Follow the Money

Israeli society, a society once founded on the work ethic has for years developed a dependence on foreign workers who come here to send money home.


By Moshe Arens

(A version of this column appeared in Haaretz on August 10, 2010.)

How did we ever get into this mess? Whole neighborhoods populated by foreign workers, some here legally, others without a permit. Thousands of children of foreign workers, born in Israel, speaking Hebrew, wanting to stay here, and government ministers breaking their heads over how to get rid of them. As Deep Throat said to Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward during the Watergate affair: “Follow the money”. It’s all about money.

Israeli society, a society once founded on the work ethic  (then it was “Hebrew Labor,” now it should be “Israeli Labor” ) has for years developed a dependence on foreign workers. Each year some foreign workers are deported and more are being brought in. They call it the revolving door. Theories have been developed to explain this aberration. Presumably, Israelis, just like our well-off neighbors in Europe, are no longer prepared to do manual labor. And since an economy, even a modern one, requires a certain amount of manual labor, workers must be imported from abroad.

What nonsense. As everyone knows, the work that most people are prepared to perform is mainly a question of the compensation offered. Clearly an Israeli – Jew or Arab – will expect a higher return for his labor than a foreign worker imported from a poor country. The employer, if the option is open to him, will prefer the lower-wage foreign worker.

Had the government pursued a consistent policy aimed at preventing the import of foreign workers, the question of deporting children who have grown up here and want to stay here would never have arisen. More Israelis would have been at work and the unemployment rate would have been lower. At the same time, certain economic activities such as construction, agriculture and welfare services, when employing Israelis rather than foreign workers, would have been more expensive than they are today. That’s the whole story. It’s all about money.

Why didn’t Israeli governments pursue a policy aimed at minimizing unemployment and barring the import of foreign workers? It’s true that some activities relying on foreign workers are considered essential and might become prohibitively expensive if they were denied the possibility of employing foreign workers. But where this is truly the case, such sectors could receive subsidies or special tax benefits rather than being allowed to import foreign workers.

Well, if it’s so easy, why wasn’t it done? Why for years has the number of foreign workers increased, with all the attendant problems? Why does the government allow the economy to continue on this course? If this is allowed to continue, the children of foreign workers, born in Israel and feeling at home in Israel, so ruthlessly sentenced to deportation by the government’s recent decision, are not the last to meet this fate.

To answer this question, just follow the money. Powerful economic interest groups are at work here. They represent economic sectors that benefit from the use of foreign workers, and the many companies that have sprung up that make easy money by bringing in foreign workers. Theirs is not the national interest.

They have little concern for the human tragedies that might be the by-products of their activities. Their aim is profit for the business interests they represent. They lobby, pressure and inveigle government ministers and civil servants to permit the import of foreign workers, and they seem to be invariably successful.

Instead of succumbing to this pressure and dealing with the occasional crisis, it’s high time the government adopted a comprehensive policy on the use of foreign labor in the Israeli economy, a policy based not on the interests of this or that sector, but on the national interest. It should be a policy consistent with the traditional Israeli work ethic.

In the meantime, compassion for the children who are the victims of past policy failures, who have been brought here and for whom Israel has become home, should guide the government’s decisions. Deportation of children cannot be the policy of an Israeli government.

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