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September 2, 2010

Israel's discarded children

Reuel S. Amdur

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When Israel decided to get rid of Palestinian workers from the Occupied Territories, it was left with the problem of who would do the low-paying dirty work. It decided on a guest worker program, bringing in people from such places as India, the Philippines, China, and Africa.

These workers receive visas for a certain period of time, but then they are supposed to leave.  Some continue to stay illegally, and some enter illegally to work in Israel, for instance coming in as tourists.  Poor as their wages may be, they are still financially better off than back home.

Israel declares itself to be a Jewish and democratic state.

Considering its treatment of Palestinians in Israel and in the Occupied Territories, we might compare it to ancient Athens, also a democracy, but only for some.  Immigrants and slaves were not included.  What is happening to democracy in Israel is a question on which we will pass at this time, but the issue of its Jewishness is at the center of the country’s future. 

Israelis frequently express concern about Palestinian population growth and its implications for the Jewish character of the country.  Can Israel maintain a Jewish majority? 

For reasons of security, Israel has cut off Palestinians from the Occupied Territories from work in Israel, but the use of guest workers from abroad only exacerbates the problem of the country’s future Jewishness. 

Not only are there all the Palestinians but now there is an influx of additional gentiles.  And while they are supposed to stay for only a limited time, they end up wanting to stay permanently. 

Then comes the even more serious problem. 

They have children born in Israel.  What is to happen to these dangerous children?

 If they are allowed in, they help to undermine Israel’s Jewish character.  Should they be deported?  The question has been bothering Israelis for years.

Back in 2004, the Israeli cabinet set up a committee to look at establishing criteria for granting citizenship to children of foreign workers living illegally in the country.  They would need to have reached school age.  If residency were granted, the thought was that the parents would also gain legal status.  As Haaretz reported at the time, the committee would consider “social and demographic implications.”

Last year, Nitzan Horowitz, a member of the Knesset for the left-wing Meretz party, objected to the deportation of children born in Israel to immigrant workers.

“They’re deporting people while bringing new workers into the country,” he pointed out.

Children in the country without status lack all sorts of entitlements.  In 2004 some Israeli-born adults age 20 to 26, children of immigrant workers, went to court seeking status.  Without status they could not have an identity card, and without the card they had no access to medical care, could not get a driver’s license, and could not obtain regular jobs. 

Presently, the plan is to regularize the status of 800 children and deport 400. 

Those eligible to stay must be able to speak Hebrew and be entering grade 1 or higher.  If not born in Israel, they must have entered before they were 13.  Their parents must have entered the country as guest workers, and the parents will be allowed to stay till their children are 21.  The current thinking is that at that point they can also apply for residence. 

But what of the other 400? 

A few of the offspring are not eligible because their parents were working for foreign embassies.  Others are too young.  And so on. 

To their credit, many political figures object to the deportation of the 400.  President Shimon Peres calls such a deportation “unthinkable,” and Defense Minister Ehud Barak joined him, saying, “The sight of police officers raiding migrant workers’ homes and forcing the children out, the sight of guards holding families in detention camps and the sight of interior ministry inspectors escorting Hebrew-speaking children onto planes, will cause us all irreversible damage, both from within and abroad.”

Last year, even Danny Danon, an MK from the right-wing Likud, objected, citing what happened when settlers were forced out of Gaza: “I see the evacuated children and the traumas they sustained since then.  We must treat these children with sensitivity.” 

On the other hand, Interior Minister Eli Yishai wants to push ahead.  “The cabinet made a decision after a profound discussion and after the extensive work of the interministerial committee.  Therefore it is unfitting to render the government’s work pointless.”

Sara Netanyahu, wife of the Prime Minister, personally wrote to Yishai asking him “to allow the vast majority of the remaining 400 to remain in Israel.”  The chances of changing Yishai’s mind are slim. 

Not long ago he expressed a concern that foreign workers were spreading disease.

Incidentally, Yishai represents Shas, the Sephardic religious party. 

All of those expressing unease with expulsion are from more secular political groups. 

Politicians from Israel’s religious parties do not seem to pay much attention to the Biblical command on how to treat strangers in their midst.  Is this what a Jewish state comes to mean?

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