16.01.2011 Alessandro Di Maio

400 kids in Israel in legal limbo

For a few months now, Israeli public opinion has been divided on one of the most discussed issues in recent years -- the future of 400 children that were born and bred in Israel and speak perfect Hebrew, but they are still not considered Israeli citizens.

Over 6,000 people took to the streets of Tel Aviv on August 14 to protest against the Israeli government's decision to deport 400 children of foreign workers. The march, organized by the NGO ‘Israeli Children’, saw the participation of many Israeli politicians from different political parties as well as families and children in danger of being expelled next month.

The problem originated in 2006, when 1,200 children of foreign workers were excluded from a general amnesty on juridical status and threatened with expulsion. As the majority of these kids were born and raised in Israel, speak Hebrew and consider Israel their native country, the civil society pressure on Israeli politics has led to the setting up an inter-ministerial committee established last month specifically to address and resolve the problem.

The committee decided that children who met the following criteria would be allowed to remain in Israel together with their parents: 1) the child had studied during the past year in the Israel's state school system, 2) the child is registered for the upcoming school year in the first grade or higher, 3) the child has lived for five consecutive years or more in Israel, and, if he was not born here, arrived before the age of 13. 4) the child must be a Hebrew speaker, and 5) his parents must have entered Israel on a valid visa.

Two weeks ago the Cabinet approved the recommendations of the Committee and reduced the number of possible expelled from 1200 to 400. Shortly after the vote, Prime Minister Netanyahu declared that “the decision to let a majority of the 1,200 children stay struck a balance between the values of Zionism on one hand and the humanistic values on the other”. He also said that: “It calls for allowing those children who have largely become Israelis, who are here, have been educated here, have studied Hebrew and whose identity has already been formed, to stay here”.

However, for many people the final number of people that could be expelled is still high and unacceptable. Noa Kaufman is one of them. The 23-years-old Israeli activist from the organization 'Israeli Children', says she feels personally affected by this case because the vast majority of Israelis, including herself, are immigrant children. “Deporting children to a country that they don’t know is completely unfair. It’s time - she continued - that Israel adopts a serious and civil law to regulate the acquisition of citizenship".

Excluding the 'Law of Return' - enacted in 1950 by the parliament - that gives every Jew around the globe the right to migrate and settle in Israel and gain Israeli citizenship - the State of Israel does not have a law that confers citizenship iure soli to people who have been born in Israel.

To ensure the Jewish majority population, the citizenship confers iure sanguinis to children of Israeli citizens only. For this reason, children born in Israel to non-Israeli parents remain in a legal limbo that will make them illegal and liable to expulsion when the working-residence permit of their parents expires.

"To aggravate the situation - said a statement of the UN project for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs - many employment contracts prohibit immigrants to having children in Israel and require pregnant women to leave the country".

Myra and Melvin De Vera, a young Filipino couple attended the march on Saturday. With Jeithro, their 2-years-old child, they are one of the family who risk being expelled. "We came here because of the extreme poverty of our country. Here in Israel the salary is two times higher than in the Philippines", Melvin admitted.

Myra moved to Israel in 2002 to work in Haifa as a caregiver. "I am a deeply Catholic believer, for this reason I am here. The Holy Land is the only place I consider my home", she admitted. Melvin arrived two years later and almost immediately he met Myra. "We fell in love and married and after a while God gave us Jethro as a present”, said Melvin.

Myra and Melvin call him “the small genius” because when he was 1-year-old, Jethro was able to read. The proof is on the You Tube channel that his parents created for him. Despite that, the little genius is one of 400 children who risk being expelled from Israel.

"It's not fear to deport us. It's not fair that some get to stay while others are expelled. They should accept all of us or do not accept anyone - Myra said angrily. We came here believing this was a prosperous and democratic country, but if they will deport us, in our view Israel will be not anymore a democratic country but rather an unfair country".

Individual Parliament members from contrasting political parties also attended the march. "The issue has stirred the conscience in everyone, including parliamentarians. It is a personal and moral issue rather than political", said Amit, a middle-aged Israeli who took part in the event.

Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, Industry, Trade and Labour Minister, said that “this is definitely not the right time for Israel to be seen doing something like this. If Israel will deport these 400 kids, it would no longer be the Jewish state I've always known. And it's necessary - he continued to the press - to establish clear rules for today and the future".

The United Nations Children’s Fund harshly criticized the decision, stating that “The government’s policy constitutes a gross violation of the International Children’s Rights Agreement, which Israel has signed”.

In the last few days, Sarah Netanyahu, the wife of the Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, appeared on the newspapers and in the political debates with a letter to Interior Minister, Eli Yishai.

Appealing as a mother of two children and as a psychologist, the first lady asked the Minister to use his authority to "prevent the deportation of the vast majority of the 400 children of migrant workers, finding creative solutions to their legal status. It is the State of Israel's duty to find a solution for these children”, she wrote.

Minister Yishai responded by saying that "No one is deporting children; everyone can clearly see that the parents are using their children to stay in Israel".

The issue is a stalemate. The Israeli economy is full of low cost foreign workers. Until now it has gone ahead with 5-years-temporary permits, but it is really difficult to send back people that build their own family there in those 5 years.

Furthermore, since the majority of workers are of Christian faith, the government fears that healing their juridical status will persuade people to come illegally - and since the uncontrolled immigration is already widespread mainly from the border with Egypt - this could jeopardize the principle of Jewish majority in Israel.

Article published on Digital Journal, LaSpecula Magazine e Emaj Magazine on August 17th 2010.