Several weeks ago, Israeli authorities arrested M, a pregnant woman, along with her three-year-old, Israeli-born son. The young family—sans the father, who had been deported several months before—was briefly detained then expelled from the country.
But don’t break out those Palestinian flags just yet. This was a family of migrant workers.
The father is Thai; the mother, Filipina. They both arrived in Israel, legally, on state-issued work visas. Here, they met and fell in love. And that’s how they became “illegal.”
The father lost his visa because of an Israeli policy that forbids romantic relationships between migrant workers (read: non-Jews). The mother lost her legal status due to the governmental policy that forces women to choose between their visa and their baby. M made the choice most women would—after she gave birth, she refused to send her infant to live with extended family in a faraway land. So she became “illegal”, along with her child.
About a week after M and her toddler were deported, the Israeli High Court struck the latter policy down (pointing out in its ruling that the policy was actually breaking the state’s own labor laws). While future families might be spared, the current expulsion that will see some 500 children kicked out of the country, along with their parents, has already begun. And, so far, there is no sign that the High Court ruling will be applied retroactively. (Given the state’s tendency to ignore left-leaning court decisions—including the 2007 order to reroute the separation barrier that has sliced the West Bank Palestinian village of Bilin into two—it’s unclear whether the policy will indeed be changed.)
And so the deportation continues—one family at a time—in the name of preserving a “Jewish and democratic” state.
At first glance, migrant workers might seem unrelated to the Palestinian struggle. But migrant workers were introduced to Israel during the First Intifada to replace Palestinian day laborers from the Occupied Territories. While the siege on Gaza is often discussed as something that began suddenly in 2006, it is the most severe manifestation of a gradual closure that the Israelis started during the First Intifada. Despite the fact that the Palestinian resistance to the occupation was, by and large, nonviolent at the time, this gradual closure included restrictions on movement. In some cases, it prevented Palestinian laborers from reaching their jobs—low-paying jobs that Israelis didn’t want, jobs that are now held by migrant workers.
Having replaced those other “others”—Palestinians—foreign laborers and their children have become the new battleground for Israeli nationalism. Interior Minister Eli Yishai has called the kids “a demographic threat… liable to damage the state’s Jewish identity.” During his tenure as Finance Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu called Palestinian citizens of Israel a “demographic problem”. As Prime Minister, Netanyahu has extended this racist rhetoric to non-Jewish foreigners in general, lumping African asylum seekers and undocumented migrant workers into one group that poses “a concrete threat to the Jewish and democratic character of the country.”
But nationalism cuts both ways. And those who oppose the deportation also tend to frame their arguments in patriotic terms.
Israeli Children is the most prominent grassroots movement that was formed in response to the planned deportation, which initially included 1200 children and was announced in the summer of 2009 (the same year Israel issued a record number of visas to bring new migrant workers). As the name suggests, its leaders and affiliated activists emphasized how quintessentially Israeli the kids facing deportation are.
Last May, a massive rally against the expulsion was held under a blue and white banner that read, “We don’t have another country.” A tweaking of the title of a beloved Israeli folk song, “I don’t have another country,” the event drew over 10,000 supporters.
But the movement against the deportation was a victim of its own success.
In August 2010, the Israeli cabinet voted on arbitrary criteria that would allow most school-aged children to be naturalized. In other words, these 700 kids were considered Israeli enough to stay. Forget about human rights for the little ones (and for the older ones who have already graduated from Israeli schools).
Now, as the deportation is being carried out, Israeli Children is struggling to bring media attention to the issue.
“When people are against the deportation, they always imagine a 10-year-old that speaks Hebrew and goes to the Israeli school system,” says Rotem Ilan, co-founder of Israeli Children. “When they are talking about a 3-year-old, they don’t see him in the same way…”
“When we talk about the younger children, we talk about basic human rights,” she adds, “[I can’t] say that a one year old is Israeli. And yet I don’t believe that these children should be in jail.”
The movement’s success and, now, its failure points to the issue facing the “Jewish and democratic” state—human rights, stripped down, pure and simple.
Amongst friends and colleagues, I have angrily referred to this deportation as the new nakba. Arabic for catastrophe, it refers to the dispossession that befell hundreds of thousands of Palestinians when Israel was established in 1948. As my friends and colleagues are keen to remind me, invoking the nakba for this current expulsion is a mistake, it deflates the power of the word.
But we need a word. Something must be a said about a state that brings non-Jewish migrant workers and, in denying their basic human right to love and make love, treats them as little more than machines. Something must be said about a state that, some 60 years ago, treated humans like objects to be moved outside of its newly forged borders and continues to do so today. Something must be said about a state that arrests and deports children whose only “crime” is being born to a non-Jewish mother.
MYA GUARNIERI am a freelance journalist and writer based in Tel Aviv. I am a regular contributor to Al Jazeera English. She can be reached at: myaguarnieri(at)gmail(dot)com