jewish majority.

If you ask ministers Isaac Herzog (Labor) or Gideon Sa’ar (Likud), however, they will give you another answer. The Jewish state has a special obligation to the foreigner, to the sojourner in a land that is not his. The Jew must remember his history, first in Egypt and later in other exiles, of being a guest in another people’s land. Holocaust survivor and Nobel Laureate Eli Wiesel pleaded with Israel not to deport the children. “Where is the Jewish spirit, the Jewish heart and the Jewish compassion?”

The sides were protagonists in an age-old Jewish dispute. Shas’s Yishai represented the particularistic, parochial protector of Jewish continuity from the ravages of assimilation and intermarriage. Wiesel et. al. took the side of the Jewish universalist, extrapolating lessons from the Jews’ long history of painful deportations to learn empathy for all humanity.

On August 1, the cabinet struck a compromise. A Jewish state must address both sets of concerns. It has an obligation to foster a strong Jewish identity and it must also show empathy to the plight of the stranger. Most of the children up for scrutiny (839, to be precise) would be allowed to stay, along with their families. The rest would be deported after being given the right of appeal, which many are attempting to do right now.

A Xenophobic Israel?

Tasked as it is with realizing the self-determination of the Jewish people and serving as a shelter against anti-Semitic persecution, Israel’s standing among the nations is special. In the age of globalization, the perception that mass immigration is a threat to national identity may not be a uniquely Israeli phenomenon, but it has a particularly complex impact here.

Waves of immigration, especially from countries conquered under 19th-century colonialism, have swept across Europe. With foreigners expected to become a majority in several of their cities, Europeans are undergoing a wrenching cultural soul-search. Doomsayers warn of the advent of Eurabia and the imminent demise of European culture.

In the United States, meanwhile, a controversial immigration law granting law enforcement officers wider powers to question and arrest suspected illegal aliens was adopted by the state of Arizona. The law, nixed this week by a federal judge, has sparked lively debate. At least one Republican legislator has recommended a change in the 14th Amendment granting US citizenship to anyone born in America, including children of illegal aliens. In states like Texas and California, a Hispanic majority is expected by 2025.

Arguably, though, Israel’s situation is more precarious.

Half of all guest workers are illegal, compared to just one-third in the US and less than that in the EU. Foreigners make up 8.5 percent of the total workforce in Israel compared to just 6% on average in OECD countries. Israel has also integrated some 350,000 non-Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union and tens of thousands of Falash Mura, descendents of Jews who converted to Christianity. Some 130,000 Palestinians have received Israeli citizenship under family reunion arrangements. Finally, an estimated 25,000 Africans from Sudan, Eritrea, and other countries have infiltrated the country via Egypt. Together with Arab Israelis, approximately 30% of the population (inside the Green Line) is not Jewish, similar to Belgium with a 30% Walloon and a 60% Flemish population or pre-1993 Czechoslovakia (54% Czech and 31% Slovak).

Israel’s very raison d’etre is to maintain its Jewish exclusivity. David Ben-Gurion, the Jewish state’s first prime minister expressed this principle during a discussion in the Knesset on the 1950 Law of Return, which ensures automatic Israeli citizenship to any Jew.

“This law is the foundation of the State of Israel. It contains a central goal of our state, the goal of the ingathering of the exiled… this is not an immigration law, it is legislation that ensures continuity of Jewish history.”

Admittedly, 400 children and their families are not going to make or break the Jewish majority. Given the hardship inflicted on these children and their families, as well as the negative world media coverage of a “xenophobic Israel,” the deportation effort hardly seems worth it.

Protecting the Weak

But the crux lies elsewhere. Remarkably and dismally, Israel, which faces such formidable demographic challenges is (as a recent report by Israeli think tank the Metzilah Center noted) “the only Western democracy that still lacks an immigration policy.”

The old paradigm of Israel as an exclusively repatriation state for Jews is anachronistic. Transparent, coherent criteria for the naturalization of non-Jews—criteria that serve Israel’s unique needs and give advance notice to migrant workers of the conditions of their stay—can help prevent future heart-rending situations in which little boys and girls and their families are forcibly deported. That is the truly fair, just—and Jewish—way of handling Israel’s immigration challenge.

While it is important to protect Israel’s Jewish character, today the Jewish people is no longer an embattled minority wandering among the nations. Instead, the Jews of Israel are a majority with their own sovereign state. This transformation imparts the Jewish people with the right to self-determination, but it also obligates them to protect truly weak minorities—like the children of foreign workers.

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