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Strangers in Our Midst

Lawrence Bush
July 1, 2004

The Abuse of Foreign Workers in Israel

by Susan Susser

“You shall not abuse a needy and destitute laborer, whether a fellow countryman or a stranger in one of the communities of your land.” Deuteronomy 24:14
“Build your home in such a way that a stranger may feel happy in your midst.” Theodor Herzl, August 6, 1896

A number of years ago, when my mother-in-law began showing signs of Alzheimer’s disease, my husband and I brought her from New York to Israel, arranged for her “new immigrant” status and had the good fortune to employ a devoted caregiver from the Philippines named Daisy. If ever I were asked to imagine an “angel on earth,” Daisy would be my model. For five years, during which we were able to renew her work permit, Daisy was a part of our family, and it was mainly due to her tenderness, respect and diligence that Savta’s (Grandma’s) final years were made comfortable, secure and, under the circumstances, even happy. When, mercifully, Savta passed away painlessly last year, Daisy’s tears, her overwhelming sadness, reflected the personal loss she felt of a dear companion.
We learned not long after the funeral that even before Savta had been buried next to her husband on the Mount of Quietudes, the status of her devoted caregiver Daisy was immediately transformed into that of an illegal resident. This fine young woman, who had come to Israel to earn money to support her poor, widowed mother, blind grandmother, and seven younger siblings in the Philippines, would now, if caught by the police, be sent to jail and deported.
Our surprise at this state of affairs and our deep concern for Daisy’s welfare led to further investigation. We wanted to understand more clearly the laws concerning foreign workers. How many are there in Israel? From which countries do they come? How are they treated here? Why, in fact, are they called “foreign workers” while in other countries the terms “migrant worker” or “guest worker” are used?
In August, 2003, the International Federation for Human Rights, together with the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Network, reported that approximately 300,000 foreign workers live in Israel, 60 percent of them illegally. Half are from Asia (China, Thailand, the Philippines), 45 percent from Eastern Europe (mainly Romania and Moldovia), and the rest from African and Latin American countries. Of those who have legal work permits, 32,000 work in construction, 40,000 as caregivers to the elderly or disabled, 32,000 in agriculture, 5,000 in industry, 3,000 in service industries, 1,000 in hotels. In 2003, 11,400 women migrant workers entered the country, 38% of the foreign workers entering the work force.
In a survey of 1,400 upper middle-class families in Israel (Ha’aretz, April 9, 2004) 98 percent employed foreign workers without a legal work permit (despite threats of a 10,000-shekel fine!), with 55 percent employed as house cleaners, 32 percent as home builders or renovators, nine percent as movers, two percent as nannies. So much for law-abiding citizenship!
Foreign workers have been widely employed in Israel since the 1980s. In the early ’90s, after Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin barred most Palestinians from working inside Israel, foreign workers started arriving in large numbers. Due to closures and security concerns associated with the first and especially the second intifada, Israel began using foreign labor to replace Palestinian workers. In this way, contractors and industrialists gained an even cheaper work force.
While most foreign workers start out with legal permits, many become illegal simply by losing or changing jobs. Because of the high price they have usually paid to come to Israel, illegal workers are inclined to remain simply because they cannot afford to go home.
If an employer is dishonest, refuses to pay, does not honor conditions of employment or subjects a worker to physical abuse, the foreign worker has no power to leave without becoming illegal and risking arrest and deportation. While a foreign worker has the right to request a special permit to change jobs from the Interior Ministry, submission of the permit request is irreversible. If the request is denied, there is no appeal and worker is required to leave the country immediately. What this means is simple: A foreign worker who refuses to continue working under conditions of exploitation and abuse may lose a work permit and become a criminal.
According to a May, 2003 report by Kav La’Oved (Foreign Workers’ Hotline), it is not unusual for workers to be deported without receiving wages due them. The report also accuses the Immigration Police of using brutality when dealing with foreign workers. Forty-three cases are cited in which workers complained that police broke doors or windows or stole property during arrests. In one such case, a worker said that his entire savings, $15,000, disappeared when he was arrested.
Asaf Garty, a coordinator in the deportation enforcement unit of the Interior Ministry, paints a bleak picture of hearings for illegal workers (Ha’aretz, February 11, 2004): “The detainees are frequently cursed, threatened and ridiculed.” Garty describes how he was present when

Another enforcement coordinator asked an Immigration Police officer at Haifa port to extract a confession from a Moldavian detainee saying that he had slipped into Israel via the Egyptian border. The policeman took the detainee into a corner and beat him on the back of his neck with a plastic pipe, resulting in the man’s confession.

Naana Holdbrook, a chemistry teacher from Ghana, came to Israel “in order to pay the bills” (Ha’aretz, April 5, 2004). Former chair of the Organization of African Workers in Israel, Holdbrook thought Israel was a good place to come “because people here would understand us — people who themselves wandered from place to place in search of a better future for their children.” But after 16 years in the country, Holdbrook was deported last April and had harsh words for the Israeli expulsion policy: “To you it may not sound so bad if a few migrants don’t like you, but the fact is that a lot of people left here with some very bad feelings about Israel. A man whose leg was broken while the police were chasing after him and became a cripple will tell it to his children; a woman whose husband was in jail while she was giving birth will tell it to her child who was born here. Maybe in the future, Israel will find that it is no longer so popular among African countries.”
In August, 2003, the Immigration Authority initiated a two-stage Voluntary Departure Operation for families of illegal foreign workers. In the first stage, illegal workers were expected to register at Immigration Police stations and receive two months of protection from arrest, during which time they were to settle their affairs in Israel and purchase airline tickets. In the second stage, the Authority would resume its arrests.
Unfortunately, illegal workers who registered with the police but then had trouble meeting the departure date due to extenuating family circumstances were also jailed. A Nigerian man whose five-year-old son suffers from sickle-cell anemia presented a letter from the hematology clinic at Ichilov Hospital requesting that departure be delayed until evaluation of the boy’s condition could be completed and a decision made about whether to remove his spleen. The family’s home city in Nigeria has poor health services and would not be able to provide such an operation. The request was denied and the father was arrested.
According to the foreign workers’ hotline, arrests of this kind are widespread. “Dozens of families applied to us with all sorts of reasons why they could not leave Israel exactly at the appointed time, and asked for extensions of a few weeks,” said Sigal Rose, director of the hotline. “They were all dismissed out of hand.” One particularly shocking case was an expulsion order handed to a Chinese restaurant owner living in Israel with his family for 30 years. At 7:00 one evening, Immigration Police entered the Sun Flower Restaurant in Rishon Le’Zion, owned and operated by Hu Yang Chen for 25 years, arrested him and hauled him off to Ma’asihu Prison.
A particularly painful problem is the status of hundreds of children of foreign workers who were born in Israel and study in Israeli schools. As the law stands today, if a child is born to illegal immigrants, he or she is automatically illegal. These children do not receive a birth certificate but only a document stating, “live newborn.” If a female foreign worker gives birth to the child of an Israeli father, the Interior Ministry will not recognize his fatherhood without expensive DNA testing.
The emotional price that “illegal children” pay is poignantly described in Do They Catch Children, Too?, a documentary film shown on Israeli television, Channel 2. “Do the police arrest children, too?” a frightened Filipino boy named Ryan asks the interviewer. “Do they also put children in jail?” This 10-year-old boy is one of many who were born and raised here, go to school, read and write only in Hebrew, light candles on Friday night with their Jewish peers, dress in costumes on Purim, etc. In the film, we see Ryan and his Filipino friend Nato doing their homework in the kitchen while Nato’s mother is cooking. They are learning about Passover and happily sing the new song they’ve learned: “Ekhad Mi Yodeah.” Later in the film, Ryan innocently asks his mother: “Where were you during World War II? Were you also in the gas chambers?”
Over time, governments in Europe have conferred citizenship on tens of thousands of families of migrant workers from Turkey, Africa and Asia. Why, in Israel, is the idea of naturalization so difficult? The answer lies in the problematic and often tragic definition of Israel as both a Jewish and a democratic state. Can Israel afford to grant equal rights to non-Jews without threatening the Jewish character of the state? Is there any way Israel can be a true democracy when it grants automatic citizenship only to Jews? Could this be the reason Israelis tend to speak of “foreign” workers rather than “migrant” or “guest” workers? Whereas “migrant” implies a free agent and “guest” implies acceptance, “foreign” leaves no room for misunderstanding.
Recently, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel petitioned the Tel Aviv District Court for a precedent-setting ruling to grant permanent resident status to four “illegal” children born and raised in Israel. A ministerial committee headed by Interior Minister Avraham Poraz is examining the social and demographic implications of naturalizing children of foreign workers in Israel. Most (1,585) are under the age of five, while those aged six to 17 number no more than 400. As the editors of Ha’aretz wrote on March 1, 2004: “Such figures are not likely to threaten those who are worried about wide-scale ‘white-washing’ of foreigners. Israel can afford to integrate, in a gradual, monitored fashion, children and parents from various countries who have nowhere to live but here.”
Recently, a police raid in a residential neighborhood during a countrywide manhunt for illegal foreign workers was documented by a television crew. Seventy-one female workers were caught. They left most of their belongings because of police restrictions. They left weeping, hugging the Israeli children they have cared for over many years.
According to Major-General Berty Ohayon, commander of the Immigration Police, by the end of April, 2004, 100,000 illegal foreign workers will have left the country. Also in April, the Knesset Committee for Foreign Workers determined to deport an additional 100,000 illegals in 2004. According to Ohayon (Ha’aretz, April 21), this goal is unrealistic “because the illegals that are left are well-hidden and difficult to locate.”
And what of my mother-in-law’s devoted caregiver, Daisy? What has become of her? Certainly she does not want to return to poverty and unemployment in the Philippines. She has chosen to remain in Israel, even if this means disobeying the law and hiding from the police. Daisy cleans houses today. She knows not to answer the door when she is at work. Each night she returns to a dilapidated apartment that she shares with 12 other Filipino women in a brothel-infested, run-down area of Tel Aviv. She knows that one day she may be caught. Until then, she is trying to earn as much money as she can.

Susan M. Susser has lived in Israel since 1969. She teaches English at Beit Berel College and at the Arab Teacher Training Institute on the same campus.

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.