Israel’s other “demographic threat”

The Unchosen: The Lives of Israel’s New Others, Mya Guarnieri Jaradat, Pluto Press (2017)

Beginning with the first intifada in the 1980s and during the 1990s, Israel initiated a policy of replacing Palestinian day laborers from the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip with migrant workers.

Nearly 50 percent of Israel’s construction workers were Palestinian at the time, and Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza made up more than 40 percent of Israel’s agricultural workers. The 2000s also saw a dramatic increase in Eritrean and Sudanese refugees seeking asylum in Israel.

In The Unchosen, journalist Mya Guarnieri Jaradat examines Israel’s treatment of migrant workers and asylum seekers. Her findings lead her to the conclusion that Israel’s claims of being a democratic state are belied by its callous mistreatment of both groups.

She further concludes that this mistreatment mirrors Israel’s behavior toward the Palestinians and contradicts Israel’s claim that its policies towards Palestinians are based on “security concerns.”

She writes that the experiences of African refugees and migrant workers – many from the Philippines and Thailand – expose the fact that the Israeli government “considers all non-Jews to be a demographic threat.” As a result, the experiences of these new “Others” shed more light on Israel’s treatment of Palestinians.

“Just as Israel’s treatment of Palestinian citizens of the state calls into question its ability to be at once Jewish and democratic,” Jaradat notes, “so also does its handling of migrant workers and asylum seekers, exposing a fundamental contradiction in the phrase ‘Jewish and democratic.’”

A demographic threat

She first encountered this issue not as a journalist, but when she joined a “left-leaning volunteer program.” The book opens with her experience working with Filipino women in charge of “black market kindergartens” that are necessitated by the lack of daycare for the children of migrant workers.

Her writing is notable for its empathy, a trait clearly discernible in the extensive interviews she conducted with migrant workers and asylum seekers. An interview with Sunday Dieng, 26, an asylum seeker from Sudan, for example, reads as follows:

Dieng had been an orphan for more than half his life; for over a decade, he’d been unable to find a country to call home. We discussed the 14 months he spent in an Israeli jail. I asked him about the conditions. Did he get enough food?

He smiled. Later, I understood his reaction – my question was ridiculous. Prison isn’t about breaking the body. It’s about the spirit.

Insights such as these appear throughout the author’s narrative, along with detailed factual background that further illuminates the situation faced by migrant workers and asylum seekers.

Some of the stories shock the conscience, such as the Israeli farmer who failed to provide housing for his migrant Thai workers and instead dug holes in the ground for them to sleep in.

Until 2012, when Israel and Thailand signed a bilateral agreement, most Thai workers came to Israel heavily in debt to labor management agencies because they had to pay exorbitant fees just to find work – in some cases as much as $10,000.

Their debt bondage meant they were susceptible to super-exploitation, such as being paid less than the minimum wage in violation of Israeli law and having “service fees” deducted from their paychecks.

Even with the new bilateral agreement that resulted from pressure from labor rights groups, Jaradat found that while “this all looked good on paper … on the ground, little has changed for Thai workers.”

Israel’s restrictions on migrant workers reflect the government’s fear of them as a demographic threat, the author argues.

Israeli policy prevents migrant workers from bringing a member of their immediate family with them. Migrant workers are not allowed to have children or even romantic relationships. Until an Israeli high court ruling in 2011, infants as young as three months old could be separated from their mothers and deported.

African asylum seekers, who, at the peak, numbered as many as 60,000 in Israel at one time, faced infiltration laws originally used against Palestinian refugees. Refugees were not allowed to apply for asylum and were held in prisons and desert tent camps for terms that arbitrarily ranged from days to years.

Although Israel signed the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention, in the more than 60 years since, it has granted refugee status to fewer than 200 people, according to the author.

A xenophobic society

The Unchosen is about much more than the heartbreaking accounts of migrant workers seeking a decent life and refugees escaping genocidal wars and brutal authoritarian regimes. It also documents the resistance waged by both migrant workers and asylum seekers and the gradual awakening of Jewish Israelis to the nature of their government.

For a small group of Israelis, the author notes, witnessing the treatment of Israel’s new “Others” “opened the door to questioning everything about Israel. For some, these issues became their ‘breaking point with Zionism,’” which she defines as a “state where Jews have the majority and hegemony.”

The author herself relates to this questioning. Working with leftist Israeli groups seeking to reform Israel’s treatment of migrant workers and refugees, she questioned why no one was making the connection with Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians.

“Why weren’t we talking about the first expulsion” of the Palestinians in 1948, she asked herself. Why wasn’t the connection being made between night raids on migrant worker homes and night raids on Palestinian homes?

She approached the leader of a group called Israeli Children and got this reply: “I do see a connection … But I don’t want to talk about it. One of the big reasons this fight is succeeding is because we’re trying not to be political.”

Ultimately, however, the “fight” was not succeeding. As the years wore on, in the author’s view, Israeli society turned ever more right-wing and xenophobic.

In 2015, an Eritrean refugee was mistaken for a Palestinian assailant during an attack that killed one Israeli soldier and injured several bystanders. The Eritrean man, Haftom Zarhum, was shot by a security guard, and then a lynch mob kicked and spat on him, contributing to his death.

Jaradat was aware that every year her husband, a Palestinian from the West Bank, needed to apply for a permit just to live with her in Israel. She reached a final conclusion: she got out.

Rod Such is a former editor for World Book and Encarta encyclopedias. He lives in Portland, Oregon, and is active with the Occupation-Free Portland campaign.