Foreign workers imperil Israels future, prof says here

The most vexing social problem in Israel today is the growing number of foreign workers, according to Professor Avraham "Rami" Friedman, head of the Jerusalem Institute for Israeli Studies. Friedman, who spoke last week at Congregation Sha'ar Zahav as part of the San Francisco Israel Center's "New Israeli Voices" program, offered some blunt assessments about the negative effect of foreign-born, non-Jewish workers — mostly laborers — on the country.

"Foreign workers are like drugs," Friedman said, during a separate interview. "Once you get them into your system, you can never get them out."

At the heart of the issue of foreign labor, which Friedman said has remained at the periphery of national dialogue, is the character of Israel.

"It's really a simple equation. If you allow foreign workers to obtain visas, eventually they develop roots and become integrated into the [fabric] of the country. They build churches and live in their own ethnic neighborhoods. At a certain point, the government must realize that they will form a large non-Jewish minority."

Friedman, who served as dean of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem's school of business administration, said the issue has been mistakenly categorized as a matter of economics or, conversely, as a "secular" issue. On the last point, Friedman recently tried to convince an Orthodox Knesset member that the problem merited serious consideration, only to be rebuffed. Finally, Friedman said, he tried to speak in a language the politician would understand.

"I told him that eventually, the foreign-born workers would want to start families…perhaps even outside their own communities…and it was like a light bulb went off. He realized then that I was talking about intermarriage."

When asked about the irony — given the circumstances of the creation of the state of Israel — of a Jewish population expelling minority populations from its midst, Friedman said the comparison was "apples and oranges."

"We are not talking about stripping people of their civil liberties, depriving them of their livelihoods, or killing them — we are just asking them not to come to our country."

During his Bay Area visit, Friedman also shared his opinions with students. speaking at U.C. Berkeley, Stanford and San Francisco State, and to Israel Center groups in San Francisco and the South Peninsula.

Given Friedman's estimate that nearly 300,000 foreign-born workers currently reside in Israel, the professor advocated a three-pronged strategy for resolving the issue. For the group of workers who have already had families within Israel, Friedman suggested they be granted amnesty. For the second group of workers, who have been working in Israel for at least a year without dependents, Friedman said the Israeli government should restrict the number of family members allowed to immigrate to the country.

And, lastly, foreign-born workers who have resided in the country for less than a six months should be deported.

Friedman reserved the bulk of his anger for the Israeli government, saying its policies have had drastic ramifications for the economy and the peace process. "The reality is that Israel has become a much more materialistic society, and employers and business people have an extraordinary amount of influence on the government."

In order to deter employers from paying substandard wages, Friedman said the Israeli government should impose stiff penalties on business owners who violate labor laws. Minimum-wage laws (which Friedman said were often not adhered to) should be strictly enforced and employers should be held responsible for reporting foreign-born workers' income, which Friedman said is often kept "under the table."

Secondly, if workers overstay their visas, the employers would also be held accountable, which Friedman suggested could result in jail time.

He said that an unfortunate and extremely volatile ramification of hiring foreign-born workers is that they take jobs that would ordinarily go to Palestinians. "This has resulted in a strangulation of the Palestinian economy — which is a huge factor affecting the peace process."

Friedman said that during the course of over a decade of talking with Palestinian intellectuals and academics, what is whispered sotto voce is that many suicide bombers are promised financial remuneration for their families long before the religious implications of "martyrdom" are discussed.

"We cannot ignore Palestinian unemployment and poverty," he said. "Unlike other Arab countries such as Jordan, Egypt and even Syria, where a peace agreement is like a divorce contract, signing an agreement with the Palestinians is much more like a marriage contract.

"The Palestinians cannot be expected to be happy marriage partners while their jobs are being eliminated."