For one day, Israeli consulates and embassies around the world were ground to a halt, but the slow-down didn’t have anything to do with the numerous foreign policy challenges that the Jewish state typically faces. On Wednesday, employees at an estimated 50 official Israeli outposts went on strike in protest of low pay and in support of ongoing contract negotiations back in Israel. Organizers expected 800 to 1,200 employees to stay home. The strike was a success in New York, where Israel’s combined consulate and UN mission employs some 400 Israeli citizens who are classified as “local staff.” New York consular services were suspended, and “the vast majority [of local staff] participated in the strike and did not show up to work” according to consulate spokesman Shimon Mercer-Wood.
While Israel has a dedicated diplomatic corps, 1,200 of the country’s embassy and consulate workers are considered “local staff” working on relatively short-term contracts, even though many of them are Israeli citizens. Whether that staffer is a mail-sorter or an adviser on high-level military affairs, and regardless of whether they live in an expensive city like New York or San Francisco, they make around $2,500 a month with no additional stipend for travel or living expenses. Payment has barely improved in recent decades—multiple staffers recalled having friends or colleagues who made nearly identical wages in similar jobs 15 years ago or longer.
The low pay stems from the late 1950s, when the “local staff” category was introduced as a way of employing the spouses of Israeli diplomats. That work-around mutated into a two-tier employment system that’s now useful for keeping operating costs low for the Israeli government, even if it results in the immiseration of people who are essential to the day-to-day work of Israeli foreign policy. An English-language statement obtained by Tablet and issued on behalf of striking diplomatic staffers says, “As important as the local staff are to diplomatic service, their employment terms, such as salary, benefits and overall treatment as workers, were terribly neglected throughout the years, making it very hard for them to earn a decent living, and frequently forcing them to leave their positions before the end of their contracts, in order to return to Israel where they could live under friendlier conditions.”
Wednesday’s action is the third strike that the local staffers have mounted over the past 15 months. In February 2016, a planned three-hour strike at Israel’s combination consulate-UN mission in New York—which is the Jewish state’s second-largest foreign diplomatic facility next to its Washington embassy—ended up lasting two days. Six months later, staff at a dozen Israeli facilities in North America stayed home from work. The actions at least raised the possibility of future gains: The Histadrut, the blanket organization for Israeli labor unions, is currently in the process of negotiating more favorable contract terms with the Israeli government on the staffers’ behalf. Knesset member Yoel Hasson of the centrist Zionist Union is holding a parliamentary discussion on the issue after the Passover holiday, and told Tablet that the strikers have “wide support” among Israeli lawmakers. “For too many years, this problem has been neglected and overlooked by government officials, and it is very unfortunate that a strike is needed in order to get their attention,” Hasson said. “They are our envoys abroad, doing the most important and professional job for the State of Israel, yet they are paid and treated so poorly, to the level that it’s absurd and beyond any political dispute.”
The diplomatic staffers are not being paid when striking, meaning that the staffers are protesting at their own expense. They’re at other inherent disadvantages in advocating for themselves as well. They are spread out over 100 embassies and consulates around the world; planning for today’s strike largely took place over Facebook and WhatsApp. Local staff are employed on non-flexible contracts that last for a maximum of five years, and are not on an employment track that could lead to other opportunities within the Israeli state apparatus. Unlike workers in other industries, the staffers have no popular base of support within Israeli society, and thus no constituency that can apply political pressure on their behalf back home—after all, these are 1,200 people who live and work outside of Israel. Today, the local staffers are represented through the Histadrut, but that’s a relatively new development, and the staffers only began organizing themselves two years ago. The regular diplomatic corps’ allegedly low pay also complicates things. In 2014, Israeli diplomats went on strike for several months. If the state doesn’t prioritize its long-term diplomats, its short-term staff are up against even larger obstacles, and have an even harder time making themselves heard.
Today’s strike has the contours of a typical labor dispute—the strikers are a group of under-appreciated staff who want a fairer shake from the people in charge. But there are a number of bigger issues at stake, too. Israel is arguably less isolated than it’s ever been, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government has made public diplomacy and the expansion of the the country’s diplomatic footprint a top goal, particularly in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. The low pay for embassy and consulate staffers makes it harder to retain and attract the talented people necessary for making Israeli foreign policy a reality, and suggests that the country’s new diplomatic efforts are somewhat half-hearted in their implementation. Staffers are pessimistic that even a dramatic, worldwide strike can change the government’s overall attitude. “Everybody thinks this needs to be solved, but nobody wants to sit down and solve it,” as one striker put it.
Hasson believes the issue results from a failure of political will. “The local staffers are paid so poorly because of the wrong priorities of this government,” he said. He does not believe that Netanyahu, who is both is Israel foreign minister in addition to its prime minister, is even really aware of the local staffer payment issue. “He does not really care,” Hasson added.
Although the staffers are spread out across the world, their low pay also touches on one of the most resonant issues in their home country. In 2011, mass protests over Israel’s high cost of living brought economic concerns to the center of the country’s politics, and highlighted the sheer difficulty of making ends meet in the Jewish state. One striking staffer raised the possibility that the margins of life back in Israel are so thin that most of the country’s citizens aren’t actively concerned with how their country’s diplomatic staff are treated. “This is my assumption,” the staffer said when asked why their pay had remained so low for so long. “Doctors in Israel are getting paid shitty money. Why give more to the diplomats and not to the doctors or the teachers or the social workers? It’s very hard to work in Israel.”
Armin Rosen is a staff writer for Tablet magazine.