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Israel: Balancing Demographics in the Jewish State

Israel: Balancing Demographics in the Jewish State

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Israel takes pride in defining itself as both a democratic society and a homeland for the Jewish people. This balancing act works, if imperfectly, in maintaining an elective government, legal system, and free press, with the assumption that as long as Jews are the demographic majority, both ideas can be sustained. Government policies are established to support this status quo.

Jewish immigration and a high birth rate are encouraged. However, present regulations allow those with Jewish ancestry or family ties to immigrate even though they are not considered Jewish according to Jewish law.

In addition, a temporary migrant labor policy implemented in the early 1990s has brought several hundred thousand workers from Asia, Africa and South America, many of whom have stayed. Orthodox Jews and many others worry about the impact on Israeli society from these new immigrants.

At the same time, Israel continues to limit Palestinian access to family reunification and residency for security reasons. Israeli government concern about the rapid growth of the Palestinian population affects a wide range of policy decisions, beginning with the single biggest issue facing Israel in 2005: the disengagement from Gaza.

Historical Background

Migration is integral to the region's history, starting with the stories that fill the pages of the Bible and Koran. Present-day Israel was the intersection between the major trading routes for both north-south and east-west movement spanning the entire fertile crescent of Mesopotamia (Iraq) to Canaan (Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, and part of Syria).

Greeks, Romans, Persians, Muslims, Christians, Turks, the French and the British all ruled the area, and under their control, people flowed in and out.

Following the near destruction of European Jewry during World War II, the modern state of Israel was established in 1948. The Proclamation of the Establishment of the State of Israel states: "The State of Israel will be open for Jewish immigration and the ingathering of the exiles..."

Between 1948 and 1951 the Jewish population doubled with over 600,000 new immigrants. About half of these immigrants arrived as refugees from Nazi concentration camps and displaced person camps in Europe, others fled persecution or expulsion from the surrounding Arab countries.

In 1950, the government instituted a fundamental piece of legislation, the Law of Return, which grants every Jew the automatic right to immigrate to Israel and become a citizen of the state. Although according to Jewish law ("halacha") Jewish identity is conferred only through matriarchal descent or conversion, Israel's Law of Return granted Israeli citizenship to anyone with a maternal or paternal Jewish grandparent.

This definition was patterned on the Nazi definition of "Jewish blood" in order to accept all survivors of Nazi war crimes and to accommodate any future victims of state-sponsored terror against Jews. The idea prevailed that if someone was Jewish enough for Hitler, he should be Jewish enough for Israel.

Jewish Immigration

Later amendments to the Law of Return and other laws further defined immigrant eligibility to encourage subsequent waves of Jewish immigration. As tensions continued between Israel and the Arab states in the 1950s and 1960s, entire Jewish communities immigrated to Israel from the countries of Northern Africa and Yemen.

Whole-scale immigration also continued from other Arab countries and Iran. The Ahkenazi "European" establishment in Israel officially welcomed these immigrants from the Sephardic or "Oriental" tradition of Jewry. But the culture clash between East and West was enormous, and many Jews from Eastern countries resented placement in bleak development towns, limited job opportunities, and disrespect of their traditions.

Jewish immigration from Ethiopia came to Israel in two major movements. The first, called "Operation Moses," was the covert removal of Ethiopian Jews who had fled to Sudan during a famine in 1984. Approximately 8,000 came to Israel during the two-and-a-half-month operation. An estimated 4,000 died in the desert from the difficult conditions and at the hands of bandits. After media reports on the secret operation, the airlift came to a complete stop due to Arab pressure on Sudan.

In 1991, a second, larger wave of Ethiopian Jews arrived via "Operation Solomon." Political and economic unrest at that time grew as Eritrean and Tigrean rebels challenged the Ethiopian government. Days after the government fell, a 36-hour airlifit took over 14,000 Jews to Israel.

According to the Israel Association for Ethiopian Jews, there are about 85,000 Ethiopian Jews in Israel now; of those, about 20,000 were born in Israel. Many have had difficulty integrating into Israeli society. They often face discrimination in housing, education, and employment.

Left behind in Ethiopia were approximately 1,000 Jews and between 18,000 to 26,000 Falasha Mura. The Falasha Mura call themselves Beta Israel like other Ethiopian Jews, but are distinct because they are descendents of Jews converted by force to Christianity about 100 years ago. Most have left their villages and wait in compounds in Addis Ababa for the Israeli government to decide if they are eligible to immigrate.

Without documentation to establish their "Jewishness," and since they are several generations away from Jewish tradition, many in Israel do not want to extend immigration rights to the Falasha Mura. Critics claim that allowing them to immigrate will "open the floodgates" to any person or group with tenuous ties to Judaism who may see Israel as a country offering a better quality of life.

The Falasha Mura are not the only group with Jewish roots. Beginning in the 1970s, some 3,500 Bnei Menashe decided to formally return to the Jewish people. The Bnei Menashe live in the Indian provinces of Manipur and Mizoram, which are tucked between Bangladesh and Myanmar (Burma). They are members of the Shinlung tribe, which traces its roots to the lost Israelite tribe of Manasseh and to this day practice many Jewish customs.

Today, about 500 Bnei Menashe live in Israel, most in settlements in the West Bank and Gaza — leading some Israelis to see their potential numbers as political strength. Most Israelis, including government officials, worry that allowing Bnei Menashe to immigrate facilitates further immigration by the 2 million people related to the Shinlung.

But the biggest wave of immigration in the last 20 years followed the dissolution of the former Soviet Union. Approximately 900,000 Soviet Jews have settled in Israel.

Using the formula defined by the Law of Return, many Soviet Union citizens who qualified for Israeli citizenship came from intermarried families. Many are quite disconnected to Jewish tradition after years of political and religious persecution.

Yet, this is a highly educated immigrant population that includes engineers, scientists, and IT specialists who partly fuelled the tech boom of the 1990s. At the same time, these immigrants are causing major political and cultural shifts in Israel with the appearance of such non-Jewish customs as pork in butcher shops. Political parties are now paying attention to this enormous constituency.

Rethinking the "Right of Return"

Since the Law (or "Right") of Return opens the door of Israeli immigration to people who are not Jewish according to orthodox Jewish law, the current criteria has become a sharply divisive social issue. Religious leaders argue that Israel will no longer be a Jewish state if immigrants such as those from the former Soviet Union and Falasha Mura continue to enter the country.

However, the large number of new immigrants who are already citizens means this is rather a moot point. Most of these new immigrants see themselves as part of an Israeli Jewish society although the religious establishment does not consider them Jewish.

A leading contender for the leadership of the Labor Party, Ophir Pines-Paz, is making headlines by acknowledging this type of identity among non-Orthodox immigrants. These immigrants are also beginning to use their collective demographic bulk to challenge the status quo such as in the Ministry of Religion's authority over matters of civil status, most importantly marriage and divorce.

At the same time, for Jews around the world, the idea of Israel as a homeland and refuge remains central. North American Jews have long been dedicated to the cause of the Ethiopian Jews, for example. In June 2005, the Association of Jewish Federations in North America voted in favor of raising $100 million over the next five years to bring the remaining Ethiopian Jews to Israel. The money would also fund service programs in Israel and absorption centers in Ethiopia.

Recent years have led to some speculation that the economic crisis in Argentina as well as rising incidents of anti-Semitism in France will lead to increasing numbers of Jewish immigrants from those countries. To date, the number of immigrants from these countries — less than 10,000 from both since 2000 — remains relatively small compared to the number eligible for immigration.

Immigration Trends

Israel's population has grown from just 806,000 in 1948, the year the state was founded, to an estimated 6.9 million in 2005 (excluding foreign workers). Jewish migration has driven much of the growth, particularly between 1948 and 1960, when Jews from Europe, North Africa and the surrounding Arab countries settled, and again between 1990 and 1995, when hundreds of thousands of Jews from the Soviet Union arrived (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: Arrival of Immigrant Population from the Former Soviet Union by Year (in Thousands)
Source: Data for 1990-2000 are from Central Bureau of Statistics and Ministry of Immigrant Absorption. 2001. Immigration to Israel from the Former Soviet Union. Available at http://www.cbs.gov.il/statistical/immigration_e.pdf; Data for 2001-2003 are from Table 2.25 Immigrant Population from the Former Soviet Union Immigrated at 1990-2003 by Religion, Year of Immigration, Age and Sex.

Since the 1995 census, Israel's Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS) has counted the population in two ways: by religion (Jewish, Muslim, Christian, Druze, and unclassified) and by population group ("Jews and Others" and the "Arab Population").

"Jews and Others" includes Jews, non-Arab Christians, and those not classified by religion. In 2003, there were 5,446,800 people counted in the "Jews and Others" group, of whom 5,165,400 were Jewish, 254,600 were "religion unclassified," and 26,700 were non-Arab Christians.

Within the "Jews and Others" group, 65 percent (3.54 million) were born in Israel and 35 percent (1.9 million) were born in a foreign country. Of those born in Israel, about one-third (31 percent) are the children of an Israeli-born father.

The former Soviet Union is the country of origin for nearly half of the foreign-born "Jews and Others" in Israel; the non-Jewish family members of a Soviet Jew are included in the "religion unclassified" or "non-Arab Christian" portion of this population group. Other significant countries of origin for "Jews and Others" include Morocco, Romania, North America (mainly the U.S.), Iraq, Ethiopia, and Poland (see Figure 2).

Figure 2: 'Jews and Others' Born Abroad by Country of Birth
Source: Central Bureau of Statistics. 2005 Press Release Eve of 57th Independence Day.
Note: The figures in the chart do not include 1.4 million Arabs.

The "Arab Population" includes Muslims, Arab Christians, and Druze (a Middle Eastern minority group). In 2005, approximately 20 percent of the population, or about 1.35 million, are Israeli-Arabs or Palestinians living in Israel. At the end of 2003, the CBS reported 1,072,500 Muslims, 115,700 Arab Christians, and 110,800 Druze.

Although Israel governs most of the West Bank and Gaza, these territories are not officially considered part of Israel. As a result, Israel counts only the Jewish settlers, not the Palestinians who live there, in its official statistics. According to the CIA World Factbook, the West Bank has approximately 2.4 million and Gaza 1.4 million Palestinians (July 2005 estimates); altogether, the Palestinian population not counted in Israeli statistics is about 3.8 million.

The number of new immigrants to Israel has slowed down considerably since the large wave of immigration following the break-up of the former Soviet Union in the early 1990s. Although government officials speak optimistically of new waves coming from North America, Europe, and Argentina, political problems in Israel combined with successful economic and social integration in those regions and the possibility to immigrate to other countries seem to make that an unlikely scenario.

While emigration of Israeli citizens has increased in recent years, numbers alone do not make this a clear-cut issue (see Figure 3). It is common for Israelis to leave for a year or two of travel after completing their obligatory army service. Many Israelis feel a need to "take a break" from the stress of living in Israel.

Figure 3: Departures and Returns of Israelis Remaining Abroad Continuously for One or More Years (in Thousands)
Source: Central Bureau of Statistics. Statistical Abstract of Israel 2004.Table 4.9 Departures and Returns of Israelis Remaining Abroad Continuously for One or More Years.

The numerous Israelis who have dual citizenship with either the U.S. or a European country can easily earn money by working abroad. But close family ties and a certain unique quality of life in Israel lead many Israelis to say they will return to Israel when "things quiet down" – in other words when there is less tension between Israel and the Palestinians.

Palestinian Refugees

The first and largest wave of Palestinian refugees expelled or displaced from their places of origin resulted from the War of Independence or Nakba (catastrophe) in 1948. In total, 3.97 million Palestinian refugees registered for assistance with the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), while another 1.54 million Palestinian refugees were displaced, but were not registered for assistance. Internally displaced Palestinians numbered 274,000.

The second wave of refugees, often referred to as "1967 displaced persons," came from the West Bank, eastern Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip after Israel captured these areas during the Six-Day War. At that time, 753,000 Palestinian refugees were displaced while 150,000 were internally displaced. Refugees who owned property in these areas still treasure the keys that belong to properties they or their families once owned.

The exact number of Palestinian refugees and displaced persons today is not known. According to data from various sources (UNRWA, UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), census data from host countries and Israel, and population growth projections), the Palestine Media Center estimates there were more than 7 million Palestinian refugees and displaced persons at the beginning of 2003. This number includes Palestinian refugees displaced in 1948 and 1967, as well those internally displaced in 1948 and 1967.

Neighboring Jordan hosts the largest number of Palestinian refugees in the world. As of December 31, 2004, according to UNRWA, there were over 1.7 million registered refugees in Jordan, 42 percent of the approximately 4.2 million who are registered with the agency. Over 950,000 registered refugees were in Gaza (23 percent), and over 682,000 (16 percent) were in the West Bank. Lebanon and Syria were each home to approximately 400,000 registered refugees.

Palestinian Israelis living within the Green Line, which determined Israel's borders with Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, and Syria in 1949, have full Israeli citizenship, while Palestinians living outside the Green Line in the West Bank and Gaza do not. East Jerusalemites are residents but not citizens.

Court cases surrounding status and citizenship frequently arise with marriage and movement between these two communities, and when refugees seek repatriation. These issues are regularly directed to the Israeli Supreme Court and the Parliament (Knesset).

In May 2005, the Israeli cabinet voted to approve an emergency amendment to the Citizenship and Entry to Israel Law. The amendment limits the number of Palestinians who can receive Israeli citizenship, via marriage to an Israeli Arab, to 200 to 250 per year. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon strongly supports this amendment as a corrective measure to agreements signed after the Oslo Accords of 1993 that allowed Palestinians to receive Israeli citizenship through marriage.

Demographics are also a key reason cited for Israel's planned disengagement from Gaza, which is scheduled for the summer of 2005. In terms of population, Israel will become a non-Jewish state (i.e., the majority of people under Israeli control will be non-Jewish) if it does not relinquish the West Bank and Gaza, since Palestinians, who have a higher fertility rate, will eventually outnumber the Jews.

Part of the plan calls for an end to the migration of all Palestinian laborers from the territories to Israel by 2008. James Wolfensohn, a special envoy for Gaza disengagement, has cautioned against ending Palestinian labor migration. Instead, he has urged Israel to increase the number of Palestinian workers allowed across the Green Line, saying this is a necessary condition for a successful disengagement.

Migrant Workers

Beginning in the early 1990s, Israel began to invite non-Jewish, non-Palestinian temporary migrants workers to support its prosperous economy.

But it also needed foreign workers because Palestinian workers could no longer reach construction, cleaning, and agriculture jobs throughout Israel. In an effort to halt a wave of terror attacks that began after the 1993 Oslo Accords, Israel closed borders at Green Line checkpoints as well as areas inside the occupied territories. At the same time, the rising standard of living made low-wage, low-status jobs like home health-care workers unattractive to Israelis.

The number of migrant workers that initially came to replace the Palestinian laborers reached a high of between 250,000 to 300,000 in 2003, but current official estimates at the end of 2003 place the number of migrants at about 189,000.

Unofficial estimates by Kav LaOved, a non-governmental organization (NGO) dedicated to worker's rights, put the number of migrant workers in Israel higher, at about 200,000. The growth in the number of migrant workers since 1994 has outpaced the number of Palestinian workers (see Figure 4).

Not surprisingly, Palestinian unemployment rates have risen as a result of restrictions, particularly since the intifada that began in late 2000. In the West Bank and Gaza, unemployment in the third quarter of 2000 was 10.1 percent. By the first quarter of 2005, the rate had jumped to 26.3 percent (22.6 percent in the West Bank and 34 percent in Gaza), according to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics.

Number of Migrant and Palestinian Workers Employed in Israel, 1990-2004
Source: Kav LaOved using Bank of Israel Data

Over half of the migrant workers in Israel are from Southeast Asia, with most, approximately 50,000, coming from the Philippines to work primarily in home health care. Approximately 30,000 Thai migrants work mostly in agriculture, and 15,000 Chinese migrants work in the construction industry. Other migrants come from India and Sri Lanka (see Table 1).

Table 1. Admission of Foreigners with Work Visas by Country/Region of Nationality
Asia total
Other Asia*
Africa total
Europe total
Former USSR**
Other Europe
Other countries
Source: Central Bureau of Statistics (www.cbs.gov.il)
*Includes Asian countries of the Former Soviet Union
**Includes European countries of the Former Soviet Union

About 65,000 migrants from Eastern Europe, over half from Romania, generally work in construction. Some 28,000 migrant workers from African or South American countries often work as cleaners and domestic service providers.

About one-third of migrant workers in Israel are women, mostly employed in the 24-hour home health-care industry.

Christian migrants are often drawn to Israel over other destination countries because it is the "Holy Land" — there is a spiritual component in addition to more pragmatic reasons to come to Israel.

The temporary work visas are usually for a period of five years and three months (and in the case of home health-care workers even longer, under certain circumstances) and are only valid if the holder continues to work for the original employer. Migrant worker permits must be renewed annually. Work visas almost never lead to citizenship, even if the worker marries an Israeli citizen.

Most migrants, approximately 70 percent according to Bank of Israel data from 2000 and 2002, arrive in Israel with a valid work visa, but only about 35 percent of those hold on to that legal status. Those who enter without a work permit often arrive as tourists or pilgrims.

Workers are recruited in their country of origin. NGOs report that workers are charged commission fees ranging from US$2,000 to US$12,000. Such fees are illegal under Israel's Employment Service Law of 1959, although this law was amended in 2004 to allow for the charging of direct expenses and a surcharge of US$900. The money is typically divided among middlemen in the country of origin, manpower brokers, and employers in Israel.

Debt bondage and the inability to legally change employers have caused many abusive circumstances familiar to countries with unauthorized workers.

Until recently, a migrant worker could lose his legal status by changing jobs, since the employer rather than the worker "owned" the visa. This often occurred when workers refused to accept illegal, substandard work terms and subsequently looked for alternative, and therefore, illegal employers, or when the original employers failed to renew the visa as required.

The Employment Service used to determine the number of visas according to data provided by various ministries, such as agriculture and construction, and allocated the visa to employers. These ministries based their recommendation on requests from the private sector.

As of May 2005, visas are allocated to employment agencies instead of employers in an attempt to eliminate "binding the worker" to the employer, which facilitates tremendous opportunities for worker abuse, and to prevent corruption in visa allocation.

NGOs are concerned that this transfer of authority from employer to employment agency will not prevent exploitative behavior since it does not guarantee freedom of mobility. The new directive does not address agency requirements or potential for bribery involved in the issuance of permits. It also does not provide for supervision and, more importantly, enforcement mechanisms designed to guarantee workers' rights.

According to official Knesset reports, the quotas for the employment of migrant workers in 2005 include 17,500 for construction, 26,000 in agriculture, 2,100 in industry, 550 in hotels, and 1,300 in restaurants.

In all, 47,450 permits were allotted in 2005 compared to 48,000 permits in 2004. The number of permits for home health-care workers is not capped, and depends on the number of elderly or disabled people who meet social security criteria for employing migrant care workers. For 2005, this number is just below 30,000.

Changes to the Migrant Labor Policy

At first, migrants were perceived as a good alternative to the dangers associated with having Palestinian workers in Israel. In addition, migrants proved to be a good value since they were cheaper to employ and had a reputation among Israeli employers as hard working.

Over time, however, the government began to worry about the long-term implications of a growing migrant population.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon announced the "Closed Skies" policy on October 3, 2002, as part of a campaign to reduce the number of migrant workers in Israel. This policy meant that rather than bringing in workers from overseas, employment quotas for migrant workers were to be filled by migrant workers held in detention already in Israel.

This possibility has been fraught with many bureaucratic obstacles. The most troubling example is the condition that the detained worker provide a passport to the authorities within eight days. Often the employer is in possession of the passport, and will not return the passport. Therefore the worker does not qualify for reassignment. Furthermore, employers often avoid veteran workers who are aware of their rights, so a migrant worker will find it difficult to find a new employer.

In addition, the government decided to increase deportations of illegal migrant workers in August 2002 by establishing a new Immigration Authority (IA) unit of the Israel Police. Efforts were to be directed both toward illegal migrants and their employers in the form of a fine of 10,000 shekels (about US$2,200) or more.

The IA's website states that 136,000 illegal workers, including women and children, have been deported or have left voluntarily since September 2002. Deportees total less than 53,000 of this number. The remaining migrants left for reasons such as fear of arrest; dismissals from workplaces due to an employer's fear of being caught and fined; the economic recession; and the war in Iraq.

State Comptroller Eliezer Goldberg reported in May 2005 that the number of workers who left "voluntarily" is significantly lower than figures provided by the IA. Although fear of arrest has led some migrant workers to leave Israel, it has also made the movement of remaining migrant workers to new, perhaps better-paying, jobs more difficult. This has depressed the market wage, keeping employment costs artificially low and making it even more attractive for employers to hire migrant workers rather than Israelis.

The high profits available to mediation companies and the artificially low cost of migrant labor support an unofficial "revolving door" policy, which deports migrant workers already in Israel, while importing new workers in their place.

The Ministry of Industry, Trade, and Labor concedes that migrants are still coming into Israel, but that other initiatives complement this policy, such as taxes levied for employing foreign migrant workers, and a reduction in unemployment benefits in an effort to push unemployed Israelis into the workplace.

Indeed, the Bank of Israel reports that the number of foreign workers rose in the second half of 2004. In contrast to the aims of government policy, their numbers were greater at the end of the year than at the beginning.

Migrant Children

Another government initiative concerns the plight of children of migrant workers. Since Israel does not automatically grant citizenship to children born within its territory, many children of migrant workers born in Israel are effectively stateless. Citizenship in their native country may also be denied since these children cannot establish residency. If the parents come from different countries, each parent would be deported to his/her country of origin, breaking up the family.

The Interior Ministry recently suggested a plan that would grant permanent resident status to children of migrant workers between the ages of 10 and 18 who entered Israel legally, who were born and lived in Israel long enough to consider it home (i.e. speak Hebrew), and whose parents also entered Israel legally.

The parents would be permitted to stay as legal residents until their children reach the age of 21, upon their release from army service. Younger children, including those enrolled in school, would be deported from the country along with their parents. The Justice Ministry and a ministerial committee must still approve the plan.

The Interior Ministry estimates that 2,000 to 3,000 children would be eligible for naturalization, but NGOs point to Education Ministry enrollment numbers that are much lower, and contend that far fewer children would be eligible.

The religious political parties and many others have opposed naturalization of migrant children due to fears that it will encourage migration to Israel and further threaten the demographic balance.

Government officials believe that extending citizenship rights to migrant children would open the door to appeals for citizenship rights for Palestinian children. Therefore, a condition has been added so that it specifically does not include the naturalization of Palestinian children who are residing in Israel illegally.


Although Israel is a signatory to the UN conventions providing for the protection of refugees, UNHCR handled asylum claims in Israel for decades until January 2002. The National Status Granting Body (NSGB), a government committee, now reviews asylum claims and grants refugee status. At the request of the Israeli government, UNHCR is still involved, receiving and sorting asylum requests, interviewing individual cases, and making recommendations to NSGB, among other tasks.

The number of refugees and people seeking asylum in Israel has been relatively small. However, according to UNHCR, the Israeli government's recent efforts to reduce the number of illegal workers in the country has increased the number of asylum applications UNHCR's office in Jerusalem receives, from 60 to 100 per month to 40 to 60 per day.

In 2004, nearly 1,000 refugee status determination interviews took place in Israel; 250 people received refugee status. Most of the refugees were from Ivory Coast, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Eritrea, and Burma.

Historically, Israel has viewed asylum as a humanitarian gesture appropriate in only certain isolated instances. The most famous of these was the admittance of several hundred Vietnamese "boat people" in the late 1970s.

Approximately 100 refugees were also admitted from Bosnia in 1993 and nearly 4,000 from Lebanon after the Israeli army completed its withdrawal in May 2000. Some analysts assume that a more general application of refugee conventions will lead to the large-scale return of Palestinian refugees.

Border Controls and Security

Israel has an extensive system of border controls including roadblocks and checkpoints as a result of the intifada, the "cold peace" with Egypt and Jordan, and an official state of war with other neighboring countries. These roadblocks and the separation wall, or security wall, currently under construction limit freedom of movement, not only between the West Bank and Gaza, but also between those areas and Israel.

Further inhibiting passage across the border are restrictions placed on workers and the transfer of goods and services. In order for a Palestinian to work legally in Israel, the worker must have a security clearance and an employer who holds a work permit to employ a Palestinian worker.

Border security measures have also affected trafficking and smuggling routes. Until 2000, sex workers trafficked into Israel entered the country though a variety of means: through the airports and ports, as tourists, or as new immigrants. As enforcement mechanisms were tightened, a smuggling route through Egypt and the Sinai Peninsula brought sex workers into Israel. The original channels of trafficking from Russia, Ukraine, and Moldova are slowing down.

However, new routes originating from the eastern republics of the former Soviet Union are now bringing sex workers into Israel. Police estimates say that between 1,000 and 3,000 women are trafficked into Israel every year, but unofficial estimates are between 2,000 and 6,000.


From the earliest days of the State of Israel to this day, the government has understood the need to facilitate Jewish immigration. This has been viewed not only as a military necessity, but also a demographic imperative in order to remain both a Jewish and democratic state.

Today, however, the large numbers of people who are eligible, or who claim eligibility under the Law of Return, threaten the current (orthodox) definition of "Who is a Jew," and they are changing the social environment in Israel. This is prompting a reconsideration of this fundamental piece of legislation.

Policies that concern Palestinians also recognize the implications of the demographic situation. Since the natural birth rate of Palestinians relative to Israeli Jews is high, and there is a large refugee community who might be eligible, there is no "right of return" for Palestinians. Other legislative restrictions make freedom of movement and family reunification difficult.

Migrant labor originally came to Israel as a result of an effort to separate Palestinian workers from the Israeli labor market. Now this heterogeneous community of migrant workers has become established in Israel, and employers have become dependent on their labor.

However, political pressures inherent in maintaining a Jewish majority, as well as the hope that unemployed Israelis will fill these low-wage, low-status jobs, have led to current policies intended to reduce the total number of migrant workers in Israel.

But it is not clear who will fill these jobs if the number of migrant workers continues to decrease. Israeli workers refuse to take them, and Palestinian workers bring security concerns. It seems Israel has embraced globalization without a comprehensive migration policy or consensus about the relationship between democracy, demography, and destiny of the Jewish homeland.


Bnei Menashe

Israel Association for Ethiopian Jews

State of Israel, Immigration Authority


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