When Israel’s cabinet voted on Sunday to deport 400 children of migrant workers, national and international media lit up with commentary and criticism. Images of the youngsters’ beaming faces, many of them gathered at anti-deportation rallies earlier in the year, were shown as the kids held up “don’t deport us” signs in English. The impact reverberated.
Former Education Minister Yossi Sarid urged:
If any of you know children who are candidates for deportation, take them into your homes, hide them … let the authorities tear them from your arms. Maybe you won’t succeed in averting the evil decree, but this is how human beings are supposed to act. A few years down the road, they become Righteous Gentiles.
The cabinet vote comes after lengthy debate over the fate of Israel’s immigrant child population, and the government’s struggle to maintain a Jewish state while at the same time funding education and health care for non-Jewish children of foreign workers.
In his address to cabinet members, Prime Minister Netanyahu stated that the biggest impetus for the decision to send hundreds of children back to their countries of origin was staunching a trend:
We don’t want to create an incentive for the inflow of hundreds of thousands of illegal migrant workers.
The children and parents being deported fall short of government criteria for naturalization. For a child to stay, he or she must have been born in Israel or arrived before age 13, lived in the country at least five consecutive years, studied at last one year in the state school system, be registered for first grade or higher, and speak fluent Hebrew. Also, their parents must have arrived on a valid work visa.
Eight hundred kids and their parents meet the criteria. Four hundred don’t.
The government’s policy is a gross violation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child which Israel has signed on to.
Israel’s human rights groups and left-leaning politicians slammed the decision, in one case calling it “brutal, random, and regretful.” Rotem Ilan, chairwoman of the Israeli Children advocacy group for migrant workers’ families, told the press:
We’re talking about children here. … They are the children of people who came to Israel legally to work. We brought these people here to plow our fields, build our houses, and take care of our grandparents. And with people come families. … It’s the deportation of children that threatens Israel’s Jewish character. The obligation to act with kindness and compassion to foreigners is the most frequently repeated commandment in the Torah.
Those favoring the vote are quick to note that the parents of the children in question are in Israel illegally and are therefore not subject to the same jurisprudence as their legally working peers. Jerusalem Post columnist Seth Frantzman writes:
Children don’t arrive in Israel mysteriously by themselves. Their parents came, with or without the children, and raised them here. That was the choice of the parents. The parents claim their children “have never been to the Philippines, how can I tell her she’s going home? She hardly speaks a word of Tagalog.” But whose fault is that?
“Flooding,” Netanyahu stated, was the foremost issue driving the vote:
We are witnessing a great and increasing illegal migration, mainly via the open southern border from Africa of tens of thousands of illegal labor migrants. There are those who say that there have been close to 500,000 migrants — and perhaps close to 1,000,000 — in the past decade. This is a tangible threat to the Jewish and democratic character of the State of Israel; therefore, we will make a decision that is balanced between the desire to take these children into our hearts and the desire not to create an incentive for continued illegal migration that could flood the foundation of the Zionist state.
The Philippine government seemed nonplussed over the decision, as mirrored in the Foreign Affairs Department’s issue of a sterile post-vote statement assuring that “undocumented children” will be repatriated as seamlessly as possible.
Ultimately, debate is passé and irrelevant unless an appeal pends. The backlash lying in wait will hit hardest when images of sobbing, Hebrew-speaking Asian children who have known only Israel as home are displayed worldwide as they are escorted away by Israeli officials.