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October 9, 2015 | 26th Tishrei 5776

The Heart of the Stranger

March 16, 2003
Marc Rosenstein

On the highway from Haifa to Tel Aviv, there is a large billboard featuring a picture of a dark-complected young woman in a nurse’s uniform. The text goes something like this: “Turn to M. Manpower for PHILIPINOS; we have many years of experience in meeting your needs...”

We were hosting, for a Shabbat, a group of yuppie Orthodox families from the Tel Aviv suburbs. They were interested in us and our community, and often made conversation with us while we were serving meals. At one point one of the men asked what we pay our cook. I mumbled something about all of our salaries being rather low. He said, “Whatever -- I can get you a Chinese cook for half of what you are paying now.” He seemed really disappointed when I didn’t jump at the opportunity, and insisted on giving me his business card in case I should change my mind.

Last week, a flooring contractor from Tel Aviv, doing a job nearby, rented two of our cabins for his workers. They left early every morning and came back late at night, so I never saw them. When I went up on Thursday afternoon to make sure the heaters and hot water were turned off, I found a large white van parked on the sidewalk (which we don’t allow). I knocked on the door, and was answered by a shaved-headed young man in jeans, with a cell phone to his ear. I asked him to please move his van. “We’re the police. We’ll move it in a few minutes.” And he shut the door and locked it. I waited a while; there was a good deal of yelling and thumping inside the cabin. About half an hour later the door opened and eight men emerged and boarded the van: five unhappy Chinese and three tough-looking Israelis. I checked the cabin and it had been turned upside down: mattresses and bedding strewn everywhere, clothes and shoes and empty food containers scattered about. I ran after the van, whose driver was having a little trouble extricating himself from the spot he had driven into, and demanded to know what was going on. “We are immigration police, and we just arrested five illegal workers.” “But why did you ransack the cabin?” “Oh that’s nothing, we were just looking for their passports.” And he rolled up the window and drove away.

The pioneers of the Second and Third Aliyot fought for “Hebrew work.” They believed that working the soil with our own hands would make us productive and self-reliant, would affirm our bond to and ownership of the land -- would redeem us. They bitterly opposed the farmers of the First Aliyah who preferred to employ Arab farm workers who were more competent and less likely to make demands, strike, etc. If there was anyone who still believed in Zionist redemption through manual labor, after 1967 they were completely swept away by the masses of Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza who quickly saturated the market for agricultural and construction labor as well as hotel and restaurant workers, caregivers, sanitation workers, etc. We depended on Palestinian labor, and they depended on us for a living. With the years, however, terror and the fear of terror, frequent border closures, a breakdown of trust -- all these led those industries needing cheap, docile labor to seek it farther afield. That is how a whole new minority population was created in Israel: construction workers from China, Ghana, Bulgaria, Romania, Slovenia; caregivers from the Philipines, agricultural laborers from Thailand. They tend to enter legally, but then lose their jobs and hence their permits, staying on illegally -- there is already a second generation. Legal or illegal, the conditions of their work and housing and treatment are often appalling. Illegals, once arrested, can sit in prison or detention camps for months before deportation. After the last terrorist bombing in a neighborhood in which many illegals live, the authorities had to declare an amnesty so that those who were wounded would accept medical treatment: they hid their wounded for fear of discovery and deportation.

Purim is here. Can Pesach be far behind?

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