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August 27, 2014 | 1st Elul 5774

Meet the neighbors III

Galilee Diary #244
July 31, 2005
Marc J. Rosenstein

When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I the Lord am your God.

-Leviticus 19:33-34

Not only were the Zionist settlers challenged by the presence of Arabs in the promised land, raising difficult questions about the definition of a Jewish state, but in the course of the century of Israel’s creation and maturation, we find ourselves facing new identity challenges from unexpected directions. Some of these are small groups, more in the realm of curiosities than national dilemmas; for example, the Black Hebrews whom I described a few months ago; or the Bahais, a movement that rebelled against Shi’ite Islam in 19th century Persia and ended up building their massive world headquarters complex in the heart of Haifa; or the families of the Christian South Lebanese Army, who served on behalf of Israel in Lebanon until the withdrawal in 2000, at which time several thousand fled to Israel fearing reprisal in Lebanon, and were absorbed into towns along the northern border.

There are two populations that are larger than these groups by a couple of orders of magnitude, whose presence has had a large-scale impact on Israeli culture and society and is likely to continue to pose difficult dilemmas for years to come.

There are approximately 300,000 citizens of Israel, immigrants from the past decade or so, primarily from the FSU, who are not Jewish. They became citizens under the Law of Return, which grants automatic citizenship to anyone who has a Jewish grandparent. Many of them see themselves as Jews; of these, some are satisfied with that level of Jewish identity (until they want to get married or buried and discover that their definition of Jewishness is not acceptable to the rabbinical establishment). Others choose to undergo formal conversion. But there are many of these immigrants who accept (ironically, it seems now) the secular Zionist concept that Judaism is only a nationality – and keep their Christian religion. Hence, today one can see Christmas decorations in what one assumed were Jewish neighborhoods; and hence, an elementary school principal I know was a bit nonplussed to receive complaints from parents about their children being required to sit through school assemblies devoted to Jewish holidays. It is interesting to consider how this growing population will impact, in the long run, on the definition of the Jewishness of the Jewish state.

From 1967 until the 90s, a side effect of the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza was the symbiotic relationship between the Palestinians and Israel: we became addicted to cheap labor; they needed jobs. With the rise of the terror threat and the various closures and curfews, this relationship became untenable. The Palestinians were locked out. But Israeli contractors and farmers needed an alternative source of workers. And so the government began to issue visas for temporary workers, who were brought in by labor contractors. Thais tend to work in agriculture; Chinese and Romanians, Ghanaians and Nigerians in construction, Philippinos in nursing care. Horror stories abound about the working conditions and treatment of these migrant workers. And thousands, after being dismissed by or fleeing their employers, have remained here illegally, living in fear of the crew-cut, muscle-shirted immigration police in their unmarked white vans. There are estimated to be somewhere around 200,000-250,000 foreign workers in Israel today, legal and illegal. Most only want to earn money to send home – and then return home themselves. But others have no plan to leave voluntarily, have put down roots, started families – there are hundreds of foreign workers’ children (not citizens) in the Tel Aviv public schools.

Herzl may have been prescient, but I don’t think he foresaw globalization.

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