Last week the Israeli cabinet granted status to 800 children of guest workers while, pending appeal, ordering the deportation of 400 others. In the ensuing public reaction, some thought the measure too severe, others too generous. No surprise there: as Western Europeans and Americans well know, the problem of migrant labor is by no means unique to Israel. But each situation has arisen out of specific constellations of history, policy, and circumstance—and, in Israel, an added dimension is the complex relationship among the longstanding societal values of work, solidarity, and Zionism.
After 1967, the Israeli economy turned increasingly to Palestinians as a source of unskilled labor. A decline in the numbers of these workers set in during the first intifada in the late 1980s, and by the mid-1990s the Palestinians' place in the workforce had largely been taken by foreigners. The disparity only grew larger in the early years of this century with the second intifada and its associated terror.
Today, non-Israeli workers number anywhere from 250,000 to 400,000, more than half of whom are in the country illegally. Chinese construction workers, Thai farmhands, Filipina home health-care aides—these, along with other laborers and African refugees, are by now familiar if undefined presences in Israeli life. Although efforts to deport illegals began in 2002, they have hardly progressed since then.
It is easy to tick off the problems caused by the present situation. The import of cheap foreign labor, advantageous to the employers who draw on it, serves to depress the wages of low-skilled Israelis and to drive Israeli Arabs in particular out of the workforce. The foreign workers themselves are regularly low-paid and ill-treated, contributing to an atmosphere in which workers' rights seem altogether more readily expendable.
Another far-reaching problem is the corrosive effect of exploitation and income inequality on the bonds of solidarity among Israel's diverse citizenry. During the decades of early state-building, Labor Zionist leaders sought through socialist means to minimize class differences that might undermine Jewish nationalism. Though their religion of manual labor was never universal, the ethos it represented was crucial to the new state's self-definition. Today, amid growing income disparities—and wide unemployment among Arabs and ultra-Orthodox Jews—social cohesion is further diminished.
Ironically, the free-market and privatization policies championed by Benjamin Netanyahu may be working against the strong solidarity promoted by his nationalism. Meanwhile, on the Left, the post-Zionist embrace of unfettered capitalism by elitist sources like the newspaper Haaretz bespeaks its own kind of alienation from the lives and needs of masses of Israelis.
There is, of course, no repealing the laws of economics—old-style socialism failed in Israel as elsewhere for very good reasons. Likewise, the vicissitudes of the Israel-Palestinian conflict have distorted both economies. And, in today's global economy, labor is mobile as never before. But this does not mean that nothing can be done.
Tax policies, for example, can help make local labor more attractive to Israeli employers. Immigration policy can be rationalized, for instance along the lines suggested by a recent paper from the Metzilah Center. Government and private initiatives can see to it that migrant workers are treated with humanity.
Integrating justice and solidarity with the conditions of contemporary economic life and the needs of a democratic Jewish state is a daunting challenge, but no more so than many others that Israel has successfully confronted and overcome.
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