Does Israel Have an Immigrant Problem?

Thousands are flocking to the Jewish state for work. But increasingly, they are becoming a political football.


It’s Saturday night in Tel Aviv, and a crowd of Filipino women make their way down Neve Sha’anan Street, a charmless pedestrian arcade lined with money-changers, calling-card centers, Africans selling stolen, bootlegged, or junk merchandise, and storefront bars where patrons lounge around plastic tables covered in empty beer bottles. The women, dressed in tight jeans, miniskirts, and slinky tops, walk past the "Kingdom of Pork" butcher shop and into the massive, grime-encrusted central bus station. Their destination is the Bahay Kubu, a dance club located on the third level. Tonight is the Ms. Filipino-Israel beauty pageant, an annual event hosted by Charlene, a bashful and giggly transvestite. During the week, Charlene is James, a nursing-home employee and one of hundreds of thousands of foreign workers in Israel.

The figures are fuzzy and politically contested, but the most reliable estimates place the number of such workers around 300,000. There are an additional 20,000 Africans — primarily Eritreans and Sudanese — who claim to be refugees from persecution. The overwhelming majority of foreign workers are like James: economic migrants from China, India, Nepal, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and elsewhere who arrived in Israel on temporary visas to take jobs in the agriculture and construction industries or as caregivers for the elderly. According to the Israeli government, 30 percent of foreign workers are in the country illegally. Eighty percent of the foreign population lives in south Tel Aviv, crammed into slouching tenements near the central bus station.

The presence of a large, non-Jewish population in the Jewish state stirs great unease. In November, Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz blamed foreign workers for a rise in unemployment and a "widening of social gaps"; the mayor of Eilat, Meir Yitzhak Halevi, recently called them a "burden on the welfare authorities." He added: "They consume alcohol and have introduced cases of severe violence." The situation is routinely described in the media as a ticking social time bomb. The military estimates that as many as 1 million Africans could try to cross into Israel (though the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner on Refugees puts the number at 45,000).

Responding to such concerns, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced on Jan. 10 that Israel will build two fences along the Egyptian border — one around Eilat, the other near Gaza — in the hope of staunching the flow of "infiltrators and terrorists." Construction is expected to take several years, and the fence will be entirely on Israeli territory. Netanyahu also directed the Justice Ministry to formulate a plan to sanction businesses that hire illegal immigrants. "This is a strategic decision to ensure the Jewish and democratic character of the state of Israel," Netanyahu said. "Israel will remain open to war refugees but we cannot allow thousands of illegal workers to infiltrate into Israel via the southern border and flood our country." There is reason to be skeptical. For two decades, Israeli policy toward foreign workers and refugees, has been widely regarded as a complete failure.

Foreign workers first arrived in Israel in the late 1980s to address a sudden labor shortage caused by the outbreak of the first Intifada. Following the Six Day War in 1967, Israel issued work permits to Palestinians for menial, low-wage jobs, primarily in construction and agriculture. By 1987, the year the Intifada began, Palestinians comprised nearly 8 percent of the Israeli labor force. The uprising, which prevented Palestinians from traveling back and forth to jobs inside Israel, threw the economy into crisis. In response, the Israeli government began to import workers from abroad. By 2000, foreign workers comprised 12 percent of the Israeli workforce.

"From the government’s perspective, there was a closed circle, with clear procedures and rules dictating each workers’ entry and exit," Israel Drori told me when I visited his spartan, linoleum-tiled office at Tel Aviv University, where he is a professor of business. The number of foreign workers was supposed to rise and fall according to supply and demand, Drori explained, but the government proved unable or unwilling to effectively regulate the process — a history he recounts in detail in his book, Foreign Workers in Israel. Many workers fell into the illegal labor market. Others arrive on tourist visas and never leave. Exploitation is rampant. "The state has been completely incompetent," Drori said. "It is really a disgrace." And whereas Palestinians went home to Gaza or the West Bank at the end of the day, the foreign workers — like in Europe, like in the United States — began to settle down.

"This fence has nothing to do with foreign workers," Yohannes Bayu told me in a telephone interview. "Those crossing the Egyptian border aren’t foreign workers; they are asylum-seekers." Bayu is executive director of the African Refugee Development Center, an Israeli NGO that advocates for the rights of asylum-seekers.

The main problem, Bayu believes, is that Israel refuses to clarify who is a refugee, even though it is obligated to do so as a signatory to the 1951 U.N. Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. But as of last year, according to Bayu, only 180 asylum-seekers were officially recognized by the Israeli government as refugees. The rest wait in limbo. The fence will, however, block the ability of refugees to escape from Egypt. "The treatment in Egypt is harsh and inhumane. If someone is caught by the Egyptians on the border, they will be imprisoned, tortured, or killed," Bayu told me matter-of-factly. "I recognize Israel as a Jewish state," he continued, "but Israel is also part of the world community and it has an obligation to deal with refugees."

Late last week, before a tour of the border area with Egypt, Netanyahu warned that a "surge of refugees … are causing socioeconomic and cultural damage" that threatens to turn Israel into a Third World country. The problem, Netanyahu explained, "is the very success of our economy, which today is included among the developed economies around the world and has emerged out of this crisis better than most countries. Some of the countries and economies in our proximity are suffering great hardships, which in turn is increasing our attractiveness and is starting to draw populations from less-developed countries." The result, he said, is that foreign workers are taking the jobs of the "weakest Israelis." But as the Hotline for Migrant Workers, an Israeli NGO, points out, only 3,000 Africans came into Israel from Egypt last year. During that same period, Netanyahu’s government issued 120,000 visas to foreign workers. The proposed fence, in other words, will do little to benefit unemployed Israelis if the government continues to acquiesce to employer demands for more and more cheap labor.

"The government is worried about the Jewishness of the state, so it will never give citizenship to a large number of foreign workers," Drori told me. "But this country needs menial laborers, so the foreign workers are here to stay. The question is how to regulate their presence with a greater sense of morality."


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