Oops: Bennett and I don’t agree. But migrants find justice in Israel’s courts.

Naftali Bennett

Naftali Bennett

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.”

Alas.

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 deathsrather 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.

Crossposted from Open Zion/The Daily Beast.

Foreign workers in Israel: In which Naftali Bennett and I agree.

Naftali Bennett

Naftali Bennett

Here’s a thing that doesn’t often happen: I find myself agreeing with, and grateful to, Naftali Bennett.

Among the portfolios held by Bennett in Israel’s government is that of the Ministry of the Economy, and in that capacity, he’s ordered a broad campaign to investigate the exploitation of migrant workers. Already, the results are shocking: The ministry reported on Wednesday that 90 percent of businesses investigated have been found to be in violation of their workers’ legal rights:

The suspicions included failure to pay minimum wage, failure to pay overtime compensation, delaying payment, excessive work hours and failure to provide vacation time. Fifty inspectors took part in the sweep.

“We are doing right by exploited workers [working] under substandard conditions,” said Economy Minister Naftali Bennett. “We will continue to be on the ground. We will not allow [businesses] to treat the law as just some sort of recommendation.”

Moreover, Haaretz reports, the ministry has been responding directly to workers’ complaints (though it’s not clear if these complaints have come from Israelis, foreigners, or both), opening more than 1,700 investigations so far this year, 60 percent of them in response to information from laborers. “Close to 5,000 workers have been questioned in enforcement activities since the beginning of the year, including 700 foreign workers.”

The importance of such efforts cannot be overstated, and they are long overdue. As much as I may criticize Bennett on other fronts, he deserves real credit for taking action to help Israel’s vulnerable residents, whether citizens or not.

There is, of course, much more to do. The new campaign only covered Tel Aviv, and only took in 160 businesses. There still remains the excruciating issue of the deportation of migrants workers’ children, many of whom were born in Israel; in one case in 2012, at least seven children died of malaria as a direct result of their deportation. There are the stomach-turning conditions under which many migrant workers are forced to live. There are the tales—far too many tales—of brutal arrests and expulsions suffered by workers who have arrived illegally, including shackling the legs of children and the forced return to regions in which the migrants’ lives are in clear and undeniable danger.

And then there’s the case of Palestinian laborers, who are often prey to Israeli contractors who extract exorbitant fees for legal work permits yet still leave anyone arriving from the West Bank to the mercies of the military’s sporadic enforcement of the Security Barrier (involving everything from attack dogs to rubber bullets). Palestinians who don’t cross the Green Line but rather work within settlements are legally entitled to the same benefits as any Israeli worker, but frequently work under dangerous conditions and for less than half of Israel’s minimum wage—not to mention the billions of shekels deducted from Palestinians workers’ wages to pay for social benefits that they do not receive.

Israeli citizens also have much to complain about: Some 11 or 12 percent of Israeli businesses regularly violate the country’s minimum wage law, a problem that Haaretz recently reported is “more common in Israel than in most other Western countries.”

Unsurprisingly, those who suffer the most minimum wage violations are the poor: 39 percent of workers in the lowest economic decile earn less than the minimum wage…. But minimum wage violations also affected middle-class workers, including 16 percent of those in the fourth decile.

Attorney Gal Gorodeisky, who specializes in labor law, said many employers aren’t afraid to break the law because they think workers will be either too afraid or too ignorant of the law to sue them.

It’s good that Naftali Bennett has begun to tackle one of these many shameful problems—I can only hope that he’s willing to continue the work that he’s started, and remember all the weak and vulnerable: Israeli, Palestinian, and foreign alike. As an Orthodox man, Bennett is probably intimately familiar with the Scripture that will be read in all synagogues around the world as we fast in atonement for our misdeeds on Yom Kippur:

They ask Me for the right way, they are eager for the nearness of God: “Why, when we fasted, did You not see? When we starved our bodies, did You pay no heed?” Because on your fast day you see to your business and oppress all your laborers!… Is such the fast I desire, a day for men to starve their bodies?… No, this is the fast I desire: To unlock the fetters of wickedness, and untie the cords of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free…. It is to share your bread with the hungry, and to take the wretched poor into your home; when you see the naked, to clothe him.

Crossposted from Open Zion/The Daily Beast.

Yair Lapid – no cause for optimism.

yair lapid

Yair Lapid

In the lead-up to yesterday’s elections, there was real concern in certain circles (and happy certainty in others) that Naftali Bennett’s HaBayit HaYehudi (Jewish Home) Party was poised to sweep into the Knesset’s second place position, directly behind a weakened Likud—weakened in part by Bennett himself, a man who gives public expression to what many assume to be the real position of both the Likud and Prime Minister Netanyahu: Settlements Always, Palestine Never.

When that didn’t turn out to be the case—when it turned out that the putatively centrist Yair Lapid had not only come in behind Likud, but had far outstripped Bennett—there were expressions of relief, even hope, in some corners. Perhaps, just maybe, a roughly centrist government will emerge, one that will genuinely negotiate for peace?

With all due respect, though, there’s simply no objective reason to even entertain that thought.

First of all, it’s important to remember that these results are preliminary, in that they don’t yet include the votes of the military. Israel’s soldiers have traditionally skewed slightly to the right of the rest of the country, and in recent years, this tendency has increased, along with a growing religiosity. There’s good reason to think that when all the votes are counted, Bennett and/or the Likud will have gained two-three seats, and in a parliament this polarized, that can make a big difference.

More to the point, however, even if the division of seats doesn’t much change, neither will Bibi. He is and has always been a right-wing opportunist whose first and primary goal is to achieve and maintain power. He’s spent his entire political career catering to the settler community, and though he’s not himself personally religious, has been more than happy to cede power and influence to the ultra-Orthodox in order to maintain a coalition that keeps him in the driver’s seat, and advances the settlement project. A single speech at Bar Ilan University, made years ago, doesn’t mitigate the fact that the Prime Minister has done everything in his not inconsiderable power to make sure that a Palestinian State becomes a literal impossibility.

And then there’s Yair Lapid, also an opportunist, albeit one who at least looks centrist. He’s said that he won’t join a government that doesn’t negotiate with the Palestinians—but honestly, that’s meaningless. “Negotiations” can mean anything or nothing, and Netanyahu has himself “negotiated with the Palestinians” on more than one occasion. Negotiations aren’t a goal unto themselves, and without a solid commitment to compromise, will continue to serve the Israeli government as they have for years: a handy diversion with which to distract the international community, even as Israel’s hold on the West Bank deepens.

Moreover, Lapid has made it painfully clear that he has no real grasp of the enormity of the occupation’s implications, and doesn’t understand what a genuine, durable peace agreement will entail. He launched his campaign in the bloated West Bank settlement of Ariel, and has publicly (and more than once) announced that if Israel’s government just stands firm, it will convince the Palestinian people to give up on East Jerusalem as their capital.

As I’ve written before, this latter position is nothing short of delusional, and reveals a deep and abiding attachment to the same kind of magical thinking recently expressed by Daniel Gordis: We will deal with the Palestinians as we imagine them to be, and all will be well.

The only thing approaching an ideological commitment that Lapid has ever clearly expressed is an aversion to the ultra-Orthodox. I think it’s a decent bet that he wouldn’t join a government in which the ultra-Orthodox have more power than he does, but as long as he can present himself to his secular supporters (half of whom, not incidentally, self-identify as right wing) as having done better than Shas in coalition negotiations, I imagine he’d be happy to sit alongside them—and, quite possibly, Bennett—in a Netanyahu government, and passively support expanding settlement construction and the headlong rush toward West Bank annexation. And again: The rightist parties are likely to actually gain seats when the soldiers’ votes are counted.

There are two Israeli Jewish parties actually dedicated to saving the Jewish State from itself and negotiating a true peace accord with the Palestinian people: Meretz and Tzipi Livni’s HaTnuah. And if the projections hold, Meretz and HaTnuah will jointly take 12 seats.

So really, there’s no cause for even cautious optimism. On the contrary, perhaps a hard-right government would have shocked the world and Israel out of its complacency. As it is, it looks like Israel is set to continue to muddle along on its way to its own ruin.

Crossposted from Open Zion/The Daily Beast.

Very quick take on the Israeli elections results.

First of all, the basics: Israel’s system of government is parliamentary, and Israel’s parliament (the Knesset) has 120 seats. In order to form a government, a party has to have a majority of those seats, which in practice means that the party with the most seats has to negotiate a coalition with other, smaller parties, which in turn means that smaller parties often wind up setting policy, completely out of proportion to their numbers, because they serve as kingmakers.

Exit polls from today’s elections indicate what’s being presented by Israel’s media as a right/center-left split of 61/59 – here’s HaAretz’s excellent graphic breaking that down:

israel election haaretz exit poll jan13

A few important notes:

  • As you consider the “center-left” of Israeli politics you must always (and I mean this quite literally) simply erase from your calculations any seats held by the “Arab Parties” (aka: parties made up of Palestinian-Israelis and/or Hadash, the bi-national communist party which is considered an “Arab Party”). The Arab parties have never been included in an Israeli coalition, and unless and until something very fundamental changes, they never will be. So it’s really 61/50.
  • These are preliminary results, so the final count may very well shift around to the tune of 2-4 seats, not least because:
  • Members of the military vote on their bases and cannot be exit-polled, so no initial projection can include them — and Israel’s soldiers, traditionally slightly to the right of the rest of the voting public, have been growing increasingly right and increasingly religious.
  • The party of former-talk-show-host-turned-politician Yair Lapid is, as one person put it, a “tofu party” — Lapid is not ideologically committed to much of anything, other than broad anti-ultra-Orthodox sentiment, and while he looks like a center-left politician, he’s really just a Tel Avivian opportunist. His goal is his own aggrandizement, and half of his party’s voters identify as right-wing. Furthermore, as my friend Ori Nir pointed out, “more than this was a pro-Lapid vote, it was an anti-Netanyahu vote by the ‘soft right’.”
  • Lapid has already demonstrated that he really has no grasp of the parameters of Israel’s single largest outstanding issue, the occupation. If (as I wrote here) he genuinely believes that Israel only has to stand firm in order to get the Palestinians to give up East Jerusalem as their capital, then there’s no reason to think that he has any grand vision of sharing the land.
  • On the other hand, Naftali Bennett, the head of HaBayit HaYehudi (Jewish Home), is a True Believer. He is absolutely committed to never allowing the establishment of a Palestinian state, and as a modern Orthodox Jew, he carries the whiff of religious credibility.
  • Benjamin Netanyahu’s experiment of joining forces with the ultra-right Yisrael Beitenu party headed by neo-fascist Avigdor Lieberman — considered by many (myself included) a sure bet for electoral dominance — clearly failed.

So in light of all of the above, I think there’s a very good chance of the following happening:

  • Likud is still the party with the most seats, and as such Netanyahu will get first crack at forming a coalition. This he can do with Lapid and Bennett, and if the above projections hold, he’d have 67 seats. However, I actually suspect that these parties will jointly pick up another two-three seats from the soldiers — my guess is that they’ll come at the expense of Labor and HaTunua (headed by Tzipi Livni), and that they will go to Lapid and Bennett (rather than Likud). 
  • If Bibi decides to go this route, HaBayit HaYehudi will give him cover on the religious front, without making onerous demands in the style of Israel’s ultra-Orthodox, and Yesh Atid will give him cover with regard to the concerns of Israel’s shrinking secular majority (and by secular, I mean here “Jewish Israelis who are fed up with ultra-Orthodox coercion”).
  • Lapid will give lip-service to the need for reconciliation with the Palestinians, but will be easily and quickly swept up by nationalist appeals to “security” the next time any Palestinian anywhere does anything unsavory, and will passively support settlement construction and the galloping trend toward annexation of the West Bank.

Needless to say, I could be wrong, particularly with regard to any potential tension between Netanyahu and Lapid. Netanyahu might prefer the discomfort of once again aligning himself with the ultra-Orthodox over giving too much to Lapid, even though big chunks of his own base have zero love for the ultra-Orthodox. Bear in mind that I tend to be very pessimistic when it comes to Israeli politics, and while I haven’t often been proven wrong, it’s been known to happen.

It will be days before we know anything for sure. But for now, those are the contours I see shaping up.

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