Israelis Divided on Deporting Foreign Workers’ Children
By ISABEL KERSHNER
Published: August 2, 2010
JERUSALEM — Deep divisions emerged here on Monday over the fate of some 400 children of foreign workers who have no legal status in the country and are slated for deportation. The issue has touched on sensitive nerves in Israel, which sees itself as a nation of Jewish refugees and defines itself as a Jewish and democratic state.
The public debate followed a decision by the cabinet on Sunday to approve a plan for granting status to the children of people who entered Israel with a valid visa or permit, but who have stayed on illegally.
Under the new guidelines, based on the length of time the children have been here and their integration in the education system, about 800 of the 1,200 in question are qualified to stay. Their parents and siblings will be entitled to temporary residence permits. The other 400 who do not meet the criteria will have to leave, perhaps as soon as within 30 days.
The government decision was widely seen here as reasonable, though many said it would be more humanitarian to let the other 400 remain. Others saw the decision as a bad precedent that could encourage more foreign workers to put down roots in Israel and threaten the Jewish character of the state.
“It is a no-win situation,” said Tom Segev, an Israeli author and historian, of the Israelis’ dilemma. “Anyway you do it is wrong.”
Nevertheless, while praising the government for taking a “humanistic decision,” he said, “We are a nation of refugees. Now we have to fight for the 400.”
The fate of children born in Israel to foreign workers has long stirred strong emotions here. It took two votes on Sunday for the cabinet to approve the new guidelines, which passed the second time by a majority of 13-10 with four abstentions.
Unusually, ministers who voted against the plan did so from contrary positions. Some, including the ministers of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, which controls the Interior Ministry and which critics brand as racist, opposed the plan because it was too liberal. Others, including some ministers from the conservative Likud party, opposed it because it was not liberal enough.
The discussion around the cabinet table was “fiery,” according to an Israeli official who was in the room.
“We all feel and understand the hearts of children,” said the prime minister and leader of Likud, Benjamin Netanyahu, at the start of the cabinet meeting on Sunday. “But on the other hand, there are Zionist considerations and ensuring the Jewish character of the state of Israel. The problem is that these two components clash.”
There are between 250,000 and 300,000 foreign laborers in Israel, about half them without valid documents. Israel has a population of 7.5 million, including more than 5.6 million Jews and 1.5 million Arab citizens. Out of security concerns, it began inviting foreign workers for limited periods to replace Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza to work in construction, agriculture and domestic work. Many have outstayed their visas, and their numbers have been swelled by African refugees and economic migrants who have come across the porous border with Egypt.
Mr. Netanyahu said there were reports of “close to 500,000 migrants, and perhaps close to 1,000,000, in the past decade. This is a tangible threat to the Jewish and democratic character of the State of Israel,” he said. “Therefore we will make a decision that is balanced between the desire to take these children into our hearts and the desire not to create an incentive for continued illegal migration that could flood the foundation of the Zionist state.”
The mainstream news media in Israel have largely sided with the children and their advocates. The front page of the popular Yediot Aharonot newspaper on Monday featured a large picture of a boy, Eilon, aged 6, and his 2-year-old sister who are now eligible for deportation along with their mother, Rachel, 37, who came to Israel from the Philippines in 2002.
“Someone there has lost his bearings,” wrote Eitan Haber, a Yediot Aharonot columnist and a close aide to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in the 1990s, in a column published on Monday. “The State of Israel bombed nuclear reactors, reached Entebbe, wasted billions on light and heavy rail systems that don’t move and paid hundreds of millions of shekels for years to people who did not contribute a single drop of sweat to the state. And now, 400 children, that is what will kill the state? Have you gone mad?”
But there were other voices too.
“According to the report submitted to the government, there are 148,000 illegal residents in Israel,” wrote Ben-Dror Yemini, a columnist at a rival newspaper, Maariv. “According to the logic that is taking over us,” he continued, “they should have children, and this will be their insurance policy.”