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Israel: Constitution, Government and Politics

Foreign Workers -- New Trend in Migration

Daniel J. Elazar

Israel -- or at least the Israeli media -- seem to have awakened to the presence of the large number of foreign workers now among us and the likely consequences of their presence. It is not yet clear that the government and the private market that employs them have or even want to. Israel entered into the venture of importing foreign workers some forty years after Europe did so and long after Europe discovered the problems that such an importation brings with it. Like Europe, Israel has imported foreign workers in a systematic fashion, but in addition it has at least several tens of thousands of foreign workers who are in this country illegally. In that respect, Israel's problems are also similar to those of the United States which for decades has been faced with illegal immigration of Latin Americans and Asians seeking a better life for themselves by assuming the most menial positions in the American work force.

Both the European countries and the United States have learned to their discomfiture that many foreign workers, once they arrive, have no desire to return home, that the same reasons that propelled them to seek temporary work outside of their homelands makes them want to stay and build new lives in those more attractive and affluent societies. In shorter order, they bring their families or try to. In some cases they marry locals or, where the opportunity presents itself, with others from their own ethnic backgrounds. They have children who do not even know the countries that their parents came from and know only the host country into which they were born. The hosts who enjoy the fruits of the foreign workers' labor are not so keen on accepting them as permanent residents, much less citizens, and this in circumstances in which national identity is less exclusivist than normally is the case in Israel.

As is so often the case, Israel began the importation of foreign workers because of another problem which it faced, that of Palestinian terrorism. Today, all advanced Western societies have the same problem of lacking indigenous residents who are willing to work at the lowest level jobs in the society, the "dirty work," as it were. Israel avoided facing that problem for a long time because of the results of the Six-Day War which brought an Arab population under Israeli rule. The population provided a functional equivalent of foreign workers; that is to say, they had a far lower standard of living and could only benefit by working at jobs which Israelis, Jews in particular but Israeli Arabs as well, would no longer perform.

Since despite the mutual hostility and antagonism that existed or may have existed between them, Jews and Arabs, Israelis and Palestinians, are more alike than different in many ways, especially since both are settled populations who, after work, went home to their families or villages. The fact is that, with the exception of the few terrorists who used the open borders to cross into Israel, the two groups fit together quite compatibly and both could benefit from this symbiotic relationship, obviating the need for outsiders.

It was only after Yitzhak Rabin and his Labor government decided that the best way to control terrorism while pursuing the peace process would be through pursuing a separationist policy that the Palestinians were deprived of the jobs that they needed in order to survive. by that act, certain Israeli industries were equally deprived of needed workers, thus requiring them to turn to other sources of supply, generating the foreign worker problem.

Instead of trying to implement a more sophisticated screening program (for example, we know that terrorists are almost never family men over the age of 30, hence restrictions could have been placed on those younger, with tougher inspection, and different requisite identification, thereby substantially reducing the possibility for terrorists to come into Jewish areas without punishing stable Palestinians who simply wanted to support their families), the government preferred to open the gates to the importation of workers, from Portugal, Thailand, Poland, Romania, and the Philippines. Nor did it stop at that. Once the word got out that Israel was a place with great employment opportunities, thousands of Africans began to sneak into the country illegally as did people from other countries who came in on tourist visas and simply disappeared when the time came for them to leave, usually with the collusion of Jewish employers who needed them as laborers.

Soon foreign workers began to bring their own problems with them. As yet, these are relatively modest. Thai workers are eating up Israel's wildlife and stray cats and dogs, according to reports. Workers of European origin frequently get drunk. Undoubtedly both help-support Israel's prostitution industry which also brings in foreign workers -- Russian non-Jews -- imported for the trade. None of this is unique to Israel, rather it is a common feature of globalization and has hit Israel in the same way that globalization is affecting other aspects of Israel's economy and society.

Migration of this new style is so much a worldwide issue that the Canadian Department of Immigration and Citizenship has successfully inaugurated a worldwide research program called "Metropolis" to study the impact of migration in all its aspects on government and society in recognition that globalization has changed the character of migration from what it was in the past. In earlier times migration usually consisted of people moving on a one-time basis from their countries of origin to new places which were perceived as lands of opportunity where they resettled themselves and became part of the community, whether equally or not. Since World War II migration has taken on new forms: millions and tens of millions of refugees and expellees seeking resettlement, foreign workers seeking job opportunities without necessarily intending to move permanently from their countries of origin, millions of people involved in the new globalization who go abroad for longer or shorter periods as part of their occupation, people who retire and return or migrate to their ancestral land. Moreover, migration has become a continuing phenomenon. For example, in the United States, it used to be that students who went to live near the universities where they were studying were counted as residents of their hometowns, but now that they go for periods of four to eight years, often for longer times than many workers who move as if to settle in those places to work and then are transferred after less time.

What Israel must come to recognize, is that in a state designed to give special attention to the Jewish people, a small minority in the world with very different customs who need a place where their ways are accepted and dominant ones, unthinking involvement in the new migration will end the possibility of maintaining Jewish civilization in any form. To take one clear example, one need only look at the Japanese whose 130 million people located on the Japanese islands gives them a critical mass ten times that of the Jewish people and twenty times that of the Jews in Israel, have accepted Christmas and Santa Claus and other aspects of Western and Christian culture without formally becoming Christians to see what is in store for us under the present circumstances. We can already see how much of this has come into the Israeli media at Christmas season, in part because of another migrational flow, the arrival of tens of thousands of non-Jewish Russians under the Law of Return.

All of this requires serious thought on the part of the Israeli government and Israeli society. Israel has been invited to join the Metropolis project and the Israel Ministry of Absorption will shortly be signing on to it with a scheduled visit by the Minister of Absorption to Canada. The Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs has taken the lead in developing a research program in the field at the request of the project and its Canadian leadership, but this is only the smallest of beginnings, just as the media attention of the last few weeks is only a beginning.

Israel has a unique opportunity in that it has a choice between workers from different cultures and workers of a similar culture who need employment close at hand. We need to weigh that choice, its costs, its benefits, and how the benefits can be gained while minimizing the costs. That is part of a considered approach to globalization, an approach that Israel needs to cultivate in many fields, neither rushing headlong and unthinkingly into global homogenization nor isolating ourselves from it. The issue of foreign workers is already upon us. Only if we act immediately do we have any chance of dealing with that issue in a way that will meet our needs without doing untold damage to our social fabric.

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