Alas, it was too good to last. As, perhaps, we could have predicted.
On Thursday, I wrote that I rather surprisingly found myself in agreement with Israel’s Minister of the Economy, Nafatali Bennett—a far-right politician with whom I am typically at ideological loggerheads on all matters political, cultural, and religious. Bennett had launched an investigation of businesses that employ migrant workers; he was reported to have said: “We are doing right by exploited workers [working] under substandard conditions.” I suggested that this was a good start to dealing with enormous labor problems that include not just migrant workers (legal or otherwise), but also Palestinian laborers (legal or otherwise), and Israeli citizens. I even quoted Yom Kippur-specific Scripture in which the prophet Isaiah calls on us to “untie the cords of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free.”
On Sunday, writer and filmmaker David Sheen reached out to me to suggest I watch a segment about Bennett’s initiative produced by Israeli Channel Two News, in which the minister explains his motivations to both ministry employees and Channel Two’s reporter—and (sadly if unsurprisingly) his motivations are in fact entirely in-line with the government’s ongoing efforts to demonize and dehumanize African migrants (many of whom are actually refugees) and free Israel of the inconvenience of dealing with them at all (in contravention of both international law and agreements to which Israel is a signatory).
In the voice-over just before we see Bennett himself, we learn that
At the Ministry of the Economy, they believe that if employing an infiltrator costs as much as employing an Israeli, the infiltrators won’t be able to find work, and will return to Africa. [Note that “infiltrator” is the government’s official term for African migrants and refugees in or on their way to Israel, a term which in Hebrew is historically rooted in the Israeli-Arab conflict and thus trades in an existential fear]
The report then cuts to footage of Bennett himself speaking with ministry employees who we’ve been watching going from business to business with clipboards and a translator. Bennett:
Whoever knows that if he comes here, he won’t find work, because it won’t be worth anyone’s while to hire him, they’ll stop coming—which has already started to happen—but those who are already here will gradually leave.
Reporter Gilad Shalmor notes that Bennett’s comments actually contradict police recommendations that the migrants be allowed to find work as a crime preventative, and poses the question: “What happens when [the migrant] doesn’t find work—he’ll be on the street and then what?” Bennett replies:
In the very short term, there might be a certain [problem] in that regard, but in the medium and long term, the entire phenomenon will decrease.
As Open Zion has repeatedly reported, these migrants have not randomly and lazily wandered across a border in search of an easy income: These are people who have crossed literal wilderness and often survived gangs of smugglers who rape and torture them in order to escape governments that have violently oppressed them in the past and frequently threaten them with death should they ever return. Some who have been forced to return anyway have literally jumped off trucks to their deaths rather than risk their chances back “home.” I’m not sure how powerful Naftali Bennett thinks he is, but the likelihood that he will be able to put a full stop that sort of desperation—or that, indeed, visiting 160 places of business in Tel Aviv will convince all of the nation’s employers (who are, it transpires, among the worst in the Western world with regard to minimum-wage violations even when the workers are fellow citizens) to stop exploiting such a vulnerable community—seems slight.
There is some good news out of Israel regarding the African migrants, however: On Monday, the High Court ruled unanimously to overturn the government’s recently crafted policy allowing authorities to arrest and detain migrants for up to three years without a trial. As the Jerusalem Post reports:
Justice Edna Arbel said Monday that detaining the African migrants rather than making a decision about whether they should be legally deported or granted asylum, "violated their fundamental constitutional rights to human dignity [that] is the basis for Israel's values as a Jewish and democratic state."
As a result and rather suddenly, the state may have to offer permanent residence to the migrants inside 90 days.
The ruling certainly doesn’t end the desperation, or provide work or food, or even do anything about Bennett’s own attitude (which, if history is a guide, will likely harden in response to the High Court).
But it provides a real measure of justice for those who have been illegally detained, and serves as a potent reminder that many in official Israel still recognize the Jewish State’s commitment to a foundational basis of “freedom, justice and peace… [and to be] faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.” Even if Minister Bennett himself has forgotten.