News & Media Articles

The Unseen Israelis

31 March 2009 By New Israel Fund

NIF’s Passover salons, and the materials prepared for them, have generated considerable excitement.  Many NIF supporters who cannot participate in a pre-seder gathering have informed us that they either will use the materials at their seder or will organize a program afterwards.  We are quite pleased by this response and look forward to additional feedback.

Last week, my message focused on minority issues in Israel, which is one of the two themes selected for the salons.  This week, I want to discuss the migrant worker issue.  My timing is impeccable as this week’s NIF News features an article about the awarding of the inaugural Presidential Award for Combating Trafficking to the Hotline for Migrant Workers, an NIF grantee, which for 10 years has led the battle on behalf of trafficked women in Israel. 

There are currently approximately 180,000 migrant workers in Israel, accounting for about 2 percent of the population.  An estimated 50 percent of the migrant workers lack legal status and, as non-citizens, non-native Hebrew speakers, and non-Jews, they are both vulnerable and the invisible ‘other’.  Consequently, they are subject to violations of their human and legal rights, including withheld wages, confinement, and criminal abuse.  Fortunately, organizations like the Hotline, with NIF support, ameliorate some of the worst abuses.

Migrant workers, of course, are not a new phenomenon.  Jewish history is replete with examples of impoverished and persecuted Jews migrating to different nations to search for employment and opportunities.  The term simply does not deserve the pejorative characterization of contemporary discourse, particularly in the United States, which has benefitted more than any other country by the integration of migrant workers into loyal and productive citizens. 

Israel, of course, was not established as a land of opportunity for the “huddled masses,” but very explicitly as a land of refuge for oppressed Jews.  However, since the late 1980s, Israeli social and economic realities created a demand for migrant workers in various employment categories.  This demand was initially filled by those who entered the country with proper work permits, but now has expanded to include those who have overstayed their visas and others who have managed to enter the country by a variety of means.  

Passover provides an appropriate opportunity to reflect on the implications of the migrant worker phenomenon in Israel and elsewhere.  What should we learn from the slavery experience in Egypt?  What is our obligation to these “strangers among us?”   The Haggadah narrative compels serious discussion of both the individual ethical issues associated with treatment of migrant workers and society’s collective responsibility to adopt just laws and policies concerning this most politically sensitive issue.  

Let me close by wishing everyone a happy holiday season.   And please do let us know if your wrestling with the text this Pesach provides interesting insights regarding the treatment of minority populations or migrant workers in Israel or elsewhere.

*For more information about NIF's Passover programming, please visit our website. To sign up to host/facilitate or for any questions, please e-mail .