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Strangers in a Strange Land

A haftorah of decency and despair

Liel Leibovitz
August 06, 2010
A Tel Aviv rally against the deportation of immigrants, May 25, 2010.(Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images)
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.

Liel Leibovitz is a senior writer for Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.

Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.