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.

Advertisements

Syrian refugees – actually a lot more than two million.

Last week the world reeled as we learned that the number of Syrian refugees had passed the two million mark.

Which is to say: Two million people—the equivalent of the combined populations of Boston, Detroit, and San Francisco—have fled their homes and country to what can only be called an uncertain fate in Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Egypt, and North Africa, with no idea whatsoever when or if they might ever return. Many refugees actually depend on the kindness of family and friends and never register with humanitarian aid organizations, so it’s likely that “two million” is, in fact, a low estimate.

Yet as horrifying as that is, as heartbreaking as the needs of the people fleeing and the people receiving them are, we must remember that those two million actually represent less than a third of all who have run for their lives in the course of this war.

The European Commission Humanitarian Office reports that an estimated 4.25 million Syrians are internally displaced persons—people forced out of their homes and communities by the violence, but who haven’t yet made it across a border. Thus, a total of 6.25 million Syrians—fully one third of the country’s population of 21 million—are, in fact, wandering.

The implications of this are staggering. As the region’s nations face historic internal turmoil and grapple with the sudden influx of hundreds of thousands of strangers—sometimes at a rate of thousands a day—the social and cultural fabric of Syrian life has been shredded beyond recognition beneath bombs and chemical weapons.

Consider a life: Parents, grandparents, growing children. Income is earned, homes are built, marriages celebrated and babies welcomed. You shop for your daily needs, come home along familiar paths, make holiday plans and hope your aunt makes enough of her signature dish. Your father falls ill, your daughter outgrows her shoes, you bring a present to the neighbors. At every turn, your life is woven tightly into the garment of the lives around you, and whether any given day brings sorrow or joy, you know where to find solace, support, or someone with whom to share your good fortune.

Now it’s gone.

It’s gone, and you don’t know if you’ll ever get it back. It’s gone, not just for you and your family and your community, and not even “just” for the two million people who have (at the very least) found a way out of the country and away from the killing. It’s true for six and a quarter million people—the equivalent of nearly the entire population of Israel.

The Jewish people knows what this chaos looks like. We see it in the eyes of survivors; many can still feel it in their flesh. We are a people that until very recently knew little but the hurriedly packed bag, the abandoned home, the loved one lost forever. Whatever Jews and Arabs may have done to or said about each other in the 20th and 21st centuries, surely when we see a father gather a dead child in his arms, our arms must ache, too.

And as the heart cries out, the mind must also be honest about the horror’s further ramifications. It might be possible to imagine that the strife in Egypt won’t spread beyond its borders; it might be possible to hope that Jordan’s King will work with his opposition toward democracy and stability. It’s possible. But there’s simply no way to see the massive, violent movement of 6.25 million people just beyond and all around Israel’s borders as an event that might leave anyone in the region untouched. At a certain point, likely at many points, chaos tips over in ways that cannot be predicted and whoever is within shouting distance finds themselves in the path of the consequences.

This is the time in the Jewish year in which we straddle the universal and the personal at once: Last week we celebrated harat olam, the world’s creation; this week, we stand before the Divine and weigh our most intimate behavior. We do each while surrounded by our community and all we hold dear. We are reminded, at every holiday table and with every blow of the shofar, that our destiny as individuals and as a community is bound in a spiral of mutuality that turns and returns, endlessly.

The Syrian people are not my people. Some of them have killed some of mine; some of mine have killed some of theirs.

And yet they are my people, because they, too, were created b’tselem Elohim, in God’s image. They are my people because they suffer untold terrors. They are my people because wherever their calamity leads, it will brush against or crash into my people and my home. We cannot yet begin to guess the outcome of the shattering of Syria and its people, but lines drawn on maps will not keep the disaster neat and tidy.

I stand before my Creator this week devastated by what humanity has wrought, and not a little frightened of what is to come—frightened for Israel, frightened for everyone in the region, but mostly frightened for the mothers and fathers grasping little hands in the night, and trembling.

Crossposted from Open Zion/The Daily Beast

Yom Kippur 2012.

Yom Kippur in Tel Aviv, on what is usually Israel’s busiest highway. I miss home.

In my effort to get All The Things done, I have not managed to write a Yom Kippur post. Given that I didn’t manage to write a (new) Rosh Hashana post, I suppose I can at least claim consistency!

So, in lieu of many words, I will just say these:

If you fast: May it go easy, and may your fasting and prayers rise to heaven and seal you in the Book. And if you don’t fast, may you be sealed anyway! I believe that we are all God’s, and that the Holy One is not so small as to punish us for failing to do something that may or may not have been wholly invented by well-meaning believers.

Whatever you do tomorrow, may it bring you meaning and joy, and may we all rise the next day with a renewed sense of purpose in the role we must play in healing our world.

(And needless to say, I won’t be here to post or moderate comments. But feel free to leave them! If you get stuck, I’ll free you as soon as the fast is over).

Gmar hatima tova ve’tzom kal (a good sealing and easy fast) to all!   !גמר חתימה טובה וצום קל

“Is such the fast I desire?”

On Shabbat and holidays, when Jews gather to pray, in addition to reading a portion from the first five books of the Bible, we also read a section of the Prophets, a section chosen to complement the other reading, or to reflect the Shabbat/holiday in question, or both. Every Yom Kippur, we read the following, from the book of Isaiah. As I look at what Israel and so many of my people are doing right now, I feel a desperate need to trumpet these words directly into their hearts. But I imagine if God hasn’t been able to all these long years, I don’t stand much of a chance.

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.

If you fast, I wish you an easy one, and if you don’t, that’s ok, too. Shana tova, a happy and good year, to us all — amen, amen.

Haftarah for Yom Kippur – Isaiah 57:14–58:14

Chapter 57

14 [The Lord] says:
Build up, build up a highway!
Clear the road!
Remove all obstacles
From the road of My people!
15 For thus said He who high aloft
Forever dwells, whose name is holy;
I dwell on high, in holiness;
Yet with the contrite and the lowly in spirit —
Reviving the spirits of the lowly,
Reviving the hearts of the contrite.
16 For I will not always contend,
I will not be angry forever:
Nay, I who make spirits flag,
Also create the breath of life.
17 For their sinful greed I was angry;
I struck them and turned away in My wrath.
Though stubborn, they follow the way of their hearts,
18 I note how they fare and will heal them:
I will guide them and mete out solace to them,
And to the mourners among them
19 heartening, comforting words:

It shall be well,
Well with the far and the near

— said the Lord —

And I will heal them.
20 But the wicked are like the troubled sea
Which cannot rest,
Whose waters toss up mire and mud.
21 There is no safety

— said my God —

For the wicked.

Chapter 58

1 Cry with full throat, without restraint;
Raise your voice like a ram’s horn!
Declare to My people their transgression,
To the House of Jacob their sin.

2 To be sure, they seek Me daily,
Eager to learn My ways.
Like a nation that does what is right,
That has not abandoned the laws of its God,
They ask Me for the right way,
They are eager for the nearness of God:
3 “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!
4 Because you fast in strife and contention,
And you strike with a wicked fist!
your fasting today is not such
As to make your voice heard on high.
5 Is such the fast I desire,
A day for men to starve their bodies?
Is it bowing the head like a bulrush
And lying in sackcloth and ashes?
Do you call that a fast,
A day when the Lord is favorable?
6 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;
To break off every yoke.
7 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,
And not to ignore your own kin.

8 Then shall your light burst through like the dawn
And your healing spring up quickly;
Your Vindicator shall march before you,
The Presence of the Lord shall be your rear guard.
9 Then, when you call, the Lord will answer;
When you cry, He will say: Here I am.
If you banish the yoke from your midst,
The menacing hand and evil speech,
10 And you offer your compassion to the hungry
And satisfy the famished creature —
The shall your light shine in darkness,
And your gloom shall be like noonday.
11 The Lord will guide you always;
He will slake your thirst in parched places
And give strength to your bones.
You shall be like a watered garden,
Like a spring whose waters do not fail.
12 Men from your midst shall rebuild ancient ruins,
you shall restore foundations laid long ago.
And you shall be called
“Repairer of fallen walls,
Restorer of lanes for habitation.”
13 If you refrian from trampling the sabbath,
From pursuing your affairs on My holy day;
If call the sabbath “delight,”
The Lord’s holy day “honored”;
And if you honor it and go not your ways
Nor look to yours affairs, nor strike bargains —
14 Then you can seek the favor of the Lord.
I will set you astride the heights of the earth,
And let you enjoy the heritage of your father Jacob —
For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.

JPS translation