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The Other Israelis

Posted on Aug 7, 2011
Albert Sabaté

South Tel Aviv is one of Israel’s most diverse neighborhoods, with migrant workers and Israeli citizens of diverse backgrounds living in close proximity.

By Mary Slosson, Albert Sabaté, and Andrew Khouri

TEL AVIV, Israel—After running up four flights in an unlit and poorly marked staircase in a drab concrete building in the heart of immigrant south Tel Aviv, Sheila begged her way through the front desk at a migrant worker advocacy group and arrived, short for breath, in the office of advocate Idit Lebovitch.

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Her hands were clasped together in a quest for forgiveness and salvation.

Then she opened her mouth, and a stream of “I’m sorrys” and “thank yous” began tumbling out in her broken English as she explained her dilemma.

Sheila, a middle-aged Indian migrant worker in Israel, was in trouble. After paying an Indian middleman named “Richard” $9,000 cash for a visa to care for the elderly in Israel, she arrived in Tel Aviv with barely any knowledge of either Hebrew or English. She didn’t last long in her initial workplace because of that language barrier.

Six months and several jobs later, her most recent employer was refusing to pay the back wages she had earned. When Sheila quit, he threatened to have her deported, she said. If she didn’t find a new job soon—within 30 days—her visa would expire, putting her on the path to deportation and an uncertain future.


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“If she gets sent home, it is a life sentence for her. I mean she will probably get killed, because she will never be able to pay back the money,” said Lebovitch, caregiver coordinator for Kav LaOved, a nongovernmental organization that advocates for workers’ rights.

Sheila mortgaged her family’s house in India in order to take out the loan, and has paid only 5 percent back. “They’ll probably kill her, then her family, then … ” Lebovitch trailed off. “That’s what they do. It’s a black market.”

Lebovitch found a translator to help communicate with Sheila as tears streamed down her weary face, leathery with time and hardship. She eventually shuffled out of the office with a list of work agencies, her future far from certain.

Sheila found herself at the crux of sensitive issues for the state of Israel, where existential concerns about the Jewishness of the state clash against the invisible hand of globalization, which can provide caregivers from southeast Asia for far cheaper than even Palestinian labor. The result of Israel’s complicated relationship with migrant workers has created a strikingly exploitative system, according to NGOs.

Israel began importing workers beginning in the 1990s to fill jobs in agriculture, nursing and construction after the government choked off the flow of cheap Palestinian labor due to uprisings in the Occupied Territories.

Workers from that new wave of immigration consistently report paying thousands of U.S. dollars for the privilege of working inside the Jewish state, a practice that is illegal under Israeli law.

Migrant worker advocates charge that the state is profiting from the exploitation of migrants.

“The Israeli government is implementing what we call the revolving door policy,” said Sigal Rozen, public policy coordinator for the Hotline for Migrant Workers. “They keep on bringing new workers constantly, deporting those who know their rights and demand more money.”

But from the government’s point of view, migrant worker policy focuses on identity. Policy works to prevent migrants from integrating or establishing themselves into Israeli society. By not allowing migrants to establish families or bring other family members knocking, the revolving door protects the state’s Jewish identity. In fact, the government terms workers not as “migrants” but as “foreign workers.”

“The decisions of the Israeli government are connected to the Jewish character. We shouldn’t be ashamed of that. Israel is a Jewish country,” said Roi Lachmanovitch, spokesperson for Eli Yishai, Israel’s arch right-wing deputy prime minister and minister of internal affairs. “Israeli policy is not to increase foreign workers.”

Whether intentional or not, this “revolving door” has side effects that serve the interests of everyone but the migrants. Abuse and corruption are rampant as employers and recruitment agencies take advantage of workers’ fragile status.

Because recruitment agencies make money for each worker they import, there is no incentive to retain workers, advocates say. Agencies have an interest in bringing new workers rather than finding a new job for those already inside Israel, for even short-term unemployment quickly leads to deportation. The result is a new worker being imported who has to pay high fees to the agency, creating a high profit margin in a cash market that is near-impossible to monitor or regulate.


Five years ago, Nina Tabarrejo borrowed roughly $6,000 to pay a recruitment agency that helped her secure a visa and work in Israel. But once in Israel, this debt prevented her from leaving an abusive employer.

Nina Tabarrejo laughs in the office of the Hotline for Migrant Workers as she speaks with a consultant about her work situation. (Photo by Mary Slosson)

Officially, individuals who seek employment within Israel pay a state-capped brokerage fee of $980 to an agency that matches the worker to an employer. But according to Kav LaOved, each year incoming migrants report paying more for work permits. Today, workers pay $9,000 on average.

Visas tie workers to their employers, meaning that if a worker quits, he or she has 30 days to find work in the same industry or risk deportation.

Because of their debts,  which normally take two to three years to repay, workers often avoid reporting abuses, human rights groups say.

“They’re afraid to leave,” said Dana Shaked, Kav LaOved’s spokesperson. “Because if they leave they won’t be able to send back money to their families and to the loans.”

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By Inherit The Wind, August 10, 2011 at 12:02 pm Link to this comment

There have been numerous cases here in the US of flagrant abuse of immigrant workers, particularly home workers. Just pick up your local newspaper and you’ll find them. Some have been truly disgusting, holding passports and visas illegally, withholding wages, demanding sex, physically abusing, even torturing those helpless to resist.

And that’s not nearly as bad compared to the sex slave trade, which has gotten far worse since the Iron Curtain fell.

The line between consensual prostitution and sex slavery (which is, of course rape, kidnapping, and forced confinement, all of which are felonies) is very, very thin. 

I would guess (and I have no statistics) that only the highest priced call-girls and Nevada Bunny Ranch types actually can choose not to be prostitutes.  The rest face everything from beatings to murder if they refuse or try to escape.

The problem of mistreatment of non-citizen “guest workers” is universal.  Why is it a surprise that Israel’s no more immune than any other nation?

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By LocalHero, August 10, 2011 at 9:06 am Link to this comment

Nothing new here. Just more barbarism practiced by the terrorist-bandit state of “God’s chosen people” and it fits nicely with their organ-trafficking operation.

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By sand11, August 9, 2011 at 5:25 am Link to this comment

There is only one word to describe this whether it takes place in America or Israel: human trafficking. And it all takes place under a thin veneer of legality as long as one does not look too deeply. The exploitation of workers who are merely trying to make a better life for themselves and their families is shameful and to excuse it by saying that it happens in other countries also is beyond criminal.

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By walterbard, August 9, 2011 at 4:00 am Link to this comment

Yes there is a migrant problem worker problem in Israel, as there is in the United States and many other countries. But like the United States Israel is a Democracy with a free press. Haaretz has had articles on the problem and even more rightwing papers such as the Jerusalem Post have
discussed the issue. There are Israeli laws against exploitation that should be more vigorously enforced,
as in the United States. There are migrant worker rights groups in Israel, with many Jewish
Israelis participating. Many migrant cases have been brought before Israeli courts,
with favorable outcomes. 
Of course a virulent anti Israel rag such as Truthdig(liedig) predictably published an article which cherry picks it facts and quotes. Of course the exploitative treatment of some migrant workers
is wrong and should be corrected. But compared to the exploitation of migrants in Arab countries
it pales in significance.  What about Saudi Arabia? What about the massacre of Sudanese in
Egypt? One thing is certain Liedig will scrupulously scrutinize Israel for any wrong, ignore the efforts of Israel to correct them. And of course the wholesale violations of human rights
in Arab countries, in Gaza, in the West Bank are never given as much scrutiny by Liedig.But then
there is no free press in Gaza and the West Bank
so we rarely hear about human right violations there.

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By gerard, August 8, 2011 at 4:44 pm Link to this comment

What this points up, obviously, is the double fallacy of a nation-state whose citizenship is based on one particular religion—no different that being based on one particular race or one non-negotiable nationality. Any exclusion from full citizens’ rights makes for discrimination, second-class-citizenship, and exploitation.
  Worldwide it appears that nationhood is a remnant from pre-modern days, now rapidly giving way to international travel, communication, and all-too-visible disparities, unequal rights and opportunities, and gross differences between rich and poor.
  Nationalism will die hard,  however, due to old habits of thought and behavior, gross economic and educational differences and vast gaps between a relatively few rich, some middle (muddle) classes and billions in a state of desperate poverty.
  I believe the human race will muddle through - but
at the moment the problems are dauntingly complex and pressing. I believe it not because it’s obvious but because otherwise there’s no motivation to remain civilized (in the best sense of that word).

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By Arabian Sinbad, August 8, 2011 at 3:19 pm Link to this comment

I read this lengthy article through, up to each comma, period and other punctuation marks. However, I failed to understand the relevance of the article’s title to its contents!

My point is that the title of “The Other Israelis” is a very wrong title for such a piece, since the people whose human rights violations have been documented are not Israelis to start with. More appropriate titles for such a report can be:

* “The Sad Story of Migrant Caregivers in Israel”;
* “The Other Humans in Israel”;
* “Violations of Human Rights in Israel”;
* “When Jewishness Overrides Basic Human Rights in Israel”.

Though I commend the authors of this report for bringing up one dimension of human rights violations in racist apartheid Israel, I do wonder why they failed to give the report a more clear and appropriate title; or was it a deliberate choice of an editor at Truthdig to give this more subtle title for such unsubtle abuses in Israel?!

But what else do you expect from racist, colonialist, savage occupier, and apartheid Israel, artificially born in the womb of the racist whites of Europe, under circumstances of wars and colonialism, and artificially planted in the heart of Palestine to kill, dispossess and destroy the lives of the natives of the land?!

The final point: If they violated the basic human rights of the whole Palestinian nation, what is it for them to violate the human rights of few thousands migrant workers whom they would discard as pieces of garbage after they have exploited their noble work and sweat?!

Anyway, thank you Truthdig for helping to expose the fact that the idea of Israel was and is a cancer in the human body that should have not been allowed to exist, let alone to grow! With certain dangerous
diseases, preventive measures are the healthy way to deal with them!

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By talkmaster, August 8, 2011 at 1:31 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I stopped reading after the two words Jewish State

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By Mark P. Albright, August 8, 2011 at 1:02 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

You hardly need
travel to Israel to
document so tragic a
story. Large American
including the
country’s leading
meat packers,
routinely exploit
undocumented Mexican
workers as a source
of cheap, powerless
and readily
expendable labor they
offer up on a
rotating basis to
I.C.E. to meet their
enforcement quotas.
Don’t get me wrong -
I’m not saying the
situation described
in your story isn’t
appalling. I’m just
saying that “the land
of the free and the
home of the brave”
has every bit as much
blood on its hands,
and the documentation
of these horrors in
other countries
should not become an
excuse to deflect
well-earned criticism
of labor abuses right
here at home.

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