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.”
The children in question are either Israeli-born or have spent a good deal of their childhood in Israel, but their legal status in the country is questionable.
“The issue touches on two things,” Netanyahu said Sunday at the beginning of the weekly cabinet meeting. “One is humanity, and the other is a Jewish and Zionist state.”
While Arizona state Senator Russell Pearce’s proposed bill denying U.S. born children of illegal immigrants citizenship is being described as a morally bankrupt, punitive crusade, Netanyahu’s priority is to preserve a Jewish democratic majority in Israel in the face of burgeoning neighboring Muslim populations — and, most recently, Iran’s cash incentive for babies.
Israel lacks a formal immigration policy for non-Jews, so children born in the country to foreign workers are in limbo. They attend state schools, speak Hebrew, and even sing Jewish-themed songs at holiday time. But because they are non-citizens, they are candidates for deportation.
The Interior Ministry Population and Immigration Authority committee is recommending children be permitted to stay in Israel if they came to the country before age 13, or have resided in Israel for at least five consecutive years and are enrolled in state primary or secondary schools. Younger siblings of children who meet those criteria will also be allowed to stay in Israel.
Currently families have three weeks to file for stays, but one cabinet minister is seeking an extension. Those who do not meet the criteria will be given 30 days to leave Israel voluntarily.
Critics of deportation call it immoral, as do thousands of protesters who have gathered numerous times in bids to keep the children and their parents in the country.
Israel’s Trade and Labor minister says the state has no moral right to deport even a single child, and that all children must be kept in Israel. At the same time, he advocates preventing an ongoing similar situation by tightening restrictions on unauthorized workers and coming down on infiltrators with “an iron fist.”
As with Arizona’s proposed bill, the future of children is at stake. But unlike the “anchor baby” issue, the chief concern in Israel is not of a plotted, covert attempt at “hijacking the state’s wealth.” It’s about numbers and demographics, and finding a humane solution to a cruel circumstance.