Casting out its own children

Mondoweiss, October 24, 2009

South Tel Aviv, home to foreign workers and African refugees, is in turmoil again after Interior Minister Eli Yishai recently indicated that children of illegal residents will be deported by the end of the school year.

They won’t be going alone—their parents will be deported, too—but that’s beside the point. Many of the 1200 children now targeted for deportation were born and raised in Israel. Some are teenagers who hope to serve in the army and join the Jewish collective they already consider themselves a part of. These kids have Israeli names, celebrate the chagim (holidays) and are culturally Israeli in every way.

The Interior Ministry estimates that there are currently 300,000 foreign workers in Israel—250,000 of these are in the country illegally. Migrants from the Philippines constitute the largest group; laborers also come from India, Nepal, China, and Thailand. Additionally, there is also a small community from Latin America. Usually, the Filipino, Indian, and Nepali workers are employed as caregivers, the Thai are found in the agricultural sector, and the Chinese labor in the construction. Israel is also home to almost 15,000 African asylum seekers from Eritrea, Sudan, and Darfur.

Many of the children at risk of deportation are Filipino; African refugees that find themselves without legal status may also face deportation.

Reporting on the issue for a foreign newspaper, I gave Eli Yishai’s spokesman, Roei Lachmanovich, a call. The Israeli government, he said, is simply trying to lessen the country’s dependency on foreign workers. The decision is not against the children—it’s against illegal workers. In the past, Lachmanovich explained, women have taken advantage of the fact that Israel won’t deport children. They have babies, he claimed, in lieu of visas.

While the decision to deport these children still seemed utterly inhumane to me, I forced myself to stop and consider whether these kids are victims of the state or bad luck.

I recently reported on the plight of Israel’s Chinese workers—men who leave their families in rural China and come to the Middle East to toil away in construction. While researching that story, I obtained a memorandum that detailed the government’s plans to phase out foreign labor from the construction sector. The aim, it said, is to have only 5000 migrant workers in this industry by October 2010, 2000 by 2011, and none by 2012.

Israel, it seemed at the time, is indeed trying to shift towards the local labor market.

(The eternal optimist, I’d read this news in a positive light. “This means peace is coming! We are phasing out foreign workers so we can use Israeli and Palestinian workers,” I’d said to my friends—journalists, NGO workers, and activists. I had heady dreams of Arabs and Jews, side-by side, literally shaping the foundations for the new Israel, working in the fields together, and caring for our elderly together. My fantasies, of course, were met with laughter).

Wanting to ignore the truth—that Israel will deport children who are, arguably, Israeli—I clung to Lachmanovich’s words. I was almost convinced that the children are, sadly, caught in unfortunate circumstances. I pushed aside that voice that came from somewhere deep inside of me; I ignored that part of my conscience that told me my adopted country is, once again, participating in ethnic cleansing.

That is, until Thursday morning, when I opened up the Israeli daily Haaretz.

Ignoring Arab women, ministry okays 3000 new foreign workers,” the headline said. The story that followed discussed Israel’s plan to bring thousands of laborers from Thailand despite the fact that there are 1,168 Arab women—locals—who are eager for these jobs.

Workers from Thailand are, from the most part, unaccompanied men—as Israel prepares to cast out families and children, people who are rooted in the country, it is bringing in more cheap, transient labor.

So I called Lachmanovich again, as both a reporter and a concerned citizen. I asked him straightforward: Is Israel cracking down on kids in an attempt to preserve the Jewish demographic of the state?

It’s not about the children, he insisted. He hemmed and hawed as he searched for the right words. In the end, I was left with some vague statement about the government deciding to phase out foreign workers. We, he said, must respect that.

Who is this “we” he’s talking about? I wondered. Does it include me—someone who doesn’t speak Hebrew as well as many of these children, someone who probably knows less about the holidays than the foreign workers’ kids, but gets to remain in Israel just because I’m Jewish?

What is there to respect?

*Photo from pinoynepal, Hebrew sign reads “Don’t deport our children!” 2_wh1

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