Catholic protest at fate of children of Filipino workers in Israel

September 8, 2011
Sarah Benton

Israel, Discrimination Against Filipino Catholics: the Ofek Case

The basis of this story is one of the most hidden faces of the Israeli-Palestinian foreign labor laws that protects the Jewishness of the State of Israel with respect to the fundamental right to a family
Giorgio Bernardelli, Vaticaninsider, La Stampa

Rome – This time the father did not arrive with a last-minute decision snatched from a judge to take her off the plane. Ofek Castillo, 4 years old – of Philippine origin but who was born and so far has only lived in Israel – was expelled with her mother Nancy on a flight from Ben Gurion airport, whose final destination was Manila. On Thursday 25, even the extreme attempt made the week before through Acri – the Association for civil rights in Israel – proved useless. And so, for the first time against the children of foreign immigrant workers, that hard line has been applied that for some time has been discussed in Israel. And it is a first that particularly disturbs the 50,000 Filipino Catholics working in the country, who now fear the same thing can happen to dozens of others of their children.

At the heart of this story is one of the most hidden faces of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: a foreign labor law that was written thinking more about safeguarding the Jewishness of the State of Israel than respecting a fundamental human right such as the right to a family. It all begins in the Nineties, when the policy of checkpoints at the entrances to the Palestinian territories made it more difficult from Bethlehem, Ramallah and Beit Jalla to go daily to work in Israel. So the Israeli economy began to have an increasing need to replace Palestinian labor, and found the solution in the new global dynamics of the labor market: through international manpower agencies there began to arrive in Tel Aviv, Haifa and Jerusalem, Thais, Indians and – above all – Filipinos. Here, too, they became the caretakers of the elderly pioneers who arrived in Israel before or shortly after 1948. But they also found work washing dishes in hotels, or working as gardeners or drivers.

It is, however, a different immigration from the aliyah, the “return” provided by Israel to all Jews with the right to automatic citizenship. For this reason, the main concern of Israeli politicians was that – eventually – this new phenomenon should not go to further erode the country’s demographic balance. Because already today in Israel one-fifth of the population is made up of Arabs and is a growing percentage; what is more, even among the Russians arrived in the 1990s there are tens of thousands that are not Jews at all, but took advantage of a distant kinship. If the foreign workers were to now put down roots – the reasoning went – the Jewishness of the State could be at risk. Thus a law was enacted that requires merely temporary presence of this workforce: the permit is not renewable for more than five and a half years from the first entry, except by a special permit signed by the Minister of the Interior himself. And – above all – just to prevent foreign workers from starting a family, an article of the law states that if an immigrant woman has a child while in Israel the baby should be in the country of origin within three months, on pain of revocation of the mother’s residence permit.

A provision so inhumane that it has never been seriously applied until now. The problem, however, is that over the years, these children that in theory should not be here, now number in the hundreds: growing up in Israel, they speak Hebrew and attend Israeli schools, so that now their presence is visible, and the problem has come home to roost. Also because the current Israeli Interior Minister Eli Yishai, an exponent of Shas, the religious party of the Sephardites – has made of the hard line against the “clandestine children” a flag policy. Pressed by the clash between Yishai and those who in his government shudder at the idea that Israel load a plane full of children who, like Ofek, even have a Jewish name, Prime Minister Netanyahu last year established a committee that examined the position of about 1200 foreign children who are surveyed in some way since they still have contact with the State administration. In the end the solution chosen by that body was a compromise: there can remain only those whose parents entered the country legally and have already attended at least one year of primary school. Translated into figures this means about 800 out of 1,200 children. But this is not the case for Ofek – who has completed only the first year of kindergarten – and another 400.

So the other week – when he and his mother were stopped for a routine checkup and it was discovered that her profile does not meet the requirements – the little girl was immediately brought with Mrs. Nancy to Ben Gurion Airport, where an expulsion center has been prepared for that purpose. All this despite the father being a legal immigrant with a regular job in Israel. Because of his protest that he did not even have the chance to say goodbye to his daughter, the judiciary last week had temporarily blocked the expulsion. But when the case came to court in Petah Tikva, the judge confirmed what is required by law, ruling that little Ofek leave the country.

And here lies the gravity of the situation: in a country that often likes to recall its status as “the only democracy in the Middle East” there is a rule that denies foreign workers legally present within its borders a basic human right such as the right to a family. Mind you: Here we are not talking about the right to citizenship, but the mere possibility of living with a child.

Unfortunately, however, the lid is being kept on this very serious story outside of Israel. For one simple reason: it concerns those who are really the weakest in this troubled corner of the world. Because for the very Catholic Filipinos, neither pro-Israeli, nor pro-Palestinian parties become enraged. The only echo of this drama is found on the website of the Vicariate for Catholics of the Hebrew language, which on behalf of the Latin Patriarchate also follows the pastoral care of these immigrants. And they are very worrying words: “This affair – a note reads – raises the question of the fate which awaits other children of foreign workers under the age of six years. We continue to pray for these children and for their future”.

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