No Country for Love

Jan. 16, 2019

By Tally Kritzman-Amir

Recently, the Israeli ministry of interior announced in Court that a ban on relationships between couples who are migrant workers has led to the deportation of dozens of migrants. This ban requires migrant workers to choose which partner will stay in Israel, as the other is forced to leave the country. Needless to say, in the context of the gender pay gap and gender role assignments in families, this will typically mean that women will leave Israel while the higher earning male partner, who also has more available time to work, remains in Israel.

But, it's more onerous than that. The ban seems designed to purposely disrupt the family life of migrant workers in senseless and demeaning ways. The Israeli Ministry of Interior justifies these policies by arguing that families are more likely to settle down in Israel, and yet there is no path or possibility in Israeli immigration law for migrant workers, their foreign partners or children to naturalize. They are by definition temporary and liminal.

The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the Stat (United Nations Universal Declaration on Human Rights, 1948). To most of us, there is nothing more sacred than our family. We go to great length to keep it together, and family unity is a value that we make sure we pass on to our kids. Families are important for individuals as a source of meaning, acculturation, identity, mutual support and unconditional love. But families are also important for states. States privatize roles to families, especially when it comes to protecting the vulnerable among them.

Families are asked to provide for women in a market infested with gender pay gaps; families are required to assist children in their development, fulfillment of their rights and promotion of their best interests. Families are expected to take care of the elderly when they suffer from illness and old age. For these reasons and others, the right to family life has been widely acknowledged in several international human rights documents. States typically refrain from intervening within families, considering the family a private space and reserve such interventions only to rare cases of abuse towards the weaker members of the family, typically women and children.

What should draw our attention is the ease with which the Israeli society parts from the ideal of the sacredness of the family, and the commitment to the right of the family, when it comes to non-Jewish families. With families of migrants, we seem to deviate from this notion of the family, a deviation which perhaps hints that migrants are not perceived as full persons, but rather as a workforce. It appears as if the migrants, in states' eyes, gave up their right to family life when they left their country of origin.

The reality is, of course, very different. Migrants are as entitled to their right to family life as anyone else under international law. Since most migrants are between the ages of 20-40, it is to be expected that they will start families and have children. The gendered effects of these interventions in the families should draw our attention. As explained above, often these interventions impact the women more than the men. If Israel seeks to be a country that is committed to gender equality, it should refrain from such intervention in families, which anyhow serve no purpose from an immigration exclusion interest point of view.

We often see that the sacredness of the immigrant family is trumped by the interests of the sovereign state to limit migration to its territory. We all witnessed the manner by which the family transformed to be of secondary importance when the United States government applied a "zero tolerance" policy, detaining parents who entered the United States in an undocumented manner and separating them from their children.

This was also evident in Israel. A few years ago, the Israeli High Court of Justice decided a petition, which challenged a procedure as it was applied to migrant workers. According to that procedure, a migrant worker who gave birth to a child during the course of her employment in Israel needed to either return her baby on its own to her country of origin or return together with her baby, but could not stay in Israel with her child and work.

Migrant workers who were wrongfully terminated on account of their pregnancy were not allowed to return to Israel to work for the remaining duration of their visas if they had left to give birth in their country of origin, until a migrants’ rights organization intervened. The Israeli High Court of Justice invalidated this procedure as it breached the right to family life of migrants. Unfortunately, this did not result in an outcome that upholds the right to family life. The procedure which followed was also problematic from the point of view of the right to family life.

This policy of preventing family life for migrant workers is a violation of human rights, but even more importantly — it is dehumanizing and unfair to the migrant workers who are such a large part of the Israeli society and economy. Israel should work towards acknowledging their humanity and the rights which derive from it, rather than merely seeing them as workers.

Tally Kritzman-AmirDr. Tally Kritzman-Amir, z”l, was an Israel Institute Visiting Associate Professor, Harvard Department of Sociology, and a Senior Lecturer at the College of Law and Business, Israel. She was a 2018 GCRL Scholar-in-Residence at the HBI.