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.