Reprinted with permission from Jewish Ideas Daily.
In 2010 the Israeli cabinet granted status to 800 children of guest workers while, pending appeal, ordering the deportation of 400 others. In the ensuing public reaction, some thought the measure too severe, others too generous. No surprise there: as Western Europeans and Americans well know, the problem of migrant labor is by no means unique to Israel. But each situation has arisen out of specific constellations of history, policy, and circumstance—and, in Israel, an added dimension is the complex relationship among the longstanding societal values of work, solidarity, and Zionism.
The Beginning of the Problem
After 1967, the Israeli economy turned increasingly to Palestinians as a source of unskilled labor. A decline in the numbers of these workers set in during the first intifada in the late 1980s, and by the mid-1990s the Palestinians’ place in the workforce had largely been taken by foreigners. The disparity only grew larger in the early years of this century with the second intifada and its associated terror.
Today, non-Israeli workers number anywhere from 250,000 to 400,000, more than half of whom are in the country illegally. Chinese construction workers, Thai farmhands, Filipina home health-care aides—these, along with other laborers and African refugees, are by now familiar if undefined presences in Israeli life. Although efforts to deport illegals began in 2002, they have hardly progressed since then.
It is easy to tick off the problems caused by the present situation. The import of cheap foreign labor, advantageous to the employers who draw on it, serves to depress the wages of low-skilled Israelis and to drive Israeli Arabs in particular out of the workforce. The foreign workers themselves are regularly low-paid and ill-treated, contributing to an atmosphere in which workers’ rights seem altogether more readily expendable.
Another far-reaching problem is the corrosive effect of exploitation and income inequality on the bonds of solidarity among Israel’s diverse citizenry. During the decades of early state-building, Labor Zionist leaders sought through socialist means to minimize class differences that might undermine Jewish nationalism. Though their religion of manual labor was never universal, the ethos it represented was crucial to the new state’s self-definition. Today, amid growing income disparities—and wide unemployment among Arabs and ultra-Orthodox Jews—social cohesion is further diminished.
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