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Commentary: Israelis divided on fate of children of foreign workers

By Ira Sharkansky

Ira Sharkansky

JERUSALEM — The New York Times headlines  its article about a recent Israeli government decision dealing with the children of illegal immigrants, “Israelis Divided on Deporting Children.” Its first paragraph claims that

“Deep divisions emerged here on Monday over the fate of about 400 children of foreign workers who have no legal status in the  country and are slated for deportation. The issue has touched on sensitive nerves in Israel, which sees itself as a nation of Jewish refugees and defines itself as a Jewish and democratic  state.”

The issue does stir emotions. However, the results of one media query seem short of “deep divisions.” The country’s most popular news web site asked about the government decision that would allow approximately 800 children of foreign workers to stay in Israel, and deport about 400.” The criteria employed by the government would take into consideration length of residence, fluency in Hebrew, and enrollment in public school.

Of more than 1500 respondents,  17 percent thought the decision an appropriate compromise, 54 percent chose the option “Disgrace; there is a need to deport them all,” and 29 percent chose “Shameful; the government should allow all to stay.”

The issue of illegal immigration touches the same buttons here that it does in the United States and Western Europe. Israel is the only well-to-do western country having a land border with Africa, and the route from Egypt over the Sinai with Bedouin guides has resulted in substantial illegal foreign worker communities in Eilat and the poorer neighborhoods of Tel Aviv. Official estimates of close to 150,000 illegal residents include these migrants, as well as individuals who came as part of official agreements with several Asian countries (especially the Philippines, Thailand, China), and overstayed their visas. European prostitutes also come over the Sinai, typically  organized by Israeli criminals whose own origins are in the women’s homelands of the former  Soviet Union.

As elsewhere, businesses and families have trouble attracting menial workers who are legal, and provide jobs despite threats of inspections and fines. Egyptian police and soldiers make occasional sweeps against Bedouin traffickers, but their practice of shooting and killing the migrants does not go down well with Israelis.

Israel’s media has cooperated with activists who portray many of the African migrants as refugees seeking asylum from Darfur, although there may be few if any who have documented such origins. The vast majority are economic migrants, with large numbers coming from Eritrea and Nigeria. Efforts to arrange orderly programs of work permits with those governments along with procedures for returning illegals have not succeeded. While Israel’s government was pondering the issue of deporting children and their families over the course of several weeks, the media provided coverage for children who spoke, in Hebrew, about their love of Israel, their aspirations to become Israelis and eventually to serve in the army, and their lack of any connections with any other place. Media personalities press individuals speaking for the government, or Knesset Members in favor of deportation, with questions like, “How can you deport such children?”

Israelis do have sensitive nerves, but it is not clear how they differ from other populations. Perhaps 100,000 have expressed concern for Gilad Shalit, the soldier held prisoner in Gaza more than four years, but there are no overt signs of a movement to undercut the government’s refusal to free all the prisoners demanded as his price by Hamas. 

More likely to be emotional than other events is the death of military personnel. When an IDF helicopter crashed with the loss of six lives during a training mission in Romania, the media devoted extensive coverage of the incident over the course of several days: from the first report of a missing helicopter missing to the funerals of the men on board. There were numerous interviews with experts speculating about the cause of the crash, and reports about the technicians, officers, and military rabbis sent to Romania in order to collect material for inspection and to identify the remains. As has occurred in the case of other military loses, there were stories about each of the individuals, interviews with friends and family members. Thousands of people attend these funerals, many of whom have no direct connection with those killed. 

While there are Israelis who feel strongly about pleasant looking Africans and other children of illegal immigrants, there is no indication that they are able to shape public policy. It is hard to argue with the statement, expressed by several in the government’s majority, who said that an excess of leniency would only add to the problems of a small country, wanting to remain Jewish, and having a border with the poorest region of the world.

Among those quarreling with this sentiment was a prominent television personality who held forth on the value of ethnic variety, and the greater willingness of these immigrants than the ultra-Orthodox to work and to serve in the army.

The government has taken initial steps to build some kind of barrier through the long wasteland that is the border between the  Sinai and Israel, but the Bedouin will be crafty at poking holes in whatever Israel builds. And it is cumbersome at best to deport individuals who have no  documents, may not report truthfully about their origins,  and are not likely to be accepted by whatever homeland Israel would decide is theirs. 
Israel has approached European countries with a request to accept some of these people. So far there are no reports of success. 
Anyone think that the United States would cooperate?

 *
Sharkansky is professor emeritus of political science at Hebrew University.

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