Mideast Briefing: Third Sector in Israel – Modern Pioneers

Mideast Briefing: Third Sector in Israel – Modern Pioneers

Ed Rettig, Acting Director, AJC Israel Office
March 23, 2010

To visit the offices of the Hotline for Migrant Workers is to encounter the enormous vitality of Israeli civil society. HMW, a grassroots organization, was created in 1998 to prevent abuse of migrant workers, refugees and asylum seekers in Israel.

Entering a nondescript building on Nahalat Binyamin Street in downtown Tel Aviv, you climb the stairs to the second floor and walk into a beehive of activity. In one corner a volunteer interviews two African men, undocumented workers perhaps, or illegal immigrants or refugees. After they tell their stories they will be advised of their rights. Two young Orthodox Jewish women sit at desks against the far wall, handling office duties. Often for religious reasons (but sometimes as in this case out of civil ideology), they are doing non-military “national service.” The government recognizes their work in HMW—which like many similar NGOs, often takes on the Israeli bureaucracy—as fulfillment of that obligation.

Ironically the success of the Israeli nation-building project generated the predicament HMW and others address. For much of its existence, Israel was a developing country, and Israelis’ standard of living at mid-century was quite low. Tens of thousands of Jews—Holocaust survivors and refugees from Africa and Asia—arrived each year and took employment at the bottom of the economic scale. Today, though, Israel’s standard of living compares favorably with a number of EU countries. Its economy performed well in the recent crisis. A rising standard of living generated justifiably rising expectations on the part of workers, and so Israel hungers for people to fill its lower-paying jobs, resulting in a magnet for economic migrants.

Israeli governments, beginning in the 1990s, enacted a clumsy system for handling foreign workers that was designed to bring them in, but make sure they did not stay. Workers had to have a time-limited license, obtained by their employers. The government expected them to leave the country at the end of the term, or be deported. Since 1995, Israel has forcibly expelled over 70,000.

The “binding” to specific employers led to exploitation. This system was reformed in 2006 to protect the workers, but the old procedures continued on the ground to a disturbing degree due to lax enforcement of the new rules. Indeed, after the reform, holders of legal permits may be more exposed to certain abusive practices than before. Many pay middlemen in their home countries anywhere from $1,000 to $30,000 to get here, and are thus effectively bound to their employers until they pay off the debt. Often, employers pay less than minimum wage. The abuse of legal and underpaid workers created a situation where some 40% are unlicensed, and so illegal, often through no fault of their own.

The problem of illegal immigration is particularly apparent on the border with Egypt, where Israel, a new member of the economic First World, meets the almost entirely Third World nations of Africa. That geography leads to a small but steady stream of genuine refugees seeking asylum from oppression, as well as more extensive economic migration.

Israeli officials express concern over a potential tidal wave of illegal migrants generated by the push of failing African economies and the ongoing violence in so many corners of the continent. Israel and Egypt patrol their common border, often with the use of deadly force on the Egyptian side (and occasionally on the Israeli), but there is no physical barrier. The Netanyahu government recently announced plans to create such a barrier along two-thirds of the length of the border, but in the meantime it is hard to stop the smuggling of people and goods.

Trafficking in persons caused Israel to find itself on the State Department’s list of destination countries for human trafficking. At my recent meeting with HMW, I was informed that since about 2006/7 Israel has had remarkable success containing the trafficking of foreign women for prostitution, securing about a half dozen convictions of pimps and smugglers. Enforcement is vital but not a panacea, as the illicit sex market shifted to desperate local women.

Israeli society must also deal with other categories of foreigners on her soil, including refugees and asylum seekers. All of these challenges arise from the Israel that lives “outside the conflict” with the Palestinians. They are the result of a process of economic development with few parallels around the world. Israeli government bureaucrats have trouble meeting the test, but, as State Department documents show, Israel is hardly alone.

What is encouraging, even heartwarming, is the dynamism of the third sector, volunteerism, in confronting these challenges. As the government receded from its former welfare-state centrality over the course of the last generation, Israelis with drive, moxie and idealism rushed to fill the vacuum. It is exciting to work with them. Given the new social, economic and political realities, the folks at HMW and so many others like them represent a new iteration of the pioneer ethos that built this country.