Interweaving - Haim Yacobi on Israel's Emerging Politics of Immigration
Written by John Collins
Thursday, 05 November 2009
Israel is now home to a sizable group of residents who are neither Jewish nor Palestinian. Many of these people are labor migrants who occupy a precarious position within Israeli society and a relatively invisible position within the often binary discourse on Israel/Palestine. In order to get at some of the specific political dynamics associated with these realities, I recently interviewed Haim Yacobi, a lecturer in the Department of Politics and Government at Ben Gurion University in Israel. An architect and planner by training, Yacobi does research on the geopolitics of cities. In 1999 he formulated the idea of establishing "Bimkom - Planners for Planning Rights," an NGO that deals with spatial planning, human rights and disadvantaged communities in Israel and the Palestinian Occupied Territories, and currently he serves as the Chairperson of Bimkom.
JC: What are the main categories of migrants who are currently living in Israel and what are some of the main issues they are facing?
HY: A significant flow of non-Jewish labour migrants started arriving legally in Israel in the 1990s. Non-Jewish labour migrants were initially brought to Israel following a government decision in 1993 to seek a replacement for Palestinian workers from the Occupied Territories. The entry of Palestinian workers, who formed a large proportion of the Israeli labour force, was restricted after the outbreak of the first Palestinian Intifada (uprising) in 1987. Looking at additional reasons for this shift in policy, beyond the security aspect, from an economic point of view the salary cost to an employer for a Palestinian worker is 30-40 percent higher than the salary cost for a foreign worker. A large proportion of the first wave of workers came from the Third World and Eastern Europe. Beyond the economic advantage of letting these workers enter Israel, the decision to enable a massive migration of non-Jewish workers to Israel is significant in its ideological contradiction to the Israeli Law of Nationality, which came into force in 1952 and complemented the Law of Return from 1950. The latter, based on the jus sanguinis (right of blood) principle, gives Jews - and only Jews - everywhere the right to immigrate, while the former grants them, almost automatically, Israeli nationality. The official status of Jewish migrants to Israel lasts several years from the date of arrival and entitles them to full citizenship rights as well as a "basket" of absorption support such as rental subsidies, free Hebrew courses and subsidised mortgages. In contrast, non-Jews who wish to settle in Israel find it almost impossible to obtain citizenship or even permanent resident status, unless they marry an Israeli and/or convert to Judaism.
What kinds of tensions are being created in Israeli society as a result of these migration patterns? What are the dynamics of inclusion and exclusion that are emerging?
The phenomenon of the increasing irregular migration of non-Jewish workers, often undocumented, as well as refugees and asylum seekers from Africa is complex in the context of Israeli politics. But despite the strong ethnocentric ideologies that characterise Israel's political, social and cultural reality, irregular migration of "strangers" challenges, in my view, Israeli politics of identity and attitudes towards the "Other" whilst simultaneously unveiling the complexity in Israel's ethno-national identity, territoriality and collective history.
After several years during which the state had no clear and official policy regarding workers, in August 2002 the Israeli Government declared its intention to deport 50,000 foreign workers by the end of 2003. This approach was expressed in a comprehensive and aggressive policy of deportation, accompanied by intensive media propaganda against employing unregistered migrants. Furthermore, an Immigration Authority was established through Government Decision no. 2327 and was allocated a force of 500 police officers with the aim of deporting non-registered workers. By July 2003 about 20,000 workers had been deported and, according to the special governmental committee dealing with foreign workers in Israel, by the end of 2005 118,035 workers had left, the majority through deportation and around 40 percent voluntarily. Following the last election in Israel, there was a re-organization of the Immigration authority which now is named "The Oz (courage in Hebrew) Unit", which continues rounding up illegal workers.
These days there is an extensive public and political debate concerning the initiative of the current government to expel more 1,000 children of illegal workers in Israel. What is interesting is the fact that many of these children are "Israelis"; they were born in Israel, they speak fluent Hebrew, they are educated in Israeli schools. Right now, PM Netanyahu has delayed the expulsion until the end of the school year, while Interior Minister Yishai put pressure, accompanied with xenophobic discourse, to protect Israeli Jewish identity by expelling these children.
How are activists responding to the situation faced by migrant workers and the government policies affecting these workers?
The presence and visibility of "foreign workers" and asylum seekers in Israel was not enough for them to obtain rights. The extension of rights to those groups who fall outside the domain of full citizenship in Israel has only occurred through the pressure of NGOs. Among the NGOs that were involved in this struggle, some focus explicitly on the rights of workers. These include Kav LaOved for instance, a nonprofit NGO committed to protecting the rights of disadvantaged workers employed in Israel or employed by Israelis in the Occupied Territories, including Palestinians, migrant workers, subcontracted workers and new immigrants. and The Hot Line for Migrant Workers, an NGO established in 1998, dedicated to promoting the rights of undocumented migrant workers and refugees and to eliminating human trafficking in Israel. Another NGO, Physicians for Human Rights, was founded in 1988 with the goal of struggling for human rights, in particular the right to health, in Israel and the Occupied Territories. This organisation initiated an experimental project aimed at outreach to non-Jewish, often undocumented, workers with the goal of improving their freedom of access to health services.
In addition, the Tel Aviv-Jaffa municipality, with the highest number of labour migrants in Israel, has adopted a positive approach to the labour migrants, in particular in welfare and health services, providing them with basic rights such as education, health and communal services in spite of the official government policy to ignore and later evict them. The municipality's approach acknowledges the basic rights of the labour migrants but provides partial solutions. One important example of such a solution is the establishment of Mesilah, a special municipal unit that works with labour migrants in Tel Aviv-Jaffa.
There are growing calls from Israel's Palestinian population and from some Jewish activists on the left to redefine Israel as a state of all its citizens (rather than as a Jewish state). How are the dynamics of immigration likely to affect this ongoing debate?
Obviously the discussion on re-defining Israel as a state of all its citizens is very minor. It is among academics, intellectuals and some political activists. The illegal, non-Jewish, migrants in Israel are so excluded from the Israeli public sphere, that despite of their growing numbers, their voice is insignificant. Even among more liberal politicians and publics, the idea of giving the citizenship is not considered as an option.
As an Israeli, can you imagine a future when Israel is defined in terms of multicultural democracy rather than in ethno-religious terms?
This is obviously a personal opinion. Indeed I can imagine a different definition of the state of Israel. Despite the historical circumstances and the logic that stand behind the establishment of Israel as a home for the Jewish people, what is clear is that it is a problematic definition, with some inherent contradictions with global/transnational trends of migration, as well as in relation to questions of human rights.
Thanks for agreeing to be part of the Interweaving project. Could you say a bit about your current research?
Currently my main research project focuses on the moral geographies of Israel in Africa. This research project is based on both an historical and socio-political study of development, as well as on a critical study of foreign policy, migration, arms trade and utopian territorial visions.
For a list of Yacobi's recent publications, see his page on the BGU website.