In the unending saga of the deportation of the foreign workers' children, Interior Minister Eli Yishai is the bad guy. That's his job, he chose it clear-mindedly. He has nothing to complain about.
Of course, it's more complicated than that. It always is. Except for the mere fact that it shouldn't be so complicated. The outcome of this interview is already known. Both participants are meant to go back home feeling victorious, declaring "I let him have it."
The first order on the supposed agenda is to prove that Eli Yishai is everything we thought he was: A bigot, a xenophobe, a child persecutor.
"That's what I told myself when you called. That you're supposed to slaughter me, finish me."
To me it's a type of puppetry.
But you always get dragged into it. Those who defend the kids are crying out you're a racist, unenlightened, child hater and xenophobe, and you always get angry and say something horrible about the foreign workers - like what you said about them carrying disease - and everyone is happy since each side played its part in the puppetry.
"What can I do? That is how the Israeli dialogue is held. It's been this way for years. I'm telling you Yair, it's frightening. I meet with ministers and Knesset members, talk to them about important issues, including this one. What do they tell me? 'Look, you're right, but I can’t talk about it because I'll get slammed by the media.' Another one says 'Leave it, it won’t get a headline.' That's what they're interested in, the headline.
"We've lost the courage to make unpopular decisions, we've lost the ability to lead. Everything is measured in ratings. We've lost the ability to make bold decisions, as well as the ability to engage in a normal discourse, surely on such a complex issue such as this."
Foreign workers' kids protest (Photo: Ofer Amram)
And still I don’t understand you.
"On what issue?"
The kids. A person who was raised with 11 siblings in a one-and-a-half bedroom apartment in Musrara should be the most sympathetic to the children's plight.
"That's the worst; the worst is saying that I hate children. Out of everyone around me, I'm the most sensitive to the kids. I see a child and I melt. You see? I go and visit a kindergarten and I have tears in my eyes. The same in schools. That's the way I am, like my father, G-d bless his soul, who was extraordinarily sensitive."
So long as the child is Jewish.
"Of course not! Jewish, gentile, a child is a child. It really doesn't matter to me if they're Jewish or not. You see, these are your prejudices. Just as long as you make me out to be the devil, say that I'm an extremist. I approached the government 14 years ago in 1996 and told them: 'You're mad. We're letting in hundreds of thousands of people, what are we going to do with them later?' Take the protocols from the Government Secretariat Office and see that I warned against it then."
You warned about people with disease coming in.
"I'll get to the disease part."
Get to it now.
"Wait, let me straighten things in your head. I'm telling you how it started. They wanted to bring in several tens of thousands at the beginning and I said, 'It won’t stop there.' It was the first time I stormed out of a Cabinet meeting. I told them as early as 1996 'I don’t want to deport children, I don’t want to deport pregnant women, but you'll get us in a situation where you will do terrible things for the sake of sustaining the Zionist enterprise.' I cried out that we need a clear policy but they said what they always do - 'trust me.' It's an Israeli sickness, you say 'it'll be OK' and later you are surprised things didn’t work out that way."
On that we're in agreement.
"Thank G-d, but on what?"
On the fact that the State of Israel doesn’t have a policy.
"We have a policy. It's just that no one is sticking to it. Every time the red line gets moved. In the first Sharon administration the interior minister decided to keep the children, but that's it, drawing a red line. A year later they brought the kids again, and again declared a red line has been drawn. Every year a red line is drawn.
"They are talking nonsense. I don't know how to draw a red line on a child. I can't distinguish between a child that's been in Israel for five years than one who's been here four years. Between a two-year-old and a one-year-old. Between a one-year-old and a pregnant woman. Between having perfect Hebrew and bad Hebrew. I don't know how to distinguish. There are no criteria in these things. That's why we have to make a clear statement – we have a policy and it must be adhered to. You know who remains silent? The cowards. The rating cowards. I'm surrounded by rating cowards."
You create ratings yourself. It's one thing to say "policy must be adhered to" and quite another to stand on the Knesset podium and declare "Kids, the trip is over."
"What did I say? For heaven's sake, see how they scrutinize every word I say just because it's me. Every little sentence. Just because it's Eli Yishai, for what he represents, for his beard, because he's Sephardic, I don't even want to say it, otherwise they'll call me a racist again. I don't know why they do it to me, because I'm from Shas? Haredi? Rightist? Ask anyone who has ever worked with me, I was never a sectorial minister."
What does that have to do with the trip?
"I said trip because most of them came here on a tourist visa. That's what they told us when they came. That they're on a trip. They came here as travelers with their children and then stayed."
Yishai at Knesset. 'Trip is over' (Photo: Gil Yohanan)
I'm talking about the kids and you're talking about the parents.
"You think my heart isn’t torn when I have to face the children? Do you know how hard it is for me to see these pictures? Look how they've lynched me. This whole media lynch, the hypocrisy and the lies. If someone came on a tourist visa - they're the ones who said they were on a trip, not me.
"Here is a horrible story for you. A month ago I was approached by a disabled woman in need of nursing who was in a bad state. She told me she had a foreign worker who got pregnant. Now they ask me, what, she can't get pregnant? She's not allowed to fall in love?
Of course she's allowed.
"Of course she's allowed. Did anyone tell her she's not? But see what happened, she was pregnant and required bed rest. So the court ruled she should be paid without having to work. She needed to stay with her, eat at her house, without working. This lady's salary is NIS 7,000 ($1,841.14) and NIS 4,000($1,052.08) goes to the worker who doesn't work. She told me, who will bathe me? Who will dress me? Who will feed me? And then the court tells her, it's not our business. Bring someone else. You see? And I'm the one who is called ruthless."
If you bring people here you can't ignore their rights.
"You're telling this to me? Go check. In 1996 when they first started brining them in I was the one who had it legislated that they receive full social benefits. I wasn’t going to have even one foreign worker go back to their country saying 'The Jews screwed me.' It's blasphemy. You see, according to the halacha, deceiving a gentile is worse than deceiving a Jew."
I'm glad to hear that, because we got the sense that you were…
"I'll show you dozens, no, hundreds of humanitarian cases I handled. I authorize stay permits and extensions for foreign workers, family reunifications for them and the Palestinians. Nearly a thousand people get family reunification a year. A thousand a year! They come from Jordan, Gaza. I'm not in favor of it, it's dangerous, but we do it. I would sit an entire week with an enforcement team just to check they're getting all they deserve. They deserve every right, but the woman's worker, who I spoke about earlier, knows that the child guarantees her stay. It's not an individual case, it's a system. Baby visa."
You can’t prohibit people from having children.
"Say, why doesn't anyone talk about these kids' parents. Am I more responsible for them than their own parents? If the parents would tell their children 'kids, we're going home to grandma and grandpa, it's been a long trip but it's over' instead of 'we're being deported' then these kids wouldn't think anything horrible happened. But these parents abuse their kids. They cause them unimaginable psychological damage and abuse them. Unfortunately, ministers and Knesset members and members of the media are helping them in this campaign. It's a risky charade. "
'I don't want to be the bad guy'You helped the charade by talking about the children.
"Not true! Not true! I said it from the beginning, Yair, I said it all along: I'm not deporting kids, I'm sending their parents home to raise their kids with their families. I never said I was deporting kids. I'm not even deporting the parents. I'm returning them to their countries of origin. I never used the word 'deportation.' But I got labeled with it."
You don’t see where this is coming from?
"I know full well, but it still doesn't mean I'm a racist. I came and suggested voluntary departure. I suggested bonuses. Anything to allow them to leave with dignity. That's not a racist's conduct. Believe me, being portrayed as the bad guy is the worst thing as far as I'm concerned. And look what it came to. MKs, public figures are calling not to adhere to government decisions. It's a catastrophe. It’s the end of democracy. Can you imagine what would happen if a haredi came and said such a thing? Or a settler? Or an Arab? What would happen to the state?"
400 children! What’s 400 in a state of seven and a half million?! Not even a drop in the ocean.
"It's not 400 children. I ask you, what would happen next year? Even this year it’s not just 400. According to procedure, once I authorize this one, won't I authorize his little brother? He's two-years-old. Then I authorize his brother too. Can I leave kids with citizenship and parents without? And here we are at 3,000 or 4,000 kids. And how many pregnancies are there? And how many of the southern border infiltrators are kids? The head of immigration tells me that infiltrators are encouraging women to get pregnant now. They tell them 'it's baby visas, you won't get deported.' It's a phenomenon already."
Foreign workers' kids (Photo: Mati Elmaliach)
But you're mixing two separate problems, which only appear to be similar. The problem of infiltrators is grave indeed, but there's a difference between an illegal infiltrator and a person the state brought here on its own initiative. The commitment is different.
"There's no difference! There's no difference between a person who came on a plane as a tourist or work immigrant and those who come through the Egyptian border. On what basis do you distinguish between them? The color of their skin? There's no difference between infiltrators through land, air or sea. They're all work immigrants, all residing here illegally, and all subject to the same law. Let me see you pass a bill proposing a different law for Eritrean and Sudanese children, and Moldavian and Romanian ones. For Tel Aviv kids and Eilat kids. What kind of thing is this?"
The difference is that you initiated bringing the Tel Aviv kids. In 2009, the State of Israel brought in 120,000 foreign workers. 120,000! That's madness!
"And determined by law that they can’t bring their wives, can't start a family here. Do the job and go back. These are the work terms. It’s like the woman who got pregnant. I tell her, you came to Israel to serve…"
I'd choose a different word.
"OK, but she's not coming here to raise kids. There's nothing you can do. I can say that. When the State of Israel brought workers here it did so based on rules, contracts and clear conditions. They came to work for several years and then they have to go back."
So the State of Israel set impossible terms. You can’t tell people not to fall in love.
"No problem. Fall in love, but realize that once you do it you go back, with all your love, with your child to your country. That's fine. I have nothing against that girl who got pregnant, I can't stop her falling in love and getting pregnant. But according to Israel's labor laws she must return to her home."
And immediately they'll bring someone else. That's the famous revolving door.
"Yes, because for every foreign worker here, I have 20 or 30 welfare ministers from around the world who beg me to let more workers to come. I get phone calls from the Philippines, Thailand, Moldova and China. So I set the rules and terms. Everyone feels sorry for the foreign workers? Fine, but I also feel sorry for the disabled woman. Today, out of 54,000 nursing workers, 10,806 have left the houses and went to work in other places illegally. You know why? Because they feel there is no policy."
No immigration policy
Look, I totally agree with you there is need for an immigration policy. We don’t want to have a million illegal foreign workers here in 10 years' time. No sane citizen would argue with that. But once the debate is about 400 kids…
Then 1,000 or 2,000, but when we want to deport kids claiming this is a Jewish state then the argument becomes problematic because Judaism isn’t only a religion, it stands for something. Compassion, helping the foreigner. Judaism is many things apart from genetics. Even the United States, which has a much sterner immigration policy, provides automatic citizenship to anyone born there. These 400 kids were left on the sidelines of a much greater story, and Jewish compassion was invented for their sake.
"So what are you basically saying to all those women who come here? That their children are their human shields? Their insurance policy? You know when compassion comes into play? On the refugee issue.
"Every month I authorize stay permits for refugees. I never refused signing a permit for a refugee. When there was a terrorist attack in the days of Sharon and a child of one of the foreign workers got killed I came to console her and immediately gave her citizen status. That's Jewish compassion. Or orphans. You think I would deport foreign orphans? What, am I mad? I'd raise them in my own home.
"Let's do it your way. Let’s say I announce these 400 kids can stay, what will all the campaigners do in one year's time, When another 400 come out of the woodwork? What will they say then? That I can deport them?"
But they won’t be able to claim that they didn’t know. You know how it is in Israel. Some issues never make it to the public agenda for years. They're important but they are below the radar. And suddenly it reaches the surface and becomes the center of discourse. That's what happened with these kids.
"Not true. This issue surfaced last year."
Now you're wrong. Can you accept the fact that I know something about media awareness?
"More than me."
So I'm telling you there's a chance here. You need to come and say: Listen, all you're interested in are those 400 kids? Then I'm letting them stay but don't come to me next year, not to me or the government of Israel.
"Then mark it Yair, that next year the same people will come to me. With the same campaign and the same photos. That's exactly what happened last year. They all said, set up a committee. And we did, not my committee. It had representatives from the Welfare, Education, Justice and Interior ministries, and the committee said: Eight-hundred stay, 400 go home. What do you want from me? I didn't decide, the committee did."
You can't complain because you put yourself in the forefront of the battle. And the best example is what you said about them bringing disease. As an Israeli, as a Jew, that should not have been said, because that's what they said about Jews in the worst places.
"Firstly, I accept that and maybe I should not have said that. But look what happened. The internal security minister has a list illustrating the congestion caused by the infiltrators at southern hospitals. They come from Third World countries, where there are no infant welfare centers, no mental health centers, the diseases are horrible. Add to that what happens to them on the way here and you get a horrible list of diseases, which the minister named one by one.
"When I spoke about it I explained there was a difference between the southern infiltrators and the workers coming from other places. I brought data. And even if I made a mistake saying it, there still is a gap between what I meant and the media lynch I was subjected to. People don't realize what's happening. Come on a tour with me to southern Tel Aviv.."
Come on, Eli, I was born in southern Tel Aviv. I've lived here all my life and now the Jerusalem man is inviting me on a tour of Tel Aviv…
"Then you know what's going on there."
And still you keep bringing more and more foreign workers. You talk about money? I'll tell you where the money is. It’s with the manpower agencies which collect mediation fees for bringing in foreign workers. Instead you should have halted everything for a few years, and legalized those workers who were already here.
"We narrowed the figures."
Not narrow, Stop. Don't give in to the manpower agencies which pressure you to bring more and more people and deport the previous ones.
"There was such an attempt. When I was Labor and Welfare minister. We tried legalizing groups, once, twice, three times. So what do you think happened? They left once their contract was over? Of course not. This attempt is justified, but when you actually do it you see they're fooling you, they're settling in here. Once you show them that's the system, that there's a loophole, they find it and the story is over. That's why it's not 400, there are thousands more and their families. And next year there will be the same campaign, no matter what I say. And as far as they're concerned they're right. It’s not just, but they think their right. And they'll do the same campaign.
"You might think differently. There are several others who think like you, but you won’t stand the pressure next year or in two years' time. And you think you're taking pity on them, but that's not taking pity, that's being cruel to your own poor people, being cruel to the State of Israel. The budgets, the police resources, the health, education, welfare, security resources should be ours, our state's. It’s money meant for poverty, education, students, soldiers, health – for us. Our country is not equipped for it, our health basket isn't equipped for it. We can’t take in hundreds of thousands of foreigners. Go to Arad, Eilat, Tel Aviv, they've created their own autonomy. They have their own bars, clubs, unlicensed places, they do what they want."
"Yes, I believe that in the future too I'll have enough power to deal with this thing. Political, personal, physical power. Thank G-d I'm strong enough for us to protect the country because otherwise we won't have a country."
What did you think about Sara Netanyahu's letter ?
"Look, I respect Sara Netanyahu, I appreciate her as a prime minister's wife and a psychologist. And I respect her request."
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