In today’s Israeli reality, nationalism has become incompatible with child rights. Israel is a country ridden with conflicts and divisions between different groups, but what I feel is the most painful and problematic social-political rift is that between the ‘liberal’ left and the ‘conservative’ right. Each of these sides has picked a set of values that cannot be shared with the other side. Patriotism, nationalism, security and Jewish values are considered to be the property of the right, whilst human (and child) rights, minority rights and the environment have been relinquished to the left of the Israeli political map. The division has narrowed our view of the reality around us, as most problems cannot be divided into such a clean-cut way into two value columns. This is very clear in the case of children of migrant workers and asylum seekers in Israel who are caught in the cross-fire between both sides and suffer because of it.
In Israel today, 32,000 asylum seekers from Eritrea and Sudan have come seeking refuge from ethnic genocide, violence and unlimited military service. Invoking the ‘infiltrators’ law, the state has criminalized them and has depicted them as a security problem rather than a humanitarian one. Among them are an estimated 6,000 children who in contrast to the adults, based on the United Nation Charter on the Rights of the Child (1989) which Israel is a signatory of, and the Israeli law of Compulsory Education (1949), are entitled to free state education and are to be treated no differently from their national counterparts. In addition to asylum seekers, there are also thousands of migrant workers, mostly from South East Asia who were brought here legally through bilateral international agreements and are contracted here for up to 7 years. Their children are also entitled to free education.
The idea that children have a basic right to education is based on the commonly accepted idea that children do not choose their parents and are not to blame for their parents’ actions. The sentiment that children are entitled to a future regardless of their color, origin and legal status – is shared by most people in Israel today. In practice, however, we see that this ideal does not sit well with ideas of a ‘pure’ and Jewish nation. As a result of growing xenophobia and nationalism, the general public cannot abide that non-Jewish African children are studying and living alongside their Jewish children for fear that this may lead to their children befriending non-Jews and- God-forbid- marry them thus diminishing the Jewish nation. As a result, there have been numerous cases of children being barred from entering schools or being enrolling into highly unsuitable and segregated frameworks. These cases were only resolved in court.
Today, over a month into the school year, 60 children of asylum seekers in Petah Tikva, are not registered into school despite a court order to do so- forcing them to stay at home and their parents to lose their jobs. We are also seeing a drastic change in ministry of migration policy with regards to children of migrant workers who are being chased and arrested while in schools and are hiding in friends’ homes to avoid expulsion. As a result, one family was torn apart – the Nepalese mother, who was caring for a Holocaust survivor in Israel, was evicted with her children to India where the mother does not have any legal status– while their Indian father stays here to work. The recent brutal onslaught on these children is difficult to comprehend as they do not form any feasible threat to the nation or create any economic strain. Instead, these children are a sore spot in Israeli politics challenging our dichotomic view of Israeli. No one wants Israel to be seen as undemocratic towards children, but Israeli-Jews are taught from kindergarten about the uniqueness of the Jewish people and the dangers of the ‘other’.
These children exemplify the incompatibility of democratic values such as the right of each child to an education and the ‘Jewish’ purity of Israel. The Israel justice system tries keeps the recent nationalistic tendencies in check without breaking the status quo of both a Jewish and democratic state, but without proper policies for refugees and migrants of non-Jewish descent, these children will continue to be in danger. Migrant children today are caught in the crossfire between Israeli activists from both the left and right and are suffering from problems that have nothing to do with them. The right of each child to education is beyond internal politics and goes beyond left and right but should be advocated by everyone – regardless of their opinions on other matters. We cannot leave a whole generation without a future because of our squabbles and must unite together to ensure that each child gets a chance.
*This Op-Ed was written as part of the 2019 YaLa Alumni Opinion Writing Course