To be Israeli

The saga over the deportation of migrant workers’ children questions what it means to be loyal to the Jewish state.

Israeli cabinet ministers voted to grant legal status to some 800 children of migrant workers, who have lived in Israel for more than five years, speak Hebrew and attend school, but to deport another 400 children [GALLO/GETTY]

“I’m very afraid. I don’t know what to do,” says G, a Filipina worker, as she runs her fingers through her five-year-old son’s hair. Her husband was deported from Israel a year ago. Now she and her two children – aged five and one – face imminent expulsion to the Philippines.

G – who is so frightened of Israeli police that she asked not to be named or photographed – says she cannot bring herself to break the news to her son, who was born in Israel, attends kindergarten with Jewish children, and speaks fluent Hebrew.

“Sometimes I say to him that maybe we’ll go on the airplane,” she says. “And he says, ‘I don’t want to go.'” When G tries to explain to her son that they might have to, he asks: “Can we come back?”

A police car turns the corner. G quickly says goodbye and hurries away, pushing a baby stroller and gripping her son’s hand.

After a year-long battle over the fate of 1,200 children of undocumented migrant workers, the decision came down on August 1. Eight hundred would be eligible for naturalisation. The remaining 400 would be expelled, along with their parents.


Binyamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, applauded the move as “reasonable and balanced”. But critics – among them Netanyahu’s wife, Sara, and high-ranking government officials – felt otherwise.

Sara Netanyahu made a personal appeal to Eli Yishai, the interior minister whose office oversees matters pertaining to population. She penned a letter to Yishai, pleading with him to allow the children to stay, and met with the minster to discuss the issue face-to-face.

Ehud Barak, the defence minister, remarked that images of “police officers raiding migrant workers’ homes and forcing the children out … guards holding families in detention camps and … inspectors escorting Hebrew-speaking children on to planes, will cause us all irreversible damage.” Barak also said that deportation should be cancelled for “ethical, Jewish, and humanistic” reasons.

Shimon Peres, the Israeli president, condemned the expulsion as “unconscionable”.

Despite the chorus of criticism – and despite the fact that the Israeli government issued a record number of visas for new migrant workers last year – Yishai has remained a staunch supporter of the deportation, claiming that the move is necessary to guard the Jewish character of the state. He has shouted down opponents on the Knesset floor – using retorts like “shut up” – and has remarked ominously on army radio that: “[The children and their parents] hide … but we have their names.”

Such comments explain the cover of a recent edition of Time Out Tel Aviv. The seven-year-old daughter of Filipino workers is pictured wearing her scouts’ uniform, which includes an Israeli flag sewn over the heart. Below her, the caption: “Open hunting season.” It hit newsstands during the first week of October, when the deportation was slated to begin.

‘Israelis will host’

Activists are now stepping up their efforts to combat the expulsion, taking their fight to the south Tel Aviv neighbourhoods that the immigration police will hit the hardest. Members of Israeli Children, a grassroots organisation founded to advocate for the children, are patrolling the area. Armed with cameras, which would capture damning pictures of children being detained by armed officers, they hope their presence will prevent deportations.

Activists also intend to document the behaviour of immigration police to ensure that they do not violate the civil rights of migrant workers or their children.

More than a week in, no families have been arrested. Speaking to Al Jazeera on the first day of the expulsion, Israeli Children member Yonatan Shaham remarked: “[Several times] we saw [immigration police]. Volunteers approached them and they went away.”

Despite the quiet, Shaham and other activists are certain that the deportation will occur.

“They will try to take children when we don’t see them, when we don’t know,” he said.

“We are waiting for leadership decision from the prime minister to finish this saga and keep the children here,” added Shaham, who donned a shirt with the words “United against the deportation”.

Education Minister Gideon Saar has made a similar appeal to Netanyahu.

Rotem Ilan, the co-founder of Israeli Children, says: “I don’t believe that the prime minister wants to deport them. We heard what Sara Netanyahu said. It didn’t come from nowhere.”

But if Netanyahu does not stop the expulsion, Ilan believes the Israeli public – which is largely opposed to the move – will.

Ilan points to an incident from last summer as an example. Immigration police rounded up dozens of African refugees, a group that is not eligible for deportation, and put them on a bus to take them to a detention centre. Activists formed a human chain and stopped the bus.

Ilan feels that Israelis will step in if they see children being detained. Her organisation has already received hundreds of calls from citizens who are willing to open their homes to families who face deportation.

“When we talk about hiding [children], it creates a panic in the community like ‘we have to hide,'” Ilan says. “I say [Israelis] are going to host.”

“There are things so horrible that you can’t stand aside and one of them is seeing a child being arrested.”

“And not just any child,” Ilan adds. “An innocent child. We’re talking about children who didn’t do anything illegal.”

‘A question of numbers’

Most critics of the deportation also view the workers less as illegal and more as victims of inhumane policies. Many entered Israel legally, losing their visas due to the policy that forbids migrant workers from having children. If they give birth, they have three months to send their infant to their home country. If they refuse, they lose their legal status.

Migrant workers are also prohibited from entering into romantic relationships. And critics say that such policies violate basic human rights.

The Kibbutz Movement has stated publicly that it is willing to take in all of the children.

An enduring symbol of Zionism, the kibbutzim – collective agricultural communities – pre-date the founding of the Jewish state itself, with the first established in 1910. During the British Mandate, kibbutz members assisted illegal Jewish immigration to Palestine. Many of these immigrants were refugees from the Holocaust. They were secreted into the country and scattered amongst the collective farms to hide from British forces – that era’s immigration police.

The Kibbutz Movement’s willingness to take similar actions on the behalf of migrant workers’ children points to key issues in the debate – who is Israeli? And what does it mean to be loyal to the Jewish state?

Marisa, a Filipino woman whose three children were naturalised in 2006, feels betrayed by the deportation.

Her oldest will begin mandatory army duty in a year. Marisa, who asked to be identified by a pseudonym, says: “[Children of Filipino migrant workers] serve the country, so why don’t they just leave them in the country?”

Referring to declining service rates, Marisa adds: “If [Israelis] go to the army, they can tell the foreign kids, ‘okay, go home, because we don’t need you’.”

Ilan argues that because the government is overly focused on demographics it is losing sight of Jewish values.

Referencing the Old Testament command for Jews to care for the foreigners amongst them, Ilan says: “[The government has] made [Israel] into a question of numbers. It’s supposed to be so much deeper than that.”

Source: Al Jazeera

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