Israeli unions silent over deportation of asylum seekers

The Israeli government’s decision to deport 37,000 asylum seekers who fled here from Eritrea and Sudan will be implemented starting April 2018. Israel refuses to review their requests for asylum […]

The Israeli government’s decision to deport 37,000 asylum seekers who fled here from Eritrea and Sudan will be implemented starting April 2018. Israel refuses to review their requests for asylum (only 11 have been granted). Instead, officials including the Prime Minister claim that the refugees are migrant laborers and infiltrators. Israel has entered an agreement with Rwanda (an authoritarian regime that buys arms from it), whereby Rwanda will accept the deported, receiving $5000 for each. Rwanda has a high unemployment rate, and among the more than 3000 deportees that it took from Israel in recent years, the vast majority could not stay there.

Israelis have mobilized in the tens of thousands demanding that the deportations be cancelled. Since the beginning of 2018, there has been a massive public campaign, including two major demonstrations by refugees in front of the Rwandan Embassy in Tel Aviv. A nationwide protest is planned for Feb. 24. Many petitions have been organized by groups of professionals, including 1100 doctors, as well as hundreds of teachers and artists. The campaign is being led by various NGOs, which accuse the government of blatantly violating the UN Refugee Convention from 1951, which Israel was one of the first countries to sign.

Yet this outcry has failed to move Israel’s labor unions to oppose the deportations. The doctors have failed to convince their representative organization, the Medical Association of Israel, and the teachers have failed to convince theirs, the Teachers’ Union and the Association of Secondary School Teachers in Israel. The general unions, notably the Histadrut and Koach Laovdim, have also kept quiet.

Some claim that workers’ organizations should avoid political issues which divide their members and that political arguments should be left to political parties. This claim is wrong. From the beginning, many workers’ organizations were established as social organizations linked to political parties. The same was true in Israel. The Histadrut was set up by the historic workers’ party, Mapai, associated today with the conservative wing of the Labor Party. The National Histadrut was established by Herut, which became the basis for today’s Likud. Koach Laovdim was set up by activists associated with the social-democratic wing of the Labor Party and Meretz.

The Histadrut’s silence is not surprising. It is known as a conservative and bureaucratic behemoth which enjoyed a hegemonic position for years in Israel’s industrial relations. Nobody expects it to lead a progressive social struggle now. It is no secret that for the last decade, the heads of the Histadrut served as mediators between the Labor party and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (Likud). The Histadrut’s former chair, Ofer Eini, cooperated with Netanyahu and Likud, and in 2009 facilitated the entry of the Labor Party under Ehud Barak into Netanyahu’s second government. The current chair, Avi Nissenkorn, publicly joined the Labor Party two years ago, and mediated between party leader Isaac Herzog and Netanyahu, using his contacts with current Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon. In the run-up to Histadrut elections in 2017, Nissenkorn added Kahlon’s supporters to his election list and made positions and budgets available to them.

In this way the Histadrut contributed to strengthening the Right and the settlers; it prepared the way for the current extremist, racist government coalition, which maintains rule by fanning the flames of Jewish nationalism and incitement against Israel’s Arab citizens. The close symbiosis that has developed in the last decade between the Histadrut and Netanyahu explains its silence in the face of the deportation of asylum seekers. Even though among its members the Histadrut has about 3000 of these same asylum seekers, who work in hotels in Eilat and the Dead Sea and pay membership fees, and despite the fact that hotels and restaurants throughout the country want to continue to employ them, the Histadrut is not interested. An organization which refuses solidarity to Palestinian workers does not find it hard to turn its back when a few thousand asylum seekers are being deported.

The silence of Koach Laovdim is more puzzling. This organization was established about ten years ago, and aspired to represent a democratic and dynamic union movement which would offer an alternative to the corrupt Histadrut. Koach Laovdim did not hide the fact that it adopted the Swedish social-democratic model, and its leaders publicly associated themselves with the social-democratic wing of the Labor Party and Meretz. Two of the organization’s officials identified themselves as members and supporters of Labour and Meretz. Atty. Itai Swirsky, tried to be nominated as Knesset member in the Meretz list prior to the elections in 2015, and Dr. Ami Vaturi supported Amir Peretz in the Labor Party’s internal elections of 2017.

KoachLaovdim wrote in its platform, “Throughout the world, strong trade unions are the key to policies of social justice,” Yet it says nothing in the face of political injustice, just like the Histadrut. Likewise, it does not stand firmly against the rightward surge among workers. It seems Koach Laovdim avoids taking a stand on the issue of the deportations because it fears that such a stand could drive away workers’ committees that have joined it. Thus the organization’s much-trumpeted internal democracy becomes, in practice, submission to the racist rightward swing, as it fails to take a clear stand against the deportation of asylum seekers or against the elephant in the room – the Occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.

Workers’ organizations which aspire to create a just and egalitarian society make a grave mistake when they limit their agenda to narrow “worker” issues. In the face of this foul wave of xenophobia, racism and nationalism which the extreme rightwing government is leading, public courage and a civic stand are crucial. This includes issues of war, peace, occupation and equality, but also the issue of human rights and the deportation of asylum seekers. Organizations who fail to take a stand contribute to Israeli society’s continued slide towards brutality and callousness. If Israeli unions aspire to live, they must struggle for a liberal, open society that is willing to take in human beings of different languages, nations, races and genders.
We live today in a polarized world which requires that we choose sides. Against the background of a serious financial crisis and the waves of migration sweeping Europe, we witness the rise of a new fascist right. Israel’s rightwing government identifies with and cooperates with dark forces like US President Donald Trump and rightwing governments in Central and Eastern Europe. In the face of growing nationalism and racism, unions that make tactical choices to maintain internal unity, or avoid being seen as “leftist,” will become irrelevant. A workers’ organization which operates as a closed group for its members alone pulls the rug from under its own feet and loses the reason for its existence.

Trade unions cannot be silent now. They must make their voices heard clearly and loudly against the deportations.

For WAC-MAAN’s position regarding the deportation of asylum seekers, see here.


Assaf Adiv, National Secretary, WAC-MAAN

Translation from Hebrew Yonatan Preminger

אודות Assaf Adiv