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JIIS Bulletin - March 2014
On migrant workers and faith in the Holy Land
The religious world of the many migrant laborers and asylum seekers in Israel was the focus of the fascinating recent symposium in memory of Daniel Rossing, founder and general director of the Jerusalem Center for Jewish-Christian Relations (JCJCR), held annually by the Center and JIIS. Rossing, an orthodox Jew, devoted his life to the dialogue between the Jewish people and Christians in Israel. The event was coordinated by JIIS researcher Dr. Amnon Ramon and Hana Bendcowsky (JCJCR), and chaired by Dr. Sarah Bernstein, the director of JCJCR. Rabbi David Rosen, the International Director of Interreligious Affairs in the American Jewish Committee, opened the evening with a brief description of the work of late Daniel Rossing.

The event offered a glimpse into a complex world rarely seen by most Israelis, although it exists within their midst.

Prof. Galia Sabar, of the Dept. of Middle Eastern and African History at Tel Aviv University, opened the evening with a lecture titled, “Between the State of Israel and the ‘Holy Land’: The Religious Arena of African Migrant Laborers and African Asylum Seekers.” She discussed her research on the social cultural and spiritual lives of this group in Israel in the 1990s and their attempts to forge communities that serve their own needs. She also outlined the political and economic motivations that brought them from Africa and the widespread deportation that took place in 2000. 

“Significant migration to Israel of migrant workers began at the end of the 1980s, when, as a result of the intifada, the government decided to close its gates to Palestinian laborers. This caused a serious shortage of menial laborers, particularly in the fields of agriculture and construction, and later welfare.” What's more, she added, at the same time there was the mass aliya [Jewish immigration] from the Soviet bloc which caused an urgent need for new housing and other construction. By 2000, the government had issued some 250,000 work permits to foreign workers, representing 10% of the local labor force. “The initial plan was that they remain in Israel only temporarily and return to their home states. But Israel did not set a solid policy and many simply stayed, started families and began building new lives here, even though they enjoyed no legal status. The government simply ignored the trend.” The result is that there are many thousands of migrant workers now who have been in Israel upward of 10 years, and in the meantime they were joined by many people seeking asylum, predominantly from Sudan and Eritrea. 

The vast majority of the migrant workers are Christians. The decision to come to Israel, the Holy Land, was the realization of a dream as much as a need, she said. But “if it were not enough that they encountered difficulties with the authorities in the Jewish state, they also met with obstacles from the local churches. For one thing, since they were working in Jewish homes, their day off was usually Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath. When they asked their religious leaders to change the regular day of prayer from Sunday to Saturday, they were turned away. So they chose not to join the established churches but rather began their own meetings and services to meet their religious, spiritual, social and communal needs. In this way, they created a niche in which they could feel ‘whole’ as individuals, not just as menial laborers in a foreign land.” 

Prof. Sabar then discussed the asylum seekers from Africa – as opposed to the migrant workers – who cross Egypt and the Sinai desert to reach Israel. Currently there are about 55,000 people seeking asylum (85% from Eritrea and 15% from Sudan). “They are very different from the Africans who were here prior to 2000: most are men, some are minors, a handful are educated, and many suffer from post-trauma from harsh experiences they underwent in Sinai. They are concentrated in three main regions: south Tel Aviv and the resort areas of the Dead Sea and Eilat. The asylum seekers came to Israel because the border was open, albeit unofficially – in other words, Israeli society encourages them due to the cheap labor in occupations most people would prefer to avoid.” 

It emerges that many of them are in fact Muslim, but they practice their religion only in the privacy of their homes for fear of reprisals in the Jewish state. Nor did the Christian ones receive a warm welcome by the local churches in Israel. The Ethiopian Church, for example, did not accept the Eritreans due to the conflict between those two countries. 

Prof. Sabar closed by saying that the asylum seekers and migrant workers should be viewed as subjects and not objects, as people who have taken responsibility for their lives and found the courage and the means to change it through strength and faith. "They are above all human beings with wants and needs, not robots that can be moved from place to place on a whim," said Prof. Sabar.   

“From Shabbat to Shabbat: On the Balance between Work and Religious Community Life – Notes from the Religious World of Migrant Workers in Israel" was the topic addressed by Sister Monica Navalta, Secretary of the Coordinating Committee for the Catholic Church’s Work with Migrants. 
Did you know, she asked, that 12 million Filipinos, more than 10% of the country’s population, work in 200 countries around the world? “In 2011, these migrant workers sent $20.1 billion to their families back home. Behind the numbers are stories of hardship, exploitation, suffering and sacrifice for the benefit of their families and, consequently, for the entire nation and its economy.” All this, she said was part of a quest for better opportunities, but the path was usually rife with frustrations and disappointments… 
In Israel, “six days a week, from the north to the south of the country, they are home caregivers, nannies, housekeepers, nursing aides and helpers in hospital rooms, watching over the elderly, the sick and the handicapped. On weekdays, the majority work all day and even late into the night in the homes of their employers.” Drawing on her first-hand knowledge of the subject, she continued: “Some do not have decent living and sleeping quarters; many share flats with fellow migrants usually close to bus stations for convenient transportation access. Most are given Saturday or Sunday off, which usually revolves around the schedule of Mass and other church programs or a visit a holy place or going to the beach. In the evening they share impromptu experiences in karaoke and disco pubs before beginning a new week. They have a strong support network” today, she said. 

Many came with religious values, others have found prayer here. “Being in a faith community is the safest way and place to come to terms with their experiences. Where Filipino migrants are plentiful, the Church and parishes are animated… it is here that they experience a semblance of home, a sense of identity and a feeling of belonging and [replicate religious feasts as] they are celebrated back home.” 

Father David M. Neuhaus SJ, Latin Patriarchal Vicar, Pastoral Coordination for Migrants, then gave his take on “The Catholic Church in Israel and the Challenges of Migration.”  He focused on the challenges faced by the small and rather fragile local community in absorbing the Catholic workers. To put things in perspective, he said that the Christian community in Israel today numbers about 160,000, the vast majority of them Arabs. The number of migrant workers is greater about 250,000, some 20% of them asylum seekers and most of them Christians. In other words, there is a larger Christian migrant-worker community than the established long-time Israeli one. 

He outlined four primary challenges that the Catholic Church faces in dealing with the situation today: the need to create communities to enable the migrant workers to practice their faith, pray and study; provision of assistance to those experiencing difficulties and problems with their status and rights in Israel; assisting the migrants in coping with the Israeli Jewish world they find themselves in, including learning Hebrew; and strengthening and providing a Catholic education for the children of the workers who are born in Israel. One of the difficulties in this is the lack of interest on the children’s part, he says. They usually attend secular Jewish schools and identify with the Jewish majority. The church has to struggle against this “assimilation.” To that end, he said, the church has issued some textbooks in Hebrew to teach the children the tenets of Christianity. “The church does all it can to overcome the different streams and groups found in the ethnic branches and unite them all under the umbrella of the local church,” Father David said. 

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