Following a decade hiatus living outside Israel, I returned to the country in 2005. While reacclimating, I witnessed the following scene:
Waiting for a Russian woman to finish slicing my cheese at the deli counter, a septuagenarian in a tweed overcoat and cashmere gloves pulled up beside me in his wheelchair. Pushing him was a slight woman in her mid-40s with dark hair and dark eyes.
She: “What do you want?”
He: “Nothing. I don’t want anything.”
She: “But you said you wanted herring!”
He: “Why are you bothering me? When did I say I want herring?”
She: “Nu? Oy! We get all the way over here and now you change your mind! I’m going to go crazy!”
I chuckled internally, but not because the exchange was unusual — this was tame for Israel. I was intrigued by the notion that sparring before me in flawless Hebrew with a crotchety European Jew was a petite Christian Filipina.
The gradual influx of foreign laborers to Israel began in the mid-1990s when the government needed to fill the void left by Palestinian workers who were increasingly being barred from entering the country. Today, Israel’s construction, elder and child care, and agricultural industries are dominated by a quarter-million foreign laborers employed by agencies or private sponsors, or working illegally.
The growing political unease over Israel’s dependence on foreign labor is put in simple terms by a government operative friend:
If they continue to come here, settle down and have kids, they will offset a Jewish majority in Israel. We have to keep an eye and a cap on that.
Sound familiar? The Arizona “anchor baby” debate over the status of children born to illegal immigrants in the U.S. mirrors Israel’s conundrum regarding children of foreign laborers, their legal status, and their ultimate right to reside in the country.
The dilemma was apparent this week in Prime Minister Netanyahu’s pre-cabinet session statement issued to appease opponents of extradition, while at the same time addressing the government’s problem.
On the one hand, he said, Israel wants to adopt these “little children.” But on the other hand, Israel mustn’t create an incentive for “hundreds of thousands to come to Israel.”