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Strangers in a Strange Land

A haftorah of decency and despair

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A Tel Aviv rally against the deportation of immigrants, May 25, 2010. (Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images)

Kylie is a smiley child. She is enjoying her summer vacation, but can’t wait to start school in the fall. Israela is 5 years old, and likes ice cream more than anything. Her neighbor, Eustace, is nearly 6. She speaks Hebrew with that clipped cadence typical of sabras, or native-born Israelis. All three were born in Tel Aviv and have lived there their entire lives, attending Israeli kindergartens, laughing at Hebrew jokes, and spending hot afternoons playing in the streets of the first Jewish city in modern history. But next month, all three girls will be forced onto airplanes and deported to countries that they’ve never visited and whose languages they do not speak. They, the Israeli government decreed, are unwelcome to stay in the country.

To be accurate, the government’s decision, passed earlier this week, was intricate. Pressed to decide the fates of nearly 2,000 children, the cabinet came up with a set of byzantine rules to determine which of these youngest Israelis get to stay in their native land. Any child who has already started school, for example, is safe. To Eustace, who missed out on first grade because she was a few months younger than the minimum age required for registration, that’s not much of a consolation; come September, she and her family would be deported to Nigeria. A similar fate awaits at least another 400 children.

It is hard to exaggerate the wickedness of this decision, and its fundamental negation of both the spirit and the letter of Judaism. But one needn’t evoke the moral aspect to feel nauseated; the cold facts alone tell a sordid story.

Faced with a perpetually growing demand for labor, and reluctant to allow Palestinian workers into Israel for security reasons, the government relies increasingly on a population of foreign workers from Asia, Africa, and Eastern Europe to do everything from paving roads to picking apples. To that end, it has increased the number of permits awarded by 20 percent over the past four years. And while the number of legal workers skyrocketed, the number of illegal aliens fell considerably: Of the approximately 215,000 foreign workers who resided in Israel in 2008, the last year for which accurate data are available, less than 45 percent, or 97,000 people, did so without a legal permit.

Listen to the ministers talk, however, and you’ll get a very different picture. In a recent television interview, Eli Yishai, the minister of the interior and the head of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, bragged that he was doing whatever he could to keep the foreigners out. And the minister of finance, Yuval Steinitz, told a conference earlier this month that the effort to expel illegal workers was “a Zionistic battle.” There will not be a reduction in unemployment and income gaps, he said, “as long as there are 400,000 African workers competing with low-income Israelis for jobs.”

Steinitz’s sentence, while short, nevertheless reveals an entire cosmology of fear and loathing. There are, of course, not 400,000 workers but half that number, the majority of whom, again, have come at the government’s behest. And the government—despite a recent, costly advertising campaign denigrating foreign workers for stealing jobs away from ready and unemployed Israelis—is issuing more and more work visas to foreigners because it understands that it cannot expect Israelis to work long hours in menial jobs for meager pay. And being the minister of finance, Steinitz knows—or should know—that only a portion of the workers are Africans; in fact, the foreign worker population in Israel consists of nationals from 125 states across the world. But what could be more menacing than imagining an army of nearly half a million black men descending on Israel and threatening its purity? What could be more terrifying than imagining willing and idealistic Jews forced into poverty by a phalanx of uncaring goyim?

If Israel were to allow every single one of the 2,000 Israeli-born children of illegal workers an Israeli citizenship, it would most likely stand to benefit; a 2008 report, commissioned by Tel Aviv’s municipality, showed that such children tend to become acclimated to Israeli society and that many of them end up serving in the Israel Defense Forces. If the government took steps to grant work visas to its illegal workers, some of whom have been living and working in Israel for years or decades, it would receive a much needed influx of labor, already trained and proficient in Hebrew, ready to take on a host of unmanned jobs. And if Israel honored the 1951 Refugee Convention it itself signed, it would not deny asylum to the 19,000 African refugees, mostly from Sudan and Congo, fleeing genocide and persecution, making the Jewish state the least inclined country in the Western world to aid those fleeing genocide. Instead, as is so often the case these days, Israel chooses to embark on aimless displays of power, flexing its muscles for naught while its situation becomes increasingly precarious.

As there seems to be little in modern-day Israel in which to find comfort, let us seek consolation instead in Israel of old. In this week’s haftorah, the prophet Isaiah continues his vision of messianic times. “Incline your ear and come to Me,” he prophesies, “hearken and your soul shall live, and I will make for you an everlasting covenant, the dependable mercies of David. Behold, a witness to nations have I appointed him, a ruler and a commander of nations. Behold, a nation you do not know you shall call, and a nation that did not know you shall run to you, for the sake of the Lord your God and for the Holy One of Israel, for He glorified you.”

Herein lies the true Zionistic battle, the true mission of the Jewish people throughout time: calling out to the nations of the world, shining bright the beacon of justice, carrying the burden of exemplary virtue in a cruel and arid world. These are our values, this our heritage; the despicable decision out of Jerusalem undermines both.

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JCarpenter says:

“Welcome the stranger, the foreigner, the alien”— neither Israel nor the U.S., both righteous godly nations in their own eyes, can listen to the Prophets—

Who can live in Israel?

Not the foreigners. Not those that converted. Not those that can’t prove that they are Jewish. Not those that can prove that they are Jewish but don’t live according to a myriad of customs created to halacha. Not me. Not you.

Moshiach ain’t comin’ back anytime soon. He ain’t welcome here.

Yael Algrably says:

I was once a stranger in Israel The jewish family i work didnt pay $2000 and took my passport and took the police took me to jail. nobody welcome me nobody has given me something in their heart. and the road to stay in Israel was a hard struggle paid for every bread pick up. for eveydrop of water i drink i paid for my blood. But G-d was so good Ha shem has keep me alive and the price is an eternity of living in his wings full of love.
Every some years The Israeli governmet make statement for deportation for workers that the government has given permission to work. thats absurd because they will deport 2000 illegal but they will grant 20000 permits to different aliens. this discusion is a dead end. Instead of giving aliens to work in Israel the government should worry about giving the Jewish people work so that they will not sell Ahava or Dead Sea beauty products in the Mall of all the United States. the problem is that the Israel government dont worry about the jewish people who are living in Israel. They are having this problem exactly the sametime The Arizona Law of Illegals. not so surprising to me.

Dave says:

I agree “welcome the stranger, foreigner and alien” and I do not think this verse refers to the illegals. You help an illegal you could be breaking the law. If they are illegal make the hard decision to deport them. Wish USA would do the same

Alex says:

“aimless displays of power, flexing its muscles for naught”
“there seems to be little in modern-day Israel in which to find comfort”
Really?
Liel Leibovitz can not find anything in modern day Israel to comfort him?
I guess that’s why he lives in NY. When was the last time he was in Israel?
I used to be a fan of his column, but no more, not until
he apologies’ to the millions of Jews living in modern-day Israel.

Bryna Weiss says:

what a hateful and disgusting article! how about the hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians- yes, Black Ethiopians- Israel saved and welcomed and brought home to Israel. There will be no Jewish homeland to save the Jews if the illegal immigrants take over the country as is happening in the US and in Europe. Israel makes lots of mistakes and does lots of good- why is she expected to answer to the demands of the rest of the world?!

A.L. Bell says:

I think that, 100 years from now, people will look back and think of our current restrictions on movements from one country to another the way we look at old English efforts to restrict efforts by English people to move from one town to another.

If a country wants to use zoning laws and parks to control where people live and how, fine. If a country wants to make a specific language an official language for civic affairs, fine. If a country puts in checkpoints to keep violent people from hurting other people and locate escaped criminals, fine.

If some country has truly wretched laws, and other countries believe that one nonviolent way to change those laws might be to impose restrictions on the flow of people in and out of that country, maybe that’s reasonable. Or, if people who come from some country have a record of behaving in an especially terrible way, maybe it would be reasonable for another country to impose temporary restrictions. And maybe a country like Israel or Saudi Arabia should have the right to create a special voting class that’s open only to members of a certain demographic group. Sort of the way some newspapers sell stock to the public but leave ultimate control in the hands of the family of the founder.

But, really: restrictions on the flow of people in and out of the United States are evil and stupid. “Illegal aliens” live here as easily as they do because most of us know in our hearts that there’s really no such thing as an illegal alien, just absurd laws that single out nice, well-behaved people for bad treatment.

In Israel and Palestine, efforts to restrict the flow of people cause much of the heartache. If Jewish Israelis or Palestinians could live in Israel, Gaza, the West Bank, Lebanon, Jordan or Egypt and easily travel to work in one of the other jurisdictions on that list — just as someone might live in Connecticut and drive to work in New York — then the exact borders would matter a lot less.

At least Israel has valid security concerns for maintaining the border-crossing restrictions it now maintains.

But the whole idea of Israel deporting small children who speak Hebrew, love Israel and have peaceful, generally well-behaved parents is appalling. Maybe their parents “broke the law.” But how could a genuinely valid law produce such absurd, inhumane results?

Instead of trying to create jobs for Israelis by deporting children to places like Nigeria, it would be better if Israel could create free trade zone agreements with the countries sending it the immigrants, so that Israelis can find trading opportunities and other opportunities in those other countries.

Also, at a purely selfish, practical level: If Israel wants to make friends in the rest of the world, why not try to set itself apart by treating the workers who come from those countries well and turning them into goodwill ambassadors? If it feels it must send children and their families back, why not send them with a small monthly stipend, an appointment to a post in a “family ambassador corps,” and a bunch of Israeli flag pins and pamphlets explaining how nice Israel is?

Kafka predicted it. We have a government. We need nothing else. The government will feed us, make war, make peace. Will let us marry and will let us divorce. Soon the Government and Chief Rabbi’s will be like the Castle of Kafka. Something one sees but never can get there. We Balkanize ourselves.

Deporting children? Is like K, who one someone knocks at the door and says you are under arrest. Why? No one knows. The police and judges are sympathetic, but they just obey the law. Finally K is punished to death, but he he still does not know why is he dieing.

Kafka is Jewish. He did not exclude anyone from his books

overlord says:

When in Rome (legally or otherwise), do as the Romans do. It’s real freaking simple: America is hanging herself for all to see. How moronic; why even have borders for a country? There weren’t many defectors over the Berlin Wall. When it boils down to cooperation from any given group of people; it’s persuasion if effective. Coercion by default obviously save order.

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Strangers in a Strange Land

A haftorah of decency and despair

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