The streets of Tel Aviv could not remain indifferent to the energy of dozens of working and unemployed women, both Jewish and Arab, who marched along a central chic boulevard on International Women’s Day 2011. As they marched, the women shouted slogans in Hebrew and Arabic calling for fair employment, condemning unemployment and poverty, expressing solidarity with the social workers (who have been in an ongoing labor dispute), and demanding both “bread and roses.”
The march’s main source of strength came from some 120 Arab agricultural workers, who are organized with the Workers Advice Center (WAC-Ma’an), many of whom marched after a hard days’ labor. These women are among the primary victims of the government’s economic policies. For some, this was their first International Women’s Day march, while others have marched many times before. They were joined by youths, representatives of women’s organizations and NGOs, WAC activists and volunteers, and supporters from Tel Aviv.
The march was led by WAC’s Asma Agbarieh-Zahalka, who also moderated the assembly at the end of the march in one of Tel Aviv’s central parks, Gan Meir. She spoke of unfair employment practices which are creeping from the “margins of the margins”, the Arab villages, to the Jewish periphery, and slowly reaching the center of Tel Aviv in all their force and ugliness. Asma also spoke of the inspiration she drew from the Egyptian revolution: “From here we look fear straight in the face, break down the walls separating us and break out of predefinitions, because we too want to be born again, a new nation, a nation of workers, without regard for religion, color of skin, gender or nationality. Struggle is our only hope to break the cycle of poverty, unemployment, cynical exploitation and class and national oppression. Struggle is our only hope to gain our basic rights to equality and social justice.”
Asma read out a short message of solidarity sent from Tal Harkabi on behalf of the struggling social workers, currently on nationwide strike. Simultaneously with the march they were holding a demonstration in Jerusalem. Tal wrote about the social workers’ struggle for welfare services in Israel, and expressed her solidarity with the struggle for fair employment.
The first to speak was Kiki keren-Hos, composer and music teacher at Musrara school of arts. She said that after WAC had signed an agreement with the school, “this will be the first time in my life that I’ll get a salary for the entire year.” She added that during the summer she had got to know WAC’s Wafa Tayara and the agricultural workers from Baqa el-Gharabiyeh. “We sat together one summer’s day and talked, and it soon became clear that despite various differences, our similarities were greater than our differences, and what we had in common was greater than what separated us, including the terms of our employment. Because of this meeting and others that followed it, a new project was born in Musrara, including artists, musicians and agricultural workers from Baqa, based on partnership and cooperation… That’s why I’m here, because of the feeling of connection and partnership from that same summer day, and the fact that it is so simply possible.”
Then Emilsen Orosky from the Hotline for Migrant Workers read out a letter from Maria Elena Aristisbal, a migrant worker from Colombia who came to Israel in 1998 with her two children. Maria wrote about the poverty in Colombia which compelled her to seek work in Israel, and how the authorities here deported her husband, leaving her as the only supporter of the children. She called on the government to change its attitude to migrant laborers and stop breaking up families.
Rotem Ilan, founder of the organization Israeli Children (Yeladim Israelim), elaborated on the issue of migrant labor, saying migrant laborers were treated like inanimate objects, forbidden to get married or get pregnant – both of which lead to deportation. She also pointed out the hypocrisy in the revolving door policy, in which workers are imported and exploited, then deported only to make way for others, thus enriching the agencies involved in the import process. She ended by asking how it was possible that agricultural laborers are imported with the claim that there are no local workers, when WAC has over a thousand workers on its lists who are unable to find work? Ilan’s words were greeted with a thunderous applause from the agricultural workers present.
Giovanna Kleimerman, a single mother of two children, called on single mothers from all sectors to unite. Noga Porat from Kol Ha-Isha called on women to overcome prejudice between Jews and Arabs, between the rich and the poor, because the policy of “divide and rule” prevents women from uniting and demanding their rights.
“Wafa Tayara was the last to go on stage, speaking in Arabic in the name of the agricultural workers organized with WAC. She spoke of the poverty afflicting Arab women, and of the exhausting struggle to find work which almost always ends up being only temporary and does not assure a stable income. She linked this to the government policy of importing easily-exploited migrant labor.
“The government is throwing us aside, 100 years after the first International Women’s Day. We came here, Jews and Arabs, to demand the government change its policies for the sake of the workers. We do not agree to be used and thrown aside according to the needs of capital; we are not willing to remain in poverty. We came here to demonstrate our demand and determination to bring about change and ensure fair employment and social justice.”
Michal Paulina Oppenheim closed the assembly with a beautiful song, “You don’t arrest children.”